It was unseasonably cold for early May and had been raining all week when cabin fever set in. I just had to get out and do some birding. I chose a small woodlot on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay which is known locally as a Warbler trap, hoping some early migrators had arrived. I decided to “go bare” with just the binos and leave the camera home and dry–always a bad move.
The birding was sparse and the warblers few. But do you know the eerie feeling that you’re being watched? I felt that just before I looked up into two pairs of yellow eyes 20 feet above my head. Great Horned Owls are formidable birds. I slowly backed off while snapping a few poor shots with my cell phone to prove to my skeptical birding friends that I had actually seen them. That night, despite dreaming that I had been attacked by owls, I resolved to take a real camera back to the site and look for the birds again.
I believe these two birds are juveniles, likely hatched in February making them about 3 months old. You can still see some of their fuzzy down but they are nearly full-sized. The juveniles leave the nest and climb onto nearby branches at 5 weeks and can fly by 9-10 weeks. They won’t acquire the full adult plumage until next October.
When I returned the next morning with a real camera and lens, the Canon 7D II and 100-400mm 4.5-5.6L IS II, the birds were gone or at least not where I had left them. This was a big disappointment as I had never taken a good photo of a Great Horned Owl in daylight. Making the best of it and birding the remainder of the woodlot I saw nothing more exciting than a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Common Yellowthroat, and a small flock of Cowbirds making that weird clunking sound. That is until I saw the owls again about 75 yards away from their initial perch, hunched together and staring me down. Their leery gaze followed me wherever I moved as I tried to get the best angle for a shot while still keeping a prudent distance away.
Getting a reasonable photo in the dark woods on an overcast day is a real challenge. I cranked the ISO up to 6400 which explains the slight lack of sharpness of these shots. I was still able to keep exposure speeds of 1/320 to 1/640 seconds. Normally one wants exposures faster than that while shooting moving birds, but these were motionless. I only saw one adjust his foot position once. These speeds along with the image stabilization gave a reasonable result.
The juveniles were obviously capable of some flight, having moved to another tree. I haven’t mentioned that on the first day I found a third owl. This one was an adult about 100 yards away in the same woods. Since this is Mother’s Day I will venture to say that it was the mother keeping a close eye on her adolescents. She was still helping with the feeding and protecting them from any birder that got too close. I can just hear my mother telling me and my brother to sit there and don’t move until I return with your lunch. Mother owl likely did the same. I’ll bet she’s also encouraging some independence for her owlets and looking forward to the day when her offspring are finally mature, on their own, and her maternal mission accomplished.