I had a fine day watching and photographing short-eared owls on Fir Island, Washington. I found this owl in the Skagit Bay Wildlife Area.
Tips for Photographing Short-Eared Owls in the Wild
Short-eared owls hunt for voles and other small rodents during daylight hours, typically in early morning and late afternoon. This diurnal behavior makes them one of the easier owl species to locate and photograph.
The tips below are from my experience photographing short-eared owls in the winter in Washington State’s Puget Sound.
Finding Short-Eared Owls
- Find a site with wet marsh grasses of various heights. You are looking for good vole territory. A short-eared owl will generally live and hunt over an area of approximately 0.2 X 0.2 miles.
- If you also see Northern harrier hunting in the area, then you may be in good territory. Short-eared owls and norther harrier are fierce competitors, and are frequently seen hunting in the same areas.
- I like to stand on a water management dike, where a slightly elevated view provides an eye-level view of the owl when if flies. Short-eared owls often fly 5 to 15 feet off the ground while searching for prey. This elevated view puts marsh in the background instead of the bright sky more likely from a lower point-of-view.
- Watch for the short-eared owls erratic flight pattern. They use large wing beats and fly in fairly random moves. Some people compare this erratic flight pattern to that of a moth.
- There is probably not any real reason to hide from the owl. It will know you are there. But do be quiet, don’t move much and maybe wear natural colors or camouflage if you have it.
- Dress warm. You won’t be moving much. Bring some snacks and a hot drink.
- Please don’t stand in the middle of its hunting area. I have seen other photographers do this, and it does change the owl’s hunting behavior. No photograph is worth disturbing an animal’s behavior.
- Arrive before sunrise, or about 3 hours before sunset.
Equipment and Settings for Photographing Short-Eared Owls
- Bring the longest telephoto lens you have. 200mm is probably a minimum, but a 500mm or 600mm would be ideal. I mostly shoot a Sony 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G lens on a Sony a6600 camera.
- Turn on your lens’ image stabilization (IS), vibration reduction (VR), optical image Optical SteadyShot (OSS), or whatever image stabilization technology your lens may have.
- Also turn on any in-body sensor stabilization your camera might have.
- Mount your lens to a monopod or to a tripod with gimbal head, if you have them. Otherwise, shoot hand-held.
- Set your camera for Aperture priority, the aperture to the largest it will go (ie smallest f/stop number) and ISO to around 3200 on cloudy day or around 800 on sunny day.
- Alternatively, set your camera for Manual mode, the aperture to the largest it will go (ie smallest f/stop number) and shutter speed for about 1/2000 sec for flying owls or about 1/200 sec for perched owls. Set ISO to “Auto”. This is the way I typically photograph birds.
- Set you focus to a continuous auto-focus mode, preferably one that has subject tracking.
- Set your shooting mode to continuous at the highest frame rate (frames/second) you camera will support.
- Bring a spare battery and memory card, as you will likely be taking 100’s of images.
- Take some test shots to check your exposure settings. Are images coming out sharp?
Photographing Short-Eared Owls in the Field
- The owl may hunt for up to about 3 hours.
- If the owl catches prey, it will likely stop hunting for that morning/evening while it consumes the catch. So you might as well move on to something else if you see it catch something.
- When photographing a flying owl, obtain focus and then squeeze the shutter release button to fire off a handful of images. Their erratic flight pattern makes composition within the frame very difficult. Having lots of images will give you more options to choose from after the shoot.
- Short-eared owls are very habitual, using the same perches and hunting the same territory. Once you find one, make return trips to keep improving your technique.
After the Shoot
- After your shoot, work your way through the images to find your keepers. The vast majority of your images will likely be out of focus or awkwardly composed. This is why it’s important to take hundreds of photo.
- Your images will likely have a fair amount of noise in them from shooting at high ISO. I highly recommend Topaz denoise for correcting this.
Short-Eared Owl Photography Equipment
Here is the equipment I use for photographing short-eared owls. While a 600mm f/4 lens would be the ideal, the system below is lighter weight and far less expensive, making it useful on wildlife photography trips into the remote back-country. This smaller setup is also far easier to hold when shooting without a tripod.
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