Photographing Owls in Flight

by Kevin Shank | Apr 1, 2024 | 0 comments

Eastern Screech-Owl catching a mouse
Eastern Screech-Owl catching a mouse. Photo © Dogwood Ridge.

Only a few minutes had passed, and already a screech owl had flown over our setup. From their calling, I thought two were in the area. Before long, one owl was back, sitting on a branch about 20 feet (6 m) away and peering intently at us. Would this be the night?

To photograph songbirds, you might attract them to a feeding station of sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, mixed seeds, thistle seeds, etc. But owls are different. God created them to be birds of prey. They play an important role in controlling rodent populations and are valuable to farmers, since rodents can do a lot of crop damage. From a photography point of view, this presents a challenge. The food they need is not as easy to provide as a sack of seeds.

While young owls are being cared for (2-3 months), the parents must catch a lot more rodents than they need to throughout the rest of the year.

It was nearly forty years ago when I first tried to photograph an owl in flight approaching his dinner. I had built a mouse-proof cage from metal flashing. The cage was about 5 feet (1.5 m) in diameter, with a pedestal in the middle. On the pedestal was a stump. On top of the stump, I put food for the mice to eat.

After an evening or two of shoveling through corn and grabbing mice, I had about seventy mice in the cage. Barn Owls were nesting about one hundred yards/meters away, and I had hoped to get a photo of one descending on a mouse. By breaking the electric eye beam passing over the top of the stump, the Barn Owl would take his own picture. However, the only photos I got were of the stump itself when dew began to cover the electric eye, causing the camera to fire.

The owl watching me now began to bob his head this way and that. The mouse on the stump had clearly caught his attention. When the owl leaned forward and silently left his perch, I knew this would be the night. Within moments, the owl passed over the infrared sensors, and the camera fired. The system had worked, but was the photo sharp? I was eager to find out.

Seven minutes later the second mouse was also taken, and a second photo was on the camera. If only I had known how easy this could be….

Maybe owls fascinate you as they do me. After all, they are very beautiful birds, very photogenic, and we seldom see them. Perhaps this is why photographing one up close is so exciting.

Looking back on the first effort forty years ago, some of the things I tried were on the right track. With a bit of tweaking, I could have gotten good results with much less effort. And that is why I’m writing this for you. If you would like to photograph an owl, I hope to spare you the learning curve I had. Let’s think through how we might achieve this.

Since our goal is to photograph an owl catching a mouse, we must figure a way to get both in front of the camera. A mouse can run, jump, and bite. These facts alone can make a truly wild mouse a challenging choice, but not impossible. (Note: We are not telling you how you should handle mice; we are only telling you how we did this.)

To catch mice, we wore leather gloves and shoveled through ear corn on a barn floor. Mice were easy to uncover, and, with gloved hands, we were able to grab many of them before they disappeared.

We placed the mice in a wooden box that had a couple of sides covered with aluminum window screen for visibility. To release only one mouse at a time, the box had a trapdoor on one end we could open that allowed only one mouse to exit at a time. We would place the mouse only after the owl was sitting nearby watching us.

But how do we keep the mouse on the “stump”?

Well, we can’t necessarily, but we can encourage it to stay there by putting the piece of wood on a pedestal. With no easy way down other than jumping, the mouse will likely stay close to where you want him. A little peanut butter may help to hold his attention. Sometimes I have “encouraged” a mouse to go around to the other side of the stump if it has strayed out of sight.

That is what I have been doing, but the owl that was watching me last night must have thought I was going to take his dinner. As I reached out my hand, the owl flew over my shoulder and promptly snatched the mouse only inches away from my hand. I’m still not sure if it was wind or feathers that I felt as the owl passed.

How do we “freeze” the action of the bird? It takes about 8000th of one second to freeze the movement. Since the photo is being taken at night, the camera is not recording a photo except for the period of time the electronic flashes are firing. A typical flash fires at about 1000th or 2000ths of a second at full power. The key, then, is to get the flash duration down to about 8000th of a second. To do this, we use a reduced power setting. Depending on the flash, this may be 1/16th power or 1/8th power.

With the flash power significantly reduced, how can there possibly be enough light on the bird? I typically use two flashes, and they are about 3 feet (1 m) from where I expect the bird to be when the camera fires. They are positioned off-camera so lighting is directional and creates shadows, revealing texture in both wood and feathers.

How do we fire the camera? While you can fire the camera manually or with a remote, there is the challenge of clicking the shutter at the “perfect” moment. We use an infrared trigger.

Eastern Screech-Owl with starling
Eastern Screech-Owl with starling. Photo © Dogwood Ridge.

How can we manage to have sharp focus on the bird? Just as the flashes are close to the bird, so is the camera. This enables us to use a wide-angle lens. A wide-angle lens, by its nature, will have better depth of field (area in focus) than a telephoto lens will have. We also use an f/stop between f/11 and f/16. (The higher the number, the greater the depth of field.)

Since an infrared trigger fires our camera, we know where the focus needs to be set. We focus on a broom where the photo will be taken, and then turn off auto-focus so the camera stays focused there. We test the focus by swinging the broom through the infrared beam and reviewing the broom bristles for sharpness.

Now that we are set up, how do we get an owl to come in? Owls can be called by playing a recording of their calls. If an owl responds, it may come in quite close and may also be calling. You will need a light to see it. When an owl responds, quit playing the recording, and place a mouse on the stump. They learn very fast. We fed a screech owl two mice the first evening, and the second evening he was sitting on the branch watching us set up our equipment. He took all our mice in approximately five-minute intervals without our needing to call at all. Over the next week or two, he often watched us set up equipment and also watched us leave.

How do we get the owl to pass over the infrared sensors that fire the camera? We have built a platform on a ¾” pole that resembles a platform bird feeder. The camera and flashes are on one end of the platform, while the stump and infrared sensors are on the other. This whole platform can be rotated left or right, similar to a lazy Susan. This is valuable, since an owl may fly from tree to tree prior to coming for the mouse. Keep turning the setup in a way that keeps the sensors between the mouse and the owl. (Note: I use a C-clamp with a tripod head on it to hold my camera. This works much better than a bulky tripod, since the C-clamp can ride with the system.)

What kind of success can I expect if my camera is a point-and-shoot? We had surprisingly good results with our point-and-shoot camera. We were able to stand 3 feet (1 m) away, but soon learned this resulted in too much light on the bird. By backing up to 6-8 feet (2-3 m) away, we could light the bird well and also freeze a surprising amount of movement.

The challenge will be to press the shutter at the right moment, and to be using the right amount of wide-angle/telephoto to see the whole bird without the bird being too small. However, photographing owls is easy enough that, with a bit of patience, you should get fun results. You may also be able to approach close enough to his perch for nice photos.

How do I get a “stream” shot with the owl’s reflection? After learning a favorite branch of the owl, we set up a water habitat near it. It is important to know the favorite branch because we cannot spin this habitat in the same way we can spin the stump. To create the habitat, we used a four-foot-square piece of plywood as a table top, and put two-by-four edges around it. A piece of water garden rubber was placed over the wood to hold water. Stumps, rock, moss, ferns, mushrooms, and leaves completed the setup. To get the reflection in our small pool, the owl needed to be close to the water. We prepared a small island in the water that was kept low to the water, where we would release a mouse. The camera and flashes should be near the water level too, for the best reflection.

Eastern Screech-Owl catching a mouse by water
Eastern Screech-Owl catching a mouse. Photo © Dogwood Ridge.

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