Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Cryptic Owls Discovered--Can You See Them?

Great Horned Owl Utah County, Utah, USA
There is a powerful owl that is about 2 feet tall with prominent ear tufts in the image below. Can you spot the roosting Great Horned Owl? I'll provide further clues later in this post.

People often ask me, "How do you find the owls you photograph?" Well, there are various ways to find owls. The most effective ways really depend on the species of owl to be found. After finding a couple of Great Horned Owls recently I thought it might make an interesting post if I captured and shared some phone images that illustrate how difficult it can be to spot even a large owl in its natural habitat. Contrasting the phone images with ones captured using my long lens will show the difference a lens can make.

Great Horned Owls are bulky owls so barren deciduous trees in winter make it a bit easier to locate them. However, even the right barren trees can provide pretty cryptic hiding places for large owls. When possible I view ideal habitat from multiple vantage points because the right perspective can be the difference between spotting and overlooking an owl. With time and experience you can learn to spot subtle clues that remain obscure to the average person and novice birder. I'm reminded of this when it still takes a minute or two of describing exactly where to look before an inexperienced observer finally exclaims, "Wow! How did you see that?"

Below is a phone video of the scene I showed at the beginning of this post when I asked if you could spot the Great Horned Owl. I captured the this video to share more of the habitat surrounding the cryptic owl. I panned from right to left to get the broad view of the wooded area and then zoomed in and panned left to right. With the third pan I zoomed in further and stopped panning when the owl was centered in the top half of the frame. Hopefully you'll be able to see the owl by the end of the short video.

The image below is from the phone again, but it is cropped so the shape of the owl becomes more visible. The owl's plumage blends in quite well with bark of the tree. The owl is now positioned near the center of the image.

Great Horned Owl in its Cryptic Daytime Roost in Utah County, Utah, USA

Each of the next three images were captured at different focal lengths with my Nikon 200-500mm lens. In addition to making the owl more visible they reveal how the owl's plumage is a nearly-identical match to the patterns and coloring of the bark and lichens where the owl is roosting. Coincidence? I think not 😉

Great Horned Owl in its Cryptic Daytime Roost in Utah County, Utah, USA
Great Horned Owl in its Cryptic Daytime Roost in Utah County, Utah, USA

Great Horned Owl in its Cryptic Daytime Roost in Utah County, Utah, USA
I found the owl below just as the sun was getting low to the horizon and right before the owl left its roost for a night of hunting. The owl is perched behind and just to the right of the tallest tree rising from behind the shed.

With my long lens at 200mm you can begin to see the owl's silhouette.

At 500mm you can see that the light of the setting sun is illuminating the face of the owl.

Chances are that when you find one Great Horned Owl during the winter months in Utah another can be found perched or roosting nearby. Great Horned Owls pair up for breeding as early as December and January and remain together to care for their young until all are hunting successfully on their own. These families will remain loosely associated until summer when the young disperse widely, as far as 100 miles from their nest site. Adults tend to remain close to their breeding grounds after their young break out on their own, but they become more solitary until the next breeding season when they begin to court again.

Great Horned Owl Utah County, Utah, USA

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