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.
Snowy owls have been a focus of mine this winter. Last Saturday I was east of Calgary again – touring the back roads, looking for owls and, when they were found, working to not spook them. A few of my earlier visits to the prairies have been frigid experiences. That day was pleasantly different – the sun cut through the clouds early and they moved on altogether by mid-morning but did so without a heavy wind pushing them. The relatively mild and calm weather was welcome indeed.
The day was productive in every sense. I found two owls just after daybreak near Gleichen. I spotted the first one as she flew parallel to the road I was traveling down. The second was perched on this fence line but he took off as the first neared. The displacer landed and fussed with her feathers while scanning the ground. The sun lit her up a couple of times which was special. She eventually glided over the fields behind her and landed on a rise after catching an unlucky creature for breakfast. I drove below the rise and caught her yawning before she rested and dozed for a bit.
Note: this snowy is mottled with dark and light feathering and that used to be thought to be exclusively females and the almost pure white owls were males. Over the last few years, that has been disproven (some females are all white and some males are not). There is no visible way to confirm the sex that I am aware of so I still refer to a white one as “he” and the others as “she”. That is a bit of anthropomorphization but I really dislike calling animals “it”.
I had an encounter with a beautiful almost solid white snowy owl an hour later a little further north of this spot. I will share that story with him soon!
I spent a morning on the prairies between Irricana and Langdon this weekend. I met up with my good friend, and fellow photographer, Jeff Rhude in Delacour and continued east from there to see what we could find. We were looking for owls and an hour before sunrise, we made out three individuals perched in different locations. It was much too dark to photograph with any reasonable expectation of making a good image. To us, their presence boded well for later, when the day was much brighter. A glowing sunrise welcomed the day and after photographing that for a little bit, we began combing the fields and fence posts for snowy owls. The ones seen in the pre-dawn gloom were nowhere to be found but several kilometres away we did find this one standing on the snow in a field.
The snowy took flight and let the wind push her eastward, across the road in front of us, until she landed on a fence post. She did not stay there long before diving into the snow on the far side of a frozen pond. That was a bit too far to see if she caught something but it looked like she did.
Soon after she jumped off the snow again and flew low over the ground before rising up enough to clear the fenceline.
That flight took her up to the gate of a compressor station. We photographed her for another three hours afterwards. I’ll cover that in my next post.
I drove east of Langdon in the evening a couple of days ago looking for owls. At this time of the year the odds are decent to see Snowy owls perched on a silo or a fence line so I was looking for them as well as Short-eared owls that have been reported in that area recently. It was about an hour before sundown when I found a Snowy owl perched a couple of hundred metres away along a fence line.
This beautiful fellow flew between a few posts and was not interested in having me around so I headed west as the sun fell behind a tall bank of clouds standing over the Rocky Mountains. I found the second, and final, Snowy of the afternoon on a small oil and gas installation built on a rise that was a bit of a hike from the road.
She was perched on a storage tank and took only passing interest in me during my 15 minute walk towards her. As I drew closer I took a few photographs and as color came into the sky with sunset, I took a bunch more :)!
She kept tabs on me but had her focus on the surrounding fields. I didn’t see anything of note but it was a different story for the owl.
When she did launch she glided over to another small hill then dived into the field where it seemed she caught something. It was too far for me to make out and when she flew again after a couple of minutes she went further away and I had no interest in chasing her any further.
Canon 5DIII camera + 500mm f/4 lens: 1/640 seconds at f/4 on ISO 3200
I spotted this Snowy owl perched on this oil and gas installation east of Langdon. She was about a kilometre off the road so I parked, grabbed my gear and headed over. She was scanning to the east while I approached from the west side. As I walked she kept an eye on my, swivelling her neck to watch me infrequently. From a hundred metres away, with colour brushing into the sky as the sun set, I stopped to compose this photograph. I love these birds and I love sunsets – these seemed to be interesting juxtapositions to the storage tank she was perched on.
I drove to High River yesterday and spent the morning touring the gravel roads looking for wildlife on the prairies. My hope was to find a Snowy owl as they have begun returning there. An hour after sunrise, east of Frank Lake, I spied a beautiful owl perched on a fence line and I spent the next four hours watching it sit, fly, hunt and then sit. A lot of watching while she dozed or scanned the surroundings but it was time I enjoyed completely. I wanted to share this photograph of the bird from the early afternoon when she landed in a field and was surrounded by sticks left behind after the last harvest. I am excited to share more from the day and will soon.
The early spring this year may see the Snowy owls leave their wintering grounds around Southern Alberta soon. When I was in Irricana photographing this owl, it was 16°C and she was panting to stay cool. I’m not concerned about their health in this heat as their nesting sites in the north get into, and above, these temperatures in the summer. However, I don’t know when it, or something else, will prompt them to leave as they always do.
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.
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.
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.
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.