I’ve posted once before about the fighting Male Short-eared Owls I photographed in south-west Montana but I spent several days with these sparring birds and thought they deserved some more attention on my blog.
This was one of the most challenging photography situations I’ve ever faced so the image quality of these shots ranges from acceptable through mediocre to downright poor. But I think they’re good enough for documentation purposes and I wanted to tell the story.
For you bird photographers out there, here’s some of the difficulties I faced while photographing these birds:
- very harsh light much of the time
- trying to get two birds in focus in the same frame while they were fighting in the air (my 500mm lens has extremely limited depth of field)
- much of the action took place far away from me
- this species is normally a relatively slow flyer but when fighting their flight becomes much faster and more erratic which makes them very difficult to track
There were two male owls competing for a lone female. The males would occasionally “sky dance” for the female on the ground. This is a behavior where the male flies over the female and performs exaggerated wingbeats, often clapping the wingtips loudly on the down-beat. I heard that clapping multiple times as the male flew too high overhead for decent shots. Here he’s much lower with the wings in the exaggerated “up” position.
The competing male would usually watch the performance of its competitor from the ground.
Usually one male would attack the other while it was on the ground. Here the bird has seen the attacking male coming in and has assumed a defensive position.
This is the next frame in the burst. Occasionally they strike each other and lock talons.
Other times the attacking male doesn’t come quite so close when the other bird is in an effective defensive position.
More often than not the bird on the ground will jump into the air to present its talons to the attacking owl.
Here the defensive bird is preparing to jump up to meet its attacker.
Sometimes their combat is aerial.
This owl has its eye on the other male coming in for a strafing run.
Here the owl on the upper left has “buzzed” the other bird in the air.
The bird on the right has popped up out of the grasses to meet its attacker.
This is a weird shot but it appeals to me for some reason. The bird on the ground watches as its tormentor passes by after a strafing run.
The bird on the right passes by as the other owl returns to the ground after presenting its talons in an upside down position in the air.
One of the few relatively close shots I got of either combatant during these maneuvers.
This owl has presented its talons to the incoming bird. You can just barely see its wingtip as it passes by in the upper right corner.
In the next frame the defensive owl begins to right itself.
Another strafing run.
I’ve posted this shot before but I wanted to include it here to provide context for the next (and last) image. When the bird on the ground jumps up from the ground and presents its talons in defense, you sometimes get some pretty bizarre body positions.
In the very next frame the defensive and upside down bird watches its attacker pass by.
This was a behavior that I may never see again in my lifetime. It was so very exciting to watch but frustrating at the same time. I missed many interesting shots because of soft focus, blown whites, cut off birds and a variety of other complications but If I ever witness such an event again I hope not to make as many mistakes.
Note: This is a very long post with many images. Please let me know if that caused anyone loading difficulties.