The Night Shift—Photographing Owls and Bats

by Tom Vezo | June 25, 2008

© Tom VezoI consider myself lucky to be a morning person because as a nature photographer I have to get up early to photograph the birds, mammals and landscapes that I love and catch that early morning light to create a beautiful image. I remember working on my second book, “Birds of Prey in the American West,” where I had to shoot raptors in the morning and owls at night. I put in long days and nights to capture some of the most difficult to photograph bird species and I had only one nesting season to finish the book. It took me about four days to get used to shooting at night because normally my body shuts down like a bird that goes to roost when the sun goes down; that adjustment was not an easy one. It’s too bad I didn’t have a Photo Trap back then to work on owls at night flying into their nest sites. It was always a surprise to see what kind of food they would bring in to feed their young.

Elf owl © Tom Vezo

My good friend, Bill Forbes, created the Photo Trap, a high-speed infrared camera triggering system. He runs the photography ranch at Elephant Head here in Arizona and taught me how to use this unique tool. We live only about 20 minutes apart and I helped him set up his ranch for optimum photography. It’s a great place to capture some natural images of our desert birds in native habitat. His Photo Trap allows me to capture the nightlife of owls and bats and has many other uses as well. For example, I am in the process of setting up the trap at night at a water hole where I can capture Bobcats, coyote, Ringtail Cat and Javalina. In the area I’m working there is a good possibility of filming a Mountain Lion as well. Bill also uses the Photo Trap for insects flying at night.

Like anything else, the Photo Trap looks a little complicated at first, but as you use it and gain an understanding of what it can do, it becomes second nature to use. Then when you capture that first image that you would normally never get to see, it motivates you even more to continue and try new and different things.

My first outing to test the Photo Trap with Bill was on an Elf Owl nest that I found about 12 feet off the ground in a Sycamore tree. The Elf Owl is the smallest owl in North America and stands only about 6″ tall. I learned a lot about my flash units that night—some settings I didn’t even know existed. Hey, I’m a natural light type of guy; I only use flash if I need it as fill light or main light in a forest. But these gadgets have a lot more to offer than that. Just one example is dialing down the duration of the flash. This setting allows you to stop the wings of a hummingbird or to freeze an owl or bat in flight.

Lesser long-nosed bat © Tom Vezo

Pallid bat © Tom Vezo

There were a few ways to successfully obtain a good image of this owl and we found what was good for that night’s scenario. While I was out there setting up, embedded in my mind were the many fantastic photos of owls in flight that Joe McDonald has taken through the years. I thought, “If only I can capture just one of those I’ll be a happy camper.” He is one of the few masters of flash photography and he uses the Photo Trap as well [see their article about using photo trap and high speed flash.] Joe and Mary Ann give workshops on flash photography; it would be worth taking one of their courses if you are interested in really improving your flash game.

Getting back to reality, we set up on the Elf Owl nest. After a few approaches into the nest by this cute little critter and moving the infrared sensors a bit to fine tune due to where the owl was coming in, I finally got my first shot and I was hooked! Here’s where digital photography makes things a lot easier. You can see your composition, exposure, backgrounds and whatever else you need to see in your viewfinder in a split second. When shooting with film you had to be so exact in your planning of all the above that you also had to try different exposures, compositions and such to cover your butt in every way. This is where digital shines. We ended up with some great shots that night and this was the start of my Photo Trap photography.

About 5 years ago, I put up a natural looking nest box in my yard for Western Screech Owls and they have nested there almost every year since. Over the years I have captured them perched with mice, Banded Geckos, scorpions, moths and snakes, but I never captured them in flight. So, of course, I set up my Photo Trap after they had their young so I would get many chances of them coming in with food. Please note that it is so important not to disturb any nest before the young have hatched because the parents might abandon their nest. Even after hatching, if they act too skittish and don’t come back in fifteen or twenty minutes, leave the nesting area and try again the next night. If the nest fails it’s a losing situation for both you and the birds.

This particular bird seemed to accept my presence and even posed on the branches before he went into the nest box as if to show off his catch. I always stand or sit very quietly while all this is going on with no quick or noisy movements. I respect the owls’ possible fears and they get used to my presence because I do not pose any threats to them. That night with the Photo Trap I got some fantastic side shots of them flying in to the nest hole with food and their wings fully extended with the photo trap. But I wanted to take this one step further. I wanted to try to get a head on shot of one coming into the nest, which I have never done before.

This was more of a challenge then I thought. So, I called in the troops, and Bill Forbes was more than happy to accept the challenge because he loves this stuff. I used my Canon 100- 400mm lens and my full frame Canon 1Ds MK II to have more of a chance to capture the owl in the frame. (I can’t wait until Canon makes a full frame 10 frame per second camera. I find a small frame camera to be a liability because I like to add more of the landscape to my bird photography.) I set the lens and camera at eye level to the nest hole and adjusted the focal length accordingly. When setting up on the nest for a side shot it’s much easier to estimate where the bird is going to fly in. I set the infrared beam under the nest hole and adjust accordingly forward or backward from the hole. But taking an owl flying head on is a lot harder because you never know from what angle the owl will come and where to focus and place the beam. Also, finding exactly where to place your camera and what focal length is best for the shot is a learning experience. It took some adjusting of the camera, lens and sensor but we captured some nice images that night. On the second night we nailed a real winner! The owl came in head on with a full wingspread and a Variable Sand Snake in its beak. Note that as the young in the nest mature, the parents bring in bigger food.

Western screech owl © Tom Vezo

For me, the mystery of what these creatures do at night that we never get to see is intriguing. So Bill and I started to work on bats as well, and basically it’s the same set up as for the owls. Remember the bread commercial that states, “It’s baked while you sleep”? Well, that is what I did to get nectar-feeding bats. I set up a blooming agave plant on my patio one night with two flash units as slaves and one master flash on my camera. I set the infrared sensor below the agave and after viewing a few images of bats coming in, I got the right angle, distance and exposure and I went to sleep. Even though I had the blinds closed in my bedroom which overlooks the patio, the flashes still managed to blink in through the blinds and I kept wondering what I got. I just should have stayed up all night.

The camera took over 300 photos that night and I remember keeping only about 27 of them which is a pretty good percentage for this kind of photography. Do I feel guilty about going to sleep? No way! This is one of the advantages of the Photo Trap. I am even starting to take hummingbird photos during the day this way while I’m toiling over my computer with the tremendous digital workload I have.

Bringing to the public images so seldom seen of the creatures of the night is exciting—for me to capture and for people to see. The Photo Trap has brought a whole new dimension to me for action photography at night. But I still have a hard time staying up because I use all my energy shooting during the day. I’m still a morning person. So, I like the “baked while you sleep” idea more and more and it’s exciting to get up and see what stirred up the night before.

About the Author

Tom Vezo is an award winning professional wildlife and nature photographer who travels worldwide to capture his images in the natural environment. His work is widely published in the United States and Europe in many books, calendars, magazines and advertisements. With three books to his credit, his newest, Wings of Spring - Courtship, Nesting and Fledging, written by Chuck Hagner, editor of Birder's World magazine, was released in February, 2006. It won the 2006 National Outdoor Book Award in the category of photographic design and artistic merit.

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