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    Two great horned owlets find new perches as they roam further from their nest tree.

     

    Over a span of nearly three weeks this spring, I regularly visited the Madrone Picnic Area in Stevens Creek County Park in Cupertino, CA to observe and photograph a family of Great Horned Owls. I felt incredibly privileged to spend time in the presence of these engrossing creatures. Even when conditions were poor for photography, the family of owls was fascinating to watch. On most visits, I was the only person there with the owls, and for the most part they went about their business while completely ignoring me. Sometimes I would be joined by birders or other photographers, and on several occasions I had the pleasure of pointing out the owls to picnickers or hikers passing by.

    As the weeks passed I was able to witness the three owlets wolfing down meals supplied by their parents, engaging in spirited tussles, testing their wings and taking short flights with awkward and sometimes violent landings. The adults and young owls also kept my attention with their wide range of vocalizations, including screechy begging calls by the owlets, the characteristic hoot-a-hoot, hoo-hoo call of the adults, and a strange guttural barking sound that one of the adults made repeatedly each evening shortly before leaving to hunt.

    I have posted a collection of my favorite images of this owl family on my main website. To navigate to the gallery click on the following link: Recent Images. In addition, I have posted several High-Definition video clips of these owls on my YouTube channel which you can find by clicking this link: Untamed Images YouTube Channel.

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    Two great horned owlets stand shoulder to shoulder within an oak grove in Stevens Creek County Park.

    Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF500mm f/4L IS USM +2.0x, 1/125, f/10, ISO 3200

    I captured this image on April 14th, 2011 on my second visit to visit a family of great horned owls in Stevens Creek Park. Upon arrival at the Madrone picnic area, I quickly located all three owlets and one of their parents. None of the owls was in a very favorable position for a photograph, being situated very high with multiple obstructing branches. A bit of patience paid off, however, as I was surprised to find out that the owlets moved from branch to branch frequently, rather than just snoozing the day away as I had been expecting.

    Even though the owlets had not been out of the nest much more than a week, they were surprisingly mobile as they climbed around their treetop perches using their massive talons to grip the oak branches, assisted by the occasional wing flap. Finally, two of the owlets settled very close to one another on an branch that afforded me a clear view. By now it was nearly seven in the evening, and in the densely forested oak grove the light was becoming quite dim, though because the sun had dipped below a hillside to the west, harsh shadows produced by direct sunlight were no longer an issue. With my Canon 1D Mark IV, I can confidently shoot at high ISO values (ISO 3200 in this case). The low noise signature of this camera combined with the powerful noise reduction algorithms in Adobe Lightroom 3 RAW file converter allow me to make gorgeous prints without sacrificing detail.

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    Two young great horned owls, having recently left the nest in Stevens Creek County Park in Cupertino, California, stare with rapt attention at their off-screen sibling.

    I shot this video April 14th, 2011, on my very first visit to see this family of great horned owls. As early as March 17th, I had read a post on the South Bay Birds mailing list describing the owls and their location. The initial posting said that the owls were still in the nest, but several weeks later a follow-up post announced that the owlets had left the nest. Figuring that if I wanted to see (and possibly photograph) these owls, I had better not waste time lest they disperse. Little did I know that these owls would remain in roughly the same area for nearly a month, all the while providing incredible viewing opportunities and some (occasionally) great photo opportunities.

    The owls were located in an oak grove adjacent to Stevens Creek Park’s Madrone picnic area and proved rather easy to find. While the lighting conditions left much to be desired, with harsh sunlight coming from behind the owls, it was a pleasure to watch the owls high in the treetops. Since the light wasn’t cooperating for still photography and each of the owls was at least partially obscured by branches and/or leaves, I instead decided to shoot some HD video of the owls’ behavior.

    This video clip shows two owlets staring intently at their third sibling, who is out of view, but whom you can hear calling if you listen closely. The owlets also demonstrate head-bobbing, a behavior performed by great horned and other owls to better estimate the distance to an object or animal.

    NOTE: Since this post contains the first video clip on this blog, I thought it would be worth mentioning that it is possible to view this video in high definition. (Unless you have a slow internet connection, I think it is worth it to view the HD version.) One way to watch the clip in HD is to click on the Full Screen button in the lower right-hand corner of the YouTube player window, then click on the Play button on the lower left to start playing the clip. As soon as the video begins playing, a button will appear at the bottom of the screen labeled 480p. Click this button and select 720p or 1080p to switch to the HD version of your choice. Depending on your download speed, you might need to give the video a bit of a head start before playing it all the way through to the end.

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