Snowy Owls

March 06, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

A couple of days ago I had the opportunity to go out shooting Snowy Owls. What cool birds they are! These guys summer on the arctic tundra, so they are not as reclusive during the day as other owls, Your chance of seeing one during the daylight hours are greatly improved. Thanks to Tim Lee for inviting some fellow photogs out and sharing his knowledge on the hows and wherefores of shooting this amazing creature. Lots of lessons learned on this outing.

The day started early as we had to meet up in NE Calgary at 7:30 a.m. We didn't know if the weather would co-operate but we headed in to the city anyway and I'm sure glad we did. We joined a convoy of five vehicles, headed east of the city and it wasn't long before our first owl was spotted. Seeing five vehicles coming to a stop along the road convinced him it was time to leave. Rob was driving for me and as you may know, he's a hunter, so we gave chase! I got some terrible shots and we lost our convoy in the process.


The chase was on! But given that we were restricted to the road and this fellow had the freedom to go wherever he choose we didn't stand a chance. Besides you really don't want to cause anxiety to any critters as you try to photograph them.

We tried to find our group again, to no avail. That may have been for the best as we learned throughout the morning these owls are a pretty cautious breed. We drove up and down range roads and township roads, keeping in mind what Tim had shared with me - Snowy Owls seem to like power poles rather than trees or fence posts and true to his information that was generally where we spotted them throughout the day.
Perched on a mass of old strawDSC_1480

I kept thinking, if I were an owl where would I like to be and the answer I came up with was - where the food is.

Whoo wants to take my picture?DSC_1484

We came upon this guy quite suddenly, not on a power pole or a fence post. Possibly he had just finished his lunch of one of the mice that I'm sure habituate this mess of old straw. I spotted him and called out to Rob who stopped as soon as possible and then backed up into a road approach to the farm yard. I had the window down and was firing off a number of shots as we came to a stop. I had already learned to stay in the vehicle if at all possible because the owls seem less concerned about your presence if you stay in your vehicle but open a door and they are gone. He tolerated me for a moment or two but just as I was about to try composing a shot instead of firing frantically, he flew off.

Thanks to the power of the crop tool and the extra pixels my D600 offers I was able to get an image that seemed a lot closer than I actually was.

By this time the snow was falling and the wind was blowing. We would soon be in the grip of a good old prairie blizzard. Shooting while it's snowing offers a whole new set of challenges. Can see the grey spots on the above image? That snow can fool your camera's auto focus into focusing on the wrong thing. If time were not a factor while setting up my shot I would have been better to manual focus but I was not confident enough to make the change in my settings on the fly. I was using an ISO of 400 (it was a grey, dimly lit day) and an aperture of 5.6 with an exposure compensation of +.07 as the recommended settings provided by Tim at the start of the day, hoping to get a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. Upon reflection I should have tried a higher ISO, my camera is suppose to be able to go higher without the troublesome noise associated with high ISO. That may have allowed me to close down the aperture a stop or two which in turn may have made for a slightly crisper shot.
Will you annoying people never leave?DSC_1524

He kept a close eye on us at all times while flying from perch to perch.

Our final encounter with a Snowy Owl this day came when we were working our way back home. This time we spotted one perched on a telephone pole, unfortunately it was on the wrong side of the road for me. We tried to put the sneak on him but as soon as we got to within the space between two poles he left his perch and flew back to another pole a few behind us. Since we had the road to ourselves we backed up to try to get a closer shot. Again, as soon as we got to within the space between two poles he flew off again. This time back to his original perch. Was he playing with us? We drove forward again and back again. Rob even tried getting the shot from the driver's side window. Enough of this says I, as I jumped out of the truck and fired off a few hail Mary shots at him as he flew by for the last time. He seemed to look over and say If you guys don't leave I will just go park myself out in this field. Which he did.

Winter roadsDSC_1552-Edit

We had headed for home by the time things got too nasty. The last hour or so on the road was a little nerve wracking and I was very happy to get home. I jumped out to get this shot and could hardly get back into the truck the wind was blowing so hard against the door. We were familiar with the roads we were on and had both packed extra clothes in case anything went wrong so we were fine but I would not have wanted to be traveling much farther on this day.

This won't be my one and only attempt at capturing images of Snowy Owls, I may even get another chance on Friday!

Lessons learned this time out?

  • Spread the word what you are up to, you never know when someone has the information you need.
  • Sharing knowledge is a good thing! On this outing I was once again shooting something that was new to me, but I was helped by another photographer who was generous enough to share the knowledge and expertise he had gained through trial and error, what a savings in time that was for me.

Until next time

Ta for now, Cathy



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