Florida Burrowing Owls
by Stan Tekiela
May 1, 2011
Photo by Stan Tekiela©
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There are some places on this planet that I find myself returning to over and over again just because I enjoy it so much. Southwest Florida is one of those places. For over 35 years I have been coming here, first on family trips to visit grandparents and now on my own for work. Now I am bringing my own family creating new traditions. But it is the wildlife that keeps me coming back. Oh sure, I enjoy the sun, sand, ocean, warmth weather, the green trees and flowers, don't get me wrong, I just enjoy the wildlife more. Image that!!
My days in Florida are all spent the same way. Wake well before dawn and get ready to head out photographing. Grab the camera gear, flash cards, flash, tripod and head out. Each day is a different destination or location. Some locations are closer than others. Some mornings it is a short drive to the wildlife refuge other days it's much longer to places that have specialized birds, such as the Burrowing Owls.
Burrowing Owls are amazing birds. They are tiny birds with large yellow eyes and wonderful facial expressions. And talk about unique, the Burrowing Owl lives underground. That alone is enough to make these owls amazing. Can you name me another bird that lives underground? Sometimes I think we take these cool facts for granted. It is kind of like woodpeckers clinging to the sides of trees. Have you ever stopped to think about what it takes for a woodpecker to fly up to a vertical surface such as a tree and stick to it like Velcro on the first try? Well, I think about it and I am here to tell you that is an amazing feat.
There are so many cool things about Burrowing Owls. For example did you know they decorate their burrow entrances with bits of interesting debris such as dung? Some owls will bring in interesting bits of wood while other more urban birds bring in scraps of paper or plastic. Some owls will dig their own burrows while others take over prairie dog burrows. The fact that these tiny birds can dig a hole in the ground, often up to ten feet long is mind blowing. They feed mainly on insects and small reptiles and amphibians. They will hunt for insects during the day making them one of the few diurnal (active during the day) owls.
On this morning I was photographing with fellow Minnesotan Brian Sartor. We arrived before the sunrise and scoped out about ten different burrows. Only two had owls visible so we set up for the first owl. It always amazes me how tolerant these birds are of humans. This one was a male, and he just stood there while we slowly moved up, a few feet at a time, on our knees to not appear so large and menacing. Slowly we got close enough to fill the frame but since we are using very long lens (almost 1000 mm's) we were not too close to scare the owl or make them nervous.
The trick to good wildlife photography is to get close enough to get a good shot but not too close to cause the subject distress or to change their natural behavior. After all, natural behavior is what a good wildlife photographer wants to show in their images. This little guy was happy and content to carry on doing his owl things and not even pay attention to us. We settled in for some great images. Occasionally we would move about to get a different angle and before long we decided to move onto the next owl.
The second owl wasn't as cooperative, remaining down low in his burrow entrance, showing us just the top of his head. Just about the time we were about to give up a second owl came running up and out of the burrow. It was the female. The male was forced to move up onto the dirt at the den entrance leaving both the male and female standing out in clear view. Our cameras nearly caught fire with all the shutter action. About 500 images later the female returned down the burrow and we packed it up to head off to another location.
A short drive later and another set of burrowing owl dens and we were shooting again. By the time we wrapped it up it was 10 AM and the sun was too high in the sky for photography. The good light was gone. So we packed it up and headed for home.
So that is how it goes, each day in paradise. Well, at least it'is paradise for me. Until next time
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the world to study and photograph wildlife. You can follow him on Twitter or become a friend on Facebook. Search Stan Tekiela on both.
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