Strix Nebulosa – an evening encounter with a Great Grey Owl

On my drive home last night I spotted a large, oblong shape perched on a tree branch just off a gravel road on the forest’s edge near Bragg Creek.  Going at highway speed and being a couple hundred meters away from the object, I wasn’t sure what it was but I quickly turned around hoping that it was an owl of some type.  When I pulled up the gravel road, I was very happy to see it had not yet flown away.  I grabbed my camera, a telephoto lens and a flash and walked slowly towards the bird.  Even in the failing light, it was easy to identify my new friend as a great grey owl.  I kept the flash off as I approached giving the owl time to get used to my presence and decide if it wanted to model for me.  Great greys are mercurial, one encounter they will fly away as soon as they see you, another time they will stay but keep their eyes away from you.  This was one of the great encounters where it allowed me to come close and was not agitated.  At one point it flew away but then circled around me and came to land on a fence post about ten meters from me.  I photographed this beautiful creature for about fifteen minutes and then left it to continue its wait for the ground creatures to start their nightly forays into the open.

Perched on the top of a tiny branch this is where I first found the owl.  Given the size of these birds (wingspans average 1.4 meters), I’m always surprised when I see a visible demonstration of how light they are (average of 1.2 kilograms).

I thought the owl was leaving here but then it banked to the right and landed on the fence post across the gravel from me.

At this point, it was quite dark and the colors in the scene were restricted to blue hues and gray tones.  I turned the flash on to capture the brown color in the feathers and the yellow in the eyes.  The image I wanted to finish with was of the owl flying where you could see the motion and power in its flight before finishing the shoot.  I used a slightly longer exposure to get movement in the wings and panned with the owl as it launched and flew past me.

It doesn’t always turn out but when I can create the image I’ve imagined in my head it is a good day.  This is pretty close to what I was trying to capture in the photograph.  Thank you to Bobbi for managing the three-ring circus at home for an extra while longer last night to let me play with an owl for a little bit.

16 responses

  1. Love these photos! They are all so appealing – especially the first one. Amazing that he can perch on small branches. I also love seeing the owl in flight.

    February 18, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    • Thank you Karen – for looking at the photographs and for commenting.

      February 22, 2011 at 12:24 pm

  2. Val Erde

    Lovely that you were able to capture photos of this beautiful bird, Chris. I particularly love the first and second photos from the top.

    February 17, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    • Thanks Val – these owls are really wonderful. They well represented in the forests around us but don’t reveal themselves too often. It’s always special for me when one does.

      February 22, 2011 at 12:23 pm

  3. SWK

    Very ghostly pictures!

    February 17, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    • It’s easy to see why the Great Grey Owl is also known as the Phantom of the north, the Great Gray Ghost and the Spectral owl.

      February 22, 2011 at 12:21 pm

  4. very spooky and beautiful. I like tham

    February 17, 2011 at 5:35 pm

  5. Nice, very special moments
    and great shots, thanks for sharing!

    February 17, 2011 at 3:18 pm

  6. They are beautiful shots. Wonderful colours and the movement captured is excellent. I have often struggled with capturing birds in flight do you have any tips.

    Thank you
    Astra Wally

    February 17, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    • Hello Astra Wally – thanks for your comment and your question. The best way to learn to capture birds in flight is to practice during bright days where you can get a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. Depending what you shoot with, you can put the camera on shutter priority and lock in a shutter speed of 1/1000 (or faster) as a starting point. Depending on how bright it is, you can raise the ISO to allow for that fast of a shutter speed. If you can find a point where you can be at 1/1000 with an aperture around F/8 you will have decent depth of field (allows for a little more forgiveness on the focusing). The goal is to get in the habit of panning with the birds as they fly by you. If you don’t have a long telephoto lens, you may have to find a place where you can sit comfortably for a while so the birds get used to you and will fly relatively close. Blinds work great if you have some nearby. But, after 10-15 minutes of sitting in view of many birds and not moving quickly they will often decide you aren’t a threat and continue with their activities (there are glaring exceptions to this so read up on the particular species you want to photograph to learn about their habits). When you start to keep the bird in your viewfinder steadily now you can work on the focusing. Sometimes manual focus beats the autofocus – depends on you and your equipment. This can be one of the great challenges – getting the bird sharply in focus. Practice is the best way – try to keep the bird in the viewfinder and then avoid machine gunning the shutter button. Try to gently squeeze off one at a time or a short burst when you can see that the subject is in focus. I don’t have much luck when I hold the trigger down and let the autofocus try to track between shots. When you are getting sharp shots in bright light then you can work on some of the creative aspects. Good panning technique will allow you to follow a bird as it flies past using a longer shutter speed which will allow you to get some movement in the wings to convey the motion of the bird. For this owl, in the last picture, I had a shutter speed of 1/125 seconds which allowed a bit of the motion in the wings to show through. You can adjust to suit what you want to show in the image. In darker situations, using a flash may help but the downside is that, depending on the bird, you may only get one chance to fire the flash as it may leave after that. With this owl, I kept the flash off for a long time and then used it when it was perched. When it didn’t get spooked I then prepared to catch one shot of the bird as it took off. There are many different techniques for photographing birds in flight: expose for the bird then use manual to lock in the settings (exposure, shutter speed, ISO) so that the subject stays exposed the way you want whether it flies infront of a dark row of trees or a bright bank of clouds; use a tripod to steady your panning; handhold with a certain stance to allow you follow dipping and diving fliers; etc. If you search BIF + photography + technique you will get a lot of good information. There are many great photographers who have written much to help aspiring flight photographers: two that come to mind – Scott Linstead and his book Decisive Moments is excellent and this article online by Wing Tong is very informative. One of my all time favorite resources is and – both have a lot of information about BIF.

      February 22, 2011 at 12:19 pm

  7. wow!! what amazing captures!!!!!!!!!!

    February 17, 2011 at 2:37 pm

  8. Ray


    Magic Majestic and Beautiful

    Nature gave you a challenge for light and you used it to bring art and nature together. It’s a nice touch.

    Some of these birds have a second clear eyelid that they use in flight. This birds eyes are clear which is great to see.

    If you handle these big guys and even the young a pair of heavy leather welding gloves is mandatory to have them sit on your arm. Their beaks are devastating at the dinner table as well.

    Nice folks tend to make an issue of saving habitat for these large creatures. I find it comforting to know that in that mix trees, soil, air, and bugs get a free pass as a part of the process.
    Your helping us appreciate that which is worth saving is good work and I commend and thank you for it.

    February 17, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    • Thank you Ray – it’s an incredible world we live in. I always feel very lucky when one of the creatures we share it with wants to spend a bit of time near me.

      February 22, 2011 at 12:20 pm

  9. Wow, very cool shots!

    February 17, 2011 at 12:53 pm

  10. Irina

    That first photo is particularly awesome! Also, hello from a fellow Albertan 🙂

    February 17, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    • Hello to you as well!

      Thanks for looking at the blog and for your comments.



      February 17, 2011 at 12:51 pm

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