A burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) perches in a tree to better survey the area surrounding its burrow.

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500 mm, 1/250 sec at f/5, ISO 400

I don’t know precisely what it is, but I sure do have a soft spot for owls. This beautiful burrowing owl was photographed on a recent trip to Florida where I spent eight days in the field with my pal Judylynn Malloch. Judylynn was kind enough to take me to one of her favorite locations in Broward County where burrowing owls have nested in prior years. We spent a very productive afternoon photographing multiple owls, but as daylight began to run short, Judylynn suggested we concentrate on a burrow near a small tree with relatively sparse foliage. She predicted that as sunset approached we might see the owl fly up and perch in the tree.

I’ll confess I was skeptical, having never witnessed such a thing in the dozens of hours I’ve spent observing burrowing owls on the West Coast. Even though I believed Judylynn when she told me she had watched this behavior in the past, I didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to have it occur on my one and only visit to this locale. Burrowing owls make wonderful subjects even when they remain on terra firma (as they usually do) but I knew that an image of a burrowing owl perched in a tree had the potential to be something very special. And of course, I had nothing to lose by waiting and watching to see what would transpire.

A burrowing owl with its feet on the ground.

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF500mm f/4L IS USM +2.0x at 1000 mm, 1/500 sec at f/11, ISO 800

Almost as if following a choreographed routine, at roughly 30 minutes before sunset the little owl flew up into the “designated” tree. The owl was alert, with eyes wide open and constantly looking all around. I moved into position and adjusted my tripod to achieve a pleasing composition of bird and tree and sky. Everything was falling into place except for one thing: the sun was behind a small cloud and the warm, soft light of the early evening was being blocked. Well, I would just have to wait a few minutes for the sun to descend toward the horizon and drop beneath the cloud. After 20 minutes ticked by, with the sun still hidden, it occurred to me that the offending cloud was drifting on the wind towards the western horizon at precisely the rate needed to stay in front of the sun. If something didn’t change soon, the sun was going to set that night without ever illuminating the scene with its direct rays. Fortunately, the sun finally won the race and dipped beneath the cloud, illuminating us with its red-gold light for a precious few minutes before intersecting the horizon. That was all I needed and everything I could have asked for.

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