Northern Pygmy Owl With A Vole For Breakfast

This was my first experience photographing a wild Northern Pygmy Owl.


northern pygmy owl 7484b ron dudley1/320, f/6.3, ISO 640, Canon 7D, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + 1.4 tc, not baited, set up, flashed or called in

I found the bird a few weeks ago near the border of southwest Montana and Idaho as it flew across the dirt road in front of me with prey and then landed in just about the worst lighting conditions possible. After this shot it moved to another nearby perch and began to devour the vole (or pocket gopher?) but the lighting conditions there weren’t much better.

To be perfectly honest if this image were of almost any other species I’d have tossed it. I cut off the tail of the vole, the angle is steep and the owl was in deep shade with bright sky behind it. I had to make significant exposure adjustments to the entire image during processing to make it look as good as it does (something I really don’t like to do).

But I kept the image because it was my first experience with a Northern Pygmy Owl, it had prey, the prey was a rodent instead of the more common small bird or insect and I appreciate the realism of the caked blood on the beak.

In the end I just didn’t have the heart to delete it.


Addendum: Ok, I’m getting a lot of heat for admitting that I thought about deleting this image. 🙂


northern pygmy owl unprocessed 7484 ron dudley

This is the unprocessed version of the same image. Perhaps at least some will now understand why I (briefly) considered trashing it…

During processing of the RAW file I increased exposure on the overall file, then increased exposure in the shadows and darks some more and decreased exposure in the highlights. No adjustments in saturation or contrast were made. That processing was all done in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) before I resized, sharpened and added my copyright logo in Photoshop.

44 comments to Northern Pygmy Owl With A Vole For Breakfast

  • Pam Skaar

    I like the unprocessed image because it resembles what I would see in my binoculars in many instances. This would be a lifer for me.

    The processed version had me get Sibley’s Guide to Birds. I am assuming that you are photographing the interior west type. Sibley shows the light arcs between the eyes for the Pacific population but dulls it out for the interior population. I didn’t remember the eye arcs as a field mark but they certainly stand out on both these two images. Part of that may be how the bird is holding its feathers. If something concerns the small owl, the arcs might be raised.

    • Interesting observation, Pam. To be honest I don’t know which type this bird is. It’s possible that my exposure manipulations during processing made those eye arcs more prominent in the first version of the image than they would be naturally but as you point out they’re quite prominent in both versions.

  • Hi Ron! I’m confused….
    This is a beautiful bird and a great behavior shot.
    And, you posted another beautiful pygmy owl with prey on 7/16/16.
    Your statement that this 8/5/16 post is your first “wild Northern Pygmy Owl” is confusing.
    I wonder what I’m missing…
    I love your photography!

    • Sue, Both posts were about the same bird – different images of the same bird on different perches. Notice that in my text of this post I said I’d found this bird “a few weeks ago”. Sorry for the confusion.

  • Jean

    I’m glad you kept the pic too. Nice looking Owl, pretty coloring. I like the green twigs behind the Owl. You did a great job on tweaking the pic.

  • Pigmie it might be – but it is also a weight lifter. The vole looks very nearly as big as it is.
    Sigh on the delete temptation. And thank you for resisting.

  • Stephen


    I have to admit that when you talk about deleting you shots I cringe because I would Kill (figuratively speaking) to improve my shots. I spent the morning at Antelope Island yesterday trying to get some shots. It was sad to see the scar of the fire, etc. Birds were not as plentiful as they have been in the past. Focus and noise reduction plague me. And how in the world do you sneak up on these birds with your truck and not have them fly away? I haven’t been that successful. So… I enjoy your shots and talents. If you want to throw some away… throw them my way!!

    Best, Stephen

    • You’re right, Stephen. The island has been incredibly slow for birds since the fire. I suspect that the south wind during the fire blew the smoke over the north end so thick and so for long that it chased many of the birds off the island.

  • Diana

    Ron, so glad you saved it. Like Culley I could not carry something that big, related to my size home from the store let alone catch it. Great pic of the blood on his/her beak as well. Thanks again. Diana

  • Sharon Constant

    Wonderful! I think the white sky behind the owl in the first one makes it look like winter in snow country. I hope someday to see one of these, Thank you and congratulations!

  • Dick Harlow

    I consider that birds and Owls and Raptors especially, take a great deal of pleasure in frustrating photographers. They will fly to a pole, a tree limb or a spot where they are between me and the sun. They are not considerate enough to land so that the sun is behind me, but than again they would be looking directly into the sun.
    At any rate I like the shot and empathize with what you had to do with a life bird shot.

  • So my first thought was what a great holiday card image. Then my eyes tracked down. I laughed because I STILL thought what a great holiday card image–to a limited quirky group of my friends. 😀

  • Laura Culley

    Isn’t it odd that the sun is almost always in the wrong place at the wrong time for photography and/or easy identification? Wouldn’t it be cool if we could just scoot the sun over for a couple of minutes and then move it back when we’re done? But I guess that might be a problem if several of us were moving it simultaneously, or even serially 😉
    I just love the schmutz on this one’s beak and that s/he’s caught a critter as big or bigger that her/his self! Imagine if we had to do that. Yeah, we’re just not equipped for that, are we?
    As for chucking that photo, yeah, NO! Allow me to thwap you upside the head for even THINKING about that!
    And thank you!

    • Laura, I’m absolutely convinced that many birds, particularly some raptors, instinctively and deliberately put themselves between any perceived threat (like photographers) and the sun. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them do it out of pure, unadulterated orneriness… :).

  • Patty Chadwick

    I surrender…this time. The original was pretty darned dark! Amazing that you are able to lighten it up to that degree. Thank goodness you can! My guess is that you lightened it up to what the human eye probably could have seen,
    which gives it a certain legitamacy..a vast improvement.

    • Patty, this is one of the reasons I shoot in RAW rather than JPEG. If I’d have tried to make these adjustments to a JPEG image I’d have been in a world of hurt.

  • Colin McKee

    Bad lighting or not, he’s awesome. The enhanced version looks great.

  • April Olson

    Sometimes we keep photo for the memories. Have you ever photographed a Mexican Spotted Owl? I would love to just see one in the wild.

  • Art

    Great shot! I appreciate sharing it even though not optimum. What elevation and biozone did you see this bird, Ron?

  • Judy Gusick

    Glad you kept the photo and worked on it, Ron! 🙂 It’s a great photo despite certain “flaws” 🙂 Amazing that it can capture/carry something that probably weighs as much if not more than the owl does!

    • You hit that nail on the head, Judy (I had the same thought). These owls weigh about 2.2 oz and meadow voles weigh about the same (though this could be another species of vole).

  • Diane Bricmont

    Wow! I agree with all of the above! Love this shot!

  • Patty Chadwick

    I’d like to see the original that was supposedly so bad you almost zapped it. For many of us, this is a close as we’ll ever get to seeing one of these mysticsl little owls. To have missed it because of some perceived photogenic “imperfections” would have been too bad…I’m grateful you were able to sharpen it up enough that you were able to grit your teeth and share it….

  • Patty Chadwick

    OK! You’re hopeless. If you considered zapping a shot as fantastic as this one for even one second you are too far beyond redemption for mere mortals. The intensity of the eyes, the interesting angles of the branches, the detail in the bird’s feathers, its bloody beak (it is about the bird isn’t it?), the softened yet still interesting, unobtrusive background, the suggestion of the very limp looking prey, its size compared to its killer….jeeeeez, Ron!!!

  • Jonelle Balais

    Spectacular! I have seen these around my old house but never got a picture like this. Well done on post processing! Whatever it takes. Nothing wrong with that.

  • I agree with Roger… I’m so very glad you kept the shot! And your modifying the exposure helps us all see wonderful details we would otherwise not be privy to.

    I think it’s laudable to hold to the highest standards for your photos while also retaining shots that are of great interest to us mortals in your capacity as a teacher.

    Thanks for all your sharing! By the way, I saw a Bittern at the end of our road a month or so back, busily giving its ‘toilet plunge’ call. Remarkable!

  • Roger Burnard

    Delete this image????????? Are you kidding me???????? How many times does one ever
    come across a Pigmy Owl with a Vole???? Not often in the world that I live in. If I was
    blessed enough to get this image I would be jumping with joy… I would like to know how
    many of your followers agree with me. An amazing image Ron, even if you did have to
    “post process the bejeebers” out of it. ;-)))

  • Susan Stone

    The conditions might be far from ideal, but given how well the image of the bird turned out, I can’t fathom even the idea of deleting this photo. Some of the shots I keep because they are of something special make this one look like perfection. I’m glad you kept it, because this is a bird I’ll probably never see in the wild.