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A Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) searches for prey during a faint midday snow shower in California's Sierra Valley.


Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF500mm f/4L IS USM +1.4x at 700 mm, 1/2000 sec at f/6.3, ISO 800

Let me give a “shout out” to the Lahontan Audubon Society (LAS) and their Sierra Valley and Yuba Pass online bird guide entry. Alison and I were on the third day of an early-season trip to the Sierra Valley and Yuba Pass. This visit was several weeks earlier in the season than in prior years, and in hindsight, we might have been too early to see much of the abundant birdlife that nests and raises its young in these locations. So, having had my fill of photographing Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Marsh Wrens, I consulted the LAS bird guide which referenced a certain nearby road, stating that “the seasonally flooded sagebrush habitat along this road may produce Short-eared Owl[s].” I wondered to myself when the LAS had created this writeup, and whether it was even relevant in 2012. Since I am so enamored with photographing owls, I figured that it would certainly be worth trying; I just wouldn’t get my hopes up too high.

Working against me was the fact that it was midday, not exactly an optimal time for owl sightings, but Short-eared Owls are known to be active during the day on occasion. On this day we had been experiencing some wild May weather, including brief periods of blizzard conditions, and the sky was dark and ominous lending this noontime an owl-friendly, crepuscular atmosphere. Within minutes after turning onto the designated road, Alison, who was driving at the time, spotted a Short-eared Owl perched on a fencepost. It was on the wrong side of the road for me to photograph, so we continued to the nearest spot to turn around and then made another, slower, approach with our vehicle. Unfortunately for me, this owl, while rather oblivious to cars speeding past, was easily spooked by cars that tried to roll up to it slowly, or which stopped in its vicinity, and it took off and flew up the road before I could even get off a single photo.

With the help of some binoculars we were able to watch the owl land on another fencepost in the distance and we quickly devised a new plan: this time, Alison would drive by the owl at a steady 20 to 25 miles per hour while I shot out the window. This worked like a charm in terms of having the owl tolerate our presence, but I underestimated how difficult it would be. I was hand-holding my (heavy) 500mm lens with a 1.4X teleconverter, and aiming this rig was a challenge as every bump in the pavement felt like it was magnified a hundred-fold. In the end, by applying maximum concentration, I managed to fire off several shots that were properly framed and had tack-sharp focus. The photograph in this post is my favorite of the series and, I think, manages to do justice to this beautiful creature.

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