It was May of this year when I saw my first Barred owl in Bragg Creek. I’ve lived here for ten years and spent a lot of time in the forests so it was a real thrill to find a new (to me) species in the area. In late October, another one was waiting for me as I was walking in the woods along the edge of Kananaskis Country. This time, the owl watched me intently for a few seconds, scanned the ground for prey for a few more and then repeated that for a couple of minutes while I watched and snapped a few images. Eventually the owl flew a short distance away but they blend into this type of forest so well that I lost sight with the next glide that followed. A beautiful creature.
To start the long weekend, I went looking for the Great Gray Owl pair who have been very active over a field of tall, green grass for much of the summer. I had a relatively short visit with one of the owls on this encounter. The bird stayed across the field for most of the hour I watched him. He did fly across, land nearby and stay for a few minutes at one point. However I got there a little bit later than usual so the morning hunt was winding down.
There was one particularly good dive that I pulled a nice sequence from. I love the wing positions in these shots and the intention in the focused stare.
It was good to see the owl again after being away for a couple of weeks. When he headed back towards the forest edge and their nest, I headed back to my home too.
A Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) launches over the fields near the town of Turner Valley in Alberta, Canada.
Driving with the kids along Lower Springbank Road, I was hoping there would be some hawks hunting along the freshly tilled fields out that way. On the second or third field my son spied a light morph Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) standing on a fence post.
We watched it make a few short flights over the soil before heading continuing on. Spring is a great time for driving, and photographing, on the prairies.
When this Red-tailed hawk launched off the post I had been watching him on for a few minutes, I was really impressed by the power and balance displayed. He flew closer and then went to the ground after circling back towards the fenceline. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an attacking dive only an uninspired landing in the tall grass.
I have been able to spend a couple of evenings with the two Snowy Owls since my first encounter with them near the Springbank Airport just before New Year’s. These are a few of the images that have stood out from the growing collection. I absolutely love watching these birds and with more time I’m learning some of their habits and behaviours.
The images below are from a drive I made east of Calgary on the weekend. I had good luck finding Snowies around Langdon and Gleichen last year and the success continued when I spotted this beautiful owl flying around one of the fields.
The crops around the Springbank airport have all now been harvested. This leaves the fields shorn bare except for the uncollected bales of hay. The attraction drawing hawks is the exposed ground which presently offers little protection for field mice and the like. I have spent a fair bit of time walking and driving along the range roads to photograph some of the activity while it lasts. This Red-tailed hawk, one of the light morphs, was absolutely beautiful. It flew between a couple of posts before launching out across the meadows.
(please click on any image to open a higher resolution version)
(please click on any image for a higher resolution version)
This adolescent osprey’s nest is along the Bow Valley on top of the Castle Junction bridge. Its sibling had not yet fledged and the two of them spent the whole two hours I watched them screaming at one another. Screaming may be too strong, but if they were just calling back and forth, it seemed to have considerable emotion behind it.
Maybe the one who was flying was urging the other one to try, maybe the nest-bound bird was telling the flier to go away. With other nests I know of emptying as their summer residents head south, I wonder how much longer the one will wait for the other.
Watching this bird circle around was incredible, it always is. After this flight it landed on a bushy tree nearby and at one point it stared down at me reminding me of an inquisitor.
My favourite one from this vantage point was when the raptor cocked its head in the direction of a sound and I caught this look.
(Please click on each image for higher resolution versions)
My friend Jeff came back out to Bragg Creek to photograph with me again last weekend. We found a female Great Grey Owl hunting over one of the fields in West Bragg.
She was covering large areas of the field with each flight and it was fun trying to anticipate where her flight path would go as she crisscrossed the meadow.
The intensity of expression of these owls always holds my attention. That coupled with the power in their flight motion make them so interesting to watch. This encounter was no exception to that rule.
The talons are amazing too. I have heard of people being attacked by Great Grays when they strayed too close to a nest – I continue to believe that is something to be avoided.
With spring having taken control, the hawks have returned in earnest to the prairie and the foothills around Bragg Creek. During my hikes and drives, I often cross their path. When they wait long enough for me to pull up my camera, I really enjoy photographing them in flight. I’ve had a couple nice flight series so far and wanted to share a few ahead of a larger raptor project I’m working towards completing in the fall.
When the sun is low in the sky, the warm light can beautifully illuminate the stretched out primary feathers (the fingers), the splayed out tail feathers (particularly true with the Red-tailed hawks) and the patterns in the covert feathers (the layers covering the wing at the base of the primaries). With the sun behind, the backlit feathers can glow in a striking fashion which I find very appealing.
My uncle had a picnic on Saturday afternoon in the Crowsnest Pass southwest of Calgary by about 2 1/2 hours. We drove down with the kids enjoying the ride. After playing hard with their cousins for the afternoon, both Kian and Kezia fell asleep before we got started on the drive back home at 6pm. Left with a quiet vehicle and a beautiful summer evening, Bobbi and I had a great drive home. The highlight came in the Turner Valley near Chain Lakes Provincial Park where there was a hawk circling above or perched on a fence post every mile or two. We identified Red-tailed, Rough-legged and Swainson’s hawks before spying this Bald Eagle.
We pulled over and then both spent the next half an hour photographing this bird. It was not intimidated by us and while Bobbi stayed by the van, I slowly walked closer until my 300mm lens was too big – less than 25′ from its perch.
As the sun dropped behind some clouds, the eagle leapt up and spun away down towards the lakes. A fitting end to a wonderful encounter.
Yesterday, while driving along the backroads between Bragg Creek and Cochrane, my wife and I noticed two fluffy balls popping up from a huge nest that I thought was still abandoned. We could see from the edge of the road that they were Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) owlets so we waited a few minutes to get a sense of that stand of trees and whether the parents were nearby. I walked to the fence dividing the ditch from the forest and with a long lens coupled to an extender was able to get some nice images without getting these adolescents worked up.
Below is the view of the nest from the road
I have watched this nest for a couple of years and this is the first time I have seen chicks being raised in it. I hope this pair make this a summer home and return every year. Now, to see about photographs of the family together…
Leaving Calgary on my way home to Bragg Creek, I came across a bald eagle perched on a fence post. I love to photograph birds of prey, so I pulled off the road and jumped out of the car, camera and long lens in hand. Some eagles stay year round here but they are not common so I’m always excited to see one. I was curious to figure out why it was so low to the ground and close to the highway. Usually they are up in trees and closer to rivers than roads. As I moved a bit closer to the bird, his choice of location became obvious – there was a deer, victim of an encounter with a vehicle, crumpled in the ditch. The eagle was in the right spot to swoop down and feed while being able to keep an eye on his prize in between. There were magpies and a couple of crows nearby but none on the deer, they seemed to be keeping their distance.
I waited for a while to see if the eagle would go back to the deer but I must have come along right after it finished one sitting because it showed no interest in going back at that time. Eventually it took flight and circled over the road and up to a large tree a bit further up the hill. I left it there but probably should have set up my field stool and waited for the inevitable return. Really nice to see one of these impressive birds in our area.
On my drive home last night I spotted a large, oblong shape perched on a tree branch just off a gravel road on the forest’s edge near Bragg Creek. Going at highway speed and being a couple hundred meters away from the object, I wasn’t sure what it was but I quickly turned around hoping that it was an owl of some type. When I pulled up the gravel road, I was very happy to see it had not yet flown away. I grabbed my camera, a telephoto lens and a flash and walked slowly towards the bird. Even in the failing light, it was easy to identify my new friend as a great grey owl. I kept the flash off as I approached giving the owl time to get used to my presence and decide if it wanted to model for me. Great greys are mercurial, one encounter they will fly away as soon as they see you, another time they will stay but keep their eyes away from you. This was one of the great encounters where it allowed me to come close and was not agitated. At one point it flew away but then circled around me and came to land on a fence post about ten meters from me. I photographed this beautiful creature for about fifteen minutes and then left it to continue its wait for the ground creatures to start their nightly forays into the open.
Perched on the top of a tiny branch this is where I first found the owl. Given the size of these birds (wingspans average 1.4 meters), I’m always surprised when I see a visible demonstration of how light they are (average of 1.2 kilograms).
I thought the owl was leaving here but then it banked to the right and landed on the fence post across the gravel from me.
At this point, it was quite dark and the colors in the scene were restricted to blue hues and gray tones. I turned the flash on to capture the brown color in the feathers and the yellow in the eyes. The image I wanted to finish with was of the owl flying where you could see the motion and power in its flight before finishing the shoot. I used a slightly longer exposure to get movement in the wings and panned with the owl as it launched and flew past me.
It doesn’t always turn out but when I can create the image I’ve imagined in my head it is a good day. This is pretty close to what I was trying to capture in the photograph. Thank you to Bobbi for managing the three-ring circus at home for an extra while longer last night to let me play with an owl for a little bit.
The morning brought steady snow and diffused sunlight. I toured some of the West Bragg Creek roads to see if the moose were foraging in some of their regular haunts. I saw a few deer but none of their much larger cousins. I did get to see two great gray owls (strix nebulosa) in two different locations.
Click for larger versions of each image.
These photos are all of the second bird that I watched for about 30 minutes as it hunted from a couple of different perches.
It was a great morning. I hadn’t seen one of the phantoms of the north for a couple of months and was beginning to understand why phantom and ghost are names often applied to these beautiful raptors.
As a post script, I was outside tonight putting lights up and heard a couple owls hooting back and forth for about an hour near my backyard. I’ll be trying to find them over the next couple of days.