There is something magical when you lock eyes, however briefly, with a wild animal in their environment. Last weekend this snowy owl favored me with a long glance as it flew over the prairies. Here is the little story behind this image.
I was driving the country roads east of Calgary and spied this owl on the top of a small hill a fair distance from the road. The image above was taken with a big telephoto (500mm) so the bird was likely a kilometer away. Distance can be a bit tricky on the prairie so I may be a bit off but it was too far away for any of the shots that I was looking for. I left the car and slowly trudged up said hill on a parallel line from the owl. I don’t like to spook animals so slowness is key when approaching and lot’s of stops to watch closely for signs of pressure in the bird. After 45 minutes I was about 60 meters away, the owl continued to scan the fields from the high ground and I settled into the snow.
The sun shone, the owl dozed a bit between scans and I had an internal dialogue about the sanity of sitting on a bare hilltop on a cold day. It had warmed up compared to earlier in the morning when I photographed a prairie falcon a few kilometers away but a steady breeze kept things chilly. None of that really mattered though, I was happy to be sharing time with the owl.
Another 15 minutes passed and then so did a couple of ravens. As they flew overhead the owl tracked them closely. That seemed to stir her energy up and shortly after they passed she ruffled up her feathers, stamped a little bit and then took flight.
She flew eastward into the sun which lit her beautifully.
After a couple of wingbeats she looked my way and then stared at me for a couple more. Was it curiosity, an acknowledgement of the encounter, her saying goodbye? Probably not any of those but it was powerful, and as I said before, magical.
From a couple of years ago during my last visit to the Khutzeymateen on British Columbia’s west coast in the Great Bear Rainforest. I reworked this image for a black and white photography contest. I liked how monochrome palette highlighted the textures in the wet fur and the sedge grass. But, for me, it’s those eyes that steal the show and make the image.
Not bad behavior, just one that I don’t pretend to understand. When I was last at Elbow Falls, I photographed two American dippers as they flew, dove and splashed around the fast-moving water. Along the way, one of the birds flew to an overhang beside the edge of the waterfall, and then slid on the ice before finding purchase in the snow.
It paused for a moment and then flew at the waterfall!
The bird flapped its wings to hover for several seconds only a few inches from the water where it fell over the edge. I don’t know if it was looking for insects behind the water – surely not in the water itself! Likely it was something else, maybe even simple curiosity or just because it could do it. It was unusual and really fantastic to watch.
American dippers are year round residents below the Elbow Falls. When I was there before sunrise, I could hear an occasional chitter from one pair as they flew up and downstream. As the day brightened I saw them a couple of times while I was photographing the landscape around the waterfall.
I shifted my attention to them and had two lengthy sessions photographing them. The first began when I was taking the last couple of shots above the falls and noticed one dipper fishing in the small rapids there. The bird splashed here and there, submerged in the flowing water and managed to hunt down a good number of insects in there. After several minutes, breakfast concluded and the bird flew down the river and quickly went out of sight.
An hour’s wait separated me form the second encounter. Eventually one of the dippers flew by and landed at rapids upstream from the falls. That was too far for any reasonably interesting photographs but a second dipper followed only a little while later. This one returned to pools above the waterfall which I have enjoyed watching them at often. When the bird alighted in the water this time, I laid down on the snow to get close to eye level with the little bird. I was well rewarded as it soon chose to ignore me and walked close by.
On this day of remembrance, the 100th anniversary of when the guns at last fell silent and the first world war ended, my family and I say a simple, but deeply heartfelt, thank you. Thank you to those who have served, sacrificed and given so much for the safety, freedom and well-being of so many. It is the remembrance of these people and their legacies, as well as the heavy toll exacted on them and their families, that must not be forgotten.
On a personal aside, for those soldiers in our family who gave their lives and those who returned with memories no one should be burdened with, we love you and we remember.
There is a book project that I’ve been invited to contribute some images for which saw me working through images from the Khutzeymateen and her wonderful grizzly bears this weekend. Towards the end of the 2014 set, I found this one of a pigeon that had landed outside of the day room I rented between docking in Prince Rupert and flying out later that afternoon. I had long forgotten about this image but I was struck by the beauty of this bird on today’s perusal. Pigeon’s can be somewhat funny looking but I find this one to be rather charismatic. The iridescence in the neck feathers grabs my attention first, but the pattern in the wing feathers holds it.
A 25 second exposure and a fast lens (in this case, a Canon 24mm f/1.4 set at f/1.8) revealed wisps of clouds stretching east across the Kananaskis River valley a little after 4 in the morning on October 7th. The soft green glow betrayed the Aurora Borealis pulsing low over the northern horizon.
Red light from my headlamp illuminated Highway 40 in this 10 second exposure that centered on the hazy Northern Lights.
It seems longer than a month ago when Kian and I went to the Columbia Valley in British Columbia for the Labour Day long weekend.
(please click any image to see a higher resolution version)
We had a great time skateboarding in Invermere, touring around Fairmont and even did a little swimming which was unreasonably cold for the late summer.
Photography wasn’t the focus of our trip but, unsurprisingly, I fit a little in here and there. Easily the best of these was our walk along the narrow channel of the Columbia River where it meets the northern tip of Windermere Lake. We found five kingfishers chattering, flying and occasionally diving along the water.
This juvenile alighted on the pillar near us as we were watching another one flying on the far side of the river. He stayed for several minutes. Drawing a flyby from one kingfisher but mostly left alone to scout for dinner before the sun set.
Wood ducks are one of my favorite species of waterfowl (side note: that is a weird word!) I love the plumage of both genders. To me, they are among the most beautiful birds. Beyond that, I like watching them paddling around, chasing one another and most of all splashing during their cleaning routine.
Last weekend I spent a couple of hours watching them carry on about their day. Every now and then, one would separate from the raft of ducks, presumably to get some space, before dunking their head under the water several times, shaking the water off, flapping wings, rising out of the water and then repeating it for as long as they saw fit. I didn’t tire of watching the water drops fly!
I’ve been hunting for images of the autumn that has been hurriedly ushered in. Here is one from the day of the first snowfall last week. I was east of my home in Redwood Meadows and found this wonderfully coloured stand of trees. The snow continued on for much of the day and I looked for more scenes like this.
At the end of July, on the 28th, the moon set very close to the same time as the sun rose. That morning I went to a hill a bit east of Bragg Creek which had a great views of the sunrise to the east and the moon falling towards the Rockies above the western horizon.
Thick haze from the wildfires to the west softened the features of the land. The sun, dimmed by the smoke, was saturated into striking shades of orange, yellow and red.
This August, I’ve taken a couple of afternoon drives along Grand Valley Road north of Cochrane. The rolling hills and farmland is beautiful and is home to a variety of birds and other wildlife. I have been missing great gray owls so that was my specific draw to the area. I was fortunate on both occasions to find them; three on the first trip and one on the second outing.
This one I watched in the forest from a gravel road. She perched on a few different branches over a half an hour before diving down into the grass. She caught and quickly swallowed something – my view obscured by the grass and the trees but likely a vole or some type of field mouse.
The solitary owl from my most recent drive was perched in a more open area. I was able to string together a nice flight sequence when he launched after a few minutes of watching him.
I spent Sunday morning watching a great blue heron hunting for fish in the shallows of a small lake near Bragg Creek. Early on it was just above freezing which led to mist rising off, and swirling across, the water. The heron was on the far side when I first spotted him so I took turns watching the weather and the fishing.
The day slowly warmed up a little as did the heron to me. I stayed put in my lawn chair and around 10:30, he crossed the lake landing about 60 meters away from me.
Herons are excellent hunters and this fellow caught fish steadily while walking in the shallows.
One more flight a little while later put him back on the far side but still quite close.
He continued hunting along the shoreline there for another 45 minutes.
Towards noon, I wanted to get home and when he flew back towards the first location I’d found him, I thought that was a sign that our encounter was completed for the day.
The thunder and lightning rolled over the prairies several times over the past couple of weeks. On August 1st, I went out to photograph dusk as the smoke from the wildfires has helped create some beautiful evening scenes. The haze thinned after sunset and a large cloud took shape from it as the sky cooled into night.
While the color slipped away, the cloud grew and I caught a flicker of lightning on the northern edge. Rain didn’t fall and the wind never really picked up. However a fork crackled through the air every few minutes for the next couple of hours.
The storm slowly churned east towards Calgary and the open prairie beyond. The trailing edge left behind a clear sky dotted with stars. This last photograph caught the moon illuminating the cloud as it rose.
This lake is near Mont-Tremblant and has a lovely beach where my son and I swam the day before this heavy storm blew through the Laurentian Mountains.
The lightning strikes came in sets, striking the hills across the water. Beside the beach is a pier and a small covered area where I was able to hide from the rain. That afforded a wonderful view of the lake and back towards the vibrant little town. Of course, much of that view was illuminated only by the flashes of lightning – most along the hills across the water but a couple were over the community.
I felt the accompanying thunder from those deep in my chest. Frequently, the wind ripped through the valley and drove the rain horizontally. The temperature dropped fast when the storm approached and stayed cool through the evening. I was glad for the rain gear I had stashed in my pack.
There were occasional stretches where everything calmed down, almost to catch a collective breath, but the storm crashed across the mountains relentlessly otherwise. A proper summer storm by every measure. After a couple of hours, the rain picked up even more and I thought it was well past time to get home.
Almost two months ago, I came across a great gray owl that was surveying a bog from the top of a weathered fence post. I watched him for a few minutes as he looked around. Then the big, yellow eyes watched me for a few seconds before the wings stretched out and he flew up the hill towards me. These owls move quickly when they choose to so I was reacting not thinking when he took to the air. I was happy to have a few shots of that approach.
I thought he would fly by, but another post a couple of meters away from me was his destination. He looked around for half a minute, then stared at me while launching into the air again. This time he passed close by, crossed the path and then flew to a broken tree branch in the forest.
It was early evening and seemed to be supper time as he dove into the tall grass a couple of minutes later. That yielded a vole or some kind of field mouse. I couldn’t tell as he swallowed it while on the ground and mostly out of sight.
Reappearing after a short while, he ascended to another branch briefly and then flew deeper into the forest.
This fox was trotting down the road on a sunny morning in the Mont-Tremblant National Park in early July. She stayed ahead of me when I pulled over and then crossed into the forest. I watched it through the trees and was able to catch a nice look when she stood in a pool of sunlight. A little further along she came back onto the road again for a minute.
One morning while I was in Québec, I drove out early and found the mist evaporating off of the Rivière du Diable (Devil’s river) where it flows south of Lac Munroe in Mont-Tremblant National Park. I only explored a small corner of the park but was enchanted by its beauty.
A great gray owl was hunting across a meadow near Kananaskis Country earlier in the week. I watched her across the field for a while before she flew to the forest edge and landed in a tree branch a couple of meters off the ground. Eventually she launched and dove after something in the tall grass.
That proved to be unsuccessful. And the owl flew across the hillside into a stand of trees to the north. I was able to watch her work between a couple of different perches until she found one in the sunlight.
The warmth in the sun may have been part of the reason she stayed there for a few minutes.
When she moved on, she flew low over the wet grass, then climbed into the trees and disappeared.
This blackbird’s flight from earlier this morning was an interesting one. He crouched low on the branch for a few seconds, longer than I was expecting, before it launched. When he did, there were a couple of quick wing beats before diving out of sight into the brambles.
Most weekends in the first couple of months of the year I spent driving the country roads east of Calgary in search of snowy owls. I had a number of great encounters this year amid some frigid temperatures and heavy snowfalls. The last of these visits was in early March.
I found this owl perched on a fence post in the middle of a field on a beautiful sunny morning east of Delacour. I waited for quite a while before the owl chose to fly. When she did, she caught the wind and rose upwards quickly before she looked my way and banked above me. She crossed the field and dove into the snow by another fence line. She was too far to see clearly what she caught but she finished it quickly and then flew off out of sight.
Some people continued to find snowies into April but I have been drawn to the mountains and the waterways running out of them for the last few weeks so I will look forward to next winter when I hope to find these beautiful birds again. For now, I am enjoying the arrival of spring as I’m sure they are too as they return to their summer range north of the Arctic Circle.
A pair of mountain bluebirds were flitting around a bird house west of Calgary a few days ago. They caught my eye when I was driving past the farmland on the way to my daughter’s dance studio. I stopped for a few minutes, watching as they appeared to be moving into their summer home.