Photographic study of Spotted eagle owls at the nest - part 3

The Owl story continued – 2013

As a wildlife photographer that is absolutely fascinated by owls, I am fortunate to live in an area where these nocturnal birds are plentiful. I keep a detailed map in my office of all owl pairs in the area and at present I am aware of at least 10 Wood owl-, 7 Spotted eagle owl- and 3 Barn owl pairs in an 8 km radius from my home. Finding owl nests are not that easy, especially Wood owl nests as Wood owls are very secretive, but I am very pleased that I know the location of a couple of Spotted eagle owl - and two Barn owl nests in the area. Photographing and studying these beautiful birds at the nest are one of my favourite past times and with owls being silent nocturnal operators it means that I do not get a lot of sleep during the breeding season. I recently made a rough calculation and came to a figure of about 150 hours spent at owl nests during the last three years.

In this blog I will keep you updated on my efforts to photograph the owls during the 2013 breeding season.

During November 2012, while still observing the Spotted Eagle owl nest in The Jacaranda tree my son in law mentioned seeing an owl on their farm. After investigating the cluster of trees where it was seen I found two young Spotted eagle owl chicks high in a tree with the female roosting not far from them. They have already left the nest and I estimated them to be at least 3 weeks older than the chicks in the Jacaranda tree. Spotted eagle owls do not build nests; they normally use a scraped hollow in the ground or a natural hollow in the fork of a large tree to nest in. As they do not even line this with any material like feathers, grass or sticks it is difficult to find a Spotted eagle owl’s nest if she is not active at the nest. I was confident however that I could still find the site by looking for pellets and the white marks left by the young owls when they defecate from the nest’s edge, as the summer rain that could wash these away, had not yet come.  My confidence was rewarded as I found the site in the soft soil in the fork of a huge Jackal-berry tree. Jackal-berries often grow on termitaria, and this one was no exception, raising it about a meter from ground level. It forked right at the base and the right hand trunk had a nice hollow, about 30cm above the fork with the soil of the termite mound extending into the fork and even up into the hollow. It was in this soil that I found a shallow depression, a few pellets and some white markings on the trunk. I visited the site again about 3 months ago and carefully pruned away some small overhanging branches that could hinder photography should they decide to use the nest again. I started monitoring the site during September 2013 and on the 2nd of October when passing the tree a small movement caught my eye; I turned and saw the unmistakable ear tufts of a Spotted eagle owl in the hollow! She was beautifully camouflaged and sat still with eyes closed. I left her alone and only went back early one morning to photograph her from a distance with the early morning sun shining into the hollow.

The Jackal-berry tree with the female on the nest. Nikon D700, Sigma 150 – 500mm lens @ 190mm

1/400 @ F6.3, ISO 200

Nikon D700, Sigma 150 – 500mm lens @ 500mm, 1/400 @ F6.3, ISO 200

 

Sunday 13/10 – The pair at the Jacaranda nest have, after four years, relocated the nest from the fork in the Jacaranda to the flat roof of my mother’s house. This morning I saw the male in the Albizia tree in front of the house, the position he took indicating that the nest is somewhere on the roof. His boldness, sitting out in the open and keeping his position, even with us around, is a clear sign that the chicks have hatched. I will establish the position and contents of the nest during the week.

It is now 11 days since seeing the female at the Jackal-berry on the nest for the first time. I did not want to disturb her before the chicks hatch so I avoided the area but went there late this afternoon to try to establish flying patterns in order to determine the best place to position a hide. As I turned off the farm road towards the Jackal-berry I saw an egg lying in the fork of the tree and my heart skipped a beat. Did she loose the nest? What happened? As I moved closer I could see into the hollow and to my relief her ear tufts were clearly visible. She was still on the nest! I was with a friend and we waited in my bakkie watching the nest from a distance of about 30meters. Just after sunset the male called her from higher in the Jackal-berry and then flew off to the east, she left the nest about 20 minutes later. I walked closer and with the help of my flashlight could see the white down of a newly hatched chick in the hollow! I could not see if there was another egg in the hollow as sometimes they would lay more than two. Eggs normally hatch about 5 days apart so this is definitely the first chick because at 5 days old I would immediately have noticed the bigger chick. She returned soon after that and we left for home.  

Monday 14/10 – I was informed of another Spotted eagle owl nest over the weekend and went to meet with the owner of the property(the farm Pasella) where the nest was situated. He was very helpful and agreed that I could erect a hide to watch and photograph the owls. The nest is situated on the ground, on the northern side of a slope at the base of a big rock. According to text books, Spotted eagle owls nest mostly on the ground in a scraped hollow but this is the first nest in Levubu that I have seen on the ground. The area surrounding the nest is open with a clear view of all the approaches to the nest and for obvious reasons I am delighted!

Nikon D80, Nikon 28-105mm lens @ 75mm, 1/60 @ F4.5, ISO 800, handheld, pop up flash

 

I visited the Jackal-berry nest after dark to test the pair’s acceptance of my presence as well as the light I need for focusing. It did not go down well as they are the only pair not nesting near human habitation and therefore not used to human presence. I will have to work hard to camouflage the hide and to get them used to light in order for me to photograph them properly. 

Tuesday 15/10 – A look on my mother’s roof  this morning confirmed my suspicion, the Jacaranda female sat on a nest scraped in leaves that were  pushed into the far corner by the wind. The male watched me angrily as I climbed up the ladder but fortunately did not attack me as he does regularly to her dog if it ventures near the corner of the house. I do not know the content of the nest as I did not want to disturb her in any way.

 

Nikon D700, Sigma 150 – 500mm lens @ 500mm, 1/320 @ F6.3, ISO 250

 

The male, trying his best to intimidate me.

Nikon D700, Sigma 150 – 500mm lens @ 500mm, 1/500 @ F6.3, ISO 1250

 

During the afternoon I made a quick visit to my brother’s house where a pair of Spotted eagle owls has made themselves at home on the thatched roof of his bar in his lapa. On my arrival the male was fast asleep in the palm tree at the front door while the female was happily incubating her eggs in the company of Victor Matfield, Pierrie Spies and some other Blue Bull legends. One year old Jahno was noisily playing while we were chatting over a coffee with the nest only a couple of meters away. Both owls did not show any uneasiness with our presence.

 

 

The female with Matfield and company.

Nikon D80, Nikon 70-200mm lens @ 70mm, 1/60 @ F3.2, ISO 400, popup flash used

 

After dark I went back to the Jackal-berry nest and here the situation was exactly the opposite as they were still very cautious when I am around.  I contrived a LED light working of  4 batteries from a broken bed lamp and an old torch and set this up near the nest, and left them to get them used to light.

I am now confronted with a huge problem as I have four nests to study but can only attend to one at a time! The easiest would be the roof nest and the one at my brother’s house but as there is no way to photograph them without obvious manmade structures in the background these are automatically ruled out. I desperately want to study the jackal-berry nest as the area surrounding the nest is totally different from the others and I have a theory that their diet will be different, this resulting in different opportunities to photograph. I will just have to work hard to conceal myself while at the same time getting them used to the light. The Pasella nest is nice and open and will give opportunity to get beautiful action shots and I think it is a good idea to alternate between these two nests.

I have been very busy during the past week, running between the different nest sites, and apart from the few quick snapshots shown here I still do not have any descent images! Unfortunately photographing owls at the nest requires a lot of planning, patience and loads of time and you have to invest before any good images can be made. I am now ready to start erecting hides at the different nests, work out the positioning of my external flashlights and to get the rest of my equipment ready.  The breeding season started very well with lots of nests to choose from; hopefully it will turn out to be a productive season with lots of fantastic images to share.

 

28/10/13

Due to rain last week, two weekends away and a computer crash I am extremely frustrated at the moment! I could not get to the nests during the last 10 days and I can not even get access to the images that I do have so I have nothing to post. Hopefully things will improve during the week.

 30/10/13

After a struggle for most of the past week I am partially back on air. In the process I had to re-install Windows and all my software and restore my images from backup. I am not totally done yet but have Lightroom up and running! A warning to all out there - a good backup system is not negotiable!

I made one attempt at photographing the Pasella nest with disappointing results. The value of a detailed investigation of the terrain and proper planning beforehand was emphasized once again and I suffered the consequences of my own poor planning. At first glance the nest looked open and I had visions of fantastic action shots with the parents flying in with all sorts of huge pray items. The nest is situated on the ground, on the northern side of a slope at the base of a big rock and this in the end presented a huge problem. I erected my portable hide on the ground, about 12 meters east on the same level as the nest. I am not a sketch artist but I made a quick sketch of the layout in order to explain what I did.

This photograph shows the problem to get light into the nest at night. From the nest the slope is steep downwards to the right.

I positioned my main flash to the right of the hide with another one to the left with a third flash to the right of the nest. I did however not take the slope, the hollow of the nest and surrounding rocks, tree stumps and other debris into account and ended up with nasty shadows that I did not want. Layout 2 shows clearly that I will have to lift flash units number one and number three to impractical heights to get light into the hollow. Due to the protection offered by the tree and the big rock at the back I am also unable to use that angle. A further disappointment was that they did not come into the nest at the angle that I expected and was always with their backs towards me. I witnessed 5 feedings during my time in the hide and was unable to identify any of the prey items.

 

 

 

 

4/11//2013

 

Due to the disappointment at the Pasella nest I moved my attention to the Jackal-berry nest. I erected a hide about 10 meters northeast from the tree at a height of about 1,5 meters. The hide is directly behind a small tree witch concealed it a bit. I went there late on Tuesday afternoon with the intention to get my equipment in place early and to be in the hide before dark. Unfortunately I had to contend with angry honey bees and had to make a hasty retreat to the safety of my bakkie and had to sit it out till after dark to enter the hide. This left me not particularly happy with the final setup of my external flashguns but basically I ended up with the main flash to my left and another one to my right.  From the hide I cannot see into the nest hollow but could see into the fork of the tree and I hoped to get good shots on their approach. Unfortunately the evening was not a success because of the following factors:

 

  • The pair was not very comfortable with me being there and not being able to go into the hide before dark alerted them to my presence. They did however visit the nest to feed but did not give me a lot of opportunity to photograph as they flew straight into the hollow and did not sit around outside the nest. I did manage to capture 1 image.
  • My flash setup was not that great.
  • The major problem however, was still the bees. The moment I switched on my torch in order for the autofocus to work a couple of bees would be attracted to the light and from there it was not long before one was in my face or hair. I had to then wait in the dark and switch on the light the moment I saw the silhouette of the owl flying in, try to get a shot and switch off again.

 

I managed to get this shot of, what I believe to be the male, when he paused for me after leaving the nest.

           Nikon D700, Sigma 150 - 500mm lens @ 400mm, 1/250@f6.3, ISO 2000

 

 

6/11/13

 

We were hit by a severe storm on Thursday and were without electricity, telephone and cell phone communication for most of the weekend. Electricity supply was only restored by 4pm on Sunday. Due to being pre-occupied with repairing storm damage, keeping generators going on the different farms, intermittent rain and the bees I did not visit the Jackal-berry nest. I asked the bee keeper to move the hives and hopefully this will happen during the week.

Yesterday I received a text from my brother that the chick from the nest on the thatched roof of his lapa fell from the nest and that the female was incubating it on the floor in the middle of the porch. I went there as soon as I could and found the mother a mere 5 meters from the front door with the little chick partly covered with her breast feathers. The little one’s eyes were still closed and it did not have many feathers, the pink skin still showing, telling me that it was not more than a week old. Owl chicks are altricial, meaning that they are naked and helpless at birth. I opened the glass door slightly and got down on my belly to get to their level with my Nikon D700, 70-200mm lens and 1.7x converter. She sat watching me intently and I could get a couple of shots showing the loving mother and her child.

 

Nikon D700, Nikkon 70-200mm lens with 1.7 converter @ 250mm, 1/250@f4.8, ISO 500. Nikon SB910 speedlight

 

Nikon D700, Nikkon 70-200mm lens with 1.7 converter @ 270mm, 1/250@f4.8, ISO 500. Nikon SB910 speedlight

 

I knew that she would leave the “nest” for a short while after dark and decided to come back at sunset to try and move the chick to a safer place. I needed a nest and found a basket that I lined with newspaper and as soon as she left the chick I quickly moved the chick to the basket and placed it in the corner of the counter next to the braai.

 

Nikon D700, Nikkon 70-200mm lens with 1.7 converter @ 340mm, 1/250@f4.8, ISO 1000. Nikon SB910 speedlight

 

 

The female returned after a while with a snake and went straight to where she left the chick. Not finding the chick, she looked around for a while, swallowed the snake and flew to the thatched roof where the old nest was. The chick was calling softly and she soon located him and flew down to the counter. She did not get into the basket and it was evident that it was too small to her liking. She sat behind it and tried to pull the chick in under her feathers but did not succeed. The result was that the basket was pushed to the edge of the counter and I was worried that it may fall off, hurting the chick.

 

Nikon D700, Nikkon 70-200mm lens with 1.7 converter @ 340mm, 1/250@f4.8, ISO 1000. Nikon SB910 speedlight

 

Nikon D700, Nikkon 70-200mm lens with 1.7 converter @ 300mm, 1/320@f4.8, ISO 1000. Nikon SB910 speedlight

 

I decided to try to move her away from the edge by slowly pushing the basket with a broom away from the edge. I succeeded to push her and the basket back but she grew irritated when I came too close and flew off to the tree a couple of meters away. I transferred the chick to an empty avocado carton and put a bar stool next to the counter to prevent it from falling off. I switched off the lights and left them alone to settle down. Shortly after I arrived at home I received a text that she settled in the carton and was incubating the little guy. Hopefully the male fed them through the remainder of the night and that the episode will end well.

 

 

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Comment by Pietman Muller on November 30, 2013 at 9:04

30/11/13

 

The month of November was a terrible month and we not only lost a dear family member as well as a good friend in the space of two weeks but still had to keep the business going and finish the annual audit. Due to this, as well as bad weather, I lost the biggest part of the breeding season and did not end up with many new insights into owl behavior and feeding patterns and did not bag a lot of worthwhile images. One thing that does stand out however is the amount of new nest sites I found this year. I received another call during the past week about a Spotted eagle owl attacking a families dog  and cat and upon investigation found the female on a nest in the fork of a tree about 10 meters from the house. Although Spotted eagle owls can breed throughout the year the peak breeding season is normally from August to November. In 2011 I photographed a pair not far from this site raising chicks in December and it might just be the same couple as I know the nesting tree was destroyed not long after the two chicks left the nest. I do not think I will get the opportunity to photograph them as I do not want to inconvenience the people and disrupt their security arrangements by being on their property late at night. This will then be my last update for the 2013 season.

Comment by Pietman Muller on November 19, 2013 at 10:11

 

19/11/2013

The last week was a very eventful week.

 

The beekeeper finally moved the bees and I returned to the Jackal-berry nest on Tuesday afternoon to check if everything were still ok at the hide. When I looked into the nest it seemed empty and I rushed to the tree pulled myself up into the fork and realized the nest was indeed empty. I panicked but then noticed the female higher up in the tree to the right and immediately realized that the chick should be in the vicinity. After a short search I found the chick and the smaller male sitting in the left side of the tree. No more photography would be possible here for the rest of the season!

 

On Thursday I received a call about an owl chick that fell from the nest and were sitting on the lawn on a farm about 3 km from my home. I immediately drove there and on arrival identified it as a spotted eagle owl chick. The female was in a tree about 5 meters away, giving warning hoots every time somebody dared to venture too near. The chick was about 4 weeks old and I believed left the nest on purpose. Spotted eagle owls leave the nest before they can fly properly and then hide in nearby bush or shrubs where the parents will continue to feed it. Because we were worried about the dogs I carefully picked up the owl (after putting on my leather gloves first) and placed it in a fork of a tree outside the fence. The female soon followed to a nearby tree and we left them alone.

 

On Friday night the Wood owls in the garden were very vocal and went out to check on them. To my surprise I did not find the usual two owls but three! High on a branch to the one side of the Albizia tree  I saw a little figure covered in down and realized that after years of searching I am looking at my first ever Wood owl chick in my garden. I raised Wood owl chicks that fell from nests in the past but could up to now not establish if the resident pair ever raised a chick. I fetched the D700 fitted with the 150-500 Sigma and took a couple of snapshots handheld.

 

On Saturday morning I went looking for them and found the whole family in the oak tree west of the house. The male was sitting to one side and the female and chick higher up and to his left. I again took a couple of snapshots as getting a proper image was near to impossible. This was also only my second time that I saw one of these elusive birds in daylight.

About an hour later I received another call about an owl chick and I identified it as a wood owl from the photographed sent via Whatsup. The situation was similar to that of Thursday with large dogs in the yard. I rushed there and placed the little fellow in an avocado tree outside the yard. I could not locate the parents but were very confident that they will respond to his calls and continue to feed him.

 

Comment by Pietman Muller on November 11, 2013 at 9:50

The female bringing a Mantis to the nest. 1/250@f4.8,210mm,ISO 1000

The male with a cricket. 1/200@f4.8,210mm,ISO 1000

The male with a cricket. 1/200@f4.8,210mm,ISO 1000

Comment by Pietman Muller on November 7, 2013 at 19:41

 

07/11/2013

 

I spent about 2 hours with the owls last night and the female seems quite happy in the avocado carton. She watched me in silence while I was busy setting up my external flashlights. I experimented a little and moved them around but had to settle for second best as the braai on her left prevented me from getting rid of the shadows created by the flash on her right(my left), the only solution was bouncing the main flash from the wooden ceiling, leaving me to battle with an abnormal colour cast. She left the nest just after dark and came back about 15 minutes later with a grasshopper for the chick. She made to further trips and fed two unidentified insects to the young Chick. The male made two visits, first with a cricket and then an unidentified insect. I left just after eight with the female and chick looking comfortable in the avo carton. 

Nikon D700, 70-200mm lens with 1.7x converter @ 340mm, 1/250s @ f4.8, ISO 1000

Comment by Pietman Muller on November 6, 2013 at 16:28

I tried to incorporate earlier updates posted as comments in the main post but was only partially successful. I also posted an update of events to the main blog. I will in future post updates to the blog as comments as I did in the past.

Comment by Pietman Muller on November 4, 2013 at 20:28

4/11//2013

 

Due to the disappointment at the Pasella nest I moved my attention to the Jackal-berry nest. I erected a hide about 10 meters northeast from the tree at a height of about 1,5 meters. The hide is directly behind a small tree witch concealed it a bit. I went there late on Tuesday afternoon with the intention to get my equipment in place early and to be in the hide before dark. Unfortunately I had to contend with angry honey bees and had to make a hasty retreat to the safety of my bakkie and had to sit it out till after dark to enter the hide. This left me not particularly happy with the final setup of my external flashguns but basically I ended up with the main flash to my left and another one to my right.  From the hide I cannot see into the nest hollow but could see into the fork of the tree and I hoped to get good shots on their approach. Unfortunately the evening was not a success because of the following factors:

 

  • The pair was not very comfortable with me being there and not being able to go into the hide before dark alerted them to my presence. They did however visit the nest to feed but did not give me a lot of opportunity to photograph as they flew straight into the hollow and did not sit around outside the nest. I did manage to capture 1 image.
  • My flash setup was not that great.
  • The major problem however, was still the bees. The moment I switched on my torch in order for the autofocus to work a couple of bees would be attracted to the light and from there it was not long before one was in my face or hair. I had to then wait in the dark and switch on the light the moment I saw the silhouette of the owl flying in, try to get a shot and switch off again.

 

I managed to get this shot of, what I believe to be the male, when he paused for me after leaving the nest.

           Nikon D700, Sigma 150 - 500mm lens @ 400mm, 1/250@f6.3, ISO 2000

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