Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Digiscoping Dash!

Nothing quite challenges the boundaries of my personal birding ethics as owls. I was a little miffed after my friend Sylvia told me about kids harassing a Barred Owl pair by swatting a stick against the tree they were perched in. They knew the owls were there but just didn't know any better. Luckily for the owls, Sylvia keeps a watchful eye and possesses a great deal of patience, taking the time to teach "offending" kids in her neighborhood all about the Barred Owls.

I try to be the educator, but sometimes it's difficult to keep cool and calm. I remember giving a serious scolding to a photographer taking pictures of a young Barred Owl from only six feet away, practically sticking the camera lens in its face. Here is one of the great powers of digiscoping - I can achieve similar results from over 100 feet away form an owl. Nevertheless, I try to spend as little time as possible in such situations, and today was no exception.

Being somewhat slow for songbirds in Pheasant Branch Conservancy this morning, I decided to find the Great Horned Owl nest I suspected was nearby - I had seen one of the adult owls in the area, often getting mobbed by American Crows. This particular Great Horned pair has nested in the conservancy for over 5 years.

It took only a quarter of an hour to find the young owls, leaving me to ponder how I could have possibly missed them over the course of the past few weeks while birding. Actually, the answer is easy - I wasn't looking for balls of perched fluff! Once I calibrated my "mental scanner," three owls simultaneously popped into view - two young and one adult. I didn't have my scope and camera with me, but the light wasn't very good anyway. The weather forecast called for clearing and I knew the light would be much improved for a photographic opportunity later in the day.

During my workday, I debated whether or not I would return to the spot. Why bother the young birds again? Would I be compromising my own ethical standards by going through with this? Leaving the parking lot at work, the brilliant evening light helped settle my indecisiveness. I just couldn't resist, but I would plan it well, to be in and out of the conservancy in a matter of minutes.

I put my scope, camera, adapter and tripod together at my car so I wouldn't have to do so in front of the owls. I shot off a few test images on trees in comparable light. Once satisfied, off I went down the stream corridor trail. Walking up to the spot, I immediately noticed the young owls were absent from the branch I had seen them perched on in the morning (the little devils). To my luck, I quickly relocated them on the opposite side of the stream and they were in excellent light.

I composed the bird on the right (click, click), composed the bird on the left (click, click) and took a couple group shots (click, click). I was out of there in less than 2 minutes, returned to my car and headed home with glorious images saved to digital camera media. Young owls are easy subjects to photograph, but the goal is to minimize any disturbance to them.

And now it was their turn to keep their watchful eyes on me. I don't take that notion for granted and do my very best to make it quick, and give them as much room and respect as I can.

(click on image for larger version)

(click on image for larger version)

Great Horned Owl images © 2006 Mike McDowell

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