Male Short-eared Owl In Flight With Prey

What to do when horrid lighting conditions make it next to impossible to photograph birds in flight but Short-eared Owls with prey are flying by close? Do I try anyway and end up with poorly lit, soft and/or noisy photos, look for other birds that are perched or just pack it in and watch and enjoy the owl show?

On June 25, 2010 at Montana’s Red Rock Lakes NWR I had to make that choice. While a male “Shortie” was hunting voles to feed his family he would fairly reliably fly reasonably close to the road where I was parked in my pickup and he often had prey in his talons but the storm clouds were thick and dark and I rarely if ever had enough shutter speed to get a bird in flight sharp. I had the option of removing my teleconverter to give me more SS but doing so would make the owl too small in the frame.

But this was a Short-eared Owl for hell’s sake! He often had prey and it was one of my first opportunities with the species so there was absolutely no way I wasn’t going to try.


1/640, f/5.6, ISO 800, 500 f/4, Canon 7D, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM + EF 1.4 IIExtender , not baited, set up or called in

Eventually I got lucky.

After much frustration and many “garbage shots” the clouds opened up just enough for a few moments and the owl happened to fly by me on the way to his nest at the base of a sagebrush. The light was good enough to light up the bird a little and I just barely had enough SS to get him sharp in some of the shots.

Given the conditions I like this photo a lot. The light-colored owl stands out nicely against the dark and foreboding Centennial Mountains in the background, his wing position works well for me and the vole is well-defined in his talons. But more importantly the owl is sharp which was a near-miracle in these conditions.

On this day I was glad I kept trying. Sometimes you’re just beating your head against a wall but you just never know…


Note: I’ve published this image before, over six years ago on December 31, 2011. But while my primary computer is in the shop my options are limited and besides many of my current readers have never seen it so I decided it deserved an encore. 

They’ve said I’ll get my computer back late today or more likely sometime tomorrow but from past experience I know how these things generally go (Murphy’s Law always lurks menacingly) so I’ll just have to take it a day at a time.



38 comments to Male Short-eared Owl In Flight With Prey

  • Zaphir Shamma

    1/640 and wide open…that’s a sharp photo!! Beautiful colors and interesting topic. Not just a Shorty, but with a snack to boot. Say…how can you tell the difference between a male and a female? I had assumed they were monomorphic.

    • Zaph, Females are generally darker than males both dorsally and ventrally. There is some overlap but I was confident about the sex of this bird because he was so very light.

      Add to that the fact that in this species the male feeds the female and offspring at the nest and this bird was constantly doing exactly that so there was no question that this bird was a male.

  • Diane Bricmont

    Spectacular, Ron! My last bird of the day Saturday was a Shortie flying at sunset- never gets old! Thanks for sharing such a wonderful shot.

  • Debbie

    This is such an incredibly beautiful photo. I love the dark background and the way it makes the cute little owl pop out. I almost feel like I could touch him. So glad you took a chance!

  • Joanne OBrien

    Fantastic shot! Something to aspire to. Thank you.

  • That is a stunning shot. Perserverance paying off. Generously.
    Loved hearing you say that his mate was a tad forceful. He was obviously slow bring home the bacon/vole.
    And reading about your water woes makes my heart ache. Fire is such a terrifying thing to face.
    Sigh on the computer woes front. And good luck.

  • Stephen Clayson


    Sorry to post twice in one day but it was nice to finally meet you this morning.


    • I enjoyed our little chat a lot, Stephen. Wish we’d had more time. I didn’t know the first comment was from you because you only used your first name.

  • Marty K

    Fabulous shot! Glad you hung in there for this one. 🙂 Looks like he was in some sort of kerfuffle involving those first couple of primaries — damn kids! 😉

    Thank you for braving the computer world for us!

  • April Olson

    Our modern lifestyle are very dependent on gadgets and specifically gadgets that work, when they don’t it’s amazing how impacted our life is.

    I love the highlights of the owl against the dark stormy background. I do admit one of the first things I look at is your shutter speed and aperture. I glance quickly at the specs then analyze the photo only then do I read the accompanying story.I guess it is my morning mystery challenge. I was surprised by the shutter speed being low.

    I hope you and Mia are off on this beautiful morning looking for birds!

    • Yup, I went shooting this morning April – not a lot of luck because of cluttered settings but it was a wonderful morning out there. Mia had to stay home and work.

      I’m glad you pay attention to my image techs. That’s one way all of us photographers learn our craft, me included of course.

  • Laura Culley

    Oh WOW! What a gloriously beautiful image! I’m SO glad you kept trying, but isn’t that the secret to life, in general? Especially now when we’re not talking about the expense of processing a brick (or several) of film, what’s the worst that could happen? As one who routinely beats my head against any available wall (and who would tilt at windmills if given the opportunity), sometimes the wall crumbles. Sometimes not, but what do you have to lose? If you don’t try (and keep trying), you’ve already got the wall.
    That reminds me of a story joke presented in the PBS series, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII.” When the King sentenced a knave to death, the knave pleaded for his life, saying, “If you let me live, in a year, I will teach your horse to talk!” The King laughed, but considering the possibility that he would be the only king with a talking horse, agreed to the deal. As the knave was escorted to the King’s stables, the guard laughed at him, saying, “It’s impossible! You can’t teach a horse to talk!” But the knave replied, “In a year, the king may die, I may die, or the horse might talk!” The moral is you just never know what might happen if you try and keep trying.
    Anyway, I notice that this owl has a hole in his leading primary on his left wing. I wonder what happened to cause that? I know raising a nest full of hungry kids makes a lot of physical demands on the parents, but that’s an intriguing little detail.
    I hear you in that you’re not holding your breath about getting your computer back today. I wouldn’t be holding MY breath, either! Yes, Murphy’s Law is always with us. And the corollary to Murphy’s Law is that Murphy was an optimist! LOL! That said, I hope that happens for you and that the computer gods are kind to you!

    • Loved that story about the king and the knave, Laura.

      Yes, that hole in the feather is evident in lots of photos I took of this bird over many days. For some reason his mate was often nasty and threatening to him whenever he delivered a vole to her so I always wondered if she took a chunk out of it.

      • Laura Culley

        That’s certainly possible if he let the kids go hungry for any length of time! With raptors, if Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy! 🙂 I like that culture. It makes ever so much more sense…LOL!
        And it’s odd that story remains in the memory–and pretty close to the top of the heap, too. I watched that program roughly 40 years ago and that stuck in my mind. Amazing what sticks and what falls out immediately.

  • Elmer Deloso

    Like you said, the conditions make this photo remarkable. Quoting Smashmouth’s lyrics – You’ll never know if you don’t go.

  • Len Boeder

    Beautiful shot!

  • Frank Sheets

    Hi Ron,

    Another goodie. Love this image. Technically and aesthetically. Great light on the bird in a great position, offset by the dark background. Well positioned in the frame. There is nothing not to like about this one IMO.


  • Charlotte Norton

    It’s still a great shot Ron!


  • Stephen

    I assume you are panning for this shot?
    Amazingly sharp for your settings.
    Good luck with technology!

  • Lovely shot, thank you for sharing! Some day when you have a moment, check out Falcon Northwest. Expensive, but reliable plus. But then, short eared owls with voles are more fun than computers, always.

  • Judy Gusick

    BEAUTIFUL shot, Ron! 🙂 I’ll take that one any time……….. Yes, we all have/had our computer woes. Air is blue at our house dealing with Windows 10 and Windows 10 mail. Kings X on the computer……. Weather up/down – not unusual for us. Do have some snow pack this year IF it doesn’t get/stay warm the rest of the winter as it pretty much did last year…..

  • Dick Harlow

    Great shot Ron, beautiful set-up.
    “Birds of a feather flock together” I don’t think anyone here will mind a little computer ‘belly aching’ since I’m sure we all have had our frustrations with, the, or a computer whether it be a Desk Top or Laptop.
    A couple of days ago we got out of the freeze and up to 60 degrees, now we are back to the freeze again to the minus numbers! Back and forth, up or down, snow, ice or rain one of the nice things about retirement you can decide whether to go out or stay in. Best thing to do is laugh at “Murphy’s Law!” don’t let it get you down!

    • Thanks, Dick. I try to keep my bellyaching to a minimum on my blog but I think readers deserve to know why I’m posting what I am and the limitations I’m dealing with.

      I’m beginning to have great fear about our water year. Our snow pack is simply awful and our temps are more like April than January and have been for far too long. Next summer could be a fire fiasco…

      • Dick Harlow

        I hear you!
        Long range forecast is for drier conditions out West and wet in the east, just what you didn’t want to hear. If there was a way to do it I’d be happy to give you half of our precipitation. However, recently the forecasters have been off with us in the middle of Vermont, since we have been having less precipitation than normal. So far we were down last month and this month we are off by 2 inches.