The Burrowing Owl And The Meadowlark

This Western Meadowlark was decidedly unhappy with the presence of a hunting owl in its territory.

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

I witnessed the minor confrontation two days ago in northern Utah when I spent nineteen minutes with this adult Burrowing Owl as it hunted from various elevated perches and on the ground. Even though its relaxed one-legged pose suggests it might have been taking a break the dried blood on its beak…

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

and its constant and obvious scanning of the nearby grasses in all directions made it abundantly clear that it was in intense hunting mode.

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Eventually it abandoned the fence post as a hunting perch and flew down to the ground and hunted from there for a few minutes. Naturally when it took off its right wing covered its face but I think I would have quite liked this shot if only the right wing had been a half-inch higher to reveal that bright yellow eye in a peek-a-boo pose.

I’m pretty sure the softness of the right wing is caused by a lack of depth of field rather than insufficient shutter speed.

 

 

1/4000, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

But eventually the owl spent most of its time hunting from sagebrush and I just happened to click my shutter as a very unhappy meadowlark flew in (it can be seen in flight as a blurry blob at left)…

 

 

1/4000, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

and landed on another sagebrush about 2′ behind the owl.

 

 

1/3200, f/7.1, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

By its body language and almost constant calling the meadowlark made it clear that it was highly disturbed by the presence of the owl in its territory (perhaps it had a nest or fledglings nearby).

  • The meadowlark didn’t sing the melodic song they’re so well-known for – instead it was blasting out the sharp “chupp call” that meadowlarks typically use on intruders when they first enter their territory. If you have the interest you can hear that chupp call here – scroll down to the call labeled “churts” and click on the link (for some reason Audubon calls it a churt instead of a chupp).

 

 

1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Several times the frantic meadowlark flew a short distance away from the sagebrush perch…

 

 

1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

but it always returned and continued to make its displeasure known in a variety of ways. Here I thought its body language was particularly expressive of its tension.

 

 

1/400, f/14, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 214 mm, not baited, set up or called in

At one point during the “discussion” I pulled out one of my other cameras with a much smaller zoom lens attached and took a few shots at shorter focal lengths in an effort to get both birds sharp. I think this photo, when compared to the others, is an excellent illustration of how limited my depth of field is when shooting at the extreme focal lengths of my 500 mm with attached teleconverter.

 

 

1/4000, f/7.1, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

The confrontation ended with a whimper instead of a bang when the owl flew down to the ground and hunted from there and the meadowlark simply flew off.

There’s nothing dramatic in today’s post but I find these fairly subtle behaviors interesting and they all add up to a better understanding of the world of birds. That’s always been one of my goals with my bird photography.

After all, nature photographers who understand their subjects well inevitably become better photographers.

Ron

 

 

29 comments to The Burrowing Owl And The Meadowlark

  • Alice Beckcom

    I like the Meadowlark even though it is not as relaxed as it has been in prior series. I can understand intrusion on the nest could make ‘one’ tense!!

    The owl’s antics are just delightful to me. I particularly like the one-leg pose!!

    Great photos and narrative, as usual. Thanks.

  • Joanne OBrien

    Another fantastic group!!

  • Charlotte Norton

    Great series Ron!
    Charlotte

  • Chris Sanborn

    Yes, another very nice series of behavioral images …. I don’t usually think of burrowing owls as hunters because so often the photos are of their parallaxing and other antics … so that first shot of the “relaxed but watchful” owl is really interesting to me. (No matter what, they’re just darned cute!) That’s a beautiful landscape owl & meadowlark inhabit, and very cool to see them so close together. I guess an adult meadowlark is too big to be considered a meal, but its nestlings are definitely not. Being a parent in the wild is truly hard work, but then so is self-preservation. Hope owl finally found some food!

    • Chris, a good friend of mine (a skilled birder and photographer) says he has “sorted through” Burrowing Owl nests with meadowlark feathers in them. That could easily explain this behavior from the meadowlark…

  • Loved seeing the context.
    And, much as I love owls, I am not the teeniest bit surprised that their presence causes consternation. I suspect out of sight on the ground there were small mammals adopting poses very similar to the meadow larks…

    • You’re right about the small mammals, EC. I suspect this owl was mostly hunting voles. They seem to be a specialty of the owls in this area.

  • Nicole

    absolutely fantastic series!

  • Marty K

    Great series! I, too, really like the context shot because it reminds me how far away you are from your subjects. That reminder reinforces just how good you are — both at taking such fantastic photos and being able to spot your subjects in the first place! 🙂 I think the takeoff shot is exceptionally cool, yellow eye or not, because of the way the flight feathers are fanned out.

    The owl’s cluelessness regarding the meadowlark reminds me of some of my students over the years. 😉

    Hope everyone up in MT is OK. 5.8 is nothing to sneeze at!

    • Yup, I’ve had some of those same types of students, Marty. Cluelessness personified! But then I’ve known a teacher or two like that too!

  • Laura Culley

    Despite that I’m ridiculously redundant yet again, what a spectacular series! I just love it when you share series with different focal lengths that show the overall environment (see! I learned a new photographic phrase–focal length!). Added to that, you’ve got two of my favorite birds (yeah, I KNOW I’m easy with birds/raptors/critters). How can you NOT love burrowing owls and meadowlarks? Add in the memory of the outrageously beautiful sagebrush with the slice of life in The Great Out There and you’re up around all your recent redtail hawks shots in my world!
    You wrote, “After all, nature photographers who understand their subjects well inevitably become better photographers.” Oh yes! You’re preaching to this choir and that’s so true of falconry, too. Know/understand your bird AND know/understand its quarry.
    “Churts” v. “chupps?” Well you know how those -ologists are! They seem to be redefining everything these days, but I hear it as chupps, so there! I STILL don’t believe the newly discovered (theorized…LOL) genetic connection/relationship between peregrines and parrots. That just CAN’T be right, but there’s also the issue that I’m old and resistant to change. I’m only in the 21st century kicking and screaming with my toe just touching THAT water. 🙂
    What a joy it is to share my coffee with you each morning! As Mia says, “Life IS good!”
    Changing subjects, a friend of mine lives in the Montana earthquake zone. She’s out in the middle of nowhere (a very good place) so she might not have Internet service at the moment. I haven’t done an earthquake yet and I’m hoping to avoid that natural disaster!

    • Thank you, Laura. I know from experience that living out in the middle of nowhere in MT is a good thing. Nay, a great thing! (unless it’s the middle of one of their frigid winters or you need immediate medical care or…).

  • Patty Chadwick

    Checked out the link…listened to all the sounds…the beautiful liquid songs, the chupps and “rattles”.. Also checked out “Where the grasslands go, so goes the Meadowlarks”… Breaks my heart to even think about the possibility. You caught two of my favorite birds…always love to see both. Glad you included the 9th as it provides the context of the confrontation, shows how close the two birds were,their comparative sizes, and gives us a nice view of a sweep of sage…which, unfortunately , is being mindlessly destroyed in so many areas….

    • Patty, there’s still a fair amount of sage in that area but even some of it up there is being wiped out – more every year it seems…

  • Susan Stone

    Very interesting post. I went to listen to the chupp call, and was sidetracked for a bit by the range map. I did not realize that Meadowlarks lived around here, but apparently they are here all year, and common. I may have seen one without knowing it. The chupp call is very much like the warning call we hear from Rock Squirrels, and what I’ve heard from Cardinals. In looking back through this series of photos, I like the contrast between the unhappiness of the Meadowlark and the obliviousness of the Owl to the Meadowlark’s predicament. The drama is definitely here, just more subtle than one would expect from drama.

  • I can’t decide which I enjoy more…the pictures or the stories. 😀

  • Zaphir Shamma

    You always take the best pics. Great light, subject and composition. I don’t always comment, but I always start my morning off with your blog.

  • Judy Gusick

    Fun! I love the 2nd to last photo of both the owl and the meadow lark. 🙂 The series certainly does document the drama of territories…….. On a note related to yesterdays post I was locking up the clucks for the night and startled 3 young magpies raiding food who flew to a steep metal roof near by with the same kind of results the hawk had. 🙂 Funny for sure…..

    • I appreciate knowing you liked that shot with my smaller lens, Judy. I always enjoy seeing that different perspective myself because it gives me a better feel for context but I wasn’t sure if it would appeal to others.

      “Clucks” – I like that!

      • Judy Gusick

        I do enjoy “context” 🙂 Critters and their sensitivities – Dog woke me up for the 5.8 earthquake in Lincoln last night………

        • I’ve been reading about that quake on FB. Sounds like it got the attention of some folks (and your dog…).

          • Judy Gusick

            I had an aunt living in Yellowstone Park when the “big one” happened. She woke up a few minutes before and all the birds and critters were going nuts – have always remembered that………

          • My parents planned on staying in West Yellowstone that night in ’59 on their way to somewhere – can’t remember where. At the very last minute they changed their minds and took a different route. They talked about that for years.