Photographer Rick Morris goes on an adventure looking for owls at Coyote Hills
The week before Christmas, I decided to go birding and went on eBird and there was a red hot spot at Coyote Hills Regional Park where there’d been some recent owl sightings. I’ve never seen an owl in flight so I was excited about the opportunity.
I went on Thursday from 9:30 am to noon, but no owl sightings, although I got the Northern Shoveller Duck Red-shouldered Hawk photos, so no loss. On the drive out of the park, I saw a guy walking in with a camera so I stopped and asked him about the owls, and he told me the owls sometimes come out around 4:00 pm.
So I decided to go back the next day on Friday toward the end of the day. When I got there around 3:00 pm, I saw all these people with their 600mm lenses and tripods. I don’t have a 600mm nor use a tripod. Instead I use the very compact and light weight Nikkor 500mm f5.6 pf prime lens, which I really like since I can be totally mobile and carry it on hikes. Not to mention the 600mm prime costs around $13k!
I talked to a few of the other photogs and confirmed they were all there to get a shot of the owls, but it was unclear exactly when the owl or owls would come out of the trees, where they spend most of the day, sleeping I suppose.
We all waited and waited, and it started getting really cold. The sun finally went down at 5:00 pm and I was thinking “I just spent two hours standing in the cold and what if the owl or owls decide not to come out this evening.” I thought about leaving, but I didn’t want to miss out in case they were just about to come out.
Only problem is that as it started getting darker I realized I was going to have to raise my ISO. Prior to the sun going down, I was using ISO 500/640 for the occasional northern Harrier shot when it would fly by. By 5:00 pm, I was up to ISO 1600, which is already high for my Nikon D850.
All of a sudden, I looked way in the distance and saw a white bird swooping above the field way down at the other end. I should have taken off running at that point but was not sure what I saw, but then 10 seconds later, I saw it again. So I moved quickly down the bike path to the field on the far end, and just as I got down there, I saw the owl dive down 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 got some shots as the Barn Owl swooped right in front of them. They said it should come back up and was probably eating a rodent.
Around 5 minutes later around 5:10 pm it came back up and started flying in a circular fashion above the field so I started taking shots but it was pretty dark so I bumped it up to ISO 6400 knowing the quality would not be great but at f5.6 I really did not have much of an option.
The Barn Owl then came back by them, crossing the road behind us so I found a break in the trees and ran to that side and took a bunch more pics as it swooped across that open field and at one point was flying back toward me when I took the last two pics — then it flew off. It was very exciting!
I never shoot even close to ISO 6400 so the images came out super grainy but the auto focus on my Nikon D850 did not 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 go home.
As I passed the spot where most of the photographers were still standing, a handful of them were looking toward a tree and taking photos. At the edge of the trees sitting in a low branch was a Long Eared Owl, so I took a few shots as it sat on the tree. Then it took off into the darkness so I said to myself, ok now time to go, and I was satisfied that I got shots of both owls.
So I once again put my cap back on my camera and started the walk back to my car. I was a few hundred yards away from the remaining photographers when I was startled by something sitting on one of the fence poles near the path and it was the Long Eared Owl! I startled it and it flew off the pole but luckily circled back and landed on another pole. I walked back toward it taking my lens cap off and got a few more shots off — and had an intimate moment with just me and the Owl. It was so cool.
What a great evening. I got in my car and looked at the clock and it was 5:20 pm, so all that happened in a 20 minute period. So it was worth the two hour wait in the cold after all!
Menlo Park resident Rick Morris’s bird photography can be viewed on Instagram. He sells four different types of bird wall calendars — Hummingbirds, Raptors, Shorebirds, and Custom — where you pick your favorite bird images — on Etsy.
All photos (c) 2022 by Rick Morris.
Mona Brauer January 06, 2022 at 6:54 am
Are you and all the many more photographers aware at how disturbing this is to the owls?
Judy+Horst January 06, 2022 at 11:58 am
Loved this article and the incredible photos, but I especially appreciated the efforts Rick Morris took to get the photos he shared with us. I also liked his discussion about the camera and lens choices.
Rick January 06, 2022 at 11:30 pm
Thank you Judy, appreciate your kind words! I’m glad you enjoyed the photos and my story.
Rick January 06, 2022 at 11:38 pm
Hi Mona, thank you for your concern for the owls. I can ensure you that all the photographers were very considerate, quiet and well behaved and we all stayed on the bike/walking path behind the fence that the park had set up. No one was entering the fields or the trees where they were nesting. The average bird photographer is very aware of the sensitive environment all birds live in, hence the 500-600mm tele-photo lenses that everyone is using.
lance acosta January 06, 2022 at 10:12 am
Needs more owl pix
Rick January 06, 2022 at 11:42 pm
Thanks Lance, I’ll post some more to my Instagram account in the coming week and hopefully I’ll get some new pics the next time I get there!
Sally Cole January 06, 2022 at 10:13 am
Rick, Thank you for sharing this story with us and your incredible photos!
Rick January 06, 2022 at 11:39 pm
Thank you Sally for your kind words and for reading and enjoying my photos.