Owling in the dark

Owling is a specialized type of birding (I just made this up), in which one walks through dense forest in search of owls during the early hours of dusk.  The light is terrible, and the branches although bare of leaves are so intertwined and dark, you can hardly make out the shapes of objects within them.

But Great Horned Owls are big birds, and their dark, ovoid shapes do tend to be quite noticeable.

Owls have great hearing, so it's pretty hard to sneak up on them.  This one kept turning its head as I approached and eventually flew off.

Owls have great hearing, so it’s pretty hard to sneak up on them. This one kept turning its head as I approached and eventually flew off.  This photo was shot at an ISO of 1600, and is still very dark.  Drastic photo manipulation measures were called for.

With a little luck and some quiet sneaking, I managed to get close to two of the three Great Horned Owls I found in the way backyard forest during my walk.

This bird, sitting near the trunk of the tree, was actually easier to photograph than the next one, which was more out in the open.  The light was more uniform, so the bird actually shows a little color.

This owl, sitting near the trunk of the tree, was actually easier to photograph than the next one, which was more out in the open. The light was more uniform, so the bird actually shows a little color.  Upping the ISO to 3200 and overexposing by one f-stop seemed to help.

This bird, sitting out in the open was simply black against the pale gray sky.  He or she kept up a steady stream of "harnk" calls, soft muted honks every few seconds or so.  I have no idea what those calls mean.  None of the owls were hooting.

This bird, sitting out in the open was simply black against the pale gray sky without some serious photo manipulation. He or she kept up a steady stream of “harnk” calls, soft muted honks every few seconds or so. I have no idea what those calls mean. None of the owls were hooting.

Really overexposing the image (+2 f-stops) finally reveals some of the owl's features but the white sky is distracting.

Really overexposing the image (+2 f-stops) finally reveals some of the owl’s features but the whitened sky is distracting.  Great Horned Owls are big birds, the larger females weighing up to 2 kg (4.4 lb).  And those big feet are great for catching squirrels, rabbits, (small dogs and cats?) with 300 psi of crushing power applied by those opposable talons!

Although I have often heard owls hooting in the backyard, I have never been able to find them before (in semi-light conditions).  I assume they are gearing up for the breeding season now, and they should be hooting to establish their territories. Three owls probably means there are at least two breeding pairs, so the next step is to start looking for nests.

Note:  “owling” is defined by Wikipedia as the habit of crouching like an owl in unusual places, which was definitely the case while I was photographing these birds.

19 thoughts on “Owling in the dark

  1. At first I thought the title of your posting was “Howling in the Dark” and I assumed that it was going to be about your resident coyote, but the truth was even more exciting. I too would like to get some owl shots, but have spotted only one owl so far and it flew away as I approached. Though I would like to see a Great Horned Owl, like the ones that you were able to photograph, I have the more modest goal of getting a shot of a Barred Owl. You explained (and demonstrated) well the difficulties involved in getting a usable shot–there’s just not enough light!

  2. I could feel your pain. If there’s one thing I’m familiar with it’s shooting in low light, but mine is usually deep shade. It’s great that you have 3 of these birds right in your own yard. You must also have plenty of prey to feed them.

    • So how do you manage under low light? Do you use your flash, or a tripod. I thought about taking a tripod out with me, but figured the birds would be moving too much to use one. Turned out they were fairly motionless.

  3. That’s very cool. I’ve spotted plenty of sleepy owls during the day, (or seen them being mobbed) but rarely have I hung out with them when they are active like that. I have an owl box in the yard, and have been debating whether and when to evict the gray squirrels from it. I was loathe to kick them out during the cold snap, but now that it’s warmer maybe I’ll clear them out before they have a litter.

      • Well, when I say “plenty” I really mean every two or three years I’ll see one. It’s really nothing more than scanning the trees while I walk. The thousandth squirrel nest I come across actually turns out to be an owl or a porcupine when I take a second look at it.

  4. You’ve made owling sound so exciting and with those remarkable photographs, that I can imagine photographers cum birders all over the world being tempted into dark forests at dusk to emulate your success. How many broken limbs this will result in we will never know :).

    • I’m still thinking I was just lucky in spotting the owls this particular evening. When I can repeat this success, then I’ll start to feel like I know what I’m doing. So, no recommendations to others, yet!

  5. I always loved hearing the owls calling back and forth at night. I still miss that soulful sound! I only saw one in the 20 years we lived next door…. Great pix! Chris

    • Thanks, Chris. Your former backyard is a hotbed of wildlife activity, even in the middle of this atrocious winter weather. One GHO is calling rather regularly from somewhere near your big oak in the backyard!

  6. I can never get up early enough to go “Owling”. I do occasionally see a Great Horned during the day. I wish I had some special skill but it’s mostly luck or knowing where to find a nest.

  7. I spotted a Barred Owl that “barked” at me — the sound made the hair stand up on the back of my neck! Turns out Barred Owls make that call when they feel threatened. Do you think that’s the meaning of the “harnk” call you heard? What software do you use to post-process your images, Sue?

    • I think the “harnk” call has something to do with courtship. The owl making the sound was following another owl from perch to perch. I heard a Great-horned owl make that same sound tonight when it was sitting near another owl.

      I post-process photos either with Lightroom or Photoshop elements (the latter if just cropping and/or sharpening is needed).

  8. Pingback: Owling for owlets | Back Yard Biology

  9. Pingback: Owling in January | Back Yard Biology

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