A Day with an Owl

 Fine art photography image of a Great gray owl hunting during the daylight on a snowy dayGreat gray owl hunting during the daylight on a snowy day
This past weekend I had the opportunity to spend the entire day with a great gray owl. On weekends I am out early, before the sun is up, hoping to get a great photo in that magical morning light just around sunrise. On this particular morning I was fortunate to photograph a porcupine just heading back to its den after his evening out. I left quite satisfied with my encounter and started heading back home. We live on a farm and as I was approaching my driveway on a quiet backcountry road  I spotted an owl sitting on a branch in small clump of trees out in our field. Now this is January in Northern Alberta, there is a lot of snow, and it's usually pretty cold this time of year,  but I was not deterred! I drove into the yard, parked my vehicle, grabbed my gloves, toque and jacket and of course my camera and headed into the field. My horses glanced my way not overly impressed as a I walked through their pen and climbed the fence to get into the field. And yep, the snow on the other side of the fence, having not been packed down from the horses, was almost thigh deep. But hey there is an owl, its at least an hour past sunrise and he was still out. This was my lucky day!
Photo of the great gray owl in the tree in our field - taken with my cell phoneOwl in the tree in our field - taken with my cell phone
This was awesome! Yes even despite the snow, let me say it again, it was awesome. Why is it awesome you ask, because the light is getting better and better (even though it was snowing) and more light, means higher shutter speeds, higher shutter speeds means more opportunity to capture sharp photos of the owl in flight.

The owl had chosen a fairly open field with a few small clumps of trees as his hunting ground. I observed him from early morning right through until midday which may seem unusual for a great gray owl, and yes while uncommon, they do hunt on occasion during the day. But it's still not everyday, so I was excited to spending time with one well after sunrise.

It took a lot of effort to get through the snow. But I plowed through getting closer and closer to the owl. When I approach an owl I take 10 steps and stop, another 10 steps and stop, repeating until I get close enough to start clicking. I have had a lot of luck with this approach and most times the owl does not flush. So it took me about a half an hour to travel the 200 meters in the field fighting the deep snow and trying to not disturb the owl's behaviour. Also hindering the travel speed was an ice crust. The temperatures had warmed to just above freezing during the previous few days and then dropped to almost -20C quickly overnight resulting in about a one inch crust of ice on top of the snow. I had to break through it with every step, and trust me I still have the bruises around my knees because the ice did not want to break in several spots. The whole time I was worried I would never get close to even get one picture before the great gray took off. It was taking so long to go such a short distance, but thankfully he was in no rush and was unbothered by my presence.
Picture of Snow above the top of my mukluks as I walked in the field
Snow above the top of my mukluks as I walked in the field
Picture of Owl as I first approached him in the fieldOwl as I first approached him in the field

Let me say I find it an absolutely privilege to spend time with an owl. They are constantly aware of your presence and make a choice to allow interaction with you or to fly off to another location that is less accessible. Frequently I find great gray owls are usually tolerable if you keep a respectful distance and approach slowly. It's my opinion that If an owl moves frequently from one perch to another, moving each time you move, it is a sign they are stressed by your presence and you should move away. If they ignore you and continue to listen for their prey, take a dive after a vole or exhibit preening behaviours they are at the very least tolerating your presence and at the very best really unphased by it. So I was happy he was tolerating me!

I spent over an hour and half standing there watching him hunt from one tree and then another. I was not dressed for the elements really, my legs started to feel the cold, my fingers I am sure close to frost bite, but this owl just stayed close and kept giving great photo opportunity after photo opportunity. How could I leave?

Fine art photography photo of a great gray owl Swooping in for the preySwooping in for the prey

Beyond cold at this point, I was actually a little thankful when the owl moved to a tree about another 400 meters away and I convinced myself I could not possibly get any better photos. So it was time to go inside versus trying to break another trail even further than the first. I reluctantly went in, a little grumpy at myself for not being tougher and sticking it out and following the owl. I am always worried I am going to miss that one incredible award winning shot once I leave. But I made my way back to my home anyways, got the kettle going, made a cup of tea and curled up under my blanket to warm up. Looking out the window about a hour later, there was the owl just sitting there no more than 50 meters from my front door. Okay, how could I not go back outside, but this time it was prepared with ski pants and snowshoes. And I am glad I did because he gave even better photo and video opportunities for another 2 hours more. In total that owl was in our field for over 5 hours, wow! I was so incredibly blessed to watch him in full daylight giving incredible photo opportunities the entire time. A day to remember for sure!

Picture of the photographer in >Ski pants and snowshoesSki pants and snowshoes this time!


Fine art photography image of a great gray hovering over its preyA rare sight an owl hovering above its intended prey. Usually once owls lock onto a prey's location they drop down and pounce, rarely do they hover which is more commonly seen in different hawks species like the Northern Harrier.

If your goal is to see an owl in the wild, now until early March is the time to be looking in the Boreal Forest. The owls will be out more frequently during the daylight hours and be less obscure. Take a drive down a back country road some Saturday, pay attention to trees near wetlands areas such as small ponds which are likely places for great horned owls, watch for trees lining open fields a prime spot for great gray owls and pay attention to smaller owls flying low over fields which is likely a short eared owl.

Wishing you the best of luck on your own adventure!

Fine art photography photo of a Great gray owl taking off from the snowGreat gray owl taking off from the snow

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