Owls are a charismatic group of bird species that are appreciated by birdwatchers and wildlife lovers around the world. However, their secretive nature can make them difficult to find!
Finding and watching owls can be a rewarding experience. Watching owls with a group of fellow owl enthusiasts can be even more enjoyable. Learn more about going owling and finding owls!
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What is owling?
Owling is typically a gathering of birders in pursuit of a particular species of owl or owls. Owling is a favorite activity amongst groups of birdwatchers like Audubon chapters or ornithological societies, though they may refer to it also as an "owl prowl." For this adventure, the group of owlers usually gathers before dusk and departs for proper habitat(s) with a plan to find the target owls. Some owling groups will attempt to listen for owls during the peaks of the breeding season, while other birdwatching groups may use playback to elicit the songs of the owls.
Be careful not to disturb or harm owls when attempting to view or lure them using audio. Owling ethics can be seen below.
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View owls and their nests from a safe distance for you AND the owls!
How to find owls
In order to find a target species of owl, the searcher must become familiar with its range, habitat, and annual cycle. For example, when looking for a Flammulated Owl, a searcher should focus their efforts in western North America, in mature montane habitat, especially mature ponderosa or aspen stands. However, Flammulated Owls are only likely to be found during the summer throughout the Mountain West.
The behavior of a species will also be a key to finding the target owl. Returning to the example of the Flammulated Owl, the behavior of nesting and roosting in cavities created by flickers and sapsuckers is evident. Additionally, this species is highly nocturnal, meaning it is unlikely to be seen during the day. However, when searching for a species like the Short-eared Owl, an owling crew would be better served searching grasslands and shrublands at dawn or dusk.
Knowing the ins and outs of a target species is critical to finding owls. Without knowledge of the natural history of a species, an owling excursion is much less likely to be successful.
A great way to learn more about owls is a proper field guide! The best owl field guide available is the Peterson Reference Guide to Owls:
Owls of North America
There are 23 regularly occurring species of owl in North America. Check back on this post for updates, as each species will be updated with helpful tips for a successful owling excursion. Want to be notified? Then Join the Flock!
Owls of North America (excluding Mexico) - 19 species
Great Horned Owl
Northern Hawk Owl
Great Gray Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Owl viewing and photography ethics
Use these owling ethics when viewing or photographing your favorite owls, which were adapted from the ABA and National Audubon Society.
Avoid causing an unnecessary disturbance or stress to owls
Use a telephoto lens and maintain enough distance to allow your subject to behave naturally. Bird blinds and popup blinds offer a great way to watch and photograph or film birds without disturbing them.
Never advance on birds with the intention of making them fly, whether they are lone birds or flocks of birds. This disrupts natural processes such as resting, foraging, or hunting and causes them to expend energy unnecessarily.
If your approach causes a bird to flush (fly or run away) or change its behavior, you’re too close. Some birds may “freeze” in place rather than fly away, or may hunch into a protective, aggressive, or pre-flight stance. Watch for changes in posture indicating that a bird is stressed, and if you see these, back away. If focused on you, birds may miss a predator.
Learn the rules and laws of the location. If minimum distances exist for proximity to wildlife, follow them.
Avoid the use of flash on owls at night, as it may temporarily limit their ability to hunt for food or avoid obstacles.
Before sharing locations of specific birds with other photographers, videographers, or birders, think carefully about potential impacts to the birds or their habitats, both individual and cumulative.
Remove GPS data from your images/videos for owls.
Concern for birds’ habitat is also essential. Be aware and respectful of your surroundings. Avoid trampling sensitive vegetation or disturbing other wildlife.
Do not use drones to photograph or film birds, especially at their nests. Although drones can be useful for researchers and biologists documenting bird populations (such as at island nesting colonies), drones, in general, can be very disruptive to birds. They are also illegal in national parks and some state parks.
Be cautious with remotely triggered cameras. Setting a trap around a fresh kill or cache is generally acceptable, but supplying bait or other lures in order to attract an animal is not. Never use direct flash, which may temporarily blind owls; a flash with a filter that lets only infrared light through is acceptable.
Be more cautious around nesting owls
Keep a respectful distance from the nest. If you’re using a macro lens or including the nest as a focal point in an image/footage with a wide-angle lens, even if you’re operating the camera remotely, you’re probably too close. Telephoto lenses of at least 500mm are recommended.
Avoid flushing adults, scaring young, or doing anything to draw the attention of predators to the nest. For example, repeatedly walking to a nest can leave both a foot trail and a scent trail for predators.
Do not move or cut anything from around the nest, such as branches or leaves, as these provide both essential camouflage and protection from the elements.
Never use drones to photograph or film nests, as they can cause injury and stress to the nestlings and parents.
Never lure an owl with bait - Lure with audio sparingly
Never lure birds (including but not limited to hawks, owls, eagles, ospreys, and roadrunners) with bait. “Bait” includes live animals (such as snakes, fish, mice, crickets, and worms); dead animals or parts of animals; processed meat; and decoys such as fake mice. Baiting can change the behavior of these predatory birds in ways that are harmful to them.
Playback of bird calls to lure them closer for photography/videography should be used sparingly and not at all in the case of endangered birds or birds at critical points in their nesting cycle. When a bird leaves its nest to pursue or defend its territory from a perceived challenger or predator, eggs and/or chicks are left open to predation and weather conditions.
How to find a Great Horned Owl
The most common owl in North America is not terribly difficult to find. The Great Horned Owl is large, loud, and not terribly shy. Use the following tips to find these large, nocturnal hunters:
Check the old nests of large raptors, herons, magpies, and other large birds
Great Horned Owls steal the nests of other birds
Scope high, obvious perches at dawn and dusk
Great Horned Owls hunt from high perches
In cities and towns, check the tops of buildings
Watch tree lines and large, lone trees
Especially spruce and fir in developed areas
Great Horned Owls will roost in dense cover
Listen closely when near water (riparian areas)
Great Horned Owls are found across North America, helping to keep rodent populations in check. The above tips are not a guarantee to find this species, but they will certainly put owl watchers in a better position to get their hoot on.