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Photographing Owls: Who gives a Hoot?

Article and Photos by Ming Yau aka @mingyau8

My journey as a photographer began as a dentist. During my job I took macro photographs of teeth, for case presentations and cosmetic documentation for patients. My interest in photography continued to flourish through my love of travel. I recognized that the only way to preserve the memories and experiences my family and I made while travelling was through photography.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, travelling was no longer a possibility. I found myself losing interest in photography – I was no longer excited about taking pictures. That was until a friend introduced me to wildlife photography, particularly birds of prey.

While these majestic animals are spectacular photography subjects, my real joy comes from observing their behaviour. Using photography, an incredible amount of insight can be gleaned into the amazing lives of birds.

Quick Tips:

There was quite a learning curve; however, wildlife and landscape photography share the same basic camera principles. It is a balance of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. That being said, wildlife photography reaches this balance using different settings. Shutter speeds need to be up to 1/3000 of a sec for birds in flight, whereas with landscapes, there could be 2-minute exposures. Apertures for landscape are typically at the sweet spot of f7- f11, but with wildlife photography I’m usually shooting wide open at the smallest f-stop to blur out the background. I’m used to having ISO at 100 but in wildlife photography often my ISO is up to 3200. I missed so many shots in the beginning because I was still using my landscape techniques. It has been an absolute pleasure learning and watching these birds and owls.

Great horned owls

Great horned owls are the top of the food chain, even amongst their own species. They are the largest owl species with a wingspan just under 5 feet, and weigh 3 pounds.  They have a huge appetite and consume anything that moves, swims or flies; everything is a potential meal for the owl, even other owls. Unlike other owls who hunt in the open, this species attacks stealthily by hiding and ambushing its prey.

Screech owls

The Eastern screech owl is snuggled nicely in a tree concavity. Despite rarely making this sound, they were named for their ability to screech. These owls are highly nocturnal and do all their hunting at night. They practice predator evasion techniques. During the day, their feathers act as an effective camouflage against the tree bark. When confronted by larger birds, they will puff up to look bigger than they actually are as an intimidation measure. If the predator is significantly larger, they choose the opposite approach, minimizing their profile by lengthening their body and tucking in their feathers allows them to blend in with the branches.

Snowy owl

This was the very first owl that captured my attention. For the entirety of last year, these incredible birds had evaded my lens. This year I was lucky enough to capture a few of them. Some snowy owls make the long trek from the harsh Arctic tundra to Ontario when food is scarce. Females can be identified by their characteristic flecked brown feather markings. Snowy owls have furry feet like slippers to keep them warm. Their wingspan is 4-5 feet and they have excellent hearing and sight to seek out food. Their food of choice is rodents but are not picky eaters; they often consume ducks, seagulls, squirrels, and rabbits.

Saw-whet owl

Named after the sound of its call which is reminiscent of a saw being sharpened on a whetting stone, the Northern Saw-whet owl is one of the most common owls in North America. These 6.7–8.7 inch owls are also one of the smallest owl species. They can be distinguished by their Y-shaped white marking between their bright yellow eyes.

Long earred owls

The long eared owl got its name because of the long ear tufts that stick straight up on the top of its head. They are not really ears though. The real ears are on the sides of its head and along with the brown facial disk, enables amazing hearing. The owl uses its excellent hearing and sight to catch rodents at night in complete darkness! They swallow their prey whole and then regurgitate pellets of undigested parts like feathers and bones!

Short earred owls

These adorable owls have smaller ears than their cousins, the long eared owls. They are unique in that they are one of the most versatile owl species – you can find them everywhere from Alaska to the Galapagos, depending on the season. While they might not be as large or ferocious as the great horned owls, they have a unique type of defense for their eggs – they can defecate on their own eggs to repel predators.

Barred owls

The barred owl is also known as the hoot owl or striped owl. Owl fanciers recognize their characteristic baritone call, which sounds like “who cooks for you?” Their diet consists of rodents and small vertebrates such as birds and reptiles. This less aggressive species is a competitor of the great horned owl.

Wildlife photography might be seen as intimidating.

Seeing seasoned photographers decked out in fancy camouflaged equipment might deter people from pursuing this hobby. I would recommend an open mind and a willingness to reach out to photography mentors. I really appreciate the rich knowledge and warm community of bird photographers who have welcomed me.

Here are some tips for those interested in venturing into bird photography.

  • Long lens: Get a long lens – I have a 200-500mm and many times I still wished I had more!
  • AE/AF-L button: Learn to do back button focus. Using the AE/AF-L button on the back of the camera to focus on the bird is helpful to capture clear images. As long the button stays pressed, the camera will keep tracking the wildlife in motion.
  • Shutter speed: Shooting wildlife requires faster shutter speeds as subjects are often moving quickly or are in flight.
  • Auto ISO: Use Auto ISO so the camera will determine the right ISO for you. This way, there is one less variable to worry about, only needing to adjust the shutter speed or aperture.
  • Aperature: Many times the aperture is opened up wide to get the desirable blur for the background. The bird appears more sharp and colourful this way.
  • Tripod: For me, I always carry a tripod around whether I use it or not. I find that I can get much sharper photos of the birds using a tripod if they are not flying.

My goal is to photograph the four owls indigenous to Ontario: northern hawk owl, great gray owl, boreal owl, and the barn owl. I have developed such a passion for learning about these incredible creatures. My hope is that I can share more images of owls I find during my journey so that others may also find joy in these majestic birds of prey.

About the Author / Photographer

Ming Yau: “I am a dentist, photographer, traveller, husband, and father of two sons. This year has opened my eyes to the beauty of wildlife and the incredible diversity of birds.”

Be sure to follow Ming on Instagram:

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