Owls

Great gray owl in the late winter forest

On a solo outing to some remote roads, I found a gorgeous great gray owl perched on a telephone pole in warm afternoon sunshine.

A short wait ended with the bird gliding into the forest.  It found a perch there and moved to two other ones before flying to a knot of trees close by.

She scanned the sky occasionally, watched the ground steadily but did not find a target on or under the snow.  One launch had the owl drop onto a pile of deadfall.  I caught a nice launch off of a tree trunk and followed the bird up to her next perch.

Soon she flew across the nearby meadow and landed in a lone evergreen.  She flew along a frozen creek to a slender tee – a winter’s skeleton – that bowed under her weight.

 

And then she flew west, further afield, and well beyond my shooting range with the gear I have.

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Great gray owl – winter edition

 

Driving home through Millarville last weekend, I hoped to see a great gray owl along the edge of the forest that skirts the road toward Bragg Creek.  I had my camera beside me and my girlfriend and I kept eyes peeled for them on fenceposts or perched in the trees.

We found one amid a snow storm.  It was not in a stop friendly location so I took a couple of quick shots and continued along.

Happily, another one was waiting a few miles further along.  This one was watching over a field and was kind enough to have chosen a tree that was across from a small pullout.  We had time to point out the owl to the kids and for me to put a long lens on it.  After a few minutes, it launched out over the field and I had some good flight opportunities.

It had been a few months since I had seen a great gray owl so I was thrilled to get to see two that evening.  I’ll have to make sure I retrace my steps there again soon.


Summer with the great grays

It was a great spring to spend lot of time with these majestic owls.  For many years there have been several pairs of great gray owls that I’ve been able to photograph hunting and resting on perches in and around forests near my home.  I’ve never taken it for granted.  Happily the great spring has continued into summer.  Here are a few of my favorites from July so far.

 

 

 


Great gray owl flying into the forest

‘This great gray owl was sheltering in the branch of a leafy tree when I first found him east of Kananaskis.  The rain was pouring and he was smart to avoid the brunt of it.  I was less so and got soaked.  Eventually the sun came out and the forest brightened.  The owl began hunting and grabbed two field mice over a half an hour.  In this image he had alighted from a fencepost and was heading back into the forest.

 


The final hunt after an evening with a great gray

Watching from the branches, the owl dove after the sunlight had slipped away.  It had already been a great day of owls (long-eared, short-eared, snowy and great grays).  There was enough light for one more encounter.

 

The bird missed on the first plunge into the snow.  Then heard or saw something and shot upwards.   He flew away from me and quickly dove back to the ground.

With the second strike successful, he swallowed the prey and then returned to the trees.

Flying to a new perch after several minutes.  From there it alternated between watching the field across the road and the fence line directly below.

The light faded quickly and my fingers were happy when I returned to the vehicle.


Continuing on with an evening owl

Flying on from the beam, this great gray owl continued moving from one perch to the next.  Eventually it flew over my head and landed on the top of a tree still in the sunshine.

A couple of minutes, the portrait below and then it flew to a higher point overlooking another field.  That seemed a good point to leave her to her own purposes.

Almost immediately afterwards, we saw a second owl.  This one gliding between branches.  These trees were still in the sunlight and its warm tone wrapped around the bird as it flew.

The sun fell quickly.  The light and shadow drawing lines and space across the forest’s west-facing edge.  The owl weaved between those and the tree branches a couple of times before the daylight slipped away.  His eyes catching the light at some angles and hiding in the shadow at others.

 

There was a third owl that made a couple of sorties into a nearby field.  That was too far away to photograph.  And I was happy to stay with the owl in front of me.  That led soon to a pair of dives into the snow.


Winter dusk with a great gray owl

By the time we found this great gray owl in the late afternoon, it had already been a wonderful day of owls.  This grey was the first of three that flew and hunted on the edge of the forest through into night.  The waning sunshine offered a little warmth against cold and perhaps encouraged the owls to come out of the trees to hunt.  Sometimes an owl is found only by slowly studying woods or fields.  This one was much easier – perched on a sign post.

A truck drove by and the owl took flight. The bird crossed over a fence and drifted over the field beyond.  Angling up on an instant, she quickly down towards the snow.

I missed catching a sharp shot of her crashing into the field.  She, however, did not miss.  He talons pinned a field mouse of some type under the snow.  She transferred that to her beak after a few shuffles and disturbances.  And then flew up to finish off the meal on a fence post.

From there the owl flew over the field again.  This time alighting on the metal beam of a piece of farm machinery.  From sign to beam was only six minutes.  Luckily there was a bit more with this owl and then more through sunset with two other owls.


Short-eared owls: morning and midday

A day with an owl encounter is wonderful.  In late February some friends and I had a four owl day.  Short-eared and snowy owls on the prairie in the morning.  Long-eared, short-eared and great gray owls in the foothills later that afternoon.  The short-eared were the first owls found.  After daybreak this owl flew along a weathered fence line hunting.

In the afternoon, a long-eared owl hunting was preceded by a short-eared flying overhead and hunting in an adjacent field.  All of these were at an extended range and in sharp light.  Both leaving room for improvements in the end result but it was great to observe these beautiful birds in different landscapes and learn a bit more about them.

 


A long-eared owl hunting

The long-eared owl has proven to be an elusive target for me photographically for many years.  I’ve heard them call, or seen them in dim light but not been fortunate enough to get time with them in decent light.  That happens in wildlife photography but hope springs eternal!  Last week I was looking for great gray owls west of Calgary with two visiting photographers and luck broke our way.

Driving along a quiet back road we found this beautiful bird perched on a fence line in mid-afternoon sunshine.  It was cold but the owl seemed comfortable and even a little dozy.  The eyes closed a few times broken up by broad sweeps of the fields in front and the bushes behind.  We moved off the road and walked a little closer before setting up the long lenses on the various supports.  A little while passed and then the long-eared started to twist her head  while her eyes fixated at a point in the snow a few meters away from the fence.

This carried on for a few minutes and was accompanied by more sweeps.  I was not sure we would see a dive into the snow or if the owl would lose track of the rodent under the snow. It didn’t and we did.  In a very quick change from being stationary, she swept into the air and then plunged towards the ground and into the snow.

Most of her body disappeared as the snow was knee-deep.  That did not have any impact on her accuracy.  She pulled the rodent out of the snow and swallowed it in one gulp.

She repaired to the post, made another flight – this time over the brambles behind – then returned to the fence.  We headed off, leaving her to her field, and continued scouting for great grays. We found a couple in beautiful light – I will share those photographs soon.


How lucky I am! Another snowy owl flying on the prairie.

In one of the canals east of Dalemead I found this snowy owl.  It was on the right of way road above the watercourse beside the long grass.  I walked down the road a little closer and settled into the snow at an angle I could photograph the bird with the sun lighting her front.  I had hopes of the owl flying in my general direction when she chose to continue hunting.

A bit of time passed with her sweeping the landscape and reacting whenever a new sound was heard or bit of motion was seen.  The temperature was much warmer than the rest of February had been so it was a rather pleasant wait. Eventually she started to get more active, preening and shaking out her feathers.  When she jumped off of the snow, she stayed low for a few wingbeats.

Then she banked and passed in front of me.  That was wonderful and on the outer edge of what I was hoping for.



 


A snowy glance

Favoured by a snowy glance - © Christopher Martin-9302

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.

Favoured by a snowy glance - © Christopher Martin-9139

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.

Favoured by a snowy glance - © Christopher Martin-9189

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.

Favoured by a snowy glance - © Christopher Martin-9280

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.

Favoured by a snowy glance - © Christopher Martin-9297

She flew eastward into the sun which lit her beautifully.

Favoured by a snowy glance - © Christopher Martin-9300-4Favoured by a snowy glance - © Christopher Martin-9303.jpgFavoured by a snowy glance - © Christopher Martin-9301-3.jpg

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.

Favoured by a snowy glance - © Christopher Martin-9305-2


Snowy owl

I spent a few hours photographing this beautiful bird east of Calgary near Delacour.  The temperature, and the wind chill, conspired to make it a bit uncomfortable for me.  Not so for the owl, he appeared to take the cold with little interruption to normal operations.  He perched atop telephone poles and fence posts for long periods broken up by several flights low over the fields.  Three of those were successful hunts.  This image was from one of the scouting flights as he climbed towards a high perch.  I liked the interesting shape of his profile and the soft details in the background of this image.


Great grays in Grand Valley

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.


A close encounter of the owl kind

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.


Flying toward the sun

Not quite Icarus, but after this owl had descended into the grass after a rodent of some type, she flew up and into a shaft of early sunlight that had pierced deep into the forest.


Into the forest with an owl

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.


A good morning with a great gray owl

This great gray owl was hunting across a field when I was out photographing.  I set up my camera and watched her glide low over the grass scouting for movement.  She caught a mouse and ate it before crossing the field, landing on a fence post close by.

She worked along the fence line for a little bit before returning her attention to the seemingly more productive ground she had started the morning at.  I waited for a couple of minutes, watching while she made short flights and dives.

Inevitably she added to her breakfast count and then returned in my direction.  This time to a weathered wood fence which was directly in front of me.  She flew from fence, to the red pipe and to the fence again in quick succession.

That gave me the opportunity to photograph her in flight up close which was a wonderful gift from this beautiful owl.  Before long she launched once more, crossed the field into the sunshine and landed in a tree on the edge of the forest.


The last of this winter’s snowy owl encounters

 

 

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.


Spring flight – a great gray owl in the evening

I saw this owl perched in the middle of a field of bushes at first.  The sun was getting low so I felt lucky to have found her before it became too dark to photograph.

She flew low over the foliage and dropped into them for a moment – disappearing from view.  A blur of motion behind a line of still wintering trees caught my eye and I followed her as she landed on a branch halfway up the last of these trees.

A few minutes later, she flew across the field once again and disappeared into the forest.

All the while, her mate had been perched at the top of an evergreen in the middle of the bushes and I turned my attention to him for a little while.  The light failed quickly and I headed home leaving the lone owl at his viewing tower.


An evening with an old friend

It has been a few months, since the beginning of winter, since I last had a visit with a great gray owl.  On Sunday night, a warm evening near Kananaskis, I found a pair!  Here is one as the light was failing and shortly before I left them to their hunting.  More to come soon.


My favourite wildlife photographs from 2017

It took a little longer to find time to complete my review of my wildlife images this year.  Due largely to general busyness and some measure of procrastination.  So I appreciated the irony that one of the areas I have put a lot of thought into, and work to improve, is patience.  Looking back, this focus on waiting is helping me to get closer to the wildlife imagery that I want to be creating.  Waiting for the animals, waiting on their schedule for something to happen, can be a challenge – sometimes, like in the cold, a significant one.  I’m happy that I laid down on the snow, crouched in marshes, hiked into valleys and froze my fingers to find those opportunities and try to do something with them.

The 2017 gallery can be viewed at this link or by clicking on any of the pictures in this post.

A comparison with my 2016 wildlife gallery suggests some subtle changes.  I see exploration into some ideas, blurs for one, that is interesting.  I’ve been trying to bring more imagination into my wildlife images.  Lot’s more to work on there.

Comparing years past with the last one, I like the direction and that stirs up the motivation coals.  The latter always being a good thing, I think.


Flashback Friday – owl to perch flight

A couple of years ago I watched this owl hunting in the snow west of Bragg Creek.  It was a relatively warm day for March and this great gray was active for a long while before launching off of a fence post and flying upwards to this skeletal tree.  I liked how the eyes are locked on the landing spot in this image.  The overcast sky and bare branches suited the gray feathers backlit against the clouds.


Flashback Friday – a summer owl

There are a lot of photographs from the summer and earlier which I have not found a way to share to date.  I’m going to try using the Flashback Friday theme to publish some of these.  I thought I’d start with a morning in July spent watching one of the great gray owls in Bragg Creek hunting in a field.

Just after 7 o’clock, I spied this owl on the forest edge, perched in a tree overlooking the field.  I set up my tripod and long lens in time to catch her fly low over the grass.

This owl is one of a pair that have raised chicks in the same place for several years.  The other parent was likely minding the chicks in the nest hidden back in the forest.  So, the owl was busy crisscrossing the field, hunting for breakfast.

The summer sun rises early so it was fairly high by this time.  The owl flew in and out of the sunlight and the shadows throughout the morning.  That afforded some good opportunities to photograph that contrast.

After a half an hour, the owl was fairly close to me and I was surprised when she flew in my direction and alighted on the fencepost right in front of me.  She stayed there for almost 15 minutes before resuming the hunt.  A very special moment where I felt some level of connection – maybe an acceptance of my presence – that still makes me smile.

 

Here she flew off, dove into the grass, came up empty and returned to the same perch.  A robin joined the line on this second sitting.  The birds paid little attention to one another and the owl soon flew away.


Watching owls fly in the Palouse

On the first day I was in the Palouse earlier this year, I found a great horned owl haunting an abandoned farmstead near Colfax.

My friends photographed the rolling hills and fields while I waited for the owl to fly.  Over the course of an hour or so her started up in a broken metal structure, flew over to a green field, returned to the farmhouse and alighted at the weather vane nearby.  At one point she met up with her mate in another field before leaving him when he stepped into the taller grass.  She hunted successfully twice but she was just out of sight both times.  I loved the even lighting from the overcast sky coupled with the varied scenes that she went through while I was there.