Owls

Nesting owls near High River

Great Horned Owl - 2014 © Christopher Martin

A nest east of High River that I have watched for a few years is home to a new brood of Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) owlets again this spring.  I went on a backroad tour last weekend and when I saw the nest occupied I set up the long lens and watched the owl as it dozed.  I watched her shift her weight around a few times and hoped that there were nestlings who might want to peek out from under their feathery blanket.  It didn’t take too long for one and then two of these babies to have a look around.

2014 © Christopher Martin

-

Owl and owlets - 2014 © Christopher Martin

On this latest visit, a fellow admirer told me that the nest has been used to raise owlets annually for over forty years.  I love that and it makes sense as the nest is in a great location with access to fields, shade, protection and seemingly all of the things that make for a good home.

Owl on guard - 2014 © Christopher Martin
A couple more photographs from the visit.

Fluffing up - 2014 © Christopher Martin

-

A little peckish are we? - 2014 © Christopher Martin
-

Aware of what's around - 2014 © Christopher Martin


An abandoned barn for owls

Reserved observation - 2014 © Christopher Martin

I went out on the prairie a couple of times on the weekend.  I was looking for owls.  On the “hope to see” list were Great Horned, Snowy and Short-eared.  I went to the back roads around Frank Lake.  I encountered a couple of Snowies but it was too dark to photograph them.  I returned to both locations in better light a couple of times but unsurprisingly they had both moved on.  Nice to know they were around though.  Short-eared proved elusive and I did not see any ears, short or otherwise.

Barn sentinel - 2014 © Christopher MartinCanon 5DIII + 500mm f/4 lens and 1.4X extender: 1/640 of a second at f/6.3 on ISO 1600

I did find a great old barn set off in a remote spot with a couple of grain silos on the first evening.  That scene was great on its own but the Great Horned Owl I saw perched in a window.  The window frame was weathered with peeling red paint so character was not in short supply.  The owl was shy once I stopped my car and it hopped inside the barn to perch on a beam.   I set up a ways back from a west-facing window at the other end of the barn in the hopes that the owl might fly through it as dusk approached and it went out to start hunting.

Framed - 2014 © Christopher MartinCanon 5DIII + 500mm f/4 lens and 1.4X extender: 1/320 of a second at f/6.3 on ISO 3200

A chilly wait through the golden light had no results and when the owl did head out, it flew through the eastern window.  While I waited, a long lens and high ISO allowed for a couple of nice shadow dominated images.  I left the owl the first night with it perched on a fencepost near the barn.  When I returned home and looked at the images, I was surprised to see a second owl buried in the shadows inside the barn.  It had been invisible to my eyes but had just barely resolved on the highest ISO images.

I returned two days later before dawn and saw the pair of owls working out of the same eastern window.  I set up on the same western window and could see them through main entrance as the sun rose.  Their activity wound down as the day wrestled with the night and soon they were perched on the same beams as before.

In shadows - 2014 © Christopher MartinCanon 5DIII + 500mm f/4 lens: 1/80 of a second at f/4 on ISO 2000

This time, I took a wide path around the side of the barn and was able to photograph each owl on their respective beams through the eastern window (per the image at the top of this post and directly below).

In the barn - 2014 © Christopher MartinCanon 5DIII + 500mm f/4 lens and 1.4 extender: 1/100 of a second at f/6.3 on ISO 3200

I returned to my original spot and as I came around the barn saw that one of the owls had flown up to the top of a silo.  It was perched there scanning the fields.  I guess it wanted one last snack before its nap.

Up on a grain silo - 2014 © Christopher MartinCanon 5DIII + 500mm f/4 lens and 1.4 extender: 1/1000 of a second at f/6.3 on ISO 1600

It stayed up there for ten minutes and then flew along the fence-line, dropped on a fence post for a minute and then glided over the patchwork of snow and grass to a mound of earth a few hundred meters away.

Fence flight - 2014 © Christopher MartinCanon 5DIII + 500mm f/4 lens: 1/1600 of a second at f/4 on ISO 1600

I waited a while longer to see if the owl would come back or its mate would head out.  Neither happened and I packed up as the owl inside the barn dropped off to sleep.

I’ll head back to see about that window again in a couple of weeks.  Maybe they’ll give me an opportunity then.  It was great to see these beautiful birds either way.  They have amazing faces and I really enjoyed studying them for a couple of hours.


Hanging out with an owl

Canon 5DIII camera with a Canon 500mm lens: 1/1250 of a second at f/4 on ISO 2500

I have had a couple of visits with a Great Gray Owl on one of the backroads in West Bragg over the past week.  This particular section of the gravel road has only yielded one moose a couple of years ago.  Still, it is a beautiful area so I often head up there as far as the private gate that cuts off the road’s climb out of the forest to a hilltop meadow.  Last weekend I was turning my car around and having a look up at the wind-broken treetops more out of habit than expectation.  The owl was perched in shadow just inside the forest’s edge.

Gazing up and over - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Canon 5DIII camera with a Canon 500mm lens: 1/1250 of a second at f/4 on ISO 2500

I hopped out and watched him for a minute before climbing up the hill across from the trees so that I could be at a similar height to the perch and hopefully catch some hunting action whenever the owl decided to dive down.

Note regarding the gender of this owl: I say him, because there was no urgency to this owl so I presume a nest full of owlets wasn’t waiting at home.  I could easily be wrong – I have not figured out how to determine whether a Great Gray Owl is male or female – yet.  So, I will stick with he for now as I much prefer that over “it”.  Either way, between concentrated stares into the tall grass below, feather grooming and very quick naps occupied his time.

Preening - 2013 © Christopher Martin-5533

Canon 5DIII camera with a Canon 500mm lens: 1/1250 of a second at f/4 on ISO 2500

From his perch, the owl was busy looking around in the direction of any sounds or movement on the ground.  I heard little and saw less – the same was definitely not true for my figurative companion.   After the better part of an hour, he gave a quick shake and then dove almost straight down.

Free diving - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Canon 5DIII camera with a Canon 500mm lens: 1/1250 of a second at f/4 on ISO 2500.

I captured a few nice frames of the dive (the image above and the one that opens this post) but he disappeared from my view into the tall grass.  A couple of hops brought the now familiar head into sight and I could see he missed his target.

On the down low - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Canon 5DIII camera with a Canon 500mm lens: 1/1250 of a second at f/4 on ISO 2500

He launched back into the air and settled on the branch of a dead tree.  This time he was in the morning sun so he favoured me with a different setting to photograph him in.  Very photographer friendly was this fellow.

Settling onto a new perch - © Christopher Martin-5742

Canon 5DIII camera with a Canon 500mm lens: 1/3200 of a second at f/4 on ISO 1600

I stayed on my hill for another half an hour and enjoyed watching the grooming, staring and napping habits.  I left him there and continued on the back roads.

In the forest - © Christopher Martin-5871

Canon 5DIII camera with a Canon 500mm lens: 1/3200 of a second at f/4 on ISO 1600

This weekend, I had the house to myself and ended up sleeping in late on the morning I had planned to head out for sunrise.  Still, I was back on the same country road around 8 am with faint hopes of a repeat visit.  Scanning the broken trees again, I found no wildlife of any kind and completed my turn around.  Then, I saw the owl sitting in a branch about 20′ off the ground on the side of the road opposite where I had been looking.

Morning in the forest - 2013 © Christopher Martin-3289

Canon 5DII camera with a Canon 70-200mm lens + 1.4 extender at 121mm: 1/800 of a second at f/6.3 on ISO 640

-

Morning in the forest - 2013 © Christopher Martin-8597

Canon 5DIII camera with a Canon 500mm lens: 1/3200 of a second at f/4 on ISO 500

He gazed at me for a few seconds, I nodded and he continued the pattern of watching, grooming and napping that I had watched the week before.  He added a bit of variety with a yawn here…

A big yawn - 2013 © Christopher Martin-8661

Canon 5DIII camera with a Canon 70-200mm lens + 1.4X extender at 280mm: 1/2000 of a second at f/5.6 on ISO 2500

A wing stretch there…

Owl yoga - © Christopher Martin-8734

Canon 5DIII camera with a Canon 70-200mm lens + 1.4X extender at 280mm: 1/2000 of a second at f/6.3 on ISO 2500

After a half an hour, the owl flew to another stump and then went higher up into the trees further up the road.  As he launched out of the tree and went past me, I had a nice opportunity for a couple of in flight shots.

 Launch - © Christopher Martin-8759

Canon 5DIII camera with a Canon 70-200mm lens + 1.4X extender at 280mm: 1/1600 of a second at f/6.3 on ISO 1600

Forest flight - © Christopher Martin-8762

Canon 5DIII camera with a Canon 70-200mm lens + 1.4X extender at 280mm: 1/1600 of a second at f/6.3 on ISO 1600

He seemed to decide he had other places to be and flew deeper into the forest after just a couple of minutes perched in the canopy.

 Perched in the canopy - © Christopher Martin-8803

Canon 5DIII camera with a Canon 500mm lens: 1/1250 of a second at f/4 on ISO 2500


Owl flights in Bragg Creek

Evening launch - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Canon 5DIII camera with Canon 500mm F/4 IS lens: 1/1250 second at f/4 on ISO 2500

Kezia and I drove out to see the owl the other night.  This visit was a real treat.  The Great Gray Owl was very relaxed and flew towards us in two short glides separated with twenty minutes of perching on a fencepost.

A golden flight - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Canon 5DIII camera with Canon 500mm F/4 IS lens: 1/1250 second at f/4 on ISO 2500

-

Fence launch - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Canon 5DIII camera with Canon 500mm F/4 IS lens: 1/640 second at f/4 on ISO 4000

Kezia was delighted watching the owl’s swooping flight and she whispered to the owl urging her to keep flying.  As it got darker the owl got more active so Kezia got to watch it flying every couple of minutes.  It moved into the forest, came back and then crossed the road, perched nearby and then we left for home.

Forest flight - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Canon 5DIII camera with Canon 500mm F/4 IS lens: 1/640 second at f/4 on ISO 4000

It was a great evening to be out, especially with Kezia and I having so much fun.

Night watchmen - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Canon 5DIII camera with Canon 500mm F/4 IS lens: 1/320 second at f/4 on ISO 5000


Great Gray Owl in Water Valley

Owl scout - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Water Valley is a lushly forested area broken up with farm fields, hills and streams.  Any one of these can attract owls so it is little surprise that many are seen in the locales between Cremona and Cochrane.  I drove along Horse Creek Road and the Grand Valley Road a few days ago to enjoy the countryside as well as see what wildlife I might find.  Near Cremona I found a Gray watching the grass in the front yard of a ranch from one of the fence posts.

On maze of old fencing - 2013 © Christopher Martin

By that time it was early evening so I set up my gear on the shoulder of the road and waited to see if the owl might start hunting.  It looked at me languidly a few times and I thought that might be the all there was to this sighting when it flew into the trees.  I was wrong.  It stayed in the woods for a few minutes and then came back to the fence again.

Onto the fields - 2013 © Christopher Martin

A minute later, it flew to a new post about 30′ from where I was sitting.

Flying postal - 2013 © Christopher Martin

From that point the owl started hunting and remained less than 100′ away for the next hour.  It proved to be adept at attacks into the long grass and grabbed five mice over that period.  The strikes onto the field creatures were impossible to photograph as the talons and head of the owl would disappear completely into a screen of pale yellow.

Attack! - 2013 © Christopher Martin

-

On prey - 2013 © Christopher Martin

That was only a very minor disappointment, being able to watch this master hunter at work was very enjoyable.

Great Gray Owl flight - 2013 © Christopher Martin

-

Flying along the fence line - 2013 © Christopher Martin

I had great opportunities to photograph the owl flying before night took hold.  In the image below it was quite dark so I needed a longer exposure to gather enough light.

Dusk flight - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Just as I decided to pack up and head home, a car came down the road and I snapped this last image with the help of the headlights.

Good night dear owl - 2013 © Christopher Martin


On the edge of Kananaskis with an owl

Forest flight - 2013 © Christopher Martin

(click on any image to open a window to a higher resolution version)

I persuaded my children to join me for a drive through Bragg Creek into Kananaskis last night to look for the Great Gray Owls that have returned to some of their summer haunts.  We traveled several of the backroads with not much wildlife found but the sun was out and we enjoyed chatting away.  I had turned back towards home when Kian spotted a beautiful Great Gray up in an aspen tree.

Curiosity - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Its plumage matched the bark quite well and I had completely missed it.  Luckily my son’s sharp eyes did not.

Launch - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Having accomplished the find, Kian then returned to his story while Kezia and I got out and watched the owl swoop across the open forest between trees for almost an hour.  There was great light and the owl was hunting and resting normally so we enjoyed the encounter and I was rewarded with some great opportunities to photograph the bird.

Wings up - 2013 © Christopher Martin

By 8 pm, it was time for bed – for the kids not the owl – so we left her perched on a branch near the road and went home.

Up in a perch - 2013 © Christopher Martin


The return of owls (and wisdom)

Danger launch - 2013 © Christopher Martin

It has been just about ten months since my last encounter with a Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) in one special area I frequently visit in Bragg Creek.  Last year, there was a two month stretch where I would regularly see one or more of four owls in the forest and fields there.  The long absence could be for any number of reasons but most likely it was me not seeing them or them not wanting to be seen.  I know from talking with people in Bragg Creek that owls remain year round but I think some rotate around different spots throughout the year and some migrate away for at least a few months.

On a field mouse - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Last night I went for a drive with my daughter to see what animals were out and about.  When I first spied this owl it was perched on a sapling standing in the middle of one of the meadows.  It was a couple of hundred metres away so we watched for a minute and then carried on.  About a half an hour later we returned and found the owl in a tree along the fenceline.  It was watching over the grassland and soon dove successfully on a field mouse.  It carried that back to a fencepost, had its snack and then went for another one.  Given the place it was, the way it hunted and its markings I think it was one of the four from last year.  She looked hungry so I imagine there are owlets back at her nest.  Over a fifteen minute period of watching her, three rodents fell victim to her aerial strikes.

Big owl, little tree - 2013 © Christopher Martin

It was special to be there with my daughter for this encounter.  However she fell asleep as it was close to her bedtime so I will show her the pictures and we will have to return – maybe tonight.  Last year I had almost daily encounters with the Great Grays in this area.  I can only hope for a repeat this spring.


After dark in Boundary Bay

Evening Snowy Owl - 2013 © Christopher Martin

After watching a Barn owl hunt across the long grass marsh flats at Boundary Bay through dusk in mid-March, I was packing up when I saw a Snowy owl perched on a log.  It was about 100 yards away but the white oval shape stood out distinctively against the blues and blacks of evening.

Looking over the fields - 2013 © Christopher Martin

I worked my way along the levee towards the bird and it just stared at me as I stopped about 50 feet away.  We stared at one another for a minute and then the owl whipped its head around and cocked it towards some sound or motion I was oblivious to.  It didn’t attack and went back to looking around for a while.  A few minutes later, it launched onto another large piece of driftwood which was closer to the ground.

Stalking in Boundary Bay - 2013 © Christopher Martin

From there, the snowy stalked along the wood and ended up jumping into the grass at one point.  It stayed in the grass for a little bit but I didn’t see whether it was successful in catching something or not.

In the marsh - 2013 © Christopher Martin

The bay was dark by this time and I left the owl as it flew to another perch nearby.  I had a few great encounters in Boundary Bay – I’m already excited to go back soon.


An afternoon with a Snowy owl

Snowy owl in flight - 2013 © Christopher Martin

With visions of the Boundary Bay owls still streaming past my mind’s eye, I went out for a drive on the Prairies this weekend.  I have been working on my Snowy owl imagery pretty steady this winter and have found a few images to be elusive to create.  For this trip east of Calgary, I was hoping to get some interactions showing a little personality as well as head on flight images.  It turned out to be a great afternoon for both.

Along the fenceline - 2013 © Christopher Martin

I went east on highway 22X and roamed a few of the range roads north of Carseland.  I found a hawk followed by an eagle in the first couple of miles.  I left the Bald eagle on its perch in a barren tree and zigzagged back towards the highway.

Eagle tree - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Well short of the main road, I found this Snowy owl perched on a fencepost a few hundred yards into the field.  I waited for 15 minutes and then the bird launched and flew in front of me along the fenceline and crossed the gravel.  I picked it up on a telephone pole nearby and that was its field base for the afternoon.

2013 © Christopher Martin

Over the next couple of hours, the owl dove off the beam several times and earned a few snacks along the grass and snow.  At launch and during its return flights to the perch, it gave me some wonderful opportunities as it would keep an eye on me now and then.

Leap - 2013 © Christopher Martin

During the long breaks between sorties, the owl sat largely motionless except for the full circles carved in the air by its head.  There were a few great moments with interesting yawns,

Snowy yawn - 2013 © Christopher Martin

ear scratching,

Taking a break - 2013 © Christopher Martin

and humorous facial expressions.

Squinting - 2013 © Christopher Martin

One of the tours detoured to a long abandoned windmill which made for a great scene.  The blue sky and white bird can make even a worn out relic look great!  Well, that particular structure has a lot of good character on its own but I think you know what I mean.

Gliding off of the windmill - 2013 © Christopher Martin

So we had a good rhythm for quite a while and when I finally packed up it was in the middle of a glide back to the same perch.  I would have loved to stay until the evening light but the hands were cold and the bird had been a very accommodating host so no reason to wear out the welcome.

Snowy flight and gaze - 2013 © Christopher Martin -

Peeking over wing - 2013 © Christopher Martin

-

Sky dive - 2013 © Christopher Martin


Hunting with a Barn owl at dusk

Scouting over Boundary Bay - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Boundary Bay is lovely throughout the year.  Early spring along the levee that runs parallel to the tidal flats, driftwood piles and grassy fields is not an exception.  When we were there last weekend, the rain rolled in as we were watching Snowy owls scattered across the grassland which did contribute to a beautiful scene a couple of hours later.  At the time, it set the owls in their poses as they hunkered down through the showers.

Snowy owl and the heavy rain - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Jack and I waited for the weather to change so that the owls may take to the air.  Dusk was quickly approaching and we had hopes that these raptors would start hunting.  The rain increased and we walked back along the dyke towards the parking lot a couple of kilometers away.  As the car came into view, the rain lessened and when I was at the trailhead, the sun had even hazarded a couple looks under the clouds.  The evening light was beautiful though very soft as it was filtered by the clouds and water vapour in the sky.  A rainbow over the water drew my attention out over the flats and that’s where I first saw a distant bird flying low over the marshes.

After the rain in Boundary Bay 2013 © Christopher Martin

I followed it through the gloom and as it moved closer and into the sunlight, I was able to identify it as a Barn owl (Tyto alba).  This was my first sight of one of these owls in the wild and I fell in love immediately.

First encounter - 2013 © Christopher Martin

They have a chaotic flight pattern where they swoop along and then dive with great conviction downwards at crazy angles when they find a target.  It crisscrossed a large area for about half an hour and all I could have wished for was a bit more light.

Curious Barn owl on a flyby - 2013 © Christopher Martin

Dusk was well entrenched by this time and I was pushing the camera’s ISO and autofocus hard.  The owl was curious too and swooped by on two separate occasions.  The whole time spent watching this bird was a great experience and I’m looking forward to my next encounter with one of these beautiful owls.

In flight - 2013 © Christopher Martin

-

Barn owl flight over Boundary Bay - 2013 © Christopher Martin

-

Night flight - 2013 © Christopher Martin

I could still make out the silhouette as it flew further away but my attention was pulled in a new direction by a Short-eared owl that circled by for a couple of minutes and then a Snowy which, freed from its perch by the calm weather, landed on a pile of waterlogged wood less than a stone’s throw away.  I hope to share some of those photographs soon.

 


Snowy owls on the Prairies

A beautiful day to fly - © Christopher Martin-9219

The past weekend involved a lot of Snowy owls so it was fantastic.  On Friday, I made a solo run east of Calgary and roamed the country roads between Langdon and Strathmore eager to find the white owls which enthrall me.  I found one perched on a fence post warming under bright sunshine along  and had several minutes to enjoy watching her before a tanker truck roared by and the sound spooked her off the roost.

Watching from the fence - 2013 © Christopher Martin

I say her because females Snowies often have dark banding  – often but not always as adolescents of both genders have heavy banding as well.  It used to be thought that males were usually white with little or no banding and the females were as described.  There are convincing arguments for and against however I found this link persuasive.  It has helped me to realize that I would need an expert’s opinion before I would state any Snowy owls gender in absolute terms.  So, please allow me the license to use he and she with these owls so that I can avoid referring to individuals as “it” which seems to drop them into object status rather than that of a living creature.

Snowy owl into the air - 2013 © Christopher Martin

The owl took flight across Highway 901 and flew out over the fields.  I watched it glide low and out of sight behind the rolling hills to the southwest.  I zigzagged along the roads in the same general direction and found her on a telephone pole scanning the landscape.  I pulled alongside slowly, set up my camera through the window and got comfortable.  Fast forward half an hour and she seemed to lock onto something out in the grasses.  When she did launch it was under a cloudy sky which makes for an interesting contrast of white on white (as in the image above).  I love watching the Snowy owls fly and then glide low.  She dove down in the middle of farmland and settled for several minutes on what seemed to be a successful kill.  She was a long ways out so I headed off along the crisscross of back roads.

Full spread - 2013 © Christopher Martin

About a quarter of an hour later I found another owl in a different field.  I pulled off, set up and waited to see if this owl would fly in my direction.  After five minutes it flew parallel to the road I was on and then swooped up to another telephone pole.  This owl was actively hunting and moved around a lot over the next hour.

Field rest - 2013 © Christopher Martin

The highlight was when it perched on a fence post near the road where I was parked and we looked at each other for over a minute before it went over to a higher perch on another pole. The evening was coming in slowly and I left the owl once it had flown up to a very tall transmission line tower where it was glowing in the sun against a dark cloud background.

Touchdown - 2013 © Christopher Martin

As the light failed, I retraced my steps back towards the highway but had a visit with one last owl, this one a male (maybe).  The soft pastels to the east and the glow from the west on the white feathers were beautiful and I photographed him until the darkness overwhelmed my camera’s sensor.

Watching the night fall - 2013 © Christopher Martin

And then, on Sunday, my wife and I took the kids and one of their cousins to Drumheller to visit the Royal Terrell Dinosaur Museum.  This allowed us to search for owls on our drive there and we were not disappointed with the weather or with what we found along the way.  The blue sky was a change from Friday’s mixed weather and always provides a great background for white birds.

To the air - © Christopher Martin-9215

We saw several owls and all but one lingered on their perches for 5-15 minutes before alighting or us moving on.  This allowed the kids the opportunity to watch them and appreciate a magical part of nature.  They had a great time with my son surprising me the first time that we drove away from one bird, saying that we should stay and watch a little longer.  Normally, having grown up with his dad always stopping to photograph wildlife during walks, hikes, rides, drives, etc., he is often anxious to get going again – not this time.  I think the Snowy owls cast the same spell on the children that I have been under for almost two years now.

Stretching into the air - © Christopher Martin-9258


Snowy owl perched

Curious on a perch - 2013 © Christopher Martin

I hung out with a Snowy owl for quite a while the other afternoon.  I settled in a little ways off from the telephone pole that was serving as the scouting perch with the hopes of a dive down into the snow for a field mouse caught unaware below.

A casual stare - 2013 © Christopher Martin

That didn’t happen but I enjoyed watching this beautiful, heavily barred owl as it scanned its surroundings.  I never think it’s a waste of time to spend time with wild creatures and get to learn a bit more about their ways.

 


Flying with Snowy Owls

Banking - © Christopher Martin-0995-2

I have been able to spend a couple of evenings with the two Snowy Owls since my first encounter with them near the Springbank Airport just before New Year’s.  These are a few of the images that have stood out from the growing collection.  I absolutely love watching these birds and with more time I’m learning some of their habits and behaviours.

Launch at dusk - © Christopher Martin-0826

-

Evening flight - © Christopher Martin-0829

The images below are from a drive I made east of Calgary on the weekend.  I had good luck finding Snowies around Langdon and Gleichen last year and the success continued when I spotted this beautiful owl flying around one of the fields.

Snowy Owl on the fields - © Christopher Martin-2

-

Snowy Owl on the fields - © Christopher Martin-1307


Snowy Owls in Springbank? Yes!

Over the shoulder - © Christopher Martin-9689

(please click on any image to open a new page with a higher resolution version)

The days between Christmas and New Year’s have involved watching a pair of Snowy Owls in a new location.  Thanks to a sighting near Calaway Park shared by Andrew Hart with the Alberta Bird group, I drove along the back roads in the area looking for one of these majestic owls.  It was near sunset when I found the first one along Range Road 40 on a transmission tower.  The bird was a long way from the road and even with a 500mm telephoto lens plus a 1.4X extender (for a total of 700mm of reach) the two images below are cropped in significantly.  With failing light and a settled bird, I left this one and headed east towards the Springbank Airport.  Across the road from the airport, I saw the white oval of a second Snowy perched as seen above.  This owl was much closer which helped tremendously given how dark it had become.

Pre-flight - © Christopher Martin-9500-2

Despite the title and the pose, the owl did not fly after this shot.  It was readjusting its body by a quarter turn to the east and ended up staying in the position below until sometime after I left.

Attention - © Christopher Martin-9514

My wife and I went past the airport the next day and found one of the owls perched alongside Township Road 250.  The hunt seemed ready to commence but a raven flew by and spooked the owl into a short flight across the field (and beyond my lens’s range).  It was wonderful to see one of the owls glowing in the beautiful winter light.

Launch - © Christopher Martin-0175

-

Flying away - © Christopher Martin-0178-2

I was unable to go that way today however my wife did and she watched both of the owls perching, hunting and jousting with a raven.  I’m hoping they settle into the area and spend their winter here.  Last spring my searches for Snowy Owls took me out to Langdon and on towards Brooks so it’s nice to save the couple of hours driving there and back for more time photographing these owls (as well as the coyotes, eagles and hawks which normally hunt in the Springbank Airport area).


Great Grey Owl – flights along a forest meadow

(Please click on each image for higher resolution versions)

My friend Jeff came back out to Bragg Creek to photograph with me again last weekend.  We found a female Great Grey Owl hunting over one of the fields in West Bragg.

She was covering large areas of the field with each flight and it was fun trying to anticipate where her flight path would go as she crisscrossed the meadow. 

The intensity of expression of these owls always holds my attention.  That coupled with the power in their flight motion make them so interesting to watch.  This encounter was no exception to that rule.

The talons are amazing too.  I have heard of people being attacked by Great Grays when they strayed too close to a nest – I continue to believe that is something to be avoided.


Great Gray Owl flights and perches in Bragg Creek

I had a great morning earlier this week watching this female Great Gray Owl.  She flew to several perches as she moved from the forest into the open meadows nearby.

She was watching for quite a while at each stop.   She seemed pretty relaxed, without any great urgency to hunt.

Down the field, the sun was reaching into the trees.  The light that got through was really beautiful.

I’m hoping to hang out again over the weekend.  We’ll see if she is thinking the same thing.


Forest owls in flight

(Please click on each picture for high-resolution versions of each image)

My friend Jeff Rhude came out to Bragg Creek to photograph along the back roads with me this morning.  We struck out for West Bragg around 6am with the sun fighting valiantly to burn off the haze.  The resulting soft light was wonderful and stayed with us through our first meeting with one of the owls I have photographed a couple of times recently.

We found this owl a couple of hundred metres down the fence line running at a right angle from the road.  It flew to a couple of posts and we photographed it from the field facing the forest.  It moved back towards the road and we went ahead of the bird to try to guess where it was going to fly next.  Moving off the road, we walked into some open forest and had great views to a couple of the flights in the trees.  The owl went to a stump overlooking another field and we walked up the hill to have a higher point of view.

Flying up to a knot in a tree the owl was looking past me and after a bit of shuffling it launched… straight towards me.  It happened fast but the autofocus was up to the task and I kept the lens on the bird as it flew right over my head.  Having that experience and some great images, we agreed to head back to the road and leave the owl to continue its hunting.

We covered a few more productive spots and we found two separate Great Grays.  The last owl spent most of its time in the trees near the road but then made a great set of dives.  The third attack was successful (for the owl, not as much for the mouse) and completed a good morning.  If you are interested in seeing these and a few others from the day, I invite you to visit this web gallery.


Wildlife in Bragg Creek this spring

I put together a portfolio of wildlife that I have photographed in Bragg Creek so far this spring and just published it to my Portfolios page.

(Click on the image to go to the slide show directly)

This was for a client’s review of local wildlife images for some prints they are interested in and I thought I would put it up on my website as well.  Reviewing the images from the past couple of months has served as a reminder of what a great season it has been to date.  There are a couple of weeks left in some areas around so I’m excited to see what else let’s me take its photograph.


On the hunt with a Great Gray Owl

My good friend, the owl, took me for a bit of a run last Monday.  I found it perched on a stake in the middle of a large field in West Bragg Creek and after a few minutes I had walked to within 100 yards.  I stopped at another stake that I thought would provide a better vantage point than the current perch, set up my tripod and waited.  The Great Gray glided to a small evergreen first,  then to a fencepost and eventually to the stake about 10 yards from me.

It stayed there for a couple of minutes before gliding past me and flying low over the grass.  For the next 10 minutes, it lunged a couple of times into the tall grass.  These dives proved unsuccessful and I was surprised when it spent a minute or two standing on the ground before pushing up into the air again.

It covered a lot of ground and I just stayed on a straight line moving northward.  Our paths came close once but I did not get any memorable photographs during this stretch.  I was really enjoying the opportunity to watch how it scouted and attacked.

The field work came to an end when the owl flew into a line of trees and settled on a stray fence post.  I moved up on to the road for a better angle and then the owl moved to a post connected a long line of other posts by barbed wire.  It flew from the first post to the next in line so I moved a few down to set up in case the pattern continued.  It did fly over two more posts but then it got really still on one of the perches and stared intently into a tangle of branches about 15 yards on the other side of the fence.  I didn’t have a great line on the branches but I didn’t want to move and make any noise.  When the owl launched, it was clear that it had a target lined up.  The silence of owls in flight is incredible and I was enthralled watching this attack.  This time, the talons caught a field mouse and the owl paused while it moved the kill to its mouth.

When the bird flew up again I had a great line and was able to take some nice images.  It crossed back over the field and settled on the far side to dine which signaled the end of this encounter.


Great Gray Owl – Flight through the open woods

(please click on the images for a higher resolution version)

The last week has held a series of great encounters (and here) with one of my favourite animals, the Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa).  Through the course of these moments, I have been able to make some in flight images that I’m really happy with.  I have photographed this same owl for the past four years.  I have photographed it in all seasons but sometimes several months have gone between sightings.  So far, this May has exceeded even my most out of reach expectations.

I had a gentleman express some concern via Twitter regarding me spending that much time following the owl.  I strive to not impact all of the animals that I photograph and I feel I am successful at this.  Particular to this owl, I know where its nest is but I have never ventured close to that stand of trees because that represents risks that I do not have the knowledge and experience to be sure I will avoid (like driving the mother away from the nest, stressing the owlets, etc.).  I do not use blinds or hide from these owls – I make sure they see me and know where I am at all times.  I have spent a lot of time learning what owls like to perch on and where they like to scout from.

I try to use this knowledge to anticipate a spot where an owl may choose to fly to and launch an attack from.   In the open meadow and mixed forest settings I usually find owls in, they have many options and I select one that I think they may choose. It’s a bit like laying down a bet, if they fly my way, I’m in luck.  If they choose one of the myriad other options, I may be too far away or just not in a good location for photography.  I do not follow right behind the owl – it makes for many shots of them flying away which aren’t what I am looking for.  I stand a few yards away from a perch I think they may like and wait.  When they fly away, I may stay there and see if the owl comes back or I may move to another location to see if they go there.  Either way, I don’t chase the owl and to me, that helps to allow the owl to continue its activities (hunting, watching, preening, eating, etc.) uninterrupted.

With this owl, several times of late I have set up my tripod in a location more than a hundred yards away from the bird and, after some time – up to an hour later, the raptor has flown in my direction and landed within ten feet of me.  That is an incredible experience and I strongly believe it is due to the comfort level the owl has with my presence.  During the encounter when these images were all taken, the owl stayed beside me as it scanned the meadow for about 15 minutes.  When it left, it dove on the far side of the gravel road and came away with a field rodent of some type.

When it was close, I used the long telephoto lens I had attached to take a couple of portrait shots.  Rarely have I had a better model.  Two days later, on the holiday Monday, I spent some more time with this owl on an open meadow about a mile south of this location in West Bragg Creek.


A morning with a Great Gray Owl

I was out early in Bragg Creek again yesterday on the hunt for wildlife to photograph.  The morning sky was steel-gray at dawn which was not terribly exciting but there were only a few scattered deer in the fields so I went for a hike along the edge of Kananaskis Country for a little while.  Around 7 the clouds were doing the scattering and the sunlight took full advantage.  Back in the car, I drove towards a spot I’ve seen moose at frequently to see if I could photograph them in this warm light.  I went past an immense thicket and that ended my drive as there were two young moose grazing on the new buds and leaves growing on the reddish branches.  I will get to them in another post but for now I will say it was a fantastic moment and the cow was a very friendly moose.  I walked with the female for quite a while and when I left her I had a bit of a ways back to my car.  When I got back, there was a Great Gray Owl staring at me from a post on the edge of the thicket.  The sun had come out and the owl looked spectacular.

The owl flew between three posts as it scanned the ground looking for a meal.  It made one dive but the creature must have zigged while the talons zagged.  I missed that dive but I was happy with the images I had as the owl flew along the edge of the brambles.

The tensing of the owl’s body just before jumping into the air is an interesting look at this instant before flight.

The owl flew across the road and went up to a treetop, presumably for a higher point of view.  The sunlight lit up its wings and I had to recover the highlights in the image below as the change in light was more than I noticed in the moment.  From here, the owl flew into the forest, where I was able to follow the silhouette of the wings for a couple of minutes.

After this encounter, I drove to some fields where I saw both moose and another owl earlier in the week.  I found the owl waiting for me on a post at the edge of the forest.  We walked (well, she flew) together for over an hour.  That too will be the subject of another post soon to come.


Great Gray Morning Hunt

This morning I was in West Bragg Creek before sunrise looking for wildlife.  I photographed a few moose scattered across a couple of back roads in the early blue light and then the light came up very quickly.  I drove a bit further and then went for a short hike along a deer trail.  When I came back to the road, a Great Gray swooped nearby and landed on a fence post across the road.  I spent the next half an hour walking with this owl as it glided to a couple of different perches as it scouted for breakfast.  I had a couple of good opportunities to photograph the owl in flight and had a great time following this raptor.  It ended when it drove off and a stump before banking into the forest and disappearing in the deep shadows.

These are a few that stood out from a beautiful morning on the edge of Kananaskis Country.


Owl flight while winter strikes back

(Click images for link to higher resolution versions)

We had a monster snowstorm last night which made a slideshow out of the back roads and covered Bragg Creek in a fresh wrapping of winter by morning. I went out to West Bragg early and caught the mist as the day was warming up. I went to a frequent haunt for moose but crossed the meadow without finding any. Then I found a great gray owl and the next half hour was spent watching and waiting for it to take flight.

When it did launch it was fantastic. I love the power they drive off of their perch with. And then there are the wing beats… awesome.

I had hopes that when it did fly it would be a dive to hunt. Here the owl flew across the field closer to the forest. Not very much disappointment – it was great to watch and photograph.


Prairie Wildlife: Flight of a Snowy Owl

Leaving the south edge of Calgary this morning, the snow was flying and there was fog growing denser as we went further east.  My friend Jeff and I were driving on 22X heading towards the Siksika Nation to see if we could find any snowy owls along the range roads in the prairie outside of Calgary.   We made a straight line to an abandoned barn on the edge of the Siksika land that a local there had told me was a favourite location for a snowy year after year.  I’ve been there a couple of times this year but have yet to see the owl but it’s a great drive down toward the river.  Tracing fresh tracks in the snow-covered gravel roads, we carved a wide rectangle around the outer edges of Namaka Lake searching.  Along the way, the fog lifted, the sky brightened and the snow settled right down.  Just over two hours in and we hadn’t seen any wildlife following the herd with the exception of a couple of magpies and one acrobatic raven.

And then, once pointed west and heading back towards Calgary, we spotted a snowy along the same back road where I photographed one a few weeks ago.  It seems to be the same female but I’m not an owl expert so they may only be similar.  Either way, it was fantastic to find this one.  And she was a wonderful partner to make a few images with.  She watched us for a few minutes and then flew off to another telephone pole.  Dutifully, we followed, parked a little ways away and then stepped closer.  She flew again after a few more minutes.  We followed to a third pole and a fourth.  The last leap into the air carried her across the field to a distant perch where she could continue her day without further interruption.  Along the way, we both rattled off a bunch of images and had a lot of fun.

Just a great morning and I’m really happy Jeff was able to see and photograph a snowy owl in the wild.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,288 other followers