“Haunting, beautiful, startling, innocent, ghostly, adorable” — all these words came to mind as I was clicking the shutter nonstop like a machine gun, before the loud voice in my brain said “DODGE!!!”
Barn owls are nocturnal. Photographing them flying with natural light is not supposed to be possible.
If you have seen pictures of barn owls flying in broad daylight, and the photographer didn't specify that the owl was “wild, not baited and not called”, chances are, the owl was captive(not wild), baited or lured in by bird calls.
I don't like to face the reality that it's impossible. I still dream to see a wild barn owl flying freely in day time.
At first glance, barn owls look so “strange”, a little scary even. They look like they are from another world, wearing an expressionless white mask, yet with a pair of big black eyes that could see through anybody's soul.
Their mysterious look slowly grew on me and I liked them more and more. I was hooked, especially after watching “Legend of the Guardians: the owls of Ga’Hoole”.
I had been longing to witness and photograph this beautiful bird. As conflicting as I was, the more I fear, the more I like to see them.
I would desperately search through the internet for barn owl sighting alerts every day and go immediately if any:
- There was once a sighting on a back road in Ventura. Somebody claimed that there were multiple barn owls living in a eucalyptus tree in mile 10 after a gate next to a barn. I went there, looked through each branch of the tree and saw none. Then I saw another sighting the other day. I went back and still saw nothing. It only took me 10 times to admit failure in that location.
- Then there was a sighting at the visitor center of Salton Sea. I drove 4 hours to get there. The ranger was kind enough to tell me where the barn owl was. I finally saw the owl. But he was sleeping safe and sound in the deepest of the leaves, way high in a tree, for a whole day without moving. He didn't even open his eyes, not to mention about flying.
Three years. Sighting. Failure. Sighting. Failure.
Then I saw the beautiful flying wild barn owl shots by Photographer Ron Dudley. I was blown away. Apparently in extreme cold weather in Utah, food was scarce and the barn owl had to hunt in day time occasionally. But this only happened very rarely.
Months passed. Just when I almost forgot about them, I saw a Facebook post by Photographer Brent Paull. A pic of flying barn owl. Apparently they just showed up in San Simeon.
I put down everything I had at hand, and called up 4 people promptly.
“Brent, could you please please please lead a tour there immediately and I will join.”
“Donald, please search through the whole freaking San Simeon… first thing in the morning. Barn owl in flight alert. Please.” (Good friend and fellow photog Donald Quintana lives very close to San Simeon).
“Hadi, barn owl in flight, go now, Donald is there to meet you. I can't go until Saturday because I have work. Please update me.”
“Susan, go, San Simeon.”
They all said yes. How much I have been grateful for my friends.
2am that Saturday, I picked up my back pack, loaded my phone with the newest audio books of choice, two bottles of red bull, and I was on my way for the 3 hours drive to begin my quest for the barn owl.
After driving through the thickest layers of fog on Highway 1 for almost 4 hours, I found myself on the side of the road, overlooking a flatland the size of a football field 30 feet below the highway, the field was filled with tall grass, poison oaks and broken and rusty barbed wires, while the perimeter was surrounded by tall trees. As the fog slowly cleared by the morning warmth, I saw them…
#1. 1200mm. It's been 2 years since my quest for snowy owl. I had since practiced BIF for quite some time. Remember the chant? I analyzed the situation this time. The barn owl would still be 75 feet away from us even if they flew close. I could either get a small object in frame with good quality if I use the 600mm lens with 1.4x teleconverter, or I could get a decent size barn owl in frame if I use a 600mm and a 2x teleconverter but the quality would suffer if not handled properly. I chose the latter. I almost thought I was crazy to use a 600mm and a 2x for owls in flight. When I viewed the photo 100% on my computer screen in the hotel room that afternoon, I put my arms up, and screamed, “They are real. I did it. Whoa!” And then I lay flat on my bed with a big grin.
(All photos here, the barn owls are wild, not baited, and not called in)
#2. UNUSUAL VISITOR. As you probably knew it by now, I am pretty obsessive and relentless. After the first weekend, I went back to the same place, driving at 2am on Saturday morning again and again and again. I knew that it's a once a lifetime opportunity. And I knew that it's not going to last. Soon it will be all gone and I must treasure it as much as I could. It's less than 2 months since grandma passed away, I needed that as an escape. One morning, I was all by myself there. Not a single soul. It was quiet. There was not even a single bird in the whole area. The usual northern harrier and white-tailed kite were nowhere to be seen. The barn owls hadn't waken up yet. I set up my tripod beside the road and was just waiting.
Suddenly I heard some noise behind me and it got louder. Immediately I felt the motion above my head, and I saw a huge shadow on the ground. I looked back and saw a huge “thing” trying to land on me. Whoa! I dodged the attempted illegal landing left and right. If you had watched the anime Hajime no Ippo, you would have known what a dempsey roll was. Suddenly I was all awake and transformed from a sloth to a fighter doing dempsey roll, trying to avoid contact from the intruder, with my hand covering my face and bending my waist left and right using my extremely strong muscular core. Out of nowhere, this seagull tried to land on me. She was huge.
The whole ordeal lasted for almost 20 seconds and it almost felt ridiculous. My dempsey roll worked. She failed to land onto me and finally retreated and flew away. With the sudden adrenaline rush, the fear of being killed by a seagull, and the muscle cramp on my waist, I was exhausted. I looked around. She was gone. The whole place was quiet again. What the hell happened?
After a minute, I saw that the barn owls were coming out, and I looked through the viewfinder to check my exposure to get ready.
Then I felt a huge weight on the lens. The seagull came back and landed on my lens this time. I waved my hand at her and she didn't move a bit. “Alright, don't push me to my last resort.” I said as I thought of a brilliant idea to get rid of her. I flipped the lens downward. There's no way she could balance I was sure. She's gonna fly away no matter what. I was wrong. She was walking on the lens up and down with small step while spreading her wings, as if I was watching Cirque du Soleil. After a minute of flipping my lens up and down, she won.
I balanced the lens, and just let her stay there. She was looking at me nonstop. I looked at her and talked to her for a while. “Who are you really?” I asked as I looked into her eyes. I took a picture of her with my iPhone before she finally flew away after 10 minutes.
#3. BUTTERFLY. Barn owl reminded me of Mohammed Ali. They flied like a giant butterfly and they stung like a bee. So elegant to look at. Their flight was completely silent. My friends and I always had to stick together and each looked at different directions because we never knew where they would show up. We usually only got 3 chances each morning when they flew by close. And they disappeared completely after 10am and wouldn't show up again until the next day. And sometimes they would not show up at all the whole day.
#4. HUNTING. Watching them hunt was a privilege. They would fly like a butterfly among the tall grass, about 15 feet from the ground, with their head tilting left and right. And all of a sudden, without any hint, they would dive bomb vertically onto the ground to catch gophers and voles. They mostly failed. As Donald said, maybe that's how their face were flat after numerous attempts of pouncing onto the ground. For several weekends, we saw quite a few fly-bys, and only a handful of dive-bomb, but every time they failed. Until this one time. He finally succeeded. We were jumping and giving each other high fives, not just because we got the pictures, but we felt so happy for him to finally have a good meal.
#5. IT'S OK, IT'S OK. Greed is good, Gekko said. So I finally photographed the barn owls in flight. I should be satisfied, right? Nope. Now I also wanted some still shots, where the barn owls were perched. Theoretically, a stationary bird should be easier to photograph than a flying one. But surprisingly, these barn owls were a lot more skittish than the great-horned owl I had been photographing and it's very difficult to approach one. If they happened to be perched on a fence post, they would fly away when any approaching car was still 200 feet away. That morning, I was driving when I saw her perched on a fence post. I opened my car window. She looked at me, and immediately she bent her body forward, raised her wings, and was ready to take off. During the whole process her eyes were locked onto me. Before I even reached my camera, I looked at her eyes, and just said softly, “it's ok, it's ok, I'm ok.” I even waved my hand at her. “Hi” I knew it would be useless anyways. Lo and behold, she lowered her wings, shook her body a little bit, and returned to her relaxed pose and allowed me to take as many photos as I wanted. It was unbelievable. Good girl.
#6. THE MOMENT. After photographing the barn owls for a few days from the side of the road, it was overcast one day and we knew the direction of the sun wouldn't affect the shot. Donald and I decided to go into the poison oaks filled grassland and hide behind the tall grass to see what it would bring to us. We knew that the barn owls were not going to come close to us even if we hid behind the grass, but we just wanted a new perspective.
If you never tried, how would you ever know for sure?
We waited and waited… and waited. Then we saw her flying towards us from a distance. Donald and I signaled each other to get ready. I had to bump the shutter again and again as the AF kept loosing track with the 2x teleconverter.
The owl came closer and closer… and closer. As I took the last shot, I had to duck. The barn owl flew literally right above our head, right between me and Donald, the whole time so relaxed that our presence didn't seem to affect her a bit. Donald and I looked at each other in disbelief with both of our jaws dropped, and it took us few minutes to take a deep breath and get back to reality.
It is the HIGHEST HONOR any wildlife photographer could ask for– A Wild Owl flying towards the photographer's direction within close distance, just doing her own thing without any concern, accepting our presence. Once you experienced something like that, life would never be the same.
When I was a kid, I loved watching the “Dragon Ball” (Watch this video). Goku, the main character, had a magic cloud called “the flying nimbus” which he used as his ride in the sky. The flying nimbus could tell if a person has a good heart or not. People with a bad heart could never ride on it without breaking through this magic cloud and fell to the ground.
I always wondered if I could ride the flying nimbus.
I believe wild animals could also tell if a person is good or bad. They have special senses much superior than the civilized humans in order to survive in the harsh wilderness. Whenever a wild animal accept my presence, and even come close to me (not counted if the animal is habituated to human and come for food) doing their own things or just being curious, I would have a moment of self indulgence and tell myself:
Maybe I am not a bad guy after all.
I was later so stunned to see the poster of the movie “The legend of the Guardians”.
#7. THE GHOST. One Saturday morning, I arrived before dawn and had my tripod setup. It was still dark so I was just relaxing. The owls had not shown up yet. I saw some movement in the tall grass in the distant. Ah, Donald said he saw 3 coyotes earlier this week. I hope they wouldn't hunt the barn owls when the barn owls were dive-bombing. Since I had many coyote photos from Yellowstone, and that it was still so dark, I wasn't paying too much attention at the coyote.
The ambient light started to fill the sky before the sun popped up. The area was getting brighter and brighter in the minute. I saw the movement in the tall grass and knew that the coyote was probably just 40 feet away below the highway. Heck, I would just use the coyote to check my autofocus and the exposure before the barn owls showed up, I thought. So I leisurely walked to my camera, looked through the viewfinder, while at the same time pointing my lens towards the coyote, and lightly half pressed the shutter to autofocus.
And I almost had a heart attack. In the viewfinder, I saw a pair of eyes looking right at me. That's not a coyote. That's a bobcat, and she had a huge rabbit almost half of her size, in her mouth. My nemesis species that I had spent the last year trying to find without success, right in front of my eyes. By the time I came back from a short term coma and realized what's happening, she had walked into the tall grass. My heart dropped.
Usually it would take me 5 minutes to walk carefully down the path to avoid getting caught by the broken rusty barbed wires and poison oaks. This time I jumped and flew through it in 10 seconds, while hand carrying my 600mm lens. I walked around the tall grass. The bobcat was nowhere to be seen. I kept walking and walking, while blaming myself of making such a huge mistake. Nope. Nothing. All gone. I took a deep breath. “I don't freaking believe it.” I said to myself.
Well nothing I could do now. I might as well just enjoy the morning. As I was trying to comfort myself with this thought, the first ray of light came through the field while the surrounding was still in darkness. I turned around. And I found out I was not alone.
This was the only time I had this kind of light shining on the barn owl in my 5 weeks of observing them. And it only lasted for a few seconds before they disappeared again.
Little did I know that this would be my last encounter with the barn owls. They were never seen again. Even after one year, there were no reported sightings. It was definitely one of the sweetest memories of my wildlife encounters. I got to meet a lot of new friends in the San Simeon area, including my good friends Rick and Kathi. Kathi made the best grilled cheese I ever tasted. They have a chicken farm and they were very kind to give me two dozen chicken eggs, which reminded me of the time when grandma also had a chicken farm for eggs.
Finally I would like to share a barn owl video that I love.
Haunters of the dark. Creatures of the moon…
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