Barn Owls in Flight

Flight shots of Barn Owls are very difficult to get because these birds are almost strictly nocturnal and typically fly and hunt only at night.  Photographing birds in flight in the dark or very low light is virtually impossible without using artificial lighting methods which I will not do for ethical reasons.

Barn Owl in flight during in full daylight  

I had never even seen a Barn Owl in flight until the winter of 2007-08.  That unusually frigid winter began early and brought more snow than usual to the valleys of Utah.  Suddenly, during January and much of February, Barn Owls were hunting the marshes close to the Great Salt Lake during daytime – sometimes until 10 or 11 AM.  Their usual strategy was to hunt for voles (very similar to mice) along the edges of Phragmites growth in the wetlands.  Typically it was very cold on those mornings – often between 0 and +20 degrees Farenheit which made it very uncomfortable standing outside in front of a tripod mounted camera for hours on end!  I very nearly lost some digits to frostbite many times but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. 


Barn Owl hunting voles along frosty Phragmites edges

I usually preferred to get Phragmites in the backgrounds of my flight shots if possible because they make such a nice backdrop.  In the photo above, there had been heavy fog with sub freezing temperatures so literally everything was covered with a heavy coating of frost.  A magical setting. 




Barn Owl skimming Phragmites in background

Sometimes the Phragmites was far enough away to be very out of focus, like here.  I like the effect with the blue of the sky above. 



Barn Owl approaching head on 

I got very few images of them approaching me head on – this is one of the few.  This type of close, head on flight shot of a raptor has often been baited (food, typically mice, placed by the photographer in a place advantageous for photography to attract the bird for close shots).  None of my bird photography ever involves baiting.  I don’t mean to sound self-righteous about it but baiting is a serious ethical issue for me and many other nature photographers.  But that’s another story for another blog post…


 Barn Owl diving on prey


Barn Owl diving on prey

These birds would cruise along relatively slowly looking for voles.  When they would spot one they would turn on a dime and dive vertically trying to catch it.  One of these diving shots with a good look at the bird’s eye always eluded me – an image that’s very difficult to get for obvious reasons.  Still, I’m happy with this shot.  You can just see some of the out of focus Phragmites the bird is diving into at the bottom of the frame.  

 Two Barn Owls hunting


Two Barn Owls hunting voles 

It was quite unusual to see two owls at the same time as they are solitary hunters.  Even more unusual was that I was able to get both birds in the plane of focus in this shot as the depth of field at 1120 mm with my camera, 500mm lens and 1.4 teleconverter is very shallow. 


 A Missed Opportunity

A Missed Opportunity

Usually I was photographing these owls by myself,  just the way I prefer it, though at times there was a few other photographers next to me.  On this day I was shooting alone but soon two other photogs showed up and they were hand holding (no tripods) their cameras.  They were perhaps 200 feet from me and I knew they were standing too close to the Phragmites.  The problem with doing that is the phrag is tall and most of it is so thick you can’t see through it to see the owls approaching.  That’s what happened here – these two guys didn’t even see the bird until it was just a few feet from them and as you can see they don’t yet even have their gear up ready to shoot.  I could hear them groaning and cussing about their missed shots.   This isn’t a great shot obviously but I include it here to give you a feeling for what it can be like photographing (and missing) these birds. 


 Barn Owl in a gulley

    Barn Owl in a gully

This was my very first opportunity with a Barn Owl.  I’d been shooting Northern Harriers in early winter when a howler of a snowstorm blew in so I decided to put my tail between my legs and go home.  On the way out of the area I happened to look down into a deep gully just as it started to snow and there was this owl, hunkered down in a relatively protected place to ride out the storm.  I took a few shots then let the bird alone. 


Barn Owl in the fog and ice


Barn Owl in the fog and ice

Now back to the sad story of the winter of 2007-08 and the Barn Owls.  The reason these birds abandoned their normal nocturnal hunting habits was because they were starving.  The longer and colder than normal winter was very difficult for them.  It was so cold and there was so much snow that the voles spent less time on the surface foraging for food – instead eating mostly underground roots and vegetation.  This meant less access to food for the owls just when they needed the fuel most.  Many of the Barn Owls didn’t survive the winter and very few were seen in the area the following winter.  This year so far there’s just a few so they’re likely still recovering.  In some of my images of them from that winter I can see their gaunt frames and must admit that it saddens me.  The photo above (taken in fog on a very cold morning), was shot just last winter and shows the harshness of winter survival for these magnificent birds.


 The Lonely Hunter


The Lonely Hunter 

I’ve always liked this image, even though the owl is flying away from the viewer, because it reminds me so much of the tenacity of Barn Owls in harsh conditions.  Again I was on my way home just as a snowstorm hit and spotted this owl flying over a frozen pond on its hunting foray.  The bird’s body was going up and down as its wings beat as is typical for owls and it paid no attention to me – it was focused on survival.



23 comments to Barn Owls in Flight

  • Patrick

    Incredible photos. Well done.

  • Hi Ron,

    Just been browsing google images for barn owl study for an art project and your work is stunning. Please can you let me know if you release your images for this purpose and costs involved. I ‘m based in Uk had a barn owl box up for two years but no joy although they are around.

    Many thanks

  • Hi Ron,

    I am an artist looking for barn owl image reference and have just come across your stunning photos, in particular I am looking for images of a barn owl flying towards the camera with wings up/spread. Could you tell me if you would let me use your image for my painting and how much you would charge for usage, i would credit you as original photo source in any publicity/sales etc.

    Many thanks for your time

  • Debra Elvins

    Great photos. I have been seeing a barn owl in the daytime, all different times of the day, beautiful. We live in North Wales for 12 years and never saw one before. I now know it is nt rare, I thought it was.

  • Kathy Urich

    Stunning images. Thank-you so much.

  • Thank you very much, XT and Jim.

  • jim

    what a fantastic opportunity to view this rarely seen bird in such detail thank you for sharing your skill and patience.

  • Ingrid van Agtmael

    Hi, I’ve been searching the web to find a photo of a barn owl in flight and hey presto: there’s the photo of my dreams. I’ve read, however, that you do not normally sell images, but that you sometimes come to an arrangement. My bedroom has a lot of sloping ceilings and on one of them I’d like an image like ‘Barn Owl approaching head on’. I live in the UK, but if you would be prepared to sell me some JPEG (I don’t know anything about this sort of thing, I’m afraid), I would love to have a photo printed in approximately A3 size.
    Apart from all this, I’ve spent a very happy time looking at your website: thank you so much for sharing your works of art.
    Kind regards,

    • Ingrid, I should have replied to you here long ago – though we have since been in touch and have made some tentative arrangements. Thank you for the nice comment.

  • Deb S.

    Simply breathtaking. Thanks for sharing these magnificent shots.

  • Thank you Jean. I don’t offer to sell prints on my blog or website because I’ve found that marketing can become a bit of a hassle (I’m retired and enjoy the “lazy life”). However, when someone enjoys my photos enough to ask about prints and if we can agree on terms I usually work with them.


  • jean hurley

    Your pictures are gorgeous! Feathered Photography! Do you happen to sell prints?

    Thank you!

  • Wow, excellent photographs.


    Dear Sir your pictures have been a great help in the work i do as a hobby,i carve birds of prey out of wood in flight your study in photographing them in great detail is stunning and i admire them please keep up the great work yours

  • Another great opportunity and experience, well documented. I don’t recall seeing the “gully” shot before and really like it.

    I’ve only seen Barn Owls out in the daytime on a very cold winter day in NJ. The bird was sitting on the ground next to lots of snow cover and the friend I was with at the time (a park naturalist) assumed the owl was dead. We were both surprised when it took flight as he started to approach it.

  • Chuck Ganags

    Great story, and somewhat sad as you noted. The usual outstanding image quality Ron, as always.

    • Signa Schuster

      Do you know Betty Kay (Hutchison) & Larry Salois? They live in Cut Bank – she is my cousin. I am Chuck and Jerrine’s friend from Montana. Your photographs are amazing! Cheers. Signa from Havre

      • Thank you for the kind words about my photos Signa. Yes, I know Larry Salois. It’s been a long time though. Do you know Dennis and Betty Ann Morgan from Havre? Good friends of mine. How about Jerry and Diana Croft? They live in Havre part time, part time in CB. Diana is my cousin.

    • Chuck Ganags

      Hi Ron,
      Gosh I do not know those folks. I seldom get back to Havre. My niece and brother live there and I know the name Croft but cannot place it. My bro would probably know these folks. I need more clues or to ask my relatives. It is a small world isn’t it?! Signa (Schuster)