Great Horned Owls – History Park – Punta Gorda, Florida

In this post we will be looking at wildlife photography, Great Horned Owls to be exact. At the History Park in Punta Gorda, Florida there is a big nest that was built a couple of years ago by some American Bald Eagles. This was the known spot for some time to get Eagle shots. This past year the Eagles got evicted out of their home by some Great Horned Owls. In all of the shooting that I have done over the years, I didn’t have any photos of this creature so I thought I would go down and see what was going on. Since I know this area well and have taken classes there, I had a heads up on what gear to bring.

There’s a tape that is around the tree to keep people a safe distance away. This means that one is going to need a really long lens to get something remotely close to the action in the nest. I packed my trusty 80mm-400mm lens and a tripod. Since we are dealing with a subject that is quite a distance away, I couldn’t use a flash so I was going to have to rely on good light to help my contrast. Lucky enough the open end of the nest is on the west side, this means that the babies and the parents are front lit making this type of shot easier. This extra light allowed me to get a high shutter speed.

It had been a hectic day so I thought this might be a great place to unwind and take a mental break from all the action. When I arrived to the location, I was starting to feel relaxed and getting into the groove of photographing something that I hadn’t tried before. Best of all it was going to be quiet and I could concentrate on what I was doing. Once I unloaded the car and headed down the path, I looked up and this is what I was greeted with…

 The photographers lined up to photograph the Great Horned Owls at the History Park in Punta Gorda, Florida.Anyone bring hot dogs to this picnic? – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

Apparently the word got out and I was going to have to find a spot and get set up. The good news was that most of these folks are really into photographing birds and that is their thing. It was really quiet most of the time. These people didn’t even want you unwrapping a piece of candy in fear that the owls were going to hear it and fly away! WHAT??!! I’m all for respecting what people want to shoot so I minded my p’s and q’s. This didn’t mean that I wanted to throw a lit quarter stick of dynamite out in the field just to shake things up just a bit. I’m not really an evil person, however I do enjoy a good laugh once in awhile.

I found a spot in the mix of folks and got my gear set up. There were shutters going off faster than pistons in an engine. I guess I missed something, there were two babies sitting in the nest staring at each other. I agree this would make a good photo. The key word here is photo, singular tense. There were folks shooting hundreds of frames of this one scene. However, as I said before I’m not really a birder so I suppose there is a reason to have a few hundred thousand photos of a baby owl looking dazed and confused, oh wait…that’s me.

I treated this like shooting aircraft. I set the camera up for continuous mode and manual exposure. Since there was enough light, I was able to get an exposure of ISO 400, f/5.6 at 1/1000. This way I was sure to be able to stop the action, whenever it was going to happen. I also use spot focus, this keeps the camera from “hunting”. This can be frustrating when the action starts and the trees come out crystal clear and the wildlife is blurry. I also prefocused on the babies so when the big moment came, all I had to do was press the shutter release.

I was luck as a couple of my friends were there so I felt safe in numbers just in case. It was interesting though, on one side were the Canon folks and the Nikon people were on the other. I didn’t realize this when I arrived; I was relieved when I noticed that I was on the correct side of the invisible line that had been drawn in the sand!

Finally, there was some action as we saw Momma coming and going. Since I enjoy shooting aircraft, I learned early on not to listen to the announcer. When he tells you to get your cameras ready, the jet that is going 700 m.p.h. passed you and is now in Canada getting turned around to make another pass. What has worked for me is that I watch in a 360° circle of what is going on all the time and forget what is happening right in front of me. This allows me to get things set up ahead of time so it’s not a surprise and you are prepared to get the shot. This is what I was doing when the mother left the nest. Most folks were glued to what their viewfinder was on, the nest. I simply watched as Mom went to another tree and picked up something and was on her way back. In an instant, I hammered the shutter and in one of my frames, I was able to grab this…

 Spencer Pullen photographs a mother Great Horned Owl bring a rat to the young for dinner. This was taken at the History Park in Punta Gorda, Florida.Rat-A-Roni, A San Francisco Treat – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

If you can’t tell by the cut line, Momma is bringing back a rat for dinner. Since I live in a wooded area, I’m glad that these guys are keeping the rat population in check as I have seen them around the house. Since everything was set with the camera, all I had to do was push the plunger and wait for her to fly into the frame.

In the next few minutes the two babies were ripping the rat apart into bite size pieces. I thought I would save you the photos of the carnage this time. It was interesting to see, but not really my cup of tea. Other folks thought that was the greatest thing since the indoor bathroom, hey, whatever colors your jellybeans. It was getting late and it was apparent that the kids were tired and ready for bed…

 The Great Horned Owls at the History Park in Punta Gorda, Florida are tired and ready for bed. Taken by Spencer Pullen.Bed Time – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

In the end it was a successful shoot. We all walked away with some great images and more war stories. Just to be clear, I don’t have anything against people who specialize in photographing birds. I have many “bird photographer” friends and they are always giving me a hard time. I think it might have something to do with the fact that they shoot with those “white” lenses instead of black lenses! Find what moves you and go get it. I like to shoot a variety of subjects as shown on this blog. Some say you can’t be good at everything and you have to specialize in a niche. All I can say is that I have adapted other types of “niches” for whatever the current situation is. This has made me a more successful and confident photographer. At the end of the day, all that matters is that you had FUN while shooting and that you were on the correct side of the line in the sand!

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean

Spencer

20 Comments

  1. congrats

    • Great shuts, thank you.

      I am very pleased with your classes, I learned so much in just two sessions , I am amazed. Carry on the good work, Helene Haugen

  2. Spencer,
    I know you talked about your sturdy, but heavy, non-carbon fiber tripod. What do you think of gimbal heads for bird on wing photography? I tend to shoot my 400 mm (white one) hand held with shutter priority at 1/500 sec or shorter, adjusting the ISO higher as needed; of course I use image stabilization.
    Thanks for a great blog.
    Art

    • Spencer

      Art,

      Gimbal heads are supposed to be the cream of the crop. I don’t have one so I can’t say first hand. The only negative thing that I heard is that if you don’t have enough weight, it doesn’t seem to work well. I like my tripod and ball head combo when it makes sense. However, if I’m shooting an erratic subject such as the Blue Angels, I find that a tripod is useless as I can’t swing it fast enough. I try and stay at least 1/500 a second with this lens to keep the blur factor down. I like 1/1000 or faster if I can get it. Hope this helps.

      Thanks…

      Spencer

      • Spencer,
        Thanks for the good advice as usual. BTW, great owl photos.
        Art

  3. I enjoy the “relaxed activity” shots with the awesome background/foreground balance. Birder photographers are a different breed. Then layer the camera predjudice. Good thing you drifted to the correct side of that bus. Especially if carnage is not your thing.

  4. Love the owls – great shots!

  5. Looks like the owls have a great addition for Greg’s custom burger recipe.
    Nice shots for a non birder!
    George Bonhach

    • Spencer

      George,

      You never cease to amaze me! Owl burgers, hummm does that taste like eagle???!!

      Thanks…

      Spencer

  6. Great shots—perhaps, someday.

  7. Loved the story and pictures.

  8. Great Pics!

  9. Love the Rat-A-Roni shot!

  10. Great post & pics. I thoroughly enjoyed it all. Thanks for being there.

  11. Catching the owl coming in to the nest is so much better than a still shot to me. Thanks, Joyce

  12. I am coming to Punta Gorda Feb 9-13, 2014. Are the owls still there? Can you recommend any good photography bird places in/near Punta Gorda? Thanks so much.

    • Spencer

      Jo,

      Thanks for commenting. I was told recently that the eagles have been seen in the area. This was there home in the past, however for some reason the didn’t use it. That’s when the owls moved in. Punta Gorda has a wildlife sanctuary at Ponce de Leon Park which is great to visit. Also, I have been told that Cecil Webb has some opportunities. If you get a chance, I would recommend taking a trip to Myakka River State Park, they have every kind of wildlife you would want to shoot up there, it’s in Sarasota. I hope this helps. Thanks…

      Spencer

  13. Hello! Great photos! I’m a 12-year Sun Coast resident. My husband and I love it here. I noticed your photos of the great horned owl babies in Punta Gorda. I’d read about it in the paper last year, about how people watched the little baby owlets grow and fledge. I learned about it too late! Can you describe how to visit her nest please? This is the only place I’ve found to ask.

    If I find History Park will I be able to locate the nest?

    I’m a fan of some bird cams and would love to see the family that’s in my own back yard! Thanks so much! Nancy 🙂

    Here’s a GHO cam in Oklahoma with 3 eggs, one has a pip today, 2/13/14!
    http://www.ustream.tv/okcowlcam

    • Spencer

      Nancy,

      I appreciate you taking the time to stop by and read the post! We had a bad storm here and it blew the nest out of the tree a few months ago. I have been told that the eagles are in the area, however they haven’t returned to the tree to rebuild the nest. If you are looking for information on the park, this may be able to help you: http://puntagordahistory.com/ourhistoricbuildings/thehistorypark.html

      Let me know if there is anything else I can do to help. Thanks…

      Spencer

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