by Dr. Robert Berdan
February 10, 2017
Great Horned Owl in an abandoned barn window south of Calgary, AB. 500 mm F4 Nikon D500 hand held.
Photographing owls isn't difficult - its finding them that is the challenge. Understanding a little bit of their biology and when and where to look is the key to success. In winter the trees are bare making them a little easier to spot, but you still need to know where and when to look for them. Some owls will respond to owl calls and may even fly in to check the recordings out. Provided you limit the calls to a few minutes I don't believe that calling the birds will stress them - however you should not do it during mating season and to the best of my knowledge it doesn't work on snowy owls. None of the owls in this article were called - they were all found in their natural habitat.
Great Horned Owl in window on Mossleigh Grain Elevator window 300 mm F2.8 lens Nikon D300
Never use tapes or imitations during an owl’s breeding season unless you are part of a legitimate organized survey. This includes all national parks where tapes are considered a form of wildlife harassment. Never use tapes with threatened or endangered owl species.
Do not snap branches away from an owl or its perch for the “perfect photo.” Owls choose to perch with branches breaking up their overall shape, providing a natural camouflage.
Protect your discovered owl by keeping it a secret; refrain from telling your friends. They may tell their friends (and so on), and before you know it, the cumulative disturbance will drive the owl away. Reference
Great Horned Owl in front of Mossleigh Grain Elevator (300 mm F2.8 lens Nikon D300)
The first thing one needs is to learn about owl biology and there is no better book than "Owls of the United States and Canada" by Wayne Lynch. See my article on Wayne's owl photography. You will find this book in most book stores, Amazon.ca or in the library. Another very useful book for finding birds in general around Calgary is "A Birdfinding Guide to The Calgary Region by Calgary Field Naturalists" available at stores and Amazon.ca. What I like about this book is that is has great road maps and describes where you might see specific birds at certain times of the year around Calgary. Of course the most important key for success in photography is to go out often - the more I go out the luckier I get, though you have to realize that not every trip is successful - it would be too easy if that were the case. With snowy owls I have about 80% success, Great Gray Owls about 30%, and Northern Hawk Owls about 5-10% so you can see that it takes hard work and time to find some birds.
Great Horned Owl along railway tracks south of Calgary, AB (500 mm F-4 lens on Nikon D300)
This is my favourite Great Horned Owl photograph which I took in my neighbourhood in Silversprings along the Bow River. A former client of mine called me early on Sunday morning to alert me to the owl's presence and I was there in 5 minutes. I used a 300 mm F2.8 lens on a tripod and the owl was in no hurry to move on. The owl posed for me for and extended period of time. In gratitude I left my student a bottle of wine on her doorstep.
Another way to source where you might find owls is to visit some websites that report bird sightings. I am not inclined to divulge exactly where I found the owls as this can attract hoards of birders and photographers to one area which I think is stressful to the bird. I never liked photographing animals among a crowd anyway - it ruins the experience for me. Looking for and finding owls is what makes it all fun and challenging. To get good pictures of the birds you also need a telephoto lens - 200 mm minimum.
Great Gray Owl after catching a vole - Grande Valley road west of Cochrane, AB (300 mm F2.8 lens Nikon D300)
Owls can be photographed in zoos and rehabilitation centers and while its not as exciting as capturing photos of them in the wild, it might be a good opportunity to see and photograph them up close and practice your photography skills. See my article on photographing birds at the Birds of Prey Center in Coaldale, AB. If I show a captive bird or animal I always include CS for captive species in the caption to indicate so. If I have manipulated the image - for example removed a branch or fence in Photoshop - I put a DM for digitally manipulated in the caption. See the Northern hawk owl below where I removed the barbwire fence.
Great Gray Owl - next to Grande Valley Road in winter - these owls will sometimes allow you to approach them closely or they will approach you as I had one land beside me one year. 300 mm F-2.8 lens, Nikon D300.
Great Gray Owl along Grande Valley Road in winter. 70-200 mm F2.8 lens Nikon D300.
Left: Great Horned Owl in Window, Grain Elevator, Mossleigh Right: Female Snowy owl on telephone pole, this is where I find most of them (both photos were taken 300 mm F-2.8 lens, Nikon D300)
To photograph birds in the wild you will need a telephoto lens, I recommend at least 200 mm. For photographing birds in flight a zoom lens like a 70-200 mm, Tamron 150-600, or Nikon's 200-500 is nice because if the owls take flight it is easier to keep them in the viewfinder when you zoom out. Faster lenses with F-2.8 aperture will autofocus on the birds faster then slower lenses with F5.6. Also see my article on photographing birds in flight for tips on this type of photography. I like to use a 300 mm F2.8 lens and occasionally a 500 mm F4 lens, though the latter lens isn't easy to hand hold for very long and the field of view is quite small making it hard to keep birds in the frame. You don't have to buy a big lens, you can rent one for the weekend from local camera stores and this may make more sense if you only occasionally photograph birds. Keep in mind that handling a big lens takes some practice to get sharp photos. Either practice holding the camera at home, get one with vibration reduction or image stabilization, and use a tripod or monopod and use a fast shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second or faster even it means increasing the ISO speed on your camera. There are also special tripod heads like the Wimberly head that allows you to maneuver a big lens quickly for birds in flight - I find them useful for swans and shore birds. For owls I sit and watch them and when they lift their wings they are telling you that they are about to take off and that's when I start shooting in burst mode.
Great Gray Owl hunting (300 mm F2.8 lens).
Some photographers will bait birds with rodents especially if they want photos of the birds in flight coming towards the photographer. Contrary to some photographers beliefs thought not all photos of owls flying at the photographer were baited as I have had them fly towards me on several occasions without use of any bait. That said, I have consulted some experts and they suggest that limited baiting does not harm the animals or habituate them to humans. Still a search on the web reveals that like many topics (e.g. Abortion) there are often good arguments from both sides of the fence. Baiting Owls with mice in order to band them , count them and assess their overall heath is routinely done by birders. It's likely that the practice will remain controversial, though it is not illegal in Canada. For a more indepth article on baiting see "Baiting Owls for Photography .... "
Snowy Owl on fence from the Bieseker area (300 mm F2.8 lens)
Female Snowy Owl in a tree near Biesker, AB (500 mm F4 lens on Nikon D500)
Male Snowy Owl on fence post - Highway 9 near Beiseker (males tend to be white, females are barred, though immature males can also be barred with black spots) 500 mm F4 lens on Nikon D500.
For most of my owl searches, I go to their habitat and often drive long distances stopping frequently and scoping with a pair of binoculars. It is imperative that you stop the car, get out and look around. You can also increase your chances by going on a bird tour with an expert or wildlife photographer. Once you know what to look for they will be easier to find. For snowy owls - Early November to Mid March in the Bieseker and Mossleigh areas east and south of Calgary are the best places to see them in my experience. Great Gray Owls are found in the Foothills including areas around Millarville and west of Cochrane on Grande Valley road. I have seen Northern Hawk owls in winter north of Calgary in the foothills and Banff National Park. Short eared owls are found east of Calgary in winter around wetlands. Great Horned owls are common all around Calgary and in the foothills. Great horned owls like abandoned barns - look for white wash below window frames. I also tend to see Great Horned Owls in trees along the highways in the prairies all year long - they are easier to see in winter because of the lack foliage, but their feathers offer excellent camouflage. Sometimes the owls may be harassed by smaller birds and this can alert you to their presence.
Male Snowy Owl on Hay Bale East of Calgary, AB - the Canadian $50 bill has a snowy owl on a hay bale in front of Rockies presumably inspired by an image taken south of Calgary. 500 mm F4 lens with Nikon D500.
Snowy Owl on fence in the Blackie area south of Calgary, AB 500 mm F4 lens with Nikon D500
Snowy Owl in a field south of Calgary, AB 500 mm F4 lens with Nikon D500
Female Snowy Owl on Telephone Pole - this is where I find most of the Snowy Owls. 500 mm F4 lens Nikon D500
Snowy Owl on Gas Pipe near Mossleigh - Any raised object is a possible resting place for Snowy Owls. 300 mm F2.8 lens Nikon D300
This snowy owl was hunting for voles beside a main highway - note the full moon behind the owl. 300 mm F2.8 lens Nikon D300s
Catching snowy owls in flight takes quick reflexes as they leave their posts. 70-200 mm F2.8 lens Nikon D300.
Snowy owl in flight near Mossleigh, AB 300 mm F-2.8 lens, Nikon D300.
Snowy owl in flight 300 mm F-2.8 lens on Nikon D300
To photograph specific owls learn about their habitat, food, and the best season to find them and remember no photograph is worth bringing harm to the animal. Chance also plays a role, but you will have more luck if you know what to look for.
Northern Hawk Owl in Banff National Park - I took this photo during a winter photography workshop along the Bow Valley Parkway. 300 mm F-2.8 lens with Nikon D300
Northern Hawk Owl photographed north of Calgary, in the foothills. 300 mm F2.8 lens Nikon D300.
Northern Hawk Owl photographed from my car window north of Calgary - 70-200 mm F2.8 lens DM (I removed the Barb wire fence in front of the bird in Photoshop using Photoshop's Content Aware fill tool).
I had a phone call from one potential client that asked me to guide them to photograph some Great Gray Owls and I responded OK but I can't guarantee wildlife. They were surprised and seemed upset, but unless the animals are captive there are no guarantees even when you know where they might be found. On my best day I have spotted and photographed 10 snowy owls and one Great Horned owl (last weekend). On average I drive about 50-100 km of back-roads to find one snowy owl. Sometimes I find clusters but I always have to work to find them. I have been looking for burrowing owls in Alberta for years and so far after several years and have had no luck - but I will keep searching. RB
Links to References
Robert Berdan is a professional nature photographer living in Calgary, AB specializing in nature, wildlife and science photography. Robert offers photo guiding and private instruction in all aspects of nature photography and Adobe Photoshop training.
Email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Web site: www.canadiannaturephotographer.com
Phone: MST 9am -7 pm (403) 247-2457.
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