Rhett Wilkins (Portland's own owl-whisperer) and I went owling last night in southwest Washington. We were hoping to take advantage of the light generated by all of the recent snow blanketing the ground. We were not disappointed!
Minutes into our journey, Rhett spotted our first Great Horned Owl, perched on a low snag next to the road. A few miles down the road, we came across our first Barn Owl, sitting on a fence post, right next to the road. And then another. We decided to get out of the car and try our luck on foot. Walking in the snow at night, mist falling on our faces, seeing what nature would reveal to us was delightful. We eventually stumbled across a very fresh, small owl pellet, likely from a Western Screech-Owl, although we could not rule out Northern Saw-whet Owl or Northern Pygmy-Owl. We never did find that small owl, and decided to get back in the car.
And then we stumbled across another Barn Owl. And then another. And another. Most paid no attention to us, like this one that showed off its backside as it was hunting from a fence post relatively far from the road:
We were lucky enough to find some hunting from right next to the road. Some would fly as our car approached, but others would keep on doing their thing, not at all concerned about us, like this one (check out the frost on its head!):
Eventually, this particular owl did check us out -- perhaps to see if we were catchable prey?
Apparently we were a bit boring, as it went back to looking for a more modestly sized meal:
By this point we had seen 6 Barn Owls and 2 Great Horned Owls. Once again, we decided to abandon the car and give owling-by-foot another attempt. This time, we were not disappointed. Rhett, who really can see in the dark, almost immediately spotted this Short-eared Owl:
And then I spotted what I thought was a large owl pellet. My flashlight quickly informed me that the lump in the snow was not an owl pellet, at least not yet! A Northern Red-legged Frog in the snow!
One might wonder, "How do I go find owls on my own?" In a nutshell, finding owls is a lot like finding other birds, except that owls are skilled at hiding during the day, and tend to be most active at night. A good first step is to figure out what habitat they prefer, grab a flashlight (or not -- silhouettes can be pretty cool, too) and binocular, and head out into the night. Keep both your eyes and ears open, and be persistent, for as all experienced owlers know, finding owls can be very much hit or miss.
Once you get to the right habitat, don't expect owls to jump out at you. For owls of open country, scan fields to see if you can see any owls flying. Check out every possible perch location. And be patient. For forest owls, use your ears as much as your eyes - hearing an owl can often be as rewarding as seeing one. And be very patient. Did I mention patience?
If you decide to go owling in the daytime, add 10 times more patience, and look for whitewash. I find owls in the daytime less than 10% of the time, but I search a lot, so I find a lot of owls. I onced checked the same clump of trees several times a week for many years without success, and the one day, I was face to face with a Long-eared Owl. For those outings where you don't find owls, enjoy your time outdoors, and consider your experience a free or inexpensive education.
The above photos were taken at a focal length of 200mm, which is lower magnification than most binoculars. Below is a photo taken at 85mm, which is slightly magnified from what the human eye sees:
All of these photos exist thanks to Rhett's willingness to hold my flashlight while I operated the camera. Be sure to check out Rhett's blog at http://www.owlcentricity.com/ -- he's even more into owls than I am.
Want to see more owls? You can see more photos I've taken of owls at http://www.scottcarpenterphotography.com/owls
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