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Snowy owl photography tactics - and things NOT to do

A gorgeous juvenile female snowy owl briefly catches your narrator with its piercing gaze. It's doing its Linda Blair/Exorcist trick - twisting its head 180 degrees to look straight behind. Owls have 14 neck vertebrae - double our number - which allows them such flexibility.

These visitors from the high arctic have irrupted big time into Ohio and adjacent regions, with new birds coming to light nearly every day. Probably 80 or so have thus far been reported in the state, and some of them have stuck around favored spots and become local celebrities.

I went to visit one of these birds this morning - the animal above, which was found last Friday by Doug Overacker and Julie Karlson at C.J. Brown Reservoir near Springfield. In the four days since its discovery, many people have visited as is nearly always the case when one of these white wonders appears near a large population center or is otherwise very accessible.

And as is always the case, people want to photograph the owls. And therein often lies the rub, as far as the owls are concerned. A natural inclination of photographers is to get closer, closer, closer. This may be just human nature, a lack of oomph regarding lens power, or the desire to frame-fill the bird and minimize the need to crop. However, close approaches put a sleepy owl on edge, and are apt to flush it. Just because snowy owls "hide" in plain sight during the day doesn't mean they're active. They hail from treeless tundra regions and are pre-programmed to roost in wide open spaces, typically on the ground. While a bird may opportunistically grab prey during daylight hours, like most other owls they are largely nocturnal. It's best to give resting birds a wide berth and enjoy them from a reasonable distance. Flushing one causes it to expend unnecessary energy, potentially alerts harassers such as crows to its presence, and depending upon location, may drive the bird across a road and into traffic. If disturbances happen too frequently, the animal may leave the area. If it is spooked from a site in which prey was plentiful and forced to try and locate another spot that can meet its feeding requirements, the owl's chances of survival drop.

Fortunately, these mammoth avian predators (up to 5 lbs! nearly 5 foot wingspan! two feet long!) can easily be appreciated from distances outside of the owl's discomfort zone, but plenty close enough to admire well, and often get decent shots. It isn't hard to tell when your presence is bothering the animal. It'll fidget, stare at you for extended periods, possibly adjust its position, and if pushed too much, ultimately take flight.  A touchdown as far as snowy owl photos go is obtaining nice images, and the bird is exactly where it was when you leave.

While the bird's welfare should come first, there is the human factor to consider. Like it or not, you will probably not be the owl's only admirer. Other people will visit, and most of them will not appreciate the person who insists on making an irresponsibly close approach - and Hedwig forbid they flush the bird in front of a group of people! Many nasty people encounters have been spawned by such behavior, and no one wants that.

This is the lay of the land - the beach area at C.J. Brown Reservoir. Upon arrival near first light this morning, I saw the big white bird instantly. Its location is denoted by the red pin closer to the bottom of the map - it was sitting atop a raised berm along that section of parking lot. The other pin shows where I was when I made the first image in this post.

The gate to these parking lots is closed for the winter, so one must park in the lots along the north-south road to their right. As I walked in, I kept a few parking lots and the berms between them between me and the owl. I have no doubt that it instantly saw me when I appeared, but my distance was such that it paid me no mind. To get the over-the-back look from the owl for my photo was just a matter of patience, as it routinely scanned in all directions.

I am fortunate in that I've got Canon's superb 800mm f/5.6 lens, which greatly increases the distance that the photographer can be from the subject and still get good images. Nonetheless, this bird could be photographed well with lesser lenses, from similar distances, especially on days with better light.

Following is some wonky techno-stuff for photographers working a snowy owl from afar. Always use a tripod (sturdy one, hopefully!), as a solid base of operations is vital. If you don't already, learn to shoot in RAW mode regarding image preservation. RAW files are digital negatives that capture all the data, and are often thrice the file size of a jpeg (the latter file type compresses the image thus losing some data). The ability to crop and otherwise edit a RAW file and still retain detail is much greater.

This day was gusty, which presented stability issues. The camera/lens being firmly locked down on the tripod helped, but big telephoto lenses have huge lens hoods. Mine is about the size of a coffee can. The first thing I did was take it off, to prevent the hood acting as a parasail. The ambient light was still not very bright when I made my images, and I try my best to keep the ISO to 800 or preferably less, to help ensure clean mostly grain-free images. To do that, I opened the lens to f/5.6 - wide open - and had to drop the shutter speed to 1/160, with 0.7+ exposure compensation. Those settings gave me an ISO of 800, which was OK. To further help ensure a relatively sharp image, I shot in live view, which locks the mirror up, preventing even the slight shudder caused by the mirror's actuation. My Canon 5D IV has a touch-sensitive back screen, so I could just touch the part of the screen where I wanted the focus point to be. Finally, I set the drive mode to 2-second delay, which meant that I wasn't even touching the equipment when the camera fired. I then positioned myself as a wind block, although I tried to shoot between gusts. Resting snowy owls don't move much, making these techniques possible. If the bird did move its head during the 2-second delay, I just shot again. These tactics gave me some nice files that could be greatly cropped and tweaked later, and to the owl, it's as if I wasn't even there.

I had noticed several hundred gulls resting on the nearby beach, and foraging offshore. Being a huge gull fan, I headed their way after working with the owl. Gulls are awesome on many levels. They're beautiful, masterful aeronauts, excellent identification challenges, exhibit fascinating behavior, and some are great case studies in evolution.

This is an adult ring-billed gull, and it has captured a spotfin shiner, Cyprinellus spiloptera (I think). Naturally, once the other gulls saw this bird with its hard-earned meal, the chase was on. Shooting gulls in flight is great fun, and relatively low-hanging fruit on the photographic difficulty scale. I like to wait for some interesting performance, such as an aerial dogfight or just-caught fish to create a more interesting image.

After an hour of playing with the gulls, I ascended the low hill back to the parking lots where the owl was. Keeping the snowy in mind and figuring it was probably where I left it, I detoured north so I came into the lots as far away from the owl as possible. A quick glance showed that it was not where I left it. It was now in a tree - a few hundred feet away. With a photographer nearly under it. Having no desire to publically embarrass anyone, I've shaded out the person's body in the photo above so they can't be identified, but you can see the telephoto lens sticking out to the right. And the owl staring at the person from the tree to the right - probably about 40 feet away and that's way too close.

I imagine the person saw the owl where I had seen it, got too close and spooked it into the tree (NOT a typical resting spot). They then followed it, and from my unseen perspective from the distant corner of the parking lot I watched the next flush unfold. The person crept ever closer, and through my lens I could see the owl staring and fidgeting. It finally fluffed up and shook its wings and I knew it was about to bail again.

The flushed owl came straight my way as I stood quietly behind one of the berms, and alit not too far away. I imagine this is the type of shot the person was trying for, although I'm not particularly gratified by my effort due to the circumstances.

While a bit ticked at watching this go down, angry encounters generally do no good. I gave the owl a wide berth and worked my way to the other end of the parking lots to say hi to the photographer, who I didn't know but did recognize. Hopefully our cordial chat about owl welfare will help in future encounters.

If you do see a snowy owl - and this is the winter for it! - please keep a fair distance away and don't risk flushing the animal. Patience rules. If you wait long enough the bird will eventually do something - adopt interesting postures, preen, make a short flight to another spot, maybe catch a vole if you're really lucky. In the case of the snowy owl that was the subject of my previous two posts, I spent nearly eight hours watching it, and was rewarded with some wonderful photographic opportunities.

And if you do see inappropriate behavior on the part of one of your fellow owl-watching primates, please address it with civility. Loudly yelling across a field, angry confrontations, or other bellicose displays will probably not help; they'll likely make matters worse. A reasoned dialog might stimulate positive change. While there are exceptions, most people, including photographers, who unnecessarily disturb an owl may well not know any better. A casual chat about the birds and their amazing life history, habits and needs might be all it takes to help improve a situation.

Comments

Angelika Nelson said…
thank you for this post, this is true for all wildlife; patience rules to get photos of interesting behavior and in many cases to even see a bird
amyfromindy said…
I'm a photographer in Indiana and have two Snowy's 20 min away from my home. It takes all I have not to visit daily but the busy Holiday Season has kept me from doing so. Your article was beautiful. It is frustrating when I'm at a reasonable and safe distance getting wonderful shots of wildlife and inevitably someone feels they must see just how close they can get. I struggle with sharing this amazing find of these Snowys or keeping the secret to myself for their security, though there are ways to find them for the true birders as I have done. None-the-less thank you for writing a beautiful, friendly blog and sharing your fabulous photos. This was a great lesson to me as to how to deal with situations of those human folk who can't resist the urge to test the limits with wildlife. "let's see if that creature will let me approach and pet it". :)
Jim McCormac said…
Thanks for your comments, Amy and Angelika! I appreciate it!
Anonymous said…
I have been enjoying your blog for some months now, and learning so much about places I have never been. This posting is especially lovely and so important as we read about owls and other animals being harried by thoughtless humans. Thank you for modeling a good approach as well as for the pictures and owl information.

Ceci
Anonymous said…
I am planning on going up to see the snowy owl at the Wengerd's homestead tomorrow (from Pickerington) . Do you know if it is still there?

Gary
Jim McCormac said…
Hi Gary, yes, to my knowledge the bird is still present.
paul shaw said…
Well done and very informative. What great year for us to have the Snowy Owls in great numbers and so close (in time ) from the last irruption. Any thoughts on that? Thanks for the wonderful story.
Jim McCormac said…
Thanks Paul. Seems to be a pretty clear perfect sync with the four-year cycle of lemmings. Our last big irruption was four years ago, and apparently this year's crop of owls originated in the same place - the Ungava Peninsula of northern Quebec
Mike Miller said…
During the last irruption of snowy owls in New Jersey, they were very hard to read. Some wouldn't tolerate a beachgoer coming within 300 feet. Others ignored dog-walkers just off the trail. Flushing a snowy owl is not cool, but I sympathize with photographers who have a hard time finding a snowy owl's comfort zone. One thing is certain: If you flush an owl once, you should leave it alone. And some of the snowies I saw that year were WAY more concerned about the peregrine falcons that would bully them! Still it's a magical bird and I can appreciate why people want to get a better look!
Anonymous said…
I have similar experiences in National Parks, Yellowstone for example.

Eagles will be totally cool with a car being very close, well pretty close.

If we all stay in our cars and get our shots we get some awesome shots.

But as any bird watcher knows, just because they tolerate a car does not mean they will tolerate a person outside the vehicle.

Inevitably somebody opens a door and steps out, Eagle departs, end of the shoot.

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