Ashleigh Scully has an impressive resume for a wildlife photographer—especially for one who’s only 16 years old. The high school sophomore has won more than a dozen awards, including cracking the Top 100 in the Audubon Photography Awards two years running, and she’s traveled the world to photograph wildlife. But she doesn’t have to go far to take a special photograph. This past spring, in her own backyard, Scully cleverly captured a curious young Eastern Screech Owl peering out from its owl box.
In the fall of 2016, Scully set up the box after first noticing Eastern Screech Owls around her yard. Then, that spring, her father found a nest inside. Upon learning the news, “I dropped everything and rushed home” from school, she recalls.
To avoid disturbing the young birds, Scully dutifully watched them with binoculars from her kitchen window. She soon realized this was a big family with seven birds, parents included. Sometimes, an owlet face would pop into view through the round opening. “Because there were five owlets in there,” Scully says, “they were using each other as stepladders.” The young birds, it seemed, were growing tired of their dark box and wanted a look at the world beyond.
Scully was inspired to photograph the playful pose. She decided to use a remote trigger, which serves as a remote control for the camera shutter even when a photographer is at a distance. “My goal is really to capture them in their own environment,” she says. “I'm invisible.”
She carefully set up her Canon EOS-1D X Mark II on a tripod a few feet from the nest one day when the birds were sleeping. She manually focused the camera on the opening, and attached her Camtraptions wireless remote trigger. Then she went back inside to do her homework, keeping her binoculars and the trigger receiver within reach.
As night fell, she watched the owl box, waiting for the right moment. When an owlet popped into the frame, she quickly pressed the receiver button, which triggered the camera to snap the picture. "I couldn’t wait to see the results when I retrieved my camera quietly after dark," she wrote in an email. Once she did, she saw that she'd gotten the perfect shot, with the young owl appearing to stare right back at the camera.
Scully continued to photograph the birds as they grew up and left the nest, hopping between branches in nearby trees, until one day they were gone. In a couple of years, it will be her own turn to leave the nest—though unlike the owlets, she’s already proven to be quite the explorer.