Camera adventure

Photographer Rick Morris goes on an owl-finding adventure in Coyote Hills

by Rick Morris January 5, 2022

The week before Christmas I decided to go bird watching and went on eBird and there was a red hotspot at Coyote Hills Regional Park where there had been recent sightings of owls. I have never seen an owl in flight, so I was excited for this opportunity.

Went Thursday 9:30-12 noon but no owl sightings, although got the photos of Red-shouldered Shoveler so no loss. On my way out of the park, I saw a guy come in with a camera, so I stopped and asked him about the owls, and he told me that the owls sometimes come out around 4:00 p.m.

So I decided to go back the next day Friday towards the end of the day. When I arrived around 3:00 p.m., I saw all these people with their 600mm lenses and tripods. I don’t have a 600mm or a tripod. Instead, I use the very compact and lightweight Nikkor 500mm f5.6 pf lens, which I really like because I can be totally mobile and carry it around on hikes. Not to mention that the 600mm costs around $13,000!

I spoke to a few of the other photographers and confirmed that they were all there to take a photo of the owls, but it was unclear exactly when the owl or owls would come out of the trees, where they spent the majority part of the day to sleep. suppose.

We all waited and waited, and it started to get very cold. The sun finally set at 5:00 p.m. and I thought “I just spent two hours up in the cold and if the owl(s) decides not to come out tonight.” I thought about leaving, but I didn’t want to miss it in case they were about to go out.

The only problem is that as it got darker I realized I was going to have to increase my ISO. Before sunset I was using ISO 500/640 for the occasional Northern Harrier shot when it passed. At 5:00 p.m. I was at ISO 1600, which is already high for my Nikon D850.

All of a sudden I looked away and saw a white bird hovering over the field at the other end. I should have started running then, but I wasn’t sure what I saw, but 10 seconds later I saw it again. So I moved quickly down the bike path to the field at the other end, and just as I got there I saw the owl dove into the field.

There were a few other guys with 300-500mm lenses, and they were mobile like me, and they were super excited because they took some shots as the Barn Owl swooped down right in front of them. They said he should come back up and he was probably eating a rodent.

About 5 minutes later around 5:10 p.m. it came back and started flying in a circle over the terrain so I started taking pictures but it was quite dark so I bumped it up to ISO 6400 by knowing the quality wouldn’t be great but at f5.6 I really didn’t have much of an option.

The barn owl then came back close to them, crossing the road behind us, so I found a break in the trees and ran over to that side and took a bunch more pictures as it was crossing this open field and at one point it was coming back to me when I took the last two pictures – then it flew away. It was very exciting!

I never shoot even close to ISO 6400, so the images are super grainy, but the autofocus on my Nikon D850 didn’t fail. [Editor’s note: Rick found some software that reduced the graininess of his photos.]

After the Barn Owl took off, it was pretty dark, so I decided to put my lens cap back on the camera and head back to my car and drive home.

As I passed where most of the photographers were still standing, a handful of them were looking up at a tree and taking pictures. At the edge of the trees sitting in a low branch was a long-eared owl, so I took a few pictures while it was sitting on the tree. Then it took off in the dark so I was like, ok now it’s time to go, and I was happy to have pictures of both owls.

So I put my cap back on my camera and started walking to my car. I was a few hundred yards from the remaining photographers when I was startled by something sitting on one of the fence posts near the path and it was the Long Eared Owl! I startled him and he flew off the post, but luckily he came back and landed on another post. I came back to him, removing my lens cap and took a few more photos – and had an intimate moment with me and the owl. It was so cool.

What a beautiful evening. I got in my car and looked at the clock and it was 5:20 p.m. so this all happened in 20 minutes. So it was worth the two hour wait in the cold after all!

Bird photographs by Menlo Park resident Rick Morris can be viewed on Instagram. He sells four different types of bird wall calendars – Hummingbirds, Raptors, Shorebirds, and Custom – where you choose your favorite bird images – on Etsy.

All photos (c) 2022 by Rick Morris.