For a challenge, I set myself a goal to find and photograph an owl. Now, I’d only seen two owls in the wild before in my life, the first of which was being released after healing from an injury, and the second was barely visible in a marsh about a hundred feet away, so I figured that this would not be an easy task.
I started by researching owl behavior.
There are five common species of Owl in Ohio, and generally they are not migratory. They tend to stick to one territory year after year, so if you can find a record of one being spotted in some particular place over the past few years, there’s a good chance it (or another owl) can still be found there. Just by googling I was able to locate four or five possible spots, one of which was a pine grove near Hoover Reservoir less than a mile from my friend Dan’s house. So together, Dan and Nina and I went to check it out around 5pm one October evening.
The pine grove was exactly as described online, close to a large field which would make prime hunting territory for owls, and also not far from the reservoir. Great Horned Owls feed on rodents and small mammals, while Barred Owls also include crayfish and amphibians in their diet. It was obvious why an owl might choose this grove for daytime nesting.
Research told me that your chances of sneaking up on an owl are poor. They have excellent eyesight, and superb hearing. The owl will know you are there long before you notice it. In fact, it might be better not to even try sneaking up on it. If the owl can hear you but can’t see you that’s likely to make it nervous. But if it can keep track of you and if you don’t act in a threatening manner, it will rely on its camouflage, combined with the knowledge that it is an apex predator more than capable of defending itself, and will likely not spook as you approach.
Yes, owls are extremely difficult to see. Larger owls may rest on branches close to tree trunks where their plumage blends well with the natural patterns of bark, and smaller owls can often find a hole in a tree in which to hide completely.
As the three of us entered the grove I played some Great Horned Owl calls, but got no response. We decided to walk down a path, scanning the trunks and treetops for anything unusual. I focused on searching the East side of the path since I figured that if I was lucky enough to spot an owl I’d want to spot one illuminated by the evening light. It was getting dim already, and though I didn’t tell me companions, I figured we had maybe one chance in ten of success on our excursion.
But not five minutes into our stroll I heard a hushed gasp behind me and turned to see Nina pointing up at a tree not 30 feet away. There was a large Barred Owl staring down at us. I had walked right by it, even though I was actively searching for it!
I played some Barred Owl calls to see how it would react, but it was complete unperturbed. It posed in the tree for about ten minutes as we cautiously took our photos from various vantage points. When it finally did fly away it seemed to be more a response to a stiff breeze that disturbed its perch than to annoyance at us.
Here’s another shot I got of it. Using the Optical Stabilization on my Sigma 150-500mm zoom and steadying my rig on a monopod, I was able to get decent images in the fading light a shutter speed as slow as 1/25 second. Thanks also goes to the owl for holding still!
This shot did require some post-processing, but if you’re going to spend several hours researching and obtaining your shots you should be prepared to spend some time making them look their best. Here’s the original for you to compare:
Yes, there was a stick across his face, but the composition was too good to toss this shot away. About half an hour with Paint Shop Pro’s scratch remover and cloning brush got rid of it. I also needed to increase the contrast between the owl and the background in order to make it stand out more (they’re hard to see, remember?) so I lifted out the owl, the branch it was perched on, and the tree on the right as a separate layer. I increased the vibrancy of the background, and boosted the contrast of the owl. I also applied a high-pass sharpen to the owl, but not to the background which I wanted to keep out of focus. I then merged both layers back together again before cropping it 16×9, my favorite size.