Great Horned Owl perched in a cottonwood, Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus NM, May 8, 2013

Great Horned Owls

In my travels about the New Mexico State Parks system I’ve been introduced to a few Great Horned Owl families that make their home in the parks. I’ve found getting interesting pictures of these birds to be quite a challenge. At night, of course, they are off hunting and during the day they are resting at their pretty well concealed roosts. Now and then they will be out and about during the day and that is the time to catch them. Now and then.

  • Owls at Caballo Lake State Park, Caballo NM
  • Owls at City of Rocks State Park, Faywood NM
  • Owls at Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus NM
  • Owls at Caballo Lake State Park, Caballo NM

    The pair of Great Horned Owls living at Caballo Lake State Park have been nesting in the cliffs across the Rio Grande from the far south end of the Riverside Campground. The nest site is mostly in the shade and the birds have seldom been coming over into the park which frustrates this eager photographer.

    Female Great Horned Owl roosting in a cottonwood, Caballo Lake State Park, Caballo NM, December 27, 2015

    Cottonwood Roost

    Great Horned Owl, Caballo Lake State Park, Caballo NM

    December 27, 2015

    The cottonwoods here at Caballo Lake State Park are holding their leaves well into the winter, making good camouflage for the owls hanging out for the day.

    Owls at City of Rocks State Park, Faywood NM

    A pair of Great Horned Owls have been nesting in a couple of different holes in the rock formations at City of Rocks State Park in recent years. Their choice day roosts and nest sites are located such that photographing them is a bit of a challenge.

    Great Horned Owl's nest in a hole in a rock formation, City of Rocks State Park, Faywood NM, March 1, 2016

    Owl's Nest

    City of Rocks State Park, Faywood NM

    March 1, 2016

    A pair of Great Horned Owls have set up housekeeping in this hole in a rock formation here at City of Rocks State Park.

    Great Horned Owl on nest in rock, City of Rocks State Park, Faywood NM, April 11, 2016

    Owl's Nest

    Great Horned Owl, City of Rocks State Park, Faywood NM

    April 11, 2016

    I took this picture a couple of years ago. The owl’s are nesting here again this year but so far I’ve had no luck getting an interesting picture.

    Owls at Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus NM

    A pair of Great Horned Owls have been roosting and nesting at Pancho Villa State Park in Columbus NM the past few years and have given visitors an opportunity to photograph them going about their daily lives. What a hoot it has been!

    Pancho Villa, Spring 2013

    New Mother - Great Horned Owl

    A New Beginning

    Great Horned Owl on the Nest at Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus NM

    March 29, 2013

    I see a bit of eggshell hanging off the nest and if you look closely you can see above it what I take to be the remains of a meal. I can hardly wait to see some fuzzy chicks greeting the world.

    Great Horned Owl bringing home the bacon

    Great Horned Owl with Dove

    Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus NM

    April 8, 2013

    Here's picture of Hoo, father of the family of Great Horned Owls nesting at Pancho Villa State Park down in Columbus NM that have been kind enough to let me and my fellow campers watch them raise a family right there in the park.

    What a Hoot!

    One morning at first light I set up the camera under the cottonwood tree across from the nest to try to get a few pictures of Hoo and his family at their morning routine. Typically Momma would spend the night on the nest while Hoo went off hunting. Next morning he would show up before sunrise, sometimes with breakfast for the family, and I hoped to catch the action.

    Hoo fooled me that morning. He landed on the branch over my head so silently if it hadn't been for the sound of tearing flesh (of the White-winged Dove he’d brought along) I never would have known he was there.

    What a hoot!

    great horned owl

    Great Horned Owl, New Father of Two

    Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus NM

    Wednesday, April 10, 2013.

    Hoo and his partner are a pair of Great Horned Owls I met on a visit to Pancho Villa State Park in Columbus NM in February 2013. At the time they were just setting up housekeeping, getting ready to settle in to raise a family (yes, that too {grin} ) in a pine tree right there in the campground.

    It was an extraordinary opportunity to try to get to know these beautiful birds. They were quite unconcerned about the comings and goings of the campers and voyeurs below them and I spent a fair bit of time watching them carry on with their lives and trying to figure out a way to get some photos. With limited success unfortunately.

    Days they spent quietly roosting in the pine, she on the nest, he on a nearby limb. Both more or less obscured by foliage. A Great Horned Owl perched motionless in the foliage is nearly impossible to spot without knowing it is there.

    Nights they went off hunting, generally leaving well after sundown when the light was too dim to photograph them.


    When I left in February I was pretty sure there was an egg or two developing in the nest and vowed to return in early April to see how things were going, to see if there were chicks to meet (two it turns out), and to try again to get some pictures.

    In the two weeks I spent there in late March and early April I eventually got a couple shots about sunrise, one of the male on a tree limb preparing a fresh White-winged Dove for the family’s breakfast (see above), and this one of the male with a bloody nose perched on his favorite power pole crossarm.

    The trick was to get the camera set up on a tripod and ready to shoot at first light. Then to wait for the male to return from his nightly hunt as dawn broke, all the while constantly adjusting shutter speed to match the changing light. My exposures were long, ranging from 30 seconds for the early dawn shots down to maybe 1/10 of a second for the later ones as the sun rose. Owls tend to sit motionless and the wind was very light in the mornings - two factors making these long exposures possible (with some luck). The exposure for this picture, for instance, was 6 seconds at f/11, ISO 800, and 400mm.

    Later Still Maybe...

    The chicks were still quite young and didn’t show themselves much from under Momma’s wing. If I can pull it off I’d like to get back down to Pancho Villa around May 1st for a go at getting some kiddy portraits. Maybe.

    Junior Grows Up, Great Horned Owl juvenile

    Junior Grows Up

    Juvenile Great Horned Owl, Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus NM

    May 8, 2013

    Junior, offspring of Hoo and his partner, is growing like a weed. This kid is so nearly full grown I didn’t recognize her/him when I showed up at Pancho Villa to see how the family was doing. I mistook Junior for an interloper. Their nest was gone from the pine and three owls were hanging out in the cottonwoods across the way. It wasn’t until I got the chance to photograph them after the wind calmed down a couple days later that I realized who the interloper was - it’s Junior, now nearly full grown in just the four weeks since I had last seen that tiny little fur-ball under Momma’s wing. A diet of fresh White-winged Dove sure puts on the pounds in a hurry.

    Painting a picture

    This is the third photograph/painting I've posted here that I’ve messed with using a sketching and painting app on my iPad. The first was a photo of a Red-winged Blackbird, followed by a photo of a Great Egret.

    This app, Procreate is the bee’s knees. It’s the first sketching and painting app I’ve found for the iPad which works in a way I find intuitive and infinitely customizable. I’ve tried many and have found them all lacking in some way. This one I’m having some fun with.

    I stumbled on this app in a tweet by Fraser Speirs, Head of Computing and IT at Cedars School of Excellence, a private school in Scotland, who is using it in their innovative school-wide 1:1 iPad deployment program.

    If you have an iPad and an interest in trying some sketching or painting on it you might check out Procreate in the App Store.

    Pancho Villa, Spring 2015

    Great Horned Owl roosting in a pine, Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus NM, February 23, 2015

    What'cha Lookin' At, Dude?

    Great Horned Owl, Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus NM

    February 23, 2015

    Two years ago when I was camped here at Pancho Villa I was surprised to find owls nesting in the park and was delighted to get a chance to photograph them. I made a few posts about them at the time and I'll put a link to them below. I didn't get down here last year but I've been told they again raised a family and entertained the park visitors.

    I've been here since February 13th and I'm beginning to think I may be a little early. I've only heard them hooting a few times and saw them one night after dark surveying the nest site in a tree on the south edge of the park. Hopefully they'll choose to nest here and give us all a show this spring. The 23rd was the first time I found one roosting in the pine during the day and was able to get a few decent images.

    Great Horned Owl leaving the pine at sunset, Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus NM, February 26, 2015

    Buzz Like a Bee

    Great Horned Owl, Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus NM

    February 26, 2015

    How to buzz an owl.

    Let me set the scene. It's late afternoon here at Pancho Villa, at the Great Horned Owls' day roost in the pine at the south end of the park.

    The wind has kicked up. The boughs are a-wavin' and the owls are a-rockin' and a-rollin'. And this photographer is a-frustrated.

    The sun sets. The owls come to life. Hoot. Prepare to fly out for the night.

    This photographer sets up to catch the fly-out. Takes a guess at the owls probable trajectory from the pine. Sets the camera to aperture priority with a wide open lens and a high ISO for the fastest shutter speed practical in this failing light. And waits. And waits.

    The light - it's going fast... Finally, momma owl launches off her perch. Snap, snap, snap (at 1/100 second as it turns out).

    Great Horned Owl in pine, Columbus NM, March 26, 2015


    Great Horned Owl, Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus NM

    March 26, 2015

    Taken at sunrise, this guy looks pooped and ready to settle in for the day after his nights work feeding the family. Their nest this year is atop a power pole a quarter mile or so west of the park. The last couple of years they nested either in this pine or across the way in a cottonwood but the nest in the pine is gone and the cottonwood is dying so I guess the power pole will do.