Ruler of the Night

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Patience. A great horned owl perches in a mesquite tree in Tucson, Arizona.

My first memorable encounter with an owl was on a winter dawn in the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve just off Skyline Boulevard above Portola Valley, California. It was December 31st, 1990. It was still very dark as I walked downhill down the path with my camera and my tripod. I had not made it very far when about twenty feet ahead of me was a small boulder with the silhouette of a great horned owl standing on it. It was way too dark for a picture—I probably had Kodachrome 64 in my camera—so I just stood for a few minutes to watch in the complete stillness of the morning. An open grassy slope spread out below us with woods beyond. Eventually I decided that I may as well try to take a photo but before I could even try it spread its wings and glided silently away down the hillside. It was an amazing moment.

I would have had more hope of flying after that owl than getting any kind of picture. It was just too dark. I never would have been able to even focus in hopes of getting a decent silhouette even if I had had a huge, expensive fast lens. (I was close enough that even a modest telephoto would have been fine.) This is one of the situations where modern gear is amazing. From that same time period I had a book that featured about a dozen wildlife photographers. Some of them were quite famous—the best there were, supposedly. I looked at that book about ten years ago and the thing that struck me was that so many of their pictures were almost universally terrible. I mean really, truly, bad. I am not saying they weren’t the best that could be done at the time and that these photographers weren’t good at what they did, but they were really handicapped by their tools.

Owls are particularly challenging, of course, because finding one during the day is not easy. A little over a year ago, in February 2022, one afternoon I heard the “ki-ki-ki-ki-ki” of a Cooper’s hawk throwing a hissy-fit, so I grabbed my camera which happened to have a 300mm f/4 lens on it. I didn’t bother to switch to the 500mm because it is only f/5.6 and the light was fading. When I went onto my front porch, rather than a hawk I saw this owl staring at me from the mesquite tree. It was pretty obvious what the Cooper’s Hawk was upset about. These three photos were all taken within a few minutes at f/4 and ISO 1600. The remarkable thing, however, is that they were taken at 1/60 sec, 1/45 sec, and 1/8 (!) sec. Image stabilization is an amazing thing.

Awaiting the Hunt. A great horned owl turns to face the fading light, Tucson, Arizona.
Almost. It will soon be dark enough for a great horned owl’s nightly hunt in Tucson, Arizona.

One challenge with all of these pictures is the post-processing: it is a fine line between brightening up the owl so it shows some detail but still looks like dusk. I am pretty happy with these, but I am sure they could be better.

Technical notes. The photographs in this post were taken with a Nikon Z7 with the AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR. All were processed from RAW in Adobe Lightroom Classic.

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