The Story of Two Owlets

by | Wildlife-story

It was an uneventful evening and I was desperate to take home one good frame. By then, I had spent almost two hours stalking a Black-Crowned Night Heron, waiting for it to hunt a fish. This was the fourth day in a row I tried to find the Heron in action but in vain. Are you a photographer? – Suddenly a voice resonated from the bank of the lake. I turned around and saw Jorge, the fishermen, with his son looking at my camera and lens. I replied – Yes, I do take pictures. Have you seen the owls? – came the next question. I had no idea which owls he was talking about, so I said no. Jorge continued to tell me that he had seen three owls nearby. In sheer excitement, I asked – Can you show me the place? Without any reservation, Jorge showed me the way. I thanked him profusely and set off to find the owls. Little did I know that it was just the beginning of an incredible journey that will continue over six months! 
The first day was for pure observation. The owls were hiding in the shadows and meaningful photography was not possible. So I decided to understand their behavior. This was not my first sighting of the Great Horned Owls (aka GHO) and Owlets. I had seen a family of GHOs before, but could not photograph them well. I also had absolutely no idea as to how to approach an owl without disturbing it. Before GHOs, I had taken photographs of Short Eared Owls, Spotted Owlets, and an Eurasian Eagle Owl, and found them to be very skittish. From past experience, I knew that patience on the first day would be critical for the events to come. 
A Great Horned Owlet

Great Horned Owlet (First month)

With lots of excitement, I arrived the following day, but could not locate the owls. ‘An opportunity cost is an opportunity lost’- I told myself. After spending more than half-an-hour looking for the owls with no luck, I finally called it a day. However, I could not sleep well that night and kept thinking about the owls.

Decidedly, I went back again the next day, and to my utter surprise, found one owlet sitting on a perch clearly visible from the walkways. I approached it very carefully, taking my time: it was like two steps forward and two minutes of measuring each other. Finally, after 20 mins, I was able to close the gap substantially, so that I could separate the fenced background from the owlet to get a good shot. I wanted to spend the rest of the evening with the owlet, but fearing that other people might follow me, I left the place sooner. This was a very eventful day as I was able to approach an owl and photograph from such a close distance. This was also the day when these wonderful bright yellow eyes mesmerized me for the first time, and left a lasting impression that will never fade away! 

A Great Horned Owlet

Great Horned Owlet (First month)

Soon, visiting the owls became an obsession for me, and the day I could not make the trip I felt restless. However, I skipped the weekends purposefully to avoid drawing unwanted attention from other visitors in the park. By observing the owls for two months, I deeply felt two diametric emotions: joy and sorrow, and noted the behavior of two types of people: photographers and dog walkers. Most of the time, it was just me and the owlets. On some days, they were out in the open with unobstructed views; on other days, they were hiding behind the bushes. Irrespective of whether I could take their pictures or not, I was the object and they were the observers. I moved around more, they moved less. I was the visitor, they were the residents. And not for a single moment did I forget that I am in their place, they are not in mine. 
A Great Horned Owlet

Great Horned Owlet (First month)

All these moments I spent with the owls were memorable, but a particular one I remember clearly, when I saw the mamma owl and both the owlets sitting side by side on the wired fence. My limited experience as a wildlife photographer has taught me a valuable lesson: never approach a family of wild animals. Several things can go wrong and every possible outcome can potentially be harmful for them. With that in mind, I stopped right there from where I first saw the owl family. The gap between us was too long to be suitable for photography, and the shadow was strong as well. So, instead of taking pictures, I shot a video that day. It was only when I looked through the viewfinder that I realized the owlet in the middle was having its dinner. The next few minutes were of sheer joy, watching a dining owlet. 

Dinner time (Great Horned Owl family)

Again, several days passed by, and I could not find a suitable moment to take pictures. But I did see one day, a couple of photographers looking for the owls. They eventually found them behind some trees, away from the walkways. To my utter dismay, I saw them walking straight towards the owls quite aggressively to take a close-shot, ultimately forcing the owls to fly away. I personally use a 500mm lens with a 1.4x tele-converter on a DX (crop-sensor) body which essentially gives me 1050mm of equivalent focal length. Even then, at times, I do feel the need for more reach and I understand the urge to get close. However, what I do not quite follow is why one would ever want to get so close that he/she would eventually end up with no pictures at all, since the subject is scared away! Being overly intrusive not only disturbs the wildlife, but also serves no purpose whatsoever for sensible photography. Also, if the subject is in shades (most often the case for owls) and obscured by tree branches, it is pointless to move any closer. The resulting pictures will obviously be distracting, extremely noisy, of poor sharpness, and not to mention, with much reduced dynamic range. I have seen plenty of these so-called photographers with smaller zooms, trying to get close and disturbing the subject. My rule is simple: approach with caution and only up to the point that the subject does not show signs of being alert or move away. 
A Great Horned Owlet

Great Horned Owlet (First month)

I know one may ask: ‘How close is too close? Honestly, the answer is not obvious. It depends on several factors: the subject, whether getting close will make a good picture or not, and most importantly, how the subject is behaving when being approached. The underlying fact is that any wild animal will get scared if approached suddenly. The good practice is to take time and get to know each other; the worst is: not knowing what you are doing. But the best option is to have patience, and wait to allow them getting close to you. 
A Great Horned Owlet

Great Horned Owlet (Second month)

As the summer days passed by, I got to know the owlets more and more. I observed their behavior, listened to their calls and tried to understand how they react to my presence. Each day, it was a game between us: the game of hide and seek. Every day, I went to the same place and searched for them. Although they could be found within a small section of the park, actually locating them was never easy. Unless you are specifically looking for them, anyone can just pass by without even noticing that they are there. Sometimes, the owl family used to perch just outside the park boundary where I could see them from afar. Those days I knew it won’t be possible to get good shots. In fact, it was not always about taking pictures. I am glad that they moved around and not everyday, I could find them. Otherwise, I would have become too used to seeing them every single day to accept the fact that eventually they will fly away, someday. I was very much emotionally attached with these hoot owls. 
A Great Horned Owlet

Great Horned Owlet (Second month)

It was in the middle of June when I first discovered one of the owlets. Obviously, they knew how to fly and explore neighboring areas by then, even though they were still partially covered with soft, fluffy down. Short nubs on their heads, lacking in dexterity and full shape like matured ear tufts were indicating that they are just a few months old. By the end of October, they were full grown owls and looked even bigger than their mom, whom I used to see from time to time checking on her babies and hunting for them. Initially, I could locate the owlets from far away by their calls. But as time passed by, they became more and more quiet; one of the quintessential characteristics of a matured owl. However, by then, I exactly knew where to find them. I came across many tender moments between the owl siblings, heard them calling for each other, and saw them sharing the same branch side by side. I also witnessed their rivalry when they refused to share food with each other. The owlets were steadily growing up, learning essential survival skills from their mom. One day, I found one of the youngs fighting fearlessly with a Red-shouldered hawk that made a mistake of intruding into their territory. 
A Great Horned Owlet

Great Horned Owlet (Third month)

At the onset of November, it was getting more and more obvious that the time has almost come for the young owls to fly out. I could hardly find them anymore inside the park; they were coming out late in the evening, and most of the days they were nowhere to be seen. I told myself that the time has come for me to move on as well, with a heavy heart and bucketful of unforgettable memories. Coincidentally, about the same time, I found another pair of adult Great Horned Owls near a different trail in the same park. So, eventually, I drifted away, and so did the young owls. Nonetheless, the time I spent with the twins is a journey I will always reminisce with fondness. Not only did I find immense joy in following them almost on a daily basis, but also I had the sheer pleasure of riding through an emotional roller-coaster of surprise, failure, desperation and happiness over a course of almost six months. At some point, I almost felt like I could never get out of the obsession of seeing them everyday, yet the time finally came, when I just had to let it go. On some occasions, the owlets did allow me to get fairly close to them without even acknowledging my presence, while some other times, they just did not bother to show up at all. This unpredictability is exactly what wildlife is all about. 
A Great Horned Owlet

Great Horned Owlet (Sixth month)

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