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Owling Guide: Finding & Photographing the Elusive Owl


Owling Guide - Finding and Photographing Owls

Recently, Jody Doll called me to go on an owling adventure with her. I wasn't able to go that day, but after hearing the excitement in her voice when she found two owls in just one day, I asked her if she would be willing to share some of her tips and tricks for finding and photographing owls. I am excited to report that she said yes. Thank you, Jody!

Jody has been photographing owls for years and has collected some stunning pictures of owls in that time. Here are Jody's tips and tricks for finding and photographing owls, along with several stories of her owling adventures. We also worked together to create a free printable checklist for you of the nineteen owls you can find in North America, which you can download for free at the end of the article. Enjoy!

Owling Guide: Finding & Photographing the Elusive Owl

Hello! I'm Jody Doll and I'm a self-proclaimed bird nerd. A long as I can remember I have been interested in animals and nature. Even as a very young child, I wanted to be outside instead of inside. When most kids were watching Saturday morning cartoons, I would ask my mom to turn on nature shows.

When I was sixteen I saw an Osprey for the first time and that is when I really started focusing on raptors, which led me to owls. In the last few years owls have become the focus of my birding trips and photography goals.

Today I'll be sharing some of my best tips with you in hopes that you'll get hooked on owling, too. The main areas I'll discuss are owling etiquette, locating owls and photographing owls.

Owling Etiquette

Owling etiquette is simple. Just like all birding etiquette, owling etiquette is about respect.

1. RESPECT THE BIRD

When I'm observing wildlife, I try to do it in a manner that does not disturb the animal. Be quiet, move slowly, and keep your distance. If the bird shows any signs of distress back off.

Some owls are very approachable and do not seem to be too upset by people, while others are very shy and would much rather be left alone.

This is especially important to remember during mating and nesting season. Some owls will abandon their nest sites if disturbed. Also remember that during mating and nesting season they can also become aggressive. They are wild animals and can potentially be dangerous.

Wary Barred Owl by Jody Doll Photography

Barred Owl

This specific Barred Owl is by far my favorite. I have had multiple opportunities to visit with and photograph this owl and its mate. Barred Owls maintain territories and live their entire lives in that same general area. So, if you are lucky enough to locate a pair, you have the potential to see them often. Because I do not make them feel threatened, or encroach on their space, I have been able to photograph this pair for a few years now.

 2. RESPECT THE ENVIRONMENT

I could go on a rant about how disrespectful human beings are of this world, but I won't. I live by the "take only photos, leave only footprints" motto. Leave the land as it was before you arrived.

3. RESPECT PRIVATE LAND

I do most of my owling on my land or public land, but sometimes I will hear about or see an owl on private property. Trespassing is never okay. If the land is not yours, ask for permission before stepping foot on it.

By asking for access from landowners, I have met some very nice people and and no one has ever denied my request for permission to photograph an owl on their land. Some people have looked at me like I was crazy and some people have been quite interested in the owl. 

Once, I knocked on a door to ask a lady if I could walk out into her field to get a better photo of a Snowy Owl. She didn't even know what a Snowy Owl was! She was pretty excited when I showed her and we both had a memorable experience that day.

4. RESPECT THE RULES OF THE ROAD

Sometimes I find owls while driving. This poses some specific safety issues. If the owl is close to the road I usually find a safe place to pull over. I will then either photograph right from the car or get out and take pictures from the shoulder of the road.

Safety is key here. Make sure you and your car are in a safe place. Stopping on a busy highway is always a bad idea. Fortunately for me, I live in a rural area where I'm more likely to get stuck behind a tractor than rush hour traffic.

Great Horned Owl by Jody Doll Photography

Great Horned Owl

One morning I heard that there was a Great Horned Owl in the neighborhood, so I took a drive and was lucky enough to find this beautiful owl near my home. It was perched in an easy to photograph location close to the road and it stayed there long enough for me to park safely and get out to take a few photos.

5. RESPECT OTHER BIRDERS

I have only had positive experiences with other birders. I have found kind people willing to share their knowledge and love of owls with anyone who will listen. It is about as simple as treating others as you would like to be treated.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl by Jody Doll Photography

Northern Saw-whet Owl

This little Northern Saw-whet Owl was part one of a two-part big adventure. My twelve year-old daughter and I drove an hour and a half on a tip from another birder in hopes of seeing this cute little owl. 

When we got to the reported location I expected to have trouble finding this owl. These adorable owls are only about 7 inches tall...literally the size of my iPhone.

We were very lucky, though, because there were two very nice gentlemen that asked us if we were there to see the owl. Instead of simply telling us where it was, they did one better and showed us. 

This was a lifer (very first one ever seen) for both my daughter and I so we were very excited. This wonderful experience would not have been possible for us without the help of other birders.

This leads me into another aspect of owling: finding owls.

Finding Owls

The single most important factor in owling is finding owls, which is not an easy feat. They are nocturnal, have incredible camouflage and are silent when they fly, all of which makes owling a challenge.

NETWORKING

The best way I have found to locate owls is by networking with other birders. Owls are widespread and elusive, so networking with other birders can take some of the guesswork out of knowing where to look. This is especially useful when there are large irruptions of owls that are not usually found in certain areas or rare sightings.

Sometimes you can learn about owl locations by talking directly to friends that enjoy owling. Sometimes you'll find that information on Facebook pages of friends or groups that are interested in owls, and sometimes I use reporting websites. There are local birding reports and others that are on a larger scale like eBird. 

Eastern Screech-owl by Jody Doll Photography

Eastern Screech-Owl

Earlier I told you about part one of my big adventure and finding a Northern Saw-whet Owl. In part two of that adventure, my daughter and I headed out again in the opposite direction on another tip from the same owl-loving friend.

He told us about an Eastern Screech-owl spotted in Todd County, Minnesota and we decided to press our luck and see if we could make it two lifers in one day. When we got to the location, there were some other birders there so I knew that meant the owl was still there, too.

This Eastern Screech-owl was napping in the evergreen tree and just woke up to look around a bit before nodding off to sleep again. That made two new species for us in one day! I hope that my daughter can look back on that day and remember our fun mother/daughter moments. Again, this is another owl sighting that would not have been possible without a network of owl enthusiasts sharing their knowledge.

Barred Owl by Jody Doll Photography

Barred Owl

RESEARCH

Another important factor is research: There are nineteen species of owls generally found in North America. Do your research to find out which owls are in your area or in the area where you will be owling. 

Once you determine the potential owls you might see, research the habitat that they prefer. Do they like open land or forest? Coniferous or deciduous trees? Do they like to be near water? What do they eat? What calls and sounds do they make? The more you know about the particular species you are searching for, the more likely you will be to find it.

There are apps for birders to help with identification and learning more about a species. Some that I use are: Audubon Bird Guide: North America, Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon Bird Guide: Owls-Field Guide, and The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America. 

Timing is another factor to consider. While most owls are nocturnal, some owls can be seen during daylight hours. The best time of day to see owls is usually early morning and evening.

A few species of owls are commonly seen during the day. Snowy owls can be found at all different times of day, because where they live, in the extreme north, it is light 24 hours a day for part of the year.

Time of year also dictates your odds of finding owls. Some owls migrate, while others live their entire lives in the same general area. Winter sometimes brings irruptions of owls thousands of miles to places they are not usually found. Spotting owls may be easier in the fall or winter due to the lack of leaves.

LUCK

And sometimes spotting an owl is simply luck. While I am driving, my kids know to search for owls for me. And I will admit that sometimes we are late for school because of an owl sighting. Those are my favorite finds, because they are unexpected. And I'm secretly proud that my kids are growing into birders and environmentalists without even knowing it.

Sometimes finding an owl comes from just being in the right place at the right time. Other times it's dedicating a weekend to trekking through mosquito infested forests just hoping to get a glimpse of an owl. 

Snowy Owl by Jody Doll Photography

Snowy Owl

This particular owl was a surprise, because I had spent the winter mornings driving around and had given up on finding a Snowy Owl that season. Then, one afternoon I just happened to look up at the moment that a large white bird swooped right through my backyard. I grabbed my camera and ran outside. This beautiful Snowy Owl was perched on the power pole right in my own yard!

Photographing Owls

If you're like me, when you finally find an owl, you will want to photograph it. Here are a few tips to help you get a good photo:

1) Use a zoom lens. Remember, you don't want to get too close and make the owl uncomfortable. If the bird looks nervous, back slowly away.

2) Focus on the eyes. Most cameras will have a dot or square indicating their focal point. Place that spot on the eyes of the owl to ensure that they are crisp and in focus. This will result in a more compelling photo.

3) Do not use flash. It is better to brighten your image with photo editing software later than risk the health and well-being of the bird. Owls depend on their night vision to be able to hunt and defend themselves from predators. A flash could damage their sight and leave them vulnerable.

4) Be patient. If you are a comfortable distance from the owl, enjoy the experience. Watch its behavior and learn. You may want a photo of the owl in flight, but it is not cool to scare it so that it will fly. If you wait long enough it will naturally take flight.

 Barred Owl by Jody Doll Photography

Barred Owl

Bottom line: Owling is hard. You never know when you'll see an owl but don't give up.  Sometimes it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack...a very small needle in a very large haystack. But when you find an owl it is amazing. I'm hooked and I hope you are, too. Best of luck owling!

- - - - -

Thank you, Jody! I hope you all enjoyed this article and Jody's beautiful photos. You can find each of the photos featured in this article on prints in our Near to Nature Collection. If you have any questions for Jody, please leave a comment below and she will be happy to answer it.

North American Owl Checklist by Jennifer Ditterich Designs and Jody Doll Photography

And don't forget to download your free North American Owl Checklist here. It features photos of each of the nineteen owls you can find in North America and gives you a place to write your experiences and memories. Happy owling!


2 comments


  • Jennd

    Thanks, Kirstin! We’re glad you liked it!


  • Kirstin

    Great advice. I loved your article and learned a lot. Thanks for sharing!


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