Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Burrowing Owls


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. 

27 comments:

  1. mac, this is beyond brilliant. great concept, great execution. i am so proud of you!
    --john moran

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  2. yummy! this is phenomenal mac! love the images (endearing, beautiful, kind of humorous) and love the vid! fun! great work.

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  3. This is great Mac. I am going to show that video to my kids. Beautiful stuff.

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  4. How awesomely cool, thanks for sharing!

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  5. Hi Mac!

    That was awesome! thanks for sharing it with us! Take care and have a very Merry Christmas and a great 2001!

    John Dupuis

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  6. Thanks everyone! I'm glad you liked it. It's been a fun project getting the footage together. Now if only there was a way to put a camera inside the burrow....

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  7. great video. enjoyed it. glad all is well. happy holidays.

    adam reinhard

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  8. Hey this should be an NPR Science Friday Video of the Week I love the clouds in the background so when is National geographic going to fund your next expedition?

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  9. This is precious! Excellent work!

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  10. what about a telescopic camera electricians use to view inside the walls for wires and stuff

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  11. That's a great idea! maybe I can get Canon to make one with high resolution?

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  12. Oh good you made it to Science Friday thank me now or thank me later lol

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  13. Enjoyed the story on Science Friday had to see.

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  14. Thanks guys! Anonymous, you're gonna have to come forward, otherwise who can I give credit to? I would love to thank you personally..

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  15. just trying to encourage flat land expeditions rather than sinkhole mountain bike expeditions. Save the collarbones! Wiley ways of a wiles wildcat

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  16. This is the best thing ever. I heard you on Science Friday now I am checking out your blog, you are awesome. Those owls just do not look real. Thank you Anonymous for suggesting this for SF I would of not stumbled upon otherwise. I've played the video four times now.

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  17. this is fantastic. the 7th photo with the owl's expression on the far right is hilarious. i love owls.

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  18. Absolutely lovely, have watched this over and over - thank you for making the video!

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  19. vjohnston@audubon.orgApril 21, 2011 at 1:02 PM

    this is awesome! "crazed eyes" good description.

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  20. Through crazy random happenstance, I just came across your page while researching burrowing owl management. Love the photos! And the song you picked for the time-lapse video is just hilarious.

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    1. thanks Colleen! Yeah I've had mixed reviews about my music choice, but I just couldn't put their personality to anything other than a crazed bluegrass train-beat. Glad you liked it!

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  21. your work will help protect the Burrowing Owl! How can you help novices identify their nests so they can be protected. I'm concerned because developers are planning to build a 300 condo three story rental community behind our development where there are preserves. I go by kayak and could look to make sure no nests would be disturbed if I knew what to look for?

    can you provide any insight and any work you've done to protect them and who to call may help as well - thanks for giving us a view into their lives and gentle nature.

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    1. I hope so Ginger! Every little bit helps, that's for sure. I think you would just want to comb the area and check for burrows. As you can see in the video they spend most of their time standing guard, so if they're there in the area, you'll be sure to see them. I know a slew of organizations have been using my video to help give the owls a little PR boost, but it just depends where you're located. A good one for california is: http://burrowingowlconservation.org/ and another for Florida would be http://www.ccfriendsofwildlife.org/

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  22. really awsome images you have here, i bet it too a wile to get the right onse.

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