Photographing owls is usually difficult, as they have wide territorial ranges, are primarily nocturnal, and they nest high in tree cavities. Burrowing owls, however, are diurnal and do most of their hunting and flying around a small open area. Since their burrows are fixed, it’s easy to predict where they’ll be a week from now or even 5 minutes from now. They prefer expansive grasslands where they can easily prey on insects and small vertebrates. But, like most habitat-specific animals, their survival is greatly determined by the profitability of their landscapes. Dry, flat grasslands are valuable commodities in South Florida for agricultural use, golf courses, or new strip malls which leaves very little room for these ground dwellers. Now on the protected species list, their numbers are steady but they’ve had to make some serious adjustments to their living styles: owls on boats.
It’s incredibly rare to see images of these birds with their surroundings intact, usually because their backyards include golf carts or housing developments. You can imagine my excitement then when a coworker pointed these owls out to me in Homestead, and all around them tall and lush grassland. My first instinct with wildlife photography is to grab the long lens because it’s hard to get close to wild birds. I’ve seen so many photographs of burrowing owl portraits though, that I wanted something different, something new. I immediately started making plans to create another Gator Cam-type series of images.
My first setup, a hideous thing which the owls wouldn't go anywhere near.
Birds are tricky. Unlike reptiles, they actually care if a foreign object is staring at them in the face. I found this out the hard way and my first attempts failed miserably. Worried that I would frighten the owls, I stopped the project and went back to the drawing board. I visited them several times, watching their behavior and trying to figure out how I could position my camera without scaring them away.
Burrowing owl at sunrise with road cones marking their burrows.
It became obvious as soon as I acknowledged the owls’ affinity to the road cones, which were placed by their burrows so vehicles or people wouldn’t accidentally run over them. The light bulb nearly exploded over my head.
Cone-hide with camera lens partially exposed
Here I had a foreign object made of a pliable material that I could hide the camera in without the need of a tripod. Over the next couple of days I designed my road cone camera hide and made a trip out to Homestead to test it out.
With long intervals, it was frequent that they weren't looking at the camera
Attaching an intervelometer, I programmed the camera to take a picture every 30 seconds hoping they would occupy various parts of the frame over the course of a 5-hour session. While the camera fired, I sat and waited (hoping really) until my memory card filled up. I quickly learned that burrowing owls move a lot more than alligators sunning on a log. I needed shorter intervals.
Every trip to the cone was a learning experience and I tweaked the setup each time. It felt like Christmas. I never knew what I would get, but I counted down the hours just the same. Over the last 6 months I have attempted to photograph these birds 19 times. Each effort consisted of a 5-hour and 2-hour block of continuous shooting every 5 seconds. Yes, that’s a lot of images, but it only takes one good one to make it count.
I put this video together to show you just how much character these beautiful birds have. They are so completely neurotic it's comical, but how could you blame them? With coyotes lurking, stray dogs sniffing, and raptors soaring above, you've got to keep those bright hypnotic-yellow eyes peeled.
I have set this video to follow the theme of an owl who has lost his love and is now waiting for her to return. I give you the Owl Cam.