Wildlife

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 crow’s silhouette

 

Raven's silhouette - © Christopher Martin-8363-2

Crows, like ravens, are known as clever birds but I think their beauty is under appreciated.  The iridescent purples and blues that can shimmer out of their black feathers are wonderful.  A couple of weeks ago, I watched a few crows flush off a fence near Cochrane.  I tracked this one and got lucky with this shot.  I loved the shape of the silhouette and how a tiny bit of that iridescence can be seen on one wing.


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


A raptor perched on an old house.

I had a beautiful encounter with a snowy owl on a barren hilltop near Namaka on Family Day.  That was preceded by a mutual fascination that this juvenile prairie falcon and I shared for a long-abandoned house on the prairies.

I was driving the backroads after sunrise primarily to look for snowies.  I like these drives on the winter prairie as the views are expansive and I always hope to see something unexpected.  I had not visited this worn out farmstead before and I stopped to have a look.  It was -27°C so I was content to take a couple of pictures out of the rolled down window – until I spied the falcon perched on the peak of the roof.  Then I got out and walked slowly closer.

After 15 minutes, I was set up beside one of the sheds a little ways off from the main house.  The falcon watched me approach but was more interested in scanning the field to the east.  I kept my lens trained on the roof for a few more minutes until the bird launched.

It flew over the field and out of my view.  I trudged back – it always seems farther and colder when returning from an encounter than it was getting there.  My hands were happy to get out of the wind and I was happy to have some nice images of this beautiful, hardy bird.


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.


A meeting in Bragg Creek

I went to the Bragg Creek Provincial Park just before the latest snowfall.  Wandering along the Elbow River, exasperated chirping voiced several nearby squirrel alerts accompanied me.

Curiosity took over one’s hesitations and he climbed down from a treetop to watch me from a branch a couple of meters off the ground.  I crouched low and stayed still and soon he was digging out a pine cone from the sticks and snow.

 

With the right one gathered, he raced back to the tree and had breakfast from the low perch.  It was interesting to watch how he whittled down the cone.  Clever, efficient and dextrous work.

Once done, he let out a few chirps.  Conveying either the all clear or the threat’s still here – or something else altogether – before leaping away.  A couple more jumps along with some branch runs and he was out of sight.  His and a few other chirps spun through the woods now and again as I continued wandering.


Bald eagle in Bragg

Found a bald eagle in a branch above a couple of ravens that were on the ground.  There must have been something that they were fighting over with the eagle for breakfast.  When the raptor launched it angled away from me but I had a good side shot for a second.


Happy holidays!

I hope you are enjoying time doing what you enjoy with those you love. We had an energetic start to the day with a dog’s temporary escape to visit the neighborhood, cleaning up from Santa’s whirlwind visit and enjoying the general madness. That’s given way to a relaxed afternoon with a gentle snowfall helping to set a calmer tone.

This white-winged crossbill was one of a mixed flock of finches, chickadees and nuthatches that I found hunting for seeds in a stretch of forest west of Bragg Creek yesterday. It was another energetic group and, looking back, seemed to be a little foreshadowing for this morning’s chaos. Looking forward, their community, cooperation and tolerance are some positive things to bring forward.


Hawk flight

A hawk launches out over the prairies.  Photographed in late August last summer.


Dippers and their questionable behavior

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.


Dippers at Elbow Falls


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.


Harvest ravens

Late October provided a window of warm weather that gave farmers the opportunity to finish their harvesting.  Driving near the Springbank Airport, I saw the dust plume generated by a combine on one field and went to have a look.  Often, birds and coyotes can be drawn in looking for any dazed or dead rodents resulting from the harvester passing over their burrows.  These ravens were four of a much larger group that were following behind the tractor.  I watched these ones as they hopped and flapped around, cawing at one another while searching for food.


A short spell with a few of Invermere’s belted kingfishers

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 shakin’ in YYC

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!


Inglewood reflection

I’m heading down to the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary to see which migrating as well as resident birds are around on a wet, cool afternoon.  Kezia and I were down there together last weekend and found some wood ducks, a variety of gulls, one heron and a good number of Canada geese.  This one was paddling on one of the ponds near the river.  Kez and I both like the serene aspects of this scene.


A harvest hawk

As farmers harvest their crops, hawks enjoy using the hay bales to scout for field mice.  This rough-legged hawk stared at me from her perch for a moment before returning her attention to the field.


Herons hunting on the Vermilion Lakes

During the warmer months, there are a number of great blue herons that settle around the Vermilion Lakes in Banff National Park.  A couple of weeks ago, I was on the shore of the second lake watching daybreak over a smoke-filled Bow Valley.

Looking across the lake, I saw ten herons spread out across a marshy spot a couple of hundred meters away.  They were a bit too far away to observe them closely but I liked watching them as they hunted, interacted with one another and preened their feathers.

An eagle flew overhead which sent all of the herons into the air.  In twos and threes they sped away while the eagle stayed on a straight line towards the first lake.  Within 15 minutes a couple of the herons returned.  Shortly after that three others alighted in the shallows of another marshy area.

There was a trail that angled towards that spot so I hoisted the big lens and tripod and wandered down.  The path died out, overgrown by tall grass, but not before leaving me less than 50 meters from the closest of the three herons there.  I set up and then enjoyed an hour watching these birds doing their thing.




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 morning with a great blue heron in Bragg Creek

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.


A cub in Kananaskis

 

On a morning drive to the Upper Kananaskis Lake, I found a grizzly with her cub foraging beside the road.  A Kananaskis conservation officer was watching them from his truck across the road which made me feel better with respect to the risk of a vehicle colliding with them.  I did not want to bother them so I stopped for only a few seconds to watch as the little one munched away – her head didn’t come up as she seemed intent on her breakfast – so I continued on.

About twenty minutes later, I was heading on to the Highwood Pass for some hiking and passed by them again.  This time the cub favored me with a quick glance when I stopped before she returned to the grass and wildflowers.


Image

In a sea of prairie green