In the last couple of weeks we have photographed at two Great Horned Owl nests. One is in a tree in the middle of a small town. A resident told us that parents have nested there for at least ten years. The second nest is in a cave on a cliff in a nature preserve. Owls have nested there for almost twenty years.
The youngsters at both nests appeared to be about six weeks old at the times we saw them. The one above, which we photographed a week ago, is high in a cottonwood tree. The large snag at the end of a big branch is hollow enough for a nest. If offers protection from the winter elements for the parent on the nest in January and February. We saw only one of the three youngsters.
There was natural light – sun in a hazy sky – on the nest snag at mid-afternoon and some fill flash was used. There are catchlights in the eyes, but the young owl’s bushy eyebrows shaded its eyes more than we liked. The general exposure was acceptable. Here is where converting a raw file with ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) came to the rescue. Because it was a raw file, adjustments to exposure around the eyes could be made with the adjustment brush without changing the overall exposure. Opening up the light on the eyes improved the image. Except for the eyes, the rest of the owl is well camouflaged in plain sight.
Yesterday we spent several hours observing the two youngsters (below) in their cave. The cave is visible and at a good angle for observing from a bridge across the creek to the side of the cliff. Here the flash extender proved very useful. When we arrived, one of the twins was out on the ‘porch’ of the cave. It was a cooperative subject for full frame images while it napped, watched hikers across the creek and a insect flying around it, glared at a small child who stomped on the bridge, and sometimes looked at us. The flash and extender put a bit of light on its left eye which would have been shaded because natural light was coming from its right (left side of the image.)
When several boys in kayaks came quietly down the creek, the young owl considered them for a moment and retreated into the darkness at the back of the cave. Though in the dark, we had seen movement from the second owl. We could see both of them moving about but could not see any details in the gloom. The overhang also obscured the scene.
We moved back along the bridge to change the angle of view and include both owls. In fact, we moved the tripod several times until the angle of view was perpendicular to the owls after they had settled into this pose. One of the youngsters dozed against the other.
The flash and extender overcame some of the darkness as the alert chick watched us with wider pupils because of the dim light. The sense of the setting would have been lost had the image been brighter - more flash exposure. The minus 1/3 flash exposure fill light kept the scene more natural while allowing us to capture the birds. Usually fill flash exposure is lower at minus 1 or more. By the time we made this image we were probably close to 90 feet away from the cave. Light from a flash diminishes at a distance.
As we often say, photography is always a compromise with light, camera settings, subject location and nature itself.