“I tell myself I’m not going to see anything every time I come up here,” Andrew Feiler says to me. “That way I’m not disappointed.”
It’s 5 p.m. and we’re ascending a slope of jagged rocks in the Spring Mountains. Behind us, the noise of the city is getting softer, with the exception of someone revving up a motorcycle in the neighborhood below us.
There is no trail here. Feiler, a prominent nature photographer, is retracing steps he’s taken up and down this slope for the two years that he’s been watching a pair of great horned owls nesting on the mountain cliffs. “I think there must be some labyrinth of holes back there that they use,” he says. “I don’t see why they’d leave. They have a nice situation; they have nothing bothering them.”
Today we’re just here to observe the owls. As the sun sets on the other side of the mountain, Feiler positions his binoculars on a tripod about 100 yards from the cliff. Even from this distance, we have to whisper so the owls don’t hear us. Feiler scans for the nest and gives me a crash course on bird behavior.
“Poop is a huge indicator for me, so that’s what I’m looking for,” he says. “Poop can tell you where they’re perching and nesting.” Owls, he explains, don’t build their own nests, but instead take them from other birds. This pair of owls shares part of the mountain range with red-tailed hawks. Both species are territorial and won’t go near each other’s turf.
“Hawks hate owls. Owls will eat their babies,” Feiler says. “But they live in ecosystems right next to each other because they both eat the same thing.”
Patience and Persistence for the Perfect Shot
Feiler is a self-taught expert on these birds. His knowledge comes from days and nights of waiting quietly and patiently in the wilderness.
“The goal is for them to get used to you so they’re not bothered by you,” he says. “Then I can [witness] the cool things, like mating or feeding—and [photograph] it in beautiful light with beautiful backgrounds. … That opportunity comes very rarely.”
Feiler began his career as a commercial photographer and transitioned to wildlife four years ago. In that time he’s captured images of burrowing owls in North Las Vegas and bighorn sheep in Boulder City. Those photographs and more are on display through March 31 at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, part of a dual collection titled Naturally Nevada and The Wild World. “I’d never done this for any sort of business,” he explains. “It was just, ‘I love to do this.’ I got the bug and I wanted to do more of it.”
Success at Sunset
It’s almost 5:30 p.m., and there is a sliver of daylight lining the top of the cliffs. The owls, Feiler hopes, will appear soon. “Patience in our world is nothing compared to patience in their world,” he says, remaining perfectly still, even as a bat flaps its wings just above us.
At last, we hear the unmistakable “hoo-hoo” of an owl calling out to another. A minute later, the second owl responds. Then one of the birds bursts from its hole in the cliff and flies above the mountain.
Feiler follows its path with his binoculars, and I can see its silhouette as the owl perches on a rock. I clumsily pull out my iPhone to take a shaky photograph through the eyepiece lens. This was totally worth it.
The owl, still perched at the top of the mountain, continues to call out to its mate. Feiler deduces that it’s the male. “He’s calling to the female and she’s responding,” he says. “They’re gonna have some babies soon.”
Naturally Nevada and The Wild World
Through March 31, daily, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., $5-$10, children 2 and under free, Las Vegas Natural History Museum, 900 Las Vegas Blvd. N., lvnhm.org