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

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.

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!