Short-Eared Owl

Short-eared Owl northwest of Lamoni Iowa

With a nice coating of ice on trees and bushes, my plan was to go out in the country and photograph late afternoon sunlight glinting off the ice. Instead, I ended up with this image of a Short-eared Owl.

While I was photographing ice covered bushes I caught some movement in the corner of my vision. I turned and spotted a bird a few hundred yards away, soaring over the fields of corn stubble, and generally heading north (and away from me). I hopped back in my car and I checked the camera settings before followed the owl (more about that later).

At a distance I thought it was a hawk. It wasn’t until I got closer that I figured out it was an owl.

The owl finally landed in a tree. It was on the east side of the north-south road, with nice sunlight coming from the west, so I had nice front light from the setting sun.


I did everything right.  My radio wasn’t on, but if it had been I would have turned it off. I rolled down both front windows of the car when I was still a half mile away. I slowed down long before I got within 200 yards of the owl and even more once I was within 100 yards. I crept up even with the owl fairly slowly. I came to a stop, turned off the motor and sat and waited. The owl seemed alert, but not alarmed. I picked up my camera, pointed it out the window and took my first few pictures. No negative reactions from the owl.

I slowly got out of the car, leaned my elbows against the car for support, and took more images. These were sharper than the images from inside the car. I had a tripod with me but I did not want to take the time to set it up and risk spooking the owl.

The owl was totally unconcerned.  In fact, I had to wait until it looked in my general direction to take pictures. Mostly it was looking all around for prey. I took plenty of pictures with the owl looking in various directions. I always wanted to get one if not both eyes in each picture. Periodically I looked at an image or two on the LCD.

I got back in the car, checked a few images one more time to make sure they looked ok, started the car and drove off with the owl still sitting in the tree.

Camera Settings

When I spotted the owl I was in manual metering mode. I changed this to aperture priority so if the light changed the camera would automatically change the metering. The owl and the sky were both medium tone so I set the exposure compensation to zero. This was the only setting I needed to change before I took off and followed the owl, and it took less than 2 seconds to do.

Before I spotted the owl my camera was already set to predictive autofocus (Canon calls this AI Servo) with shutter button autofocus turned off and back button autofocus turned on.  For still subjects I would tap the back button to focus, release the back button, and then recompose the scene and take the picture. If I encountered a moving subject, like the owl, I would constantly hold down the back button so the camera would continuously track the movement of the subject while I clicked the shutter. So I did not need to change any of this before I took off after the owl. That saved me a lot of time.

Camera gear in the front passenger seat of the car, ready to go.

I had another camera body in the car with a 24-105mm lens. I used it when I needed shorter focal lengths. This was another time saver. I did not need to change lenses to chase after the owl.

Photo data: Canon 7D Mark II camera, predictive autofocus (“AI Servo”) turned on. Canon EF 100-400mm lens at 400 mm (35mm equivalent focal length of 640 mm), image stabilization turned on. f/11, 1/200 second, ISO 400.


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