Perhaps The Darkest Short-eared Owl I’ve Ever Photographed

And temporarily (at least) discarding one of my own “rules” about what I like and don’t like in my photographs.


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

In July of 2016 I was exploring one of the less traveled dirt roads in Montana’s Centennial Valley when I encountered this fledgling Short-eared Owl in the long grasses fairly close to the road. In my experience fledgling SEO’s tend to be significantly darker than adults but this young owl seemed noticeably darker than most and for some reason I find that both appealing and interesting.

Regular readers know that I’m not fond of my subjects having obstructions in front of them and this bird was largely hidden from view so after taking a few documentary shots I drove on down the road to look for other birds.



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

Sixteen minutes later I had turned around on the road and was driving by the same area when I found the fledgling again and this time it was even more deeply buried in the grasses and a little further away. I almost didn’t even fire my shutter but I did take a few shots and kept a single one – this one. And despite the fact that the photo breaks one of my primary rules about what I like and don’t like in my images (significant obstructions in front of the bird) this one has grown on me. A lot.

To me there’s something incredibly endearing about the innocence and naïveté of this very young owl as it obviously tries to stay hidden from view at that same time its bright yellow eyes are almost screaming out at me “I’m right here, look over here, dummy!”. I like the way the young bird has deliberately placed its face in such a position that the thickest clump of grass is between the eyes which allows it to actually see my pickup through the grass with both eyes. I’m not a cat fan but it reminds me of something cute a domestic cat might do.

The appeal of an image is often an individual and very personal thing and that’s one of the almost magical elements of photography. While I was culling images two years ago I very nearly consigned this one to the scrap heap. I’m very glad I didn’t.

For reasons I’ll likely go into more deeply in a later post fellow bird photographer and good friend Dave Sparks has me thinking a lot lately about the “rules” of photography (especially as they apply to image quality) and when they should and shouldn’t be adhered to.

It’s complicated and my views on the subject are evolving…




42 comments to Perhaps The Darkest Short-eared Owl I’ve Ever Photographed

  • Betty Sturdevant

    Not only do you have a very artistic eye they are very sharp as well. When I look at your photos I always wonder what I am missing when I am out in nature. I so enjoy your work and have learned many thingsabout the world around me.

  • Marty K

    Step. Away. From. The. Delete. Key. 😉

    I’m totally late to the party today — long day with dogs, not cats, so you’ll forgive me, I hope. 🙂 These are fabulous images. I saw the second one and immediately thought “peek-a-boo,” but EC beat me to the punch. GMTA, apparently. 🙂

  • Shirley

    Oh! I am so glad that you kept these photos and shared them with us Ron, thank you. When I saw the first picture, I showed it to my sister & said “Mittens”. Now Mittens was my second Persian cat, then I read your story and find it ironic that you mention a cat in it. That little SEO is absolutely adorable, I hope one day that I spot an Owl of any type.

  • Alice Beckcom

    Ron, my comments are probably too late for you to see, but I’ll go for it, anyway!!

    I would love to take that owl home with me. What beautiful eyes and curiosity. I do think that it thought it was hiding from you.

    Thank you for the link to Dave Sparks’ photography. To mention a few that I enjoyed so much…Chestnut sided Warbler with a red patch below eye and on chest. Such beautiful colors.

    I enjoyed the lionesses so much. It is not surprising that they take care of each other, so well. Beautiful animals.

    Last one…I enjoyed the American Redstart and the fact that it captures its food in midair.

    Thank you for ‘making my day’ with your blog.

  • I understand why the second photo grew on you.The “innocence and naïveté” paragraph captures the appeal nicely. I’m glad you decided to post it.

  • Mikal Deese

    Remember that you make the rules, so the rules can’t make you. Nice owl! Thank you!

  • Jean Haley

    What a beautiful Owl. Everything about it is striking. Although the first photo is my favorite, I too like the 2nd photo. Natural habitat. Can’t beat that.
    My Cat sends you her love!

  • Peek-a-boo, I seeee you.
    Love it. And am so grateful you didn’t consign it to the dumpster.
    I am not surprised it has grown on you though – it is a classic ‘behaviour’ picture.

  • Laura Culley

    I love both of these images, but the second is special! I’m so grateful that you didn’t throw this one on the scrap heap! What a spectacular image.
    On the rules front, they’re mostly good, HOWEVER, many are made to be broken sometimes. I guess the whole rules thing comes from the human need to tidy up life on this spinning rock in every aspect we can. But life is messy. That’s just the reality. We do not live in an orderly and tidy world, and the mess is often lovely, despite that it goes against that tidy rule 😉

  • Joanne OBrien

    That 2nd photo is really something special!! I’m glad you kept it.

  • LS Clemens

    I love that 2nd photo! The grasses standing tall between his bright eyes really makes that shot. Thanks for your special photos & commentary!

  • April Olson

    A very endearing photo, I am glad you kept it and shared it with us. I also enjoyed the link to Dave Sparks. I spent quiet a bit of time reading through his wonderful blog too. I am jealous of his travel, he has many locations of interest to me.

  • Susan Stone

    I can see why you like that second shot. It does look as if the owl is trying to hide, but has no idea how visible it is. The behavior reminds me more of a child that a cat (Iv’e had plenty of cats and don’t recall seeing that kind of behavior). I’ve never seen a SEO in person, so I’m always glad when you post photos of them. Shots like these are good behavioral documentation.

  • Patty Chadwick

    That is a dark short-ear! Judging from the dark circles around its eyes, it didn’t get much sleep last night, either….I know I tossed and turned….maybe its still celebrating Halloween, dressed as “a Dark Invader”….I like both photo but get a kick out of the second. I remember those icy, cold sheets, and as a result prefer to sleep on fleece blankets in my wiser, old(very) age…

  • Dick Harlow

    If no one broke rules what an uninteresting place this would be. We grow, we learn, we make mistakes, we relearn or we just think of a better way, a better rule. Life is a challenge and we meet it the best way we can!
    But, you knew I’d love these shots, especially the second shot! Cats? We have two Maine Coon’s and one in particular would do just as you said. However, they both are inside cats, never go out.
    My interest is in the parents of this young one – how dark are they? But, then I tend to think in a DNA realm, sorry.

    • I’m glad to learn that your cats are kept inside, Dick.

      I never did see the parents of this fledgling. The main reason I hung around for a while was to see if one of them would show up with food but it didn’t happen.

  • Ann

    Kinda reminds me of playing hide and seek with my kids. They would hide but you could still see them!

    It is 85 degrees here in the piney woods of east Texas. Just sayin. . . . .

    • Ann, it’s 53° here in Northern Utah right now – nothing like MT but cold enough for me.

      • Ann

        I miss cold weather and snow. My husband is from Illinois and doesn’t want to move any farther north than Dallas, TX. I will have to be content on vacations. We have 4 owls here behind the pinecone curtain – Barn, Barred, Great Horned and Eastern Screech. I love seeing the Eastern Screech in their nesting cavities and this year we had baby Barn owls. Their hissing is something you don’t forget.

  • I’m glad that you skirted your “rules” on these– shot #2 gave me a belly laugh every time I looked at it…….Mr. Sneaky Owl with full-moon eyes in broad daylight !

  • Sharon Constant

    I LOVE the second photo! What a beautiful little fledgling he is.

  • Judy Gusick

    Beautifully colored owl, Ron. 🙂 Glad you kept the shots – “hiding” with those eyes certainly wasn’t working very well for the owl tho perhaps other predators beside use wouldn’t see them? 🙂 +3 with a S “breeze” this morning – BRRRRRR!

    • I remember those kinds of Montana mornings very well, Judy. When I was a kid on the farm (in a back bedroom that wasn’t well heated or insulated) having thick ice on the INSIDE of single pane windows in the morning, not moving in bed all night to prevent any body parts from touching cold sheets, going immediately into the kitchen which was the only warm room in the house because Mom had the oven on with the door open – stuff like that.

      Fun to look back on but to experience – not so much!

      • Judy Gusick

        Yep! Our old house had a gravity feed furnace so head for the vents in the morning! So much for “the good old days” 🙂

        • My uncle had vents like that – big 3′ square grates on the floor that got very hot. When my cousin Ken Dudley as a toddler fell and landed with his hands on one of those vents he burned his hands severely. For many weeks he had thick white bandages on both hands that looked like boxing gloves and for the rest of his life he had thick raised scars on the palms of his hands that almost looked like a 3D checkerboard.

          If you stood on those vents for too long they would actually burn the bottom of your shoes and stink to high heaven.

          • Judy Gusick

            Knew people with those and the same thing happened! 🙁 Ours were in the wall fortunately and not near that big! They certainly did get hot tho! Old converted coal furnace.