Respectfully Photographing Owls

Barred owl (Strix varia) with crayfish in mouth as it prepares to take flight with prey to nest on a spring late morning in North Carolina.

May 28, 2022

Photographing owls has gained interest especially in these days of social media. They are very charismatic and are highly prized wildlife subjects for photographers as well as for people just wanting to catch a cell phone pic or to catch a glimpse of an owl in the wild.

As a photographer, owls have alluded me in the past. I have seen owls in the wild but have not always been able to photograph them or get the photographs that I really wanted. Recently, I was very fortunate to have come upon a barred owl perched in a tree overlooking a canal hunting for prey at a national wildlife refuge in North Carolina.

I quietly exited my car with my camera and long lens in hand and made my way to a spot that was a safe distance from this owl where a small crowd of photographers that had gathered along the wildlife drive at this national wildlife refuge. Sometimes, we get caught up in the moment and do not realize how easy it is to forget the harm we can bring to our owl subjects.

As I spent some time on this particular day photographing barred owls, I realized that not all photographers or people adhere to this same level of respect. Here are a few key ways to minimize disturbance and maintain the upmost importance of respectfully photographing barred owls in the field.

Maintain a Respectable Distance

When I am out in the field, no matter what the wildlife subject is, I maintain a very respectable distance of at least 75-100 feet while using a long lens, a Tamron 150-600mm lens. As with the barred owls, I approached quietly and slowly towards the barred owl that was perched on a tree behind a canal along the wildlife drive on this refuge. While photographing this barred owl, I constantly was observing the behavior of the owl to make sure he was not displaying any signs of stress.

Barred owl (Strix varia) perched in tree on a spring late morning hunting for prey along a canal in North Carolina. For this image, I used my long lens, Tamron 150-600mm, at the focal length of 600mm. In addition, I have slightly cropped this image.

Know the Signs of Stress from Owls

I did not want to make the barred owls feel threatened or to encroach on their space. It is not good for the owl to be flushed if stressed. Being careful not to make any sudden movements, I was able to spend about 30 minutes photographing the barred owl. Although, I did not see any signs of distress of this barred owl while I photographed it in the late morning, there are certain indications to look out for that show barred owls are distressed.

Being aware of the eyes of the barred owls and to where the owls’ eyes are looking is a great indicator of how they are feeling. As in my situation photographing the barred owls, the owls were also looking and hunting for prey. The owls never looked at me or in any other photographer’s direction while we were nearby photographing these birds. If an owl looks directly at you with very wide eyes, then you are too close and making the owl feel very uncomfortable or stressed. It would be best to back up very slowly away from the owl subject so that you do not flush the stressed owl.

Barred owl intently staring at prey while ignoring photographers. This owl showed no signs of distress as he continue to hunt for prey while being photographed.

Another owl gesture to look out for is whether their top eyelid is slightly lowered or all the way lowered which will show the owls are relaxed or sleeping in your presence. You should not be the focus of the owl’s attention, and if the owl seems to be ignoring you as in my case, the owl does not feel your presence in their space.

One other tell-tale sign of a barred owl or other owl species being affected by your presence is if they begin to lower their head, fan out their wings and act as if they are about to fly away. Again, retreat slowly with your camera and take cover behind a nearby tree or get back into your vehicle quietly and slowly as to not to bring anymore distress to the owl.

Barred Owls inhabit their entire lives in the same territory especially if they are not scared off from predators such as great horned owls or humans. Barred owls are crepuscular and can be found hunting and roosting during the daytime but are often most active at dawn and dusk. Crepuscular is a term used to describe animals that are primarily active during the twilight — at dawn and at dusk.

Limit Time Spent Photographing Owls

It is very important to limit the amount of time you spend photographing the owls. Spending hours photographing owls species can be detrimental to the birds by causing more harm that you may ever intended to do. Sometimes, short periods of photographing owls can lead to great opportunities for you as a photographer or observer.

Barred owl with crayfish in mouth immediately after dropping down and scooping up the crayfish from the canal where he was hunting. A few minutes later, the barred owl flew off to take the prey to its nest.

As on this particular spring day, I came upon the barred owl in the late morning as it was hunting for crayfish in the canal water on the side of the wildlife drive. While I spent my thirty minutes of photographing this barred owl, I was treated to a quick fly down and scoop up of a crayfish from the canal. The barred owl landed back on a nearby tree branch with the crayfish in his mouth. Of course, this happen so quickly and down out of my view that I was not able to capture the owl grabbing the crayfish. However, I was treated to some nice looks of the barred owl with the crayfish in his mouth when he landed on a nearby tree branch.

The barred owl spent a few minutes situating the crayfish in his mouth before he flew away to take the prey to his nest. I was very fortunate to get some great action photographs of this barred owl because I was not stressing the owl and because the owl was totally comfortable hunting in his environment.

Use a Blind Or Vehicle As a Blind When Possible

Having your vehicle to use as a blind, when possible, is a great way for to photograph owls from a safe distance especially when observing roosting or day hunting owls. Often, owls are more tolerant of humans being in their vehicles than outside of vehicles. Also, using a portable blind would be a good way for taking pictures of owls from a safe distance and will help you to not disturb the owls while they are roosting or hunting.

One important factor to consider, is that if you come upon an owl and can see that owl from your vehicle, then you should not get out. Photographing owls from your vehicle still requires you to be observant of the barred owl’s behavior to your presence. You should always be monitoring the behavior of the owls while you are in their presence so that you may continue respectfully photographing barred owls.

Avoid Use of Flashes and Artificial Lights

After dark, avoid using flashes and artificial lights when taking pictures of owls. The sources of light affects the owls’ keen, night-adapted vision that allows them to hunt in the darkness of dawn and dusk. I never use flash at night as I am concerned about hurting and stressing the owls’ eyes. Actually, I no longer even own a flash unit and prefer to photograph owls and wildlife in their natural light.

I spent the day at this wildlife refuge. Again, just before dusk, I observed the barred owl perched in tree overlooking the canal along the wildlife drive. This time, the lighting was much different than in the late morning. With losing the natural light, I had to increase my ISO to 8000 to give me enough shutter speed to continue to hand hold my long lens.

Barred owl perched in tree overlooking a canal watching for prey on a spring evening in North Carolina. This image was taken in the low light of the evening using a higher ISO of 8000, and no artificial or flash light was used.

Use Caution Sharing Locations

Owls are very elusive and have an enormous amount of popularity especially with the social media platforms. Sharing the locations of these owls can easily create large crowd scenes of photographers and observers. Thus, large crowds bring the potential of harassment, abuse and the potential of unethical practices by photographers and observers. Discretion should be exercised when sharing locations of owls.

It is also important to not share the locations when captioning your photographs. Consider naming the general area or state rather than giving the exact location or using GPS coordinates. In addition, think about the the EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format) data imbedded into your photographs, and if possible, delete the exact location of where you took your owl photographs before posting on the internet such as on birding websites or social medial platforms.

Barred owl in evening light as he held with crayfish in claws against the tree. Even though, this owl had photographers taking his picture, he continue hunting for prey and ignoring photographers.

Conclusion

With the huge popularity of owls among photographers, birders, and other observers it is essential to be very respectful of the owls while in the field. As a photographer, I never compromise my subjects, whether they are owls or other wildlife, for sake of great photography. As a conservationist photographer, my first thoughts are always about giving my subjects respect.

Barred owl with crayfish in the late evening light. This image was captured shortly before dusk and in a lot of shade. My settings for this image was ISO 800, f/6.3 and 1/1000 sec with exposure compensation of -1 1/3.

Giving owls an appropriate amount of space and being aware of the owl’s demeanor will help to ensure that the owls are stress free and are not changing their natural behaviors. The effects of publicly disclosing the location of owls can be detrimental to the owls, as we really have no way of knowing how other photographers and observers will affect the actions of the owls. Nor do we know with whom they may share the owl location, thus creating the potential to bring much harm to the owls. Following these few key tips will help to ensure that owls maintain a stress free environment with minimum disturbance to roosting, hunting and nesting and that the owls are in their safe habitat.

Barred owl chewing crayfish that was captured in a canal in North Carolina. As photographers we need to be mindful and respectful of the owls, and by doing so, we may be able to some great action like I did on this particular evening.

Interested in responsible nature photography? Check out Nature First The Alliance For Responsible Nature Photography and the seven core principles that as photographers can educate and guide us to conserve the places we love.

Thank you for reading my Field Notes Blog, and I hope you will share this post with others.

Let’s protect our wildlife and nature!

All the very best,

Lori

Copyright © 2022 Lori A Cash

6 replies to “Respectfully Photographing Owls

    1. loriacash – Lori A Cash is an award-winning wildlife and nature photographer who has over thirty years experience photographing wildlife and nature. She, as a photographer, has always had a love for the natural world and hoped that her images would inspire others to appreciate our natural world. This love for our natural world has brought Lori into the realm of conservation photography and visual storytelling. Lori resides in Norfolk, Virginia and loves to focus her conservation efforts around the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Through her conservation writing and photography, Lori continues to want to continue to inspire and educate others about the beauty of the natural world and to advocate for the protection of wildlife with a special emphasis on waterbirds in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.
      loriacash says:

      Thank you so very much, Ginnie! I am glad you enjoyed the article!!!

    1. loriacash – Lori A Cash is an award-winning wildlife and nature photographer who has over thirty years experience photographing wildlife and nature. She, as a photographer, has always had a love for the natural world and hoped that her images would inspire others to appreciate our natural world. This love for our natural world has brought Lori into the realm of conservation photography and visual storytelling. Lori resides in Norfolk, Virginia and loves to focus her conservation efforts around the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Through her conservation writing and photography, Lori continues to want to continue to inspire and educate others about the beauty of the natural world and to advocate for the protection of wildlife with a special emphasis on waterbirds in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.
      loriacash says:

      Thank you so very much. Katy!

    1. loriacash – Lori A Cash is an award-winning wildlife and nature photographer who has over thirty years experience photographing wildlife and nature. She, as a photographer, has always had a love for the natural world and hoped that her images would inspire others to appreciate our natural world. This love for our natural world has brought Lori into the realm of conservation photography and visual storytelling. Lori resides in Norfolk, Virginia and loves to focus her conservation efforts around the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Through her conservation writing and photography, Lori continues to want to continue to inspire and educate others about the beauty of the natural world and to advocate for the protection of wildlife with a special emphasis on waterbirds in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.
      loriacash says:

      Thank you so very much, Joanne!!! Glad you enjoyed reading the blog. Thank you for your very kind words. 🙂

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