Book Review: The Owl Papers, by Jonathan Maslow


Burrowing Owl


The Owl Papers by Jonathan Maslow, published by Vintage Books, copyright 1983, 177 pages.

“Twas the owl that shrieked the fatal bellman, which gives the stern’st goodnight,” said Lady Macbeth when her traitorous husband murdered his king.  Shakespeare was reflecting his age’s connection of the doleful call of the owl with imminent death or evil. Earlier medieval children were coerced into obedience by the couplet:


I once was a king’s daughter and sat on my father’s knee

But now I’m a poor hoolet, and hide in the hollow tree!

Even today Hollywood invariably uses the Great Horn’s mournful call in its horror movie soundtracks.  What a reputation! Is it those penetrating eyes, the calls, the claws, or the nocturnal hunting? These are all examples used by Mr. Maslow in The Owl Papers as he discusses this bird-of-prey in our history and literature. He also includes interesting chapters on their evolution, physiology, and behavior as well as chapters which recount numerous anecdotes from his quests for owls in greater New York City.  The birding adventures are grouped by the four seasons, further adding to the appeal of this short book.

Great Horned Owl, xx Probst

drawing by Lou Probst

A memorable chapter discuss the hunting prowess of the Great Horned Owl, called Le Grand Duc by the French.  After the owlets have fledged in autumn they are callously driven off the breeding ground by their parents, who each resume their solitary life as hunters.  Evolution has produced the ultimate nocturnal hunter with the Great Horned, described in detail by the author.  Along with the keenly sensitive eyes, aligned anteriorly to track the prey with binocular vision, the entire head structure is sculpted to enhance hearing.  The facial disk collects and channels the sounds to large ears on each side of the face, one directed slightly upward, and one downward.  By tilting and turning the head the owl receives directional information about each sound’s source.  The ears are most sensitive to the high frequencies of the owl’s prey–usually the sounds of small rodents scurrying among the leaves.  The Great Horned, in fact can successfully hunt entirely by sound.

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl, asleep along a boardwalk in Naples, FL.

The owl feathers are designed for stealthy flight, and the claws for a crushing and penetrating kill.  It makes me remember with some trepidation my encounter with a Great Horned years ago.  I had perfected the owl’s call and one dark night decided to try it out, answering the nocturnal hooting of an unseen Le Grand Duc in my backyard.  I kept “whooing” and slowly inched toward the owl’s answering call when I suddenly felt the swoosh of wind and passage of the huge bird, inches above my head.  My imitation must have been good, frankly too good, and I am thankful to still have my scalp.

Screech Owl, Probst

drawing by Lou Probst

The owl drawings in this post are courtesy of Lou Probst, a nonagenarian artist and friend of a friend.  I sincerely thank him for allowing me to use them.  I especially like the Great Horned drawing, which reminds me to stick to my imitation of songbird vocalizations and leave the dangerous raptors’ calls alone.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Owl photography in daylight is difficult. This is not because the birds are moving, but precisely the opposite.  They are usually, quiet, hidden, and often sleeping, recovering the previous night’s hunt.  You’re lucky when you find one with his eyes open and in a location amenable to photography.  My only experience with nighttime owling was during the Christmas Bird Count years ago when I volunteered to assist a dedicated local birder.  We found a remote wooded road, put the tape recorder on the roof of the car and played the various calls, recording the responses from each species.  We never actually saw anything, but it was fascinating, albeit cold work.

by Lou Probst

drawing by Lou Probst

Another chapter in The Owl Papers describes owling in the Meadowlands of northern New Jersey in pursuit of Short-earred Owls.  The pristine wetlands of the early twentieth century was sought out as a picnic site for New Yorkers escaping the city heat. By the 1970’s, however it had become a wasteland.  Maslow gives a great description of the habitat gone bad, with old leaking drums, rusting cars, dead end rutted roads, abandoned warehouses with broken windows, and rotting dog carcasses, which were likely the remains of a nefarious competition.  All were overgrown with Phragmites choking out the native grasses. There were Red-winged Blackbirds and Flickers spotted, along with a policeman sound asleep in his patrol car, but no owls.


Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, from King’s Ranch is SE Texas

I’m not sure how I stumbled across The Owl Papers, but it is my kind of book.  The author’s descriptions of his quest for the birds in an urban environment, along with discussion of their anatomy, physiology, and behavior, sprinkled with reminders of the owl’s role in our history and literature, make for a good read and a lucky find.


Short-Earred Owl, photo courtesy of A. Sternick


The Bird Rookery Swamp at Naples, Florida



We’re always looking for new birding sites, especially if they’re close to home and packed with birds and other wildlife, and also easy on the eyes, i.e. beautiful habitats.  The Bird Rookery Swamp is such a place in Southwest Florida.  It is a relatively new and accessible public park opened in 2011.


click on any photo to zoom

The rookery is not far from the famous Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and is part of the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW), a 60,000 acre parcel surrounding the Audubon sanctuary.  It has been set aside to help control and maintain the natural water flow and to curb over-development in the region.  It seems a little less structured and crowded than the former, and you won’t find any guides or gift shops here, but both sites are superb birding destinations.  The wide paths are former logging roads interrupted with an elevated 1800 foot boardwalk over the wet swamp.


Wood Stork, keen observers will also note the Phoebe

Our morning started early with a great breakfast at Panera Bread, allowing the sun to rise and warm up the day.  This was an unusually cool day for Florida with the temperature barely breaking into the 50’s.  My two companions were eager and engaging birders and photographers, quick to compare techniques, equipment, and results, offering welcomed advice.  The quips and puns were nonstop, all making for an enjoyable day in the field.


“If I were you, I’d….”

If you come to the Bird Rookery Swamp, drive slowly along the narrow public road leading to the small parking lot.  We invariably see an American Kestrel, Cattle Egret, and Red-shouldered Hawk  here.  When the road becomes gravel there is a canal on the right, usually teeming with fishing and wading birds.  That’s where I caught that Little Blue Heron above enjoying his early breakfast.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron


Black-crowned Night Herons, juvenile above and parent below

Also don’t overlook the parking lot.  You will usually see Night Herons perching there warily observing the half-submerged gators below.  The juvenile Black and Yellow-crowned were difficult for me to tell apart until Andy pointed out that the Black-crowned has a yellow mandible, while the Yellow-crowned is black.  Go figure, but it works.  I finally figured out why most of the cars in the lot had balloons and garbage bags tied to their roofs.  They are there to stave off roosting and defecating vultures.  It saves a $15 trip to the car wash.

Pied-billed Grebes

Pied-billed Grebes

The initial shell covered road, just out of the parking lot, usually offers the best birding.  Song birds including White-eyed Vireos and Common Yellowthroats fill the shrubs on both sides with the waders and waterbirds in the canal to the left.  There are wide, uninterrupted skies here, letting you try your luck at “shooting” the flyovers of herons, storks, hawks, and Swallow-tailed Kites, the latter usually arriving in these parts after Valentine’s Day.

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

I’ve been fortunate to see 55 different bird species at this location in about 10 visits.  During this last trip we saw a family of otters crossing the access road, while Florida Panthers, Bobcats, and White-tailed Deer have been reported by others.


The boardwalk winds through the cypress, pines, and oaks.  In this area look for the Barred Owl, warblers, and woodpeckers, including Pileated, Red-bellied, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  We were lucky enough to catch a Pileated looking out from his treehouse.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Black & White Warbler

Black & White Warbler

Many people come to the Bird Rookery Swamp to see the gators, not the birds.  These prehistoric beasts do have some appeal, but my primary observation of them occurs when I warily  give Alligator mississippiens a wide berth whenever they lie across the trail.  As the saying goes, “I don’t have to out run the gator, I just need to out run my companions, Andy and Mel.”


Southwest Florida is blessed with an abundance of great birding sites and we are now adding the Bird Rookery Swamp to the growing list.  The fact that you can bird under sunny February skies, even with temperatures in the 50’s is wonderful, especially when the alternative offers snowy weather in the teens or below at our northern residences.  Alas, we’ll be heading back there all too soon.



The Saga of the New Lens


Every bird photographer has experienced “lens envy” and I’m no exception.  I was the happy owner of the Canon 400mm f/5.6L for many years.  This extremely sharp lens was introduced in 1993 and is still available at a reasonable price.  I have taken many exquisite photos with it and have recommended it to others.  It’s about the largest and heaviest telephoto one can carry comfortably while birding.  I’m no fan of the huge lenses one sees on tripods being transported through the woods and across sandy beaches in baby carriages.


America Bittern (click on any photo to zoom)

Then along came the new Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II.  I reluctantly read the reviews, as I didn’t want to be tempted.  They were all stellar.  I stiffened my resolve and refused to upgrade and spend more money–“if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”.  Then one of my birder/photographer friend bought it and began applying subtle pressure.  I saw that it was quite good, albeit slightly heavier than my old standby.  His photos were beautiful and sharp, but not really that much better than mine.  I carried on with my 400mm for another 6 months, but slowly came to recognize the capabilities of this new lens.


American Bittern, at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida

The zoom feature is a big plus.  With the fixed 400mm I would often miss a great shot if the bird was too close.  By the time I backed up to get it in focus, the bird would be gone.  The ability to shoot down to 100mm with the zoom feature also makes the lens much more versatile. You can actually take some people and landscape shots while birding without changing lenses.


Blue-headed Vireo

Also the old lens did not have image stabilization (IS).  I learned to compensate for this by keeping the exposures fast, 1/000 or faster but that, in turn, often required grainy high ISO settings, especially when shooting in low light.  IS allows slower shutter speeds and lower ISO settings, if the bird is still, resulting in sharper pictures. It also lets you to see the bird more clearly through the viewfinder facilitating a difficult ID. Additionally it allows you to place the point focus exactly where you want it on the bird.


Carolina Wren

So as the title suggests, I finally succumbed and made the purchase.  Non-birders may not understand this, but waiting for the UPS truck to deliver a new lens brings to mind “visions of sugar plums” dancing in children’s heads on Christmas Eve.  You can even track the delivery across the country on the internet right to your front door.  I was ready and waiting when “Brown” arrived. I carefully unpacked the new baby, screwed on the new UV filter, and attached it to the camera–in my case the Canon 7D Mark II.  Remember to always save the packing.


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

The first shots taken around the house seemed OK on the camera LCD, but the acid test would be bird photos.  A trek to the mangrove swamp yielded numerous shots of wading herons and egrets.   My anticipation grew while the images loaded into the computer.  Disappointment.  These were not sharp and crisp images.  When you zoom to maximum on a bird’s eye, the glint of light should be perfectly sharp with a good lens and camera.  It was not.  I rechecked my exposure factors and they all seemed OK.  Maybe it was just a cloudy day.  I decided to try again the next day in better light but began to wonder if I should have been content with the old lens.


Red-bellied Woodpecker

The next day in bright sunshine things were no better.  I took hundreds of shots and there wasn’t a sharp one in the bunch.  More doubt crept in.  Was it me, the camera, or just a bad copy of this lens?  I knew it wasn’t the camera since it produced great photos with the old lens. That left me and the lens.  I explained my issues to B&H Photos in New York.  They tactfully told me a bad lens would be highly unusual, but asked if I had checked the focus micro adjustments?  Dead silence from me as I wondered what he was talking about.  Again, tactfully they explained that camera setting and how to check it.



There is a great You-Tube video available describing how to check and make micro adjustments on your camera.  Sometimes a lens focus plane can be slightly in front of or behind the autofocus point you see in the viewfinder, leading to unsharp images.  This is tested by placing the camera on a tripod and aiming at a precise spot on a grid or ruler from a 45 degree angle.  Use a delayed shutter release to eliminate camera shake.  When you review the picture the best focus point should be exactly where you aimed.  If it is not spot on, you can adjust the camera.  I did this many times and got very inconsistent results–some focused behind the point and others too far forward.  It must be a bad lens.  With another call to B&H, they immediately agreed to replace the lens.


Prairie Warbler

This time I awaited “Brown’s” arrival with apprehension.  Bad news.  It was deja vu all over again–the pictures were still not sharp.  I couldn’t possibly have received two lemons of this revered lens and I can’t call B&H again–they’ll think I’m crazy.  My friend with the identical camera and lens made a sympathetic house call to calm me down and compare our settings.  They all matched. So we headed out into the field for some birding shots, swapping cameras and interchanging lenses.  Finally, he suggested I remove the lens filter and shoot “naked”.  I have always used a UV filter primarily to protect the lens from dust and scratches.  EUREKA!  Problem solved!  The pictures were tack sharp. There is order in the universe!  It was always the filter.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

So what have I learned from all this?  First, Canon makes great products and B&H gives exceptional customer service.  Second, do not cover your great lens with a cheap filter and always listen to the advice of a friend who knows more about photography than you.  Next, be aware of the camera micro adjustments even though you’ll probably never have to use them.  And finally, always save the packing material, even for the UV filter.

Most of the photos in this post were taken with the new lens minus the troublesome filter.  The Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L II is truly a great lens.