Photographing Roosting Owls: How To Know You’re Doing It Right

Andy McGannBehavior, Bird Finding Tips, Birding, Featured, Photography6 Comments

Long-eared Owl

A sleepy owl is a happy owl!


This Long-eared Owl was one of two that have been roosting in an old cedar tree in Soldier’s Delight Natural Environmental Area in western Baltimore County, Maryland.

Of all the potential subjects for aspiring bird photographers, roosting owls just might be the most intoxicatingly enticing subject of all.  Owls are an especially charismatic clan of birds.  Whether or not you enjoy their typecast roles in folklore, you have to admit that there is an overwhelming temptation to map our human modes of expression onto their avian faces.  Even for the science-minded ornithologists who know better!  Charisma aside, much of the significance attributed to owls in folklore stems from the sheer rarity of our encounters with them.  Yes, we have some common species in our midst, and we can sense them around us as they vocalize at night.  But the electricity is palpable on those rarest of events when we get eyeball-to-eyeball encounters with these mythical creatures.  Watch what happened when this Northern Saw-whet Owl locked me in its gaze during the banding process.

[youtube] Roosting owls are different beast.  When you find one (or more commonly, when you catch wind of the whereabouts of one), the incentive is to capitalize on their immobility.  During the day, you have the upper hand, and they are the ultimate sitting duck!  Or, they would be if it weren’t for all that pesky vegetation in the way.  “If only I could just get a little bit closer,” you think.  “Just a couple more feet… I’ll have a better angle…  that stick won’t be in the way.”  Suddenly your sleepy sitting duck is awake, on edge. Its posture changes.  Next thing you know it’s flying away, with a horde of mobbing songbirds in tow.  Or worse, crows.  Or worst of all, hawks!  The undeniable fact is that a flushed owl is a stressed owl.  No matter what your intentions are, your actions can be detrimental to the well-being of the bird.  Yes, I recognize that if you’re reading this blog, I’m probably preaching to the choir.  But often, “we birders” tell ourselves that it’s “those greedy photographers” that are the cause of the problem.  But this blog isn’t about us-versus-them.  Birders are people too, subject to ridiculous rationales and slippery slopes, and who wouldn’t pass up a fantastic photo opportunity?!

So here are some hard-and-fast guidelines to which we should ALL adhere:

  • If you catch wind of the known whereabouts of an owl’s daytime roost, ask someone-who-knows for more information.  However, this can often be an unproductive dead-end, because many birders are rightfully extremely guarded when it comes to trusting others with a bird’s well-being.  On the bright side, their hearts are in the right place.  The down side is that people can get totally bent out of shape when someone withholds information.  TRY NOT TO TAKE IT PERSONALLY.  If possible, politely ask if you could possibly arrange to join them when they check up on that-roost-they-know-about.
  • Target roosts that are located on PUBLIC LAND, especially those WITH POPULAR HIKING TRAILS.  Why?  Because the birds at these locations are simply more accustomed to seeing people walking around.  Birds become desensitized to people walking in the areas where they always walk.  Like city pigeons, but not quite that extreme.
  • STAY ON MARKED TRAILS.  This is the biggest rule.  Bushwhacking is disturbing.  Not just to the birds, but it’s also destructive to the vegetation community.  Unbeknownst to many, a significant number of our protected natural areas were actually created in order to protect sensitive, rare, and endangered plants.  Don’t be a part of the problem.
  • USE A SPOTTING SCOPE.  The further away you are from a roosting owl, the better.  This is one of the few circumstances when the photographic results from digiscoping (holding a little point-and-shoot camera up to the eyepiece of a spotting scope) can greatly exceed the results from a SLR camera, even with a 400mm lens!  Why?  Because there is no good way to get close to your subject without stressing it out.  If your photographic setup doesn’t have enough magnification to satisfy you, don’t take it out on the bird.  Encroaching is not an option, look for a more conducive roost somewhere else.

To sum up so far… I’m talking about getting a knowledgable guideperson to show you exactly the best spot to stand on the trail, where to set up your spotting scope, and where to point it… in order to see the owl.  The results can be breathtaking.  Especially if it’s one of the rarer species which might even be one of your personal nemesis birds.

  • Take note of the birds posture and behavior.  This one is easy: A SLEEPY OWL IS A HAPPY OWL.  If the owls’ eyes are open, that’s a bad sign, but not one necessarily caused by you.  Does it look relaxed?  If the owl is doing its best to look exactly like a broken-off trunk or tree limb, with sleeked-down feathers and stiff, skinny look… it’s trying to hide from you!  You’re causing it stress, and it’s next move is to flush and risk discovery by potential predators.  You need to back off.  The owl is concerned that you discovered it, and that you’re taking such an interest in it.  Immediately look away, slowly back off, and walk away.  Try again another day when the owl is more relaxed …only this time don’t get so close!!  IF THE OWL LOOKS LIKE THIS (skinny, stiff, eyes open and looking directly at you) YOU ARE STRESSING IT OUT.
  • BE A STEWARD OF THE ROOST.  If you are lucky enough to know the whereabouts of an owl’s diurnal roost, try your best to look out for the bird’s well being.  Be careful about sharing the information.  Follow these guidelines for posting sensitive information to eBird.  If you know other birders that can be entrusted with the birds’ well-being, consider sharing your knowledge with them.  Don’t totally omit your observations from discussions on birding listservs, but take the time to describe the sensitivity or viewability of the particular situation.  If the location is conducive, volunteer to host people by appointment.  Make the extra effort to show them exactly where to stand to get the best non-threatening looks, especially for those without spotting scopes.  (This strategy can pay dividends in the long run when your new friends call you first to break news of rare birds!)
    • Do your best to be educational, especially if you catch someone behaving badly. Obviously don’t scream, shout or threaten them, but for example, you could let them know that Long-eared Owls have special legal status in Pennsylvania as a state-listed Threatened species. For more info about LEOW status in PA, download the Penn. Game Commission’s PDF document.
    • If the roost is at a park or public land, take the time to talk to the staff and educate them if necessary.  Park staff can potentially be the best site stewards, with their networks of naturalists, volunteers, and safety officers.
    • If a problem develops, consider working with park staff to develop a strategy, for example a sign pointing out the best viewing angle, ropes to help prevent folks from wandering off the trails, and informative signs about the sensitive nature of the owls. If things get out of hand, perhaps the sign could also refer to video surveillance cameras in the area (which may or may not actually be there).

Flushing a roosting owl, especially from a known roost, is a cardinal sin of birding. Always remember: A sleepy owl is a happy owl!

  • Don

    Just like a bander can’t take the truth of what harm you do to the birds. You in the video are playing with the owl like it is a toy. Harassment by banders does more dammage than good for the owls you raid their nests and trap the rest.

  • Don

    Saw-Whets have been studied for decades
    enough. With what you are doing with the owl in the video you have no
    right to tell anyone how to behave. Banders do more damage than any
    birder or photographer could ever do.

  • Hi Don,

    I am happy to respond to your concerns. You clearly have very strong opinions, to which you are entitled, of course. I am interested in what evidence you have that banders damage the birds they study. For the past ten years, during which I have been participating in bird banding studies, I can personally assure you that the birds’ well-being is at the forefront of the banding process. The truth is that a few times per year in a geographic area as large as the entire United States, there are a few birds that die in the banding process. Most of the time, mortality is caused by a predator discovering a defenseless bird in a mist net in the brief interval between net checks. Surely this is terrible thing! However, banders take direct responsibility for these events and mortalities are reported to the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory. In response, researchers do everything they can to protect the birds, including changing their methodology.

    The reality is that bird banding, like all strictly-overseen and regulated scientific endeavors weighs each project in terms of the knowledge to be gained versus the costs. For a broader context, compare it to the use of animals in human-oriented medical research. For example, many thousands of mice, rats, cats, dogs, pigs, and primates are bred and induced with ailments, so that we might carry out trials of new drugs and treatments. In our society, some people choose to oppose ALL uses of animals in research. This is akin to some people choosing to be vegetarians or vegans. However, on the whole, our society has judged that the benefits are worth the costs. What I fear you are overlooking is the plain fact that bird research like the Saw-whet Owl project featured above is DESIGNED to benefit the birds. In contrast to human-oriented scientific research, the overwhelming majority of ornithological research is evaluated in terms of the benefits for the avian species in question versus the cost to the particular individual animals involved.

    In regards to the studies of Saw-whet Owls in central Pennsylvania, you seem to be of the viewpoint that studies of this species ought to be curtailed because they have been “studied long enough,” implying that there is no new knowledge left to gain that is worth the cost. First, I would like to dispel any notion you might have that we have simply been doing the same thing every year since the project’s inception. Rather, this project has a long history of pursuing additional questions, with new goals, as new and emerging technologies have increased our abilities to learn about these birds. Second, in terms of birds’ well-being, the “cost” of this research is EXTREMELY small. The Northern Saw-whet Owl is an extremely hardy and phlegmatic bird, with little susceptibility to shock during the handling process. I can personally assure you each owl I handled was released and behaved normally to my trained eye. Essentially none the worse for wear!

    Lastly, in regards to this particular video of this particular Saw-whet Owl, there was a very legitimate purpose to the way that I moved my hand. I had just attached an RFID radio transmitter to this bird, and I was moving my hand to check for normal range of motion. After this video clip, I switched grip, so that the bird could flex and extend its legs. Then I re-checked the fit of the harness material, to see if it had shifted beneath the feathers. The purpose was to make sure that it had the proper comfortable fit. The bird was released and behaved normally, and it was recorded via the transmitter for the rest of its stopover period, and then as it migrated through the study region.

    While I applaud your concern for the birds’ well-being, I respectfully want to correct your notion that the birds I have studied were damaged, or treated poorly. Speaking for other banders, I want to tell you that we care about the costs born by the individual birds we capture and handle (however small), and that we take seriously our obligation to publish and disseminate the new knowledge gained through our efforts.

    As far as the harm that can be inflicted by birders and photographers, which I was writing about, I would like to reiterate that repeated disturbance and flushing of owls from their favored roosting trees will cause them to avoid the area. The reason owls are attracted to a particular area during the winter is that they judge it to be fruitful hunting grounds with tenable risks in terms of their own safety. (Remember larger owl species will readily prey upon smaller owl species!) IF people are pushing owls out of their favorite roosting areas, they might move to less-productive and/or more-dangerous areas. What bird-appreciating person would want to be responsible for that? I wrote the post to help educate us birders and photographers.

    Thank you for your concern and participation in the Nemesisbird community. The issues you raised presented a valuable opportunity for me to explain what it is I do, and why I do it. – Andy

  • Faith

    Thanks for this post. I just saw (and photographed) my first pair of LEOW today in Ohio. Not harassing a bird goes without saying but I did not know how to read their signs and I never considered the risk to a flushed bird other than it having to expend extra energy. The owls I photographed were sleek and wide eyed. Luckily they didn’t flush and I’ll be extra careful on who I give their location to and I’ll make sure to throw in some conservation information in if I do share the location.

    I feel a little like a schmuck because I’ve always envied other people’s photos of “awake” owls when I’ve only ever found “asleep” owls. I assume “sleepy owl / happy owl” is true for most species? That makes me appreciate my sleeping owls so much more.

  • Sarah

    Love the post! And thank you for adding to the discussion about how to treat wildlife with respect. I did however want to add that with some smaller owl species (ie screech or saw-whets) will close their feathered eye lids to help them camoflauge their bright yellow eyes. They may appear to be sleeping, but they have already spotted you and are doing their best to hide. This can be very stressful for them, so it’s best, in my opinion, to spend as little time as possible within sight of the bird. Get your close look with a scope, or your pictures and then move on, see what other birds you can find. 🙂