Sunday, June 30, 2024

In Search of Burrowing Owls

Ever since branching out from landscape photography to include birds and wildlife, I've paid much more attention to the local critters wherever I'm visiting.  Since I travel to South Dakota fairly often, I've come to appreciate the plentiful wildlife and numerous locations to photograph them that abound in the Black Hills area.  Thanks to the guidance from my neighbor Cheri, photographing birds of prey, such as eagles, hawks and owls, has risen to the top of my "photography bucket list."  Especially owls - they are such cute and interesting birds!  I've been fortunate enough to capture images of several owl species - Barred owls, a Northern pygmy owl, Western screech owls, and just recently, Short-eared owls.  But one specific type of owl had eluded me thus far - the tiny, ultra-cute Burrowing owl. 

The Badlands at sunrise

Burrowing owls are small owls with long legs and bright-yellow eyes.  Not much larger than a robin, these birds live underground, either in burrows they dig themselves, or have taken over from another animal.  Prairie dog burrows are especially popular.  These owls live in open habitats, such as grasslands or deserts.  They can be spotted during daylight hours, usually in the mornings and evenings.

Meadowlark announcing the day

Badlands National Park offers perfect conditions to support Burrowing owls.  Over the past few years, I'd seen internet images of these little birds taken in the Badlands by local photographers.  Keen to capture some photos of my own, I decided to try my hand at locating Burrowing owls in Badlands National Park.

Shaggy bison

For the past three years, every time I visited South Dakota, my sister accompanied me on my Burrowing owl quest.  We'd logged several hikes around Badlands prairie dogs towns, but sadly always came up empty.  Credit to my sis - she was a good sport for following her crazy sister all over a bunch of bleak, dusty landscapes.  After several unsuccessful tries, I'm sure she was convinced the owls didn't exist.

A burrowing owl!

In early May, I made a visit to my family in South Dakota.  Of course, another trip to the Badlands was on my agenda.  But this time I did a little research.  My birding friends had recently turned me onto a website called ebird.  This site featured locations all over the US where people posted lists of the birds they had seen (and sometimes heard) in a specific area.  Pouring over recent ebird reports from the Badlands, I discovered a few people had observed Burrowing owls along a specific road in Badlands National Park.  After consulting the weather, I picked a favorable day to drive out there.


Since early morning was a good time to see Burrowing owls, as well as many other animals, I left my parent's house well before sunrise.  Although I missed photographing an amazing sunrise because I was driving, my early wake up call got me to the Badlands at dawn.  Perfect!  Enroute to where the owls had been spotted, I stopped to photograph some Pronghorn antelope, several bison and a meadowlark - all right out my car window!  The day was already looking promising.

These two were obviously a couple

Five miles down the specific road was a prairie dog town.  I suspected that's where the owls had been spotted.  Approaching the parking area, it was occupied by several large bison.  I surely wasn't going to pull over there!  So I kept driving slowly along the gravel road, scanning the landscape.  

I loved how they posed

Not far from the parking area, I spotted a small brown blob out my driver's side window.  Unsure if it was an owl or just another prairie dog (they both look alike from a distance) I grabbed my camera and zoom lens to have a better look.  As the lens focused, an owl's face came into view.  Oh my gosh, I'd finally found one!

One was nuzzling the other

Ecstatic, I quickly fired off multiple shots from my camera.  The owl sat for several minutes before tiring of this paparazzi woman, and flew away.  But then I noticed another brown blob nearby - it was a second Burrowing owl!

On guard in the wildflowers

This time I exited my car in hopes of getting closer to the little bird.  For a short while, the owl tolerated my advances, until I got too close for its comfort.  The owl then flew across the road.  Darn - I'd just found Burrowing owls and they were already gone!

The owl couple at a prairie dog burrow

But at least I'd finally spotted some these adorable little owls.  Happy with my discovery, I decided to drive a bit further down this gravel road.  At an overlook I saw a flock of wild turkeys with two large toms.  Then I heard a coyote howl, and spotted this magnificent animal nearby.  Deciding the overlook was my turn-around point, I headed back down the road.  Maybe I could find the owls again?

"If I close my eyes, maybe the photographer will go away"

I piloted my car back to where I'd seen the owls and there they were, right where I'd first spotted them.  This time both owls were sitting together in the grass.  Remembering my previous mistake, this time I stayed in my car and photographed out the window.  The two owls were so cute - one began nuzzling the other's face with its beak.  A type of owl kiss?  I kind of assumed they must be a couple.

I caught one in flight

After several minutes of owl watching through the window, I couldn't stand it any longer and exited my car with hopes of getting a bit closer.  Again, for awhile the owls tolerated my advances, but finally both of them flew across the road.  This time I watched where they landed and was able to pinpoint their location.

Owl giving me the side-eye

I walked across a prairie dog town, to where both owls were sitting.  They appeared to be at an old burrow, possibly their own?  One owl was partially sunk down into a hole, while the other was standing on one leg.  They both glared at me suspiciously with their vivid yellow eyes.  What great photos this made!  But I couldn't get very close or they'd fly again.  I had to really zoom to get the owls - my lens maxed out at 500 mm and even with a 1.6x crop factor in my camera, it wasn't as close as I would've liked.  Right now I was wishing I'd brought my 800 mm lens for more reach.  

Baby prairie dogs

Eventually both owls grew tired of me and once again flew to the other side of the road.  By now I'd recognized a pattern.  The owls went to the same locations on each side of the road, so they were fairly easy to find.  So I followed the owls to one side and back again for a couple of rounds, before I decided I'd probably disturbed the little birds long enough.  I had plenty of great photos, so it was time to move on.

Green grasses surrounding the colorful landscape

So I drove back to the main park road and got some shots of the amazing scenery that Badlands National Park is known for.  The new grass was a brilliant shade of green and it really made the red and tan rock formations stand out.  Yellow wildflowers brightened the landscape.

I spotted two wild turkeys

It still being early in the day, I saw many more animals along the park road.  Two female bighorn sheep were grazing nearby.  Another sheep was perched on a overlook right off the road and I got some great photos of her lounging, contemplating the morning.  The only bummer is that the National Park tags and collars many of their Bighorn sheep, so they don't look very wild.

Coyote howling

I saw oodles of prairie dogs, but I've taken so many pictures of the little critters I don't usually photograph them any more.  However, it being spring, there were plenty of prairie dog babies clustered atop the burrows, and one group was so cute I couldn't resist snapping a few images.  I saw more bighorn sheep, another coyote, more bison, and several unique birds.  It was a very successful morning of wildlife photography!

Bighorn sheep, #28 to be exact

Finally, about mid-morning the park began to fill with visitors, so I took this as my cue to leave.  But I was ecstatic - I'd finally found Burrowing owls in the Badlands!  Before heading back to my parent's home, I texted my sister with the good news.  (My sis had to work so she wasn't able to accompany me this time.)  She couldn't believe it!  Later when I was able to download and edit a few photos, I sent them to her as proof.

Now that I know what to look for, you can bet I'll be roaming the Badlands with my camera next time I visit.  Hopefully I'll see the Burrowing owls again.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

More From the Southern Oregon Coast

I'd had a wonderful two days reacquainting myself with Bandon's lovely beaches.  (If you missed that post, find it here.)  But I had another yurt reserved farther south in the town of Brookings, so on the third day I reluctantly began to pack up my car for the 80 mile drive.

Morning above Bandon Beach

But check in there wasn't until 4 pm, so with plenty of time to kill, I decided to take one last morning walk on Bandon Beach.

Part of Elephant Rock

The low-angle morning sun was shining from the east, flooding the beach with spectacular light.  Sauntering along the bluff high above gave me a perfect vantage to capture the seastacks glowing in sunshine.

Seastack reflection

Then I climbed down to beach level for another angle.  Some of the seastacks reflected quite nicely in the wet sand.

Face Rock

The churning waves in front of Face Rock were especially photogenic.

Yawning harbor seal

Then I strolled over to Elephant Rock to see if there were any Harbor seals around.  There were!  The blubbery mammals were chilling on some nearby rocks.

Seal pup and his mama

I spotted a seal pup and his mother nearby.  

Giving mom a kiss

The tiny baby seal was adorable, especially when he gave his mama a kiss on the nose.

Table Rock

Then, not wanting to miss low tide again, I headed over toward several prominent seastacks, where I knew from past visits had some great tidepools.

Tidepool life

And the tidepools did not disappoint!

Dueling seastars

Although the alien-shaped anemones were interesting, my favorite tidepool life form by far was the seastar.  I spotted several of these colorful creatures.  Lots of photographs may have been taken....

Lots of colorful seastars here!

I had to be out of my yurt in Bandon by 1 pm, so around noon I packed up the car and slowly headed south on highway 101.  

Cape Blanco Lighthouse

I made a stop at the Cape Blanco Lighthouse.  Although the lighthouse itself wasn't open to the public, it was in a very photogenic location.  A sky full of interesting clouds added drama to the scene.  I even ran into the lady I'd met on Bandon Beach the previous afternoon.  We seemed to have similar schedules - the lady was staying at the same state park in Bandon, and yesterday I kept meeting her in the bathroom!

I sent this pic to my hubby to let him know I'd made it

Then on to the very southern tip of the Oregon Coast and town of Brookings, where I had another yurt reserved at Harris Beach State Park.  After unpacking and having some chill time, I headed back out to seek sunset at a place called "Secret Beach."

A bride and groom were being photographed when I arrived

I'd stumbled upon Secret Beach during my last visit, several years ago.  However, since it had been awhile, I couldn't remember exactly which trail I'd taken or where I'd parked.  Thinking maybe I'd started at the "Natural Bridges" trailhead, I left my car there and followed a path that led northward into thick, coastal forest.  This rough trail roller-coastered through the woods, dodging rocks and large roots.  I walked for over a mile, and was getting very hot and tired.  I was just about ready to give it up when I spied a downhill path leading towards water.  Following an extremely steep trail I came out above a beach sheltered by several seastacks.  This was it!

Cool clouds above Secret Beach

The first thing I noticed was a bride and groom doing a wedding photo shoot.  The happy couple was down on the beach while their two photographers remained perched in the rocks above.  Reaching the beach required navigating a near-vertical, rocky slope that dived about 50 feet from where I stood.  I was impressed that the couple had made it down there.  After watching their half hour photo session, both bride and groom managed to climb back up the steep bank (the bride still in her wedding gown!) and the couple and their photographers left.

Sadly, the skies clouded over right before sunset

Secret Beach was a very scenic place.  A tiny, sandy beach ringed by several large, tree-topped seastacks, it was a popular place for local photographers to capture sunrise and sunset.  Although the beach below looking intriguing, I was too chicken to brave the rock scramble to reach it.  I wasn't even sure I was going to stay for sunset.  Although I'd brought my headlamp and a bright flashlight, the thought of hiking back out in the dark forest by myself wasn't appealing.  Then I met a young couple from North Carolina who were planning to stay for sunset.  I asked if could hike out with them and they replied "yes, of course."

Redwood Nature Trail

I discovered the couple were National Park junkies like me, and we had a great conversation about the parks we'd visited and the places still on our bucket lists.  They had just visited Redwood National Park, and had driven a bit further to see the Oregon Coast while they were in the neighborhood.

At first, the sky filled with small, pebbly clouds.  I got excited - if those clouds lit up at sunset, they would produce an amazing backdrop.  But sadly about 10 minutes before dusk, dull, gray clouds took over the sky.  No light was getting through those.  Sunset was a bust.

Huge redwood tree

When my new friends and I saw that the sunset show wasn't gonna happen, we decided to leave.  I followed the young couple back up the trail.  They had parked in a different pull out than me, one much closer.  We only walked about a quarter mile before arriving at their rental car.  I'd walked way too far!  However, being the nice people they were, the couple offered to shuttle me to my car.  As I settled into the back seat of the couple's car, rain began to pepper the window.  We'd made it back in the nick of time!

More giants

It absolutely poured all night, and I was glad to be in a yurt instead of tent camping, like many other poor souls in the campground.  My yurt had was made of thick canvas, featured a wooden floor elevated from the ground, and electric heat.  I was dry and cozy as a bug.

The redwood trees had such interesting bark

The rain continued well into the next morning, so I waited out the weather reading a book and drinking several cups of tea.  From my past visit, I remembered a small redwood forest just east of Brookings with a short nature trail.  Foggy, rainy days were perfect for photographing these spectacular giants of the forest.  If the rain didn't let up soon, I decided to head there.


The rain finally did let up, but it was still quite foggy so I decided to go check out the redwoods anyway.  Although redwood trees are common on the Northern California coast, Oregon has only a few small groves.  Apparently this is the northernmost redwood grove with a trail through it.  This short, 1.1 mile trail led me through these soaring giants.  My photos don't do justice as to how huge these trees really were.  They were really quite amazing!  As I traveled along the fern-covered forest, the clouds parted and sun began to stream through the tree canopy.

Harris Beach

After my short hike, I returned to Harris Beach State Park and walked down to check out the beach area.  Although it had a couple of seastacks, it wasn't nearly as pretty as Bandon's beach area.  Feeling kind of tired, I cut my walk short returned to the yurt.  I ended up having a lazy afternoon at the yurt, sitting around and finishing my book.  I didn't know it at the time, but I was in the beginning stages of an illness.  Two days later I came down with my husband's nasty cold, which he'd brought home from the office.

Sunset over Harris Beach

Low energy or not, I did manage to wrest myself away from my comfy yurt to capture one last sunset over the ocean.  Not wanting to walk a long distance, I chose a nearby viewpoint overlooking Harris Beach and set up my tripod.

Almost gone....

This night's sunset was the best of all.  A few low clouds provided some drama and the setting sun radiated a bright golden light that reflected in the ocean waves.  After the sun disappeared, it lingered in the sky for several minutes afterward.

Lingering light

It had been a wonderful four days spent revisiting some of my favorite spots on the southern Oregon coast.  But it was time to head home.  I had a memory card full of images to sort and edit that would keep me busy for many days.  And lots of good memories to tide me over until I could visit again.

Until next time!

Friday, June 14, 2024

Beach Time at Bandon

Bandon, Oregon.  The town with my all time favorite ocean beach.  It had been well over a year since I'd visited this gorgeous piece of heaven.  Time to plan a return trip!

Classic Bandon beach view

Spring is a perfect time to visit the Oregon coast.  Wildflowers are blooming, birds and other aquatic animals are having their babies, and increased daylight means more time outdoors.  I made yurt reservations at Bandon's nearby state park for late April and counted down the days.

Pretty oceanside cliffs

The first thing I always do when pulling into town is head directly for the beach.  Bandon's main beach is stunning, with craggy seastacks, tall cliffs decked in yellow wildflowers, and a wide expanse of sand (at low tide, anyway.)  On this day the beach was littered with thousands of small jellyfish-like creatures.  Called velella velella, these sea animals float on the ocean's surface, propelled by a small sail.  At the mercy of prevailing winds, colonies of velella velella are often subject to mass strandings on ocean beaches.  Such was the case today where I observed tiny blue bodies everywhere.

Lots of velella velella washed up on the beach

I'd seen this phenomenon once before many years ago.  Apparently velella velella mass strandings happen on some sort of cycle.  Mother Nature or not, it was sad to walk along the beach stepping over so many of these lifeless organisms.  

Velella velella close up 

After checking into my cozy yurt, home for the next two nights, I returned to the beach for sunset.  Bandon's beach is known for fabulous sunsets, the ocean sky framed by tall rock pinnacles.

Horse riders on the beach

Of course, I was a bit early.  So I entertained myself by photographing other things.  A group of horse riders trotted along the sand, and I couldn't help capturing a few pics of them.

Almost time for sunset!

Per usual, it was a bit windy on the beach.  Still having a hour to wait, I moved near the cliff, hoping it would break the wind.  It wasn't a bad view at all - I considered just staying put for sunset.

There she goes!

But in the end, I elected to wander a bit.  I walked up and down the beach, checking out the surroundings.  It's always difficult for me to chose the best sunset spot.  What should I include in the foreground?  The cluster of seastacks?  The interesting rock in the sand?  This time I tried to include both.

Post-sunset light

It was a beautiful evening.  The sun sank behind a cloud layer on the horizon, shooting up a few last rays before disappearing for another day.

Coquille River Lighthouse with lovely clouds

The next morning dawned cloudy, so I didn't bother getting up for sunrise.  After a bit of breakfast, I drove over to nearby Coquille River Lighthouse.  Although not in use anymore, the lighthouse is maintained by Oregon State Parks as a tourist attraction.  Sitting on a scenic spot along the Coquille River, I love photographing this landmark and always pay it a visit when in town.

Beautiful morning at the lighthouse

The yellow gorse was blooming around the lighthouse, which made for a pretty foreground.  Climbing out onto the surrounding jetty rocks for another perspective, I was delighted to see blue sky peeking through the clouds.  It didn't take long for blue to overtake the grey, leaving lovely puffy clouds in the sky.  A perfect backdrop!

Wildflowers at Devils Kitchen beach

After a quick stop at Bandon Coffee Cafe (highly recommended!) for a latte and second breakfast, I headed over to check out Devils Kitchen Beach, a place I'd never visited on all my prior trips.

Interesting rocks

Pulling into the parking area, I was greeted with a huge spread of wildflowers covering the grassy dunes surrounding this beach.

Sea stack

There were a bunch of interesting sea stacks here too.  Along with more washed-up velella velella bodies.  I spent a happy couple of hours wandering this beach, snapping copious photographs.  

Oystercatcher with it's lunch

Then with low tide approaching, I headed back to Bandon's main beach to check out the animal life.

Two oystercatchers

Walking near Elephant Rock, I spotted two oystercatchers searching the rocks for food.  These birds with their black bodies and bright orange bills are interesting to watch.  I noticed another lady with a long lens also photographing these birds.  We struck up a conversation, and discovered she too was traveling solo and loved to come here to photograph the sights.  The lady was staying in the same campground as I, camping in her van.

Harbor seal enjoying the day

After watching the oystercatchers for awhile, we moved over to where several Harbor seals were perched on the rocks.  No action happening in seal-ville, they were all just chilling.  Nothing much bothered these seals, even when waves from the incoming tide splashed over their bodies.

Harbor seal getting splashed

I spent so much time chatting with my new photographer friend, I nearly missed low tide.  Some of the larger seastacks have amazing tidepools around their bases.  By the time I got out there however, the water was flowing back with many of them already underwater.  I did manage to get one nice shot of an orange seastar, surrounded by velella velella bodies.


The incoming tide seemed to be bringing in even more of these little blue sailors.  The beach was littered with their squishy bodies, so much so that I couldn't avoid stepping on them.

Thousands of velella velella on the beach

After dinner at Tony's Crab Shack (another local favorite) I returned to capture sunset number two of my trip.  Parking at Coquille Point, I decided to set up on top of the bluff instead on the beach.  High tide was coinciding with sunset, and I didn't think there would be enough beach left.

Evening light

The sinking sun lit up Bandon Beach with some of the most beautiful light.  It turned the water a bright shade of blue.  While waiting for sunset, I enjoyed watching white, frothy waves crash over the seastacks.

Sunset number two!

It was another nice sunset, cut short by thick clouds near the horizon.  I still enjoyed some nice colors in the sky before packing things up for the evening.

The end of another great day

I got lucky with two dry, partially sunny days during my time in Bandon.  Tomorrow I planned to head to the town of Brookings, the southernmost point on the Oregon coast.  I'll recap the rest of my trip in the next post.  Stay tuned!