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Burrowing Owls of Eastern Idaho

Burrowing Owl

Eastern Idaho is home to a variety of Owl species. Of the group, Burrowing Owls are some of the most endearing! Unfortunately, they are not common in the Jackson Hole and Grand Teton area, so for me, it takes a bit of a drive and a fairly large gamble to try to photograph them. I’ve heard of sightings on the National Elk Refuge and I’ve searched for them for years but have yet to personally see them here.

Burrowing Owls

A 100 to 130 mile drive to Eastern Idaho “can be” worth the “gamble” in mid-June. Gamble is the operative word, but at least the odds seem to be better there than in our region. The essential elements for their success are in place: abundant food, water sources, and abandoned dens. Foxes, Coyotes, and Badgers dig dens in the soft, sandy soil and hunt for mice, voles, pocket gophers, and ground squirrels among the sage fields and irrigated farm land. The holes these predators dig later provide dens for the opportunistic Owls.

Burrowing Owl

To be honest, finding an active Burrowing Owl den is not an easy assignment. Consider the fact the young birds spend much of the day underground, and the parents aren’t always next to the den. To put it another way, even if you are in the right area, you can drive by numerous dens and never see a bird. I am sure the local farmers and residents see them regularly, but probably take them for granted if they’ve seen them all of their lives.

Burrowing Owl

For reference, a Black-billed Magpie weighs roughly 6.2 oz and an adult Burrowing Owl weighs roughly 5.3 oz. Burrowing owls are much more compact, with a short tail, shorter wings, and more stubby head. Their primary food sources large insects and small rodents. A few of the sites I checked, suggested the adult males and females are roughly the same size. In my limited experience, it seems one of the adults is a bit larger.

Burrowing Owls

There is a relatively small window of time to be able to photograph the chicks sitting along the den’s opening. If you search too soon, they may still be underground all day. If you are too late, they fledge from the den and will be on fences and trees instead of posing together at the den. Some of the family may return to the den for a while after they learn to fly, or while the parents are still feeding the last of the brood.

Feeding Owls

So, IF you can find a den, and IF they are still active, and IF you have the patience to wait them out, it can be some of the most rewarding photography days you’ll have all year! They are so darned cute! There may not be a lot of action, but they often display plenty of personality.

Burrowing Owl

This particular brood of Burrowing Owls consisted of at least ten chicks. After I saw all ten of them lined up for a few minutes, all I could think about was how much food it would take to keep them all healthy and growing. I also wondered how large this particular underground den had to have been to hold a dozen birds. I wondered how devastating it would be if a Fox, Coyote, or Badger returned to their old den. Lastly, I couldn’t help but wonder how often a den gets flooded during a heavy spring rain? Possibly the large brood size is Nature’s way of insuring against the years when things go wrong? Last year was a very wet year and I heard many of the dens flooded.

Feeding Burrowing Owls

I was able to park my truck in a good spot and shoot from the window. It only took around 15 minutes to see the first head project from the opening. Though there were ten for a few moments, it was more common to see four or five out at a time. They seemed infatuated by my truck and my presence, but would duck back into the den with any sudden movement. Both chicks and adults often looked straight at me, but they also watched other birds fly overhead. They seemed particularly interested in a pair of Mourning Doves singing from a nearby set of telephone lines.

Burrowing Owl

Large trucks whizzing by would spook them, but a normal vehicle didn’t. Earlier, I had tried stopping the vehicle and walking towards an adult on a perch. It flew almost immediately. I also watched as a vehicle passed within 10 feet of a Burrowing Owl on a post without it flying. I tried it just before heading home and the bird stayed for me with no problems. I’ve had similar experiences in previous years.

Burrowing Owls

I originally parked 20 yards from the den. That’s great! After taking a thousand or so images, a trucked spooked them into the hole. I took the opportunity to move the truck four yards closer. They came back out and one of the parents flew in with a mouse and fed a couple of the chicks. That let me know I wasn’t too close for this family.

Clumsy Owl Chick

Occasionally, there can be “action”, but most of the time, photos are of one or more birds standing at the edge of the den. This chick walked about a foot off the den and stood on a rock. I don’t know what caused it, but it fell off the rock and tumbled down the slope before recovering. It returned to the den and appeared to be saying, “Yep, I meant to do that” to his onlooking siblings.

Now You See Me

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t! After some sort of scare, it takes only a few seconds for the Burrowing Owl chicks to disappear into the den.

Photography Considerations

My Nikon D5 was paired with a Tamron 150-600mm G2 lens for the first round of photos. It switched to a Nikon D850 using the same lens. I figured I could crop a bit more with that combination. Lastly, I put my Nikon D500 on the Tamron lens. The 1.5 crop factor helped with the small birds. Normally, I pair my Nikon D500 with a Nikon 200-500mm, and I would have done it for this shoot, but that lens has been at Nikon Service for a couple of months. A 1.5 crop body on the 500mm would give me an effective equivalent of 750mm. I had plenty of light, so most exposures were kept at 1/1000 to 1/1600th second. I varied the Aperture between F/8 and F/11 and used Auto ISO while in Manual Mode for all of the shots.

By the end of my afternoon “session”, I had taken roughly 3000 images. As I write this post, I culled that number down to 249. Since this is not a subject I see every day, like a Moose in the Fall, I will keep most of the 249 images. Most of those are of the adult feeding the babies. I would have been happy to get just a few shots of the chicks at the opening of the den, knowing I have been shut out on numerous other occasions!

Eastern Idaho Owls

I’ve seen and photographed Burrowing Owls north of Idaho Falls, west of Idaho Falls, and west of Blackfoot. There are many other species of Owls in Eastern Idaho, including Long-eared Owls, Short-eared Owls, Great Gray Owls, Great Horned Owls, along with Saw-whet Owls, and Pigmy Owls. Understandably, many of the area bird photographers are hesitant to disclose specific locations—much like a fly fisherman keeping his favorite fishing holes to himself.

Also, check out this previous Feature Post: Eastern Idaho Birds and Critters:

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Comments (7)

  1. Priscilla Burgers

    Great shots, Michael.

  2. Kerry Singleton

    Gorgeous Owl shots!!!!

  3. Donna D

    Thanks Mike, Those pics are awesome. So cute. My hobbies are bird watching and photography so this is a great post. I also appreciate the equipment notations. I have most of the same equipment you have and like to see how you pair everything to get your shots. We were in Jackson last year and drove over to Idaho to fish just over the boarder near the campground. Thanks for the memories.

  4. Loyd Dalton

    Outstanding images, Mike!
    Thanks for sharing and keep em coming!

  5. Craig Knecht

    Great photographs Mike. Thanks for taking the time to explain so much about each of the photos and how you approached the shoot and equipment used. See you around town.

  6. Presenting images that we would not see otherwise enriches us. Hopefully even motivats us to venture into the wild and enjoy life in its purest form. Great pictures and narrative. I will show my grand kids.

  7. Great post Mike. I’ll be looking for them in western Kansas next spring. They like to live in prairie dog holes out here. Great images as usual. I know what you mean about keeping more of those images than you might otherwise. I feel the same about the 1,300 photos I took of the great gray a couple of weeks ago. I’m still trying to cull them down.

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