I simply adore watching and photographing Burrowing Owls. They show more personality and cute little quirks than any other avian species I’ve photographed – especially the juveniles. There are usually three problems with shooting these birds though – finding them in the first place, getting close enough to them for high quality photographs without disturbing their normal activities or making them nervous and catching them out in the open or on an elevated perch so that the vegetation that usually surrounds their burrows doesn’t obscure the birds.
Two summers ago a family of these owls had their burrow right along the road on the Antelope Island causeway. They were obviously very accepting of all the traffic so getting close without disturbing them was no problem – I’d just pull up on the road edge close to their burrow and stay in my pickup to photograph them. I photographed them for almost two weeks and I’ve kept a ridiculous number of those images- just can’t make myself delete many of them. The family consisted of both parents and four juveniles. I spent most of my time photographing the juvies – they’re just so vivacious, spunky and full of life that they make wonderful subjects.
The problem at this burrow site was two-fold – lots of obscuring vegetation and then when they did perch up higher it was usually on some unattractive pieces of broken concrete adjacent to the burrow.
1/1250, f/9, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc
Occasionally one of the juveniles would be perched on this rock when we arrived early in the morning, which delighted me because of the more attractive perch and the clear shot of the bird.
1/800, f/9, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc
The poses these young birds strike are varied and appealing as they explore their developing capabilities and interact with their siblings. The adults are less effusive.
1/640, f/9, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc
One thing they like to do is flex their talons.
1/400, f/10, ISO 400, 100-400 @ 400
One morning this young bird came so close to us that I had to switch lenses – to the 100-400 zoom. If I remember correctly it was curious about a grasshopper in the grasses but when he/she caught it the bird didn’t seem very sure about just what to do with it.
1/400, f/11, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc
When siblings would perch together the were a hoot (pun intended) to watch as they explored and groomed each other, practiced their parallaxing skills and just generally reacted to their environment. They seemed to love watching me as much as I loved watching them.
1/640, f/10, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc
I included this image to show you the difference between the juvenile on the left and one of the parent birds, in spite of the obscuring vegetation in the foreground.
1/640, f/9, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc
One of the juveniles at the end of a stretch.
1/500, f/8, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc
Another version of a stretch.
1/400, f/9, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc
A grooming posture, from behind.
1/1500, f/9, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc
This one could hardly keep its eyes open.
1/1000, f/9, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc
I liked this stretching pose because of the unusual wing position and the tail sticking out between the primaries and secondaries.
1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc
These last two images were taken near a different burrow, which was also near the road, so I used the same technique of shooting from my vehicle as described previously. I anticipated this take-off so changed settings to get more shutter speed. In my experience it’s not often they take off toward you.
1/250, f/13, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc
This is three of the juveniles at the second burrow. One morning I found all three of them perched up high on a sagebrush in beautiful, warm light with a great background. I changed my aperture to f/13 to try to get enough depth of field to get all three birds sharp but didn’t quite succeed as the bird on the left was about a foot in front of the others so it is slightly soft. Yes, I was very disappointed…
This year the owls at this burrow failed to raise a brood and sadly I think I may know why. One morning this spring after both adults had returned to the burrow I saw about a half-dozen people who had walked from the road right over to the burrow – almost standing on top of it. My suspicion is that these folks, and very possibly others like them, spooked one of the potential parents to the point that it simply left. The other adult stayed at the burrow all summer (and is still there) but I never saw the other adult again and there were no chicks this year. When I asked a state parks employee several years ago about some burrowing owls at a particular site that had disappeared, he told me that those birds had abandoned the burrow because they had been “loved to death” by curious people.
Sadly, I’m afraid that’s exactly what happened in this case too.