It is impossible to cover specific facts on every owl sub-species in this brief description given there are 176 species of owls in the world. We can however narrow it down considerably as only 19 owl species are found in North America and those are the species that will form the basis for most of our wildlife photography.
Owls are known for their exceptional hearing and many owl species have asymmetrical ears that are different sizes and different heights on their heads. They have two huge holes in their skulls for their ears, along with facial discs that channel sound into the ear openings This gives the birds superior hearing and the ability to pinpoint where prey is located, even if they can’t see it. An owl can hear a mouse stepping on a twig from 75 feet away, now that’s impressive.
Most owls are nocturnal meaning they are active at night which accounts for their large eyes which lets them make use of any available light. With owls, the eyes are so big that they can’t move in any direction. This means that an owl must move its entire head to follow the movement of prey, but it also gives it better focus with both eyes looking in the same direction. It may seem that an owl can twist its head completely around however most owls actually turn their heads no more than 270 degrees in either direction.
Another important adaptation for owls is silent flight. Where other birds have stiff feathers that make a whooshing sound when they fly, owl feathers have soft edges that allow them to fly silently. This is important for owls, allowing them to swoop down on prey without being heard. You can see this very clearly in the Great Gray owl picture above with his wings spread out fully.
Courtship in owls is interesting because they must first overcome a natural fear of one another. Male owls may bring offerings of food, dropping the item near the female to catch her interest. Even so, it may be several hours before she loses her fear and moves closer to him. The number of eggs that are laid depends on the food supply. If prey is scarce, only two or three eggs may be laid; if food is easily available, then six or more eggs may be laid. Chicks generally hatch two days apart, with the oldest chicks getting the most food. This ensures survival of at least a few chicks if food is scarce.
Young owl chicks get the best of care from their mother for about three months. They are fed, protected from predators and learn to fly and hunt so they can leave the nest and find territories of their own. Fathers are also often involved in rearing the chicks, including sitting on the eggs and bringing food back for the family. By about six months, most owl chicks look like their parents so wildlife photographers need to get out in the Spring and early Summer if they want owlet pictures.
If you want to immerse yourself in the study of owls I highly recommend picking up a copy of Owls of the United States and Canada: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior.
US Customers Can Buy Owls of the United States and Canada: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior Here and for the Kindle version US Customers Can Buy that Here
Canadian Customers Can Buy Owls of the United States and Canada: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior Here
Owl Photography – Tips For Getting Great Owl Pictures.
- Great owl pictures can and should be taken in a variety of lighting and weather conditions. Overcast snowy days add contrast and mood to portraits and sunny days are ideal for flight shots that require faster shutter speeds. So if you’re lucky enough to find a subject plan a few repeat visits in mixed conditions while at the same time trying not to disturb the bird as much as possible. Keeping a healthy distance usually does the trick.
- If you are after flight shots you really need to study up on the specific species. While most owls are nocturnal meaning they are active at night there are exceptions. For example the Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl and Great Gray Owl are diurnal meaning they are primarily active during the day so that affords great opportunities for a variety of owl behaviors including hunting and flight shots.
- For flight shots F/8 is my preferred f stop but not at the expense of shutter speed. The Great Gray Owls I have photographed are a great example to draw on. I have found them to be most active just before and at dusk. As the light falls off I will compensate by bumping the ISO to keep the shutter speed above 1/800 but eventually I drop back to f/4 (2.8 if you have it) Of course if you are taking portrait shots where the bird is perched you won’t need to be as concerned about shutter speed.
- As with all wildlife photography focus on the eye is key. This is especially so with owls as one of their marquee features is their eyes. The wide eyed saw-whet owl picture above with the brilliant yellow eyes demonstrates this notion beautifully.
- Whether they are perched or flying you need to pay attention to the background in order to get winning owl pictures. I am always on the lookout for owls in pines, snow covered trees, a rock out cropping, etc. as they make excellent backdrops for owls. Conversely, I avoid man made objects like telephone poles, fences, cars, etc. as they detract from the natural beauty of the image, but you already knew that one.