Author Archives: Dan Lockshaw

About Dan Lockshaw

Dan is the owner and president of Optics4Birding. An avid nature lover and traveler he has ventured into some of the most remote regions on the planet. As author of the website he has spent years promoting the conservation of nature. In contrast he comes from a long career as a senior Program/Mfg engineer in Aerospace design and development.

Great Gray Owl

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Northern Pygmy Owl in Yosemite

Northern Pygmy Owl in Yosemite

Two of us managed to get out of work, after many failed attempts, for a very quick trip to Yosemite. On the nights of September 27-28, we set out to find Great Gray Owl, Spotted Owl, and Northern Pygmy Owls. Although we did have good views of both Spotted and Northern Pygmy Owls. We did not spend the majority of our efforts looking for these species. The roads inside the park were also under “post-summer” construction which inhibited our movements in finding the owls. We only got out one morning, for a short period, to look for pygmy owl. That is when I took the photo here. This is a particularly good month to find this species because of post fledging vocalizations. Maybe next year we will have more opportunity to search for this owl thoroughly. Hopefully we will also take better photos and some video.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl in Yosemite

Great Gray Owl in Yosemite

Fortuitously, timing of this trip was coincident with the release of recent research findings on the Yosemite Great Gray Owl. While older taxonomy had all Great Gray Owl as belonging to one of two subspecies: Strix nebulosa nebulosa of North America and Strix nebulosa lapponica found in Europe and Asia. Genetic analysis of Yosemite area Great Gray Owl has shown them to be a unique subspecies: Strix nebulosa yosemitensis, according to lead researchers John J. Keane and Holly B. Ernest. They also estimated that the Sierra Nevada population had not interbred with the northern populations for approximately 26,700 years. We got very close views and were able to take high quality pictures. This was pleasing and made our short trip a success. This is Yosemite’s rarest resident bird with population estimates ranging from 50 to 200 individuals in or within fairly close proximity of the park.

We did pull up right next to a female Spotted Owl sitting on a snow pole but didn’t get photos. She was along one of the main highways inside the park. The owl was obviously hunting the road. Given the dangers of such behavior on a main road this is a bit sad.

Western Screech-owl calling

Western Screech-Owl with the Canon 7D Camera

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

Last month a couple of us went into Silverado Canyon to try and capture video of a Western Screech-Owl with the new Canon 7D camera. Since we found this cute little screech-owl right next to the road we used him as our test subject for our night-time video skills.

Night photography is always a challenge but with this camera in video mode, it was surprisingly simple to get great footage “fresh out of the box”. We set out this evening with only a small flashlight, camera, and tripod. Our results were very pleasing since this was our first attempt using so little equipment.

Canon 7D Camera

First of all the Canon 7D represents a big technological jump in digital photography. This camera delivers video and photo capabilities that give professional results at a reasonable cost to any amateur photographer.

We have now spent enough time with this camera to know that the rave reviews we hear about it are well justified. We took this video in the field at low light levels with minimal equipment, thus limiting the impact on the subject. The Canon 7D did a great job, producing high-quality video of Western Screech-owl under compromising conditions.

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl has the highest population density in the foothills of our local area. In oak habitat of the Western United States this owl is a common resident. He is very similar to the other three species of screech-owls found in the US. The most obvious and defining characteristic of all owls is their call. The “bouncing ball” call of the Western Screech-Owl is very distinctive and make his identification very simple. The birdwatchers often miss actually seeing this owl even though he is fairly common. This owl lives in dense wooded habitat. Furthermore his very well camouflaged plumage makes him very difficult to locate by voice.


YouTube video


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Yellow-billed Magpie

Yellow-billed MagpieFor Memorial Day weekend this year I went up to visit my family in Paso Robles. Cooking and visiting with family consumed most of my time. I got very little time to look at the birds and animals. I did though run across a few birds and managed to take a couple photos. One of the local birds that is fairly common near my folk’s ranch is the Yellow-billed Magpie. Yellow-billed Magpie is one of California’s two truly endemic birds the other being the Island Scrub-Jay of Santa Cruz Island.

Yellow-billed MagpieNacimiento Road to the north of town is a very good place to find this bird. In the morning on Memorial Day I took a very quick look for these unique and beautiful birds. Declining populations due to such factors as West Nile Disease and loss of habitat has caused great concern lately. They are quite vocal and their distinctive plumage makes them easy to find in the oak habitats that they frequent. The Black-billed Magpie is almost identical. Yellow-billed Magpie has always been my favorite of the two because of their striking yellow bill.

Barn OwlIn my brief birding time I also took a walk one night in my brother’s vineyards. This was just irresistible since I could hear Great Horned, Barn and Western Screech-Owls at night. This young Barn Owl, who did not yet fly very well, fluttered out of a nearby tree and onto the ground right in front of me. It is such a pleasure to see so many Barn Owl boxes in the agricultural areas in the Central Valley of California.

Many places across the US have seen tremendous declines in Barn Owl populations due to loss of habitat and in particular nest site availability. In a drive through the Central Valley of California you can see that many of the vineyards have put up Barn Owl nesting boxes on poles about 10-15 feet high dispersed throughout the fields. Ranchers and vineyard owners like to attract the Barn Owls because they help to control rodent populations.

Owling Yosemite

A Quick Trip to Yosemite

Yosemite Coyote

Yosemite Coyote with thick winter coat

On Saturday/Sunday May 22-23 two of us made a quick trip to Yosemite National Park to do some spring owling. This is generally a very good time to go to Yosemite because the Flammulated Owls are calling. I usually try to head up to Yosemite the weekend before Memorial Day. This way I don’t hit the big crowds. This is also the perfect time to find Flammulated Owls.

This year, it proved to be the wrong time for this because of cold weather. The Flammulated Owls were calling. Although it was only 35°F at night and often snowing. This is far too cold for this Southern California boy to be out owling! This does not include the curve it throws into taking pictures. As a brief summary we did find a lot of Flammulated Owls, as I would expect. Unfortunately, the owls seem to be much more secretive in the cold weather and I didn’t manage any good photos. We also saw a Great Gray Owl but once again did not get good pictures. He (actually she!) flew in very close, I think just to tease me, and then continued on into the forest to call at us from a distance. As a last owl for this quick trip we heard Northern Saw-whet Owl.

Try Again Soon

I generally expect to find and take pictures of Flammulated, Great Gray, Northern Pygmy, and Spotted Owls. On a good trip, or if I am looking to find species, I will add Northern Saw-whet, Great Horned, Western Screech and Long-eared Owls. This means I will return in the next few weeks so stay tuned. I don’t often miss, look for photos here soon! This handsome coyote above gives a feel for the weather and was taken with my Canon 7D camera using a 100-400mm lens.



Texas Owls

Two of us visited the gulf coast to search for Texas owls. At this time of year we also went to see some of the North American bird migration. Trying out a few of the new products we are starting to offer at Optics4Birding was a great excuse for our trip. We flew in on April 20th and returned home to southern California on April 28th. In this entry to the blog I will be talking mainly about the Texas owls we saw. More details, calls, and photos can be found on our sister web site

During the last 4 days of our trip, we were in the lower Rio Grande Valley. It was there that we found the three Texas owls species featured in this post. I shot all of the photos in this post with the Canon 7D digital camera. Optics4Birding now carries Canon cameras, lenses and accessories. I have been shooting with Canon equipment for many years now. Yet I got a new 7D virtually the day before this trip. I can’t say enough good things about this camera. It was very impressive. We saw lots of birders carrying them while we were out in the field.

Elf Owl – The First of the Texas Owls

Elf Owl - The First of the Texas Owls

Elf owl in tree cavity

The first of the Texas owls that we came upon was in Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park. We happened to be watching a Golden-fronted Woodpecker. I thought the woodpecker might be nesting in this tree when he stuck his head in a hole that was near the top. I guess not! The woodpecker quickly jumped off to the right and out popped another little bird’s face to see who the intruder was. I wasn’t quite ready to take pictures of this event but I had the Canon 7D equipped with a 70-300mm IS lens. The lens is small, light and easy to carry in the field. This lens is great for birders who want a simple lens to catch moments just like this.

The woodpecker and the owl

Texas Elf Owl

Elf Owl looks to see who is outside

As the bird emerged from the hole, I realized it was an Elf Owl with its little round face. This is debatably the smallest owl in the world (one South American species may be slightly lighter). With that big powerful bill we had to wonder why this woodpecker was being so cautious. The Elf Owl is only about half his size. We asked the ranger about this. He said that the woodpeckers had been hanging around the hole that the owl resided in. I think that the owl stole this hole from them and they weren’t happy about it. Although Elf Owls are strictly insectivorous, the woodpeckers are being cautious that the owl does not bite them.

Elf Owl size and Habits

Texas Elf Owl

This Elf Owl realizes we are outside too!

The Elf Owls are one of the most migratory owls in North America and generally only occur as far north as Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, arriving each spring. Elf Owl is a tiny bird, about the same size as a large sparrow. It pleased us to have stumbled across this encounter between the owl and woodpecker. This owl was just too cute as he looked out at us sleepily. We joked about how tired the owl was. It  just couldn’t quite keep its eyes all the way open as it peered down at us. The owl quickly retired back down in his hole. It was a treat to witness this interaction. I knew the Elf Owls were possible here although I wasn’t specifically looking one. Obviously birds respect all owls, regardless of their size!

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl in Texas

This Eastern Screech-Owl in Texas is well camouflaged against this tree trunk.

The next of our Texas owls was an Eastern Screech Owl. We chanced upon this one only a few hundred yards from the Elf Owl. This is the eastern cousin of our Western Screech Owl from home, and the two species are extremely similar in appearance (debatably indistinguishable by appearance alone). The Eastern Screech-Owl, like the Elf Owl, is strictly nocturnal and was visibly very sleepy. This picture is also a great example of the potential photo quality using the 70-300mm Canon lens. This owl has very good camouflaged plumage. Standing at the entrance to its hole, when it closed its eyes it was almost invisible against the tree trunk.

Eastern Screech-Owl in Texas

Spooked by something this Eastern Screech-Owl in Texas fly’s up onto a tree branch

Suddenly, the owl opened its eyes and flew to a nearby tree. It didn’t seem too bothered by me taking photos but something it heard woke him right up and it was very alert. Although I have taken many pictures of Western and Whiskered Screech-Owls, Eastern Screech-Owl is the only screech-owl species in all of North and Central America that I had not previously photographed. In fact, Eastern Screech-Owl was the last North American owl species I needed to photograph. That made this bird a very special one for me, and it also saved me from further night owling adventures with the Texas mosquitoes (I had missed finding Eastern Screech-Owl in the Houston area).

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in Texas

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in Texas

The last owl we planned to see in Texas was the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. It is the rarest owl in North America, found only in Arizona and Texas. I have seen this owl a few times in Arizona. Though very small (as the name implies) Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are incredibly ferocious. They feed mostly on small birds, but will attack birds up to twice their size. For this bird, I used the 400mm non image stabilized Canon lens. I think the pictures speak for themselves in quality although I am used to using and prefer a zoom lens. The 100-400mm IS Canon lens is also very popular amongst birders and what I normally use for taking photos while bird watching but this is a discussion for another time.


Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in Texas

This Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in Texas was calmly sitting on a tree branch. It kept a sharp eye open for potential prey.

It is hard to appreciate how small the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl really is: though larger than the Elf Owl, it is still only half the size of a Mourning Dove. I once saw a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl take a bite out of a dove in Mexico while it was making a dive-bombing run at the owl. Other birds may mob and make a fuss about a pygmy-owl in their area, but if one of the attackers gets a little too close it becomes lunch for the owl. The identifying markings of this owl are the streaking on the crown and the rust color on the tail. Northern and Mountain Pygmy-Owls both have round white spots rather than streaks on the crown and white tail bars. Both those species are usually found at a higher elevation.

Texas verses Arizona

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in Texas

The white forehead streaking of the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl separate it from the similiar Northern or Mountain Pygmy-Owls.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is getting easier to see in Texas because it is found on well-known ranches where, for a small fee, the ranchers will take you out to see them. These photos were taken at San Miguelito Ranch where there was a breeding pair. The owners couldn’t have been nicer and we got very close looks at the owls. I assume there are similar numbers of these owls in Texas as there are in Arizona. A few years ago while helping the Arizona Fish and Game one of the guys told me they figured there were about 17 pair in the entire state. Finding any on your own could be quite difficult, so going into a known ranch is probably a good plan to see this owl.


Neighborhood Greater Roadrunner

Neighborhood Greater Roadrunner

Neighborhood Greater Roadrunner

Walking down the sidewalk, the Greater Roadrunner in our Neighborhood

High school is out for Easter vacation this week. It was fun to see our local neighborhood Greater Roadrunner on my walk this morning. He was just walking down the sidewalk next to Aliso Niguel High School. He seemed interested in the guy taking his picture too.

We are watching at Optics4Birding.

Greater Roadrunner!

Enough of the pictures and it was time to dash off… crest down, head down, lean forward and go!


Neighborhood Greater Roadrunner

One last stop up the hill to see why the guy with the camera was still following.

About the Greater Roadrunner

Most of us who grew up with the Warner Brothers’ Roadrunner cartoon have some of the basic facts wrong. It is true that, in real life, coyotes are one of the main predators of roadrunners. Contrary to the cartoon though, coyotes can run at speeds up to 43mph. This speed is more than twice as fast as a roadrunner’s top speed. The cartoon was a much nicer thought with the roadrunner’s “meep meep” and then zooming away from Wile E. Coyote in a cloud of dust. In the real world there are many stories of charismatic Greater Roadrunners. These stories include everything from roadrunners courting people, to tapping on their windows, to leaving them prey each morning on their doorstep.


Greater Roadrunner is part of the cuckoo family. There is a smaller Lesser Roadrunner from Western Mexico (with small disjunct population in Yucatan) to Central America. The two roadrunners have only a small overlap of range in Sonora. The Greater Roadrunner has underside streaking missing on the smaller Lesser Roadrunner.

Habits, Habitat and Range

Although the roadrunner can fly it is considered a weak flier. Spending most of its time on the ground sometimes it will fly onto a low perch like a fence post. It lives in semiarid scrubland or the deserts of the South-Western United States to Central Mexico. In the US it can be found as far east as Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.


The Greater Roadrunner will eat most anything it can catch. It feeds on many larger insects and arthropods including tarantulas and scorpions. Lizards, snakes, mice, and small birds are also common food items. The roadrunner can jump into the air to snatch a hummingbird. There is popular discussion of its ability to catch and eat rattlesnakes. This often includes a team effort. One bird will distract the snake and the other will sneak up and attack it from behind. During winter months some fruits such as cactus fruit make up a portion of its diet.

Nesting and Brooding

Generally, the Greater Roadrunner mates for life. The pair build the nest 2-13 feet off the ground in a cactus, tree, or crotch of a sturdy bush. The nest is usually well concealed. The male gathers sticks, grass, leaves, feathers, and twigs. The female creates a platform up to 18 inches in diameter with a 4-inch-deep nest cup. The female may scold the male if he takes too long in bringing nest materials prompting him to get back to work. Both parents incubate the eggs for 19-20 days yet the male spends the greater time.


Vortex Razor Spotting Scope: Digiscoping

Example of what you see without the Vortex Spotting Scope

Example of what you see without the Vortex Spotting Scope

Many spotting scopes these days provide the attachment options for digiscoping. Consequently, this offers the ability to attach a digital camera and use the scope as a telephoto lens to take photos. Digital photo adapters vary widely in their design, ease of use, and speed to deploy. They also range in their compatibility with respect to the cameras they can accommodate. The Vortex Razor Spotting Scope is a relatively recent entry in the spotting scope market, providing high-quality optical performance at a very reasonable price (see Vortex Razor Scope Review). Vortex offers a digiscoping adapter for use with the Vortex Razor Spotting, so I took it out in the field to give it a try.

Digiscoping with the Vortex Razor Spotting Scope

Photo taken with Vortex Razor Spotting Scope

Digiscoped with Vortex Razor Spotting Scope

I went out this past Sunday to Laguna Niguel Regional Park with the Razor scope equipped with its 20-60x zoom eyepiece, the Vortex Razor Digital Adapter, and my Canon 40D camera with a 50-mm lens. This was my first attempt to digiscope with this equipment combination, so the pictures here are mostly to show what is possible and do not represent fully optimized photography with this rig.

An Osprey eating lunch at the park provided an interesting and challenging subject for this demonstration. The bird was sitting in a eucalyptus tree in rather unfavorable lighting. So as an illustration, we first took the photo (above) with the camera only. This is to show the level of zoom with and without the scope in line.

Next, we zoomed the eyepiece on the scope to about 40x and took the same photo (right) through the scope. As a result these photos give a good comparison of what a dramatic difference shooting through a spotting scope makes. This camera/scope combination at this magnification is equivalent to about a 3200-mm lens. This will vary from 2000 to 4000 mm at this level of zoom depending on the type of camera. We have not cropped these photos in any way. They are full-frame shots. We have only resized them to fit the pages here.



Golden Eagle at El Toro Marine Corps AS

A Stop Before Work

I made a quick stop coming into work this morning by the El Toro Marine Base. Flying overhead was the Golden Eagle that I have heard has been in the area recently. It appeared that there was some rather small bird chasing it. This seemed a bit unusual so I thought I’d watch what happened. I got out my camera to take a couple photos. So maybe I could figure out later what the smaller bird was that was chasing the eagle.

Smaller bird chasing Golden Eagle

My first looks at the smaller bird chasing the Golden Eagle

The Realization

As I watched the smaller bird chasing the eagle it began to dawn on me what that small bird was. That was no small bird. The small bird was a Red-tailed Hawk! Furthermore, he has a 4+ foot wing span. Seeing these two birds next to each other in flight really makes it clear how big that eagle is.

Golden Eagle being chased by Red-tailed Hawk

At a closer look the smaller bird is a Red-tailed Hawk!

Getting Close

As I continued to watch, the hawk was getting closer and closer to the eagle. Pretty soon, wow, he is right behind the eagle. Now I am beginning to wonder what is going on here. Wow, he is getting close!

Eagle chased by Red-tailed Hawk

The Red-tailed Hawk is getting very close.

The Attack

Now the excitement really escalates. So to my amazement and mid-air… ATTACK! The Red-tailed Hawk finally attacks the Golden Eagle. This is probably 100+ feet overhead. The eagle flips upside down and both raptors go at each other with talons extended.

Twice I watch this until the two raptors are out of view. This is not because they far away but because they are dropping in altitude and I loose sighting of them with a nearby low hill and obstructions. What a sight!!! It was also a stroke of luck that I decided to take a picture.

aerial attack on a Golden Eagle by a Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk attacks the Golden Eagle in an incredible aerial display!