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.
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.
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.
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.
I found this snowy owl perched along a forgotten fence line north of Lyalta (which is east of Calgary). After a trek across the field to get to about 60 meters away, I leaned against a post and waited. I set my exposure so that I would have a slower shutter speed at the start. I wanted to show some motion in the wings and estimated that 1/200th of a second would allow for that. Fifteen minutes later something drew his attention and he launched perpendicular to me and the fence.
I had two nice images of him flying towards the sun before he was past me. The first had a soft blur in the wings as they were near level. The other caught the wings at their full extension upwards. Both images kept the head sharp so luck played to my hand when I was panning with the bird. The shutter speed worked out well. I continue to try slower speeds but have yet to nail one of those with a sharp face. I will share those when I do.
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.
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.
I found a small marsh as the day moved towards evening. There were a few blackbirds, shovelers and other ducks swimming around the pools between the tall grass. This mallard circled overhead twice and then surprised me by landing in the middle of the grass. I expected the water would be preferred but I don’t know enough about these birds to pretend to know anything at all. I was very happy to be surprised and she looked amazing as she flared her wings to land.
I took advantage of a Red-winged blackbird’s interest in me and photographed it among the reeds on the edge of the third of the Vermilion Lakes. There were several blackbirds calling one another and flying between perches. They would flit between the little islands of long grass on the lake, the trees hanging over the water and the bushes that filled in the shoreline.
This one came closer and stayed longer than the others which gave me a few good moments to photograph.
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.
A visit east included a short visit to the Tillebrook Provincial Park. A few American robins were hunting the trees for winter berries. The branches split up the sunlight and shadows into shafts and streaks that the birds danced through.
As spring takes hold, you can find ducks busy wherever there is water. Whether it is at a lake still mostly covered with ice or a pond that is not much more than a puddle in a field, a male and female pair are often there paddling, wading, fishing or cleaning. I found this couple in a shallow depression where snow melt had collected. The light was warm gold and I thought they looked absolutely beautiful.
As I slowed down, I flushed them into the air. I was disappointed in myself as I’d prefer to wait until they chose to fly on their own accord. Still, it was a transitory location for them and one that was close to the roadside so I didn’t carry too much concern away with me after watching them launch and head away.