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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.