A special encounter
Great gray owl as it turns in flight
The last weekend of January I had the privilege of photographing a great gray owl while it was hunting and I do mean it is a privilege any time you can photograph an owl! It was a relatively mild day in Northern Alberta, a balmy -1C with little wind. In January by all standards that is a warm day! I found the owl about half an hour after sunrise, still beautiful soft light conditions, yet bright enough to allow for a high enough shutter speed to take in-flight photos.
I have taken thousands of photos of great gray owls but what happened on this encounter was extra special. Usually, when I find an owl I spend the first 10 - 20 minutes just observing it. By watching the owl I can discern its hunting pattern and anticipate its flight path. This allows me to position myself correctly in relation to the owl so that when it moves to another perch I can capture photos of it flying in my direction. Once I was certain I knew where it was going I got into position. I waited about 100 feet from where it sat atop a tree looking out into a field that was enclosed with a barb wire fence.
Owl perched in the trees
Attentively listening, moving its head to pick up the soft sounds of movement beneath the snow, the owl took flight out into the field having located a vole. I was certain that once it returned it would do so about 50 or 60 feet further down the treeline from where it had left. The snow was way too deep to wait in position for the owl in the field, so I had chosen a spot along the treeline down from where I anticipated it would return. I never put myself directly in the flight path of an owl, but instead to the side which usually gives me about 3/4 view of the owl as it flies. The owl dove, feet pounding through the snow, landing and collapsing its wings on top. Reaching with its feet its talons found and clasped the vole and pulled it from beneath the snowpack. Bringing his head below its wing the owl reached for its foot and transferred the vole from talons to beak. Apparently deciding the deep snow was not the place to have its meal the owl launched into the air to land on a fence post about 30 feet to the right of me. I watched as it devoured the vole, then took some time to clean itself and shake a few times.
Great gray owl enjoying its meal
As I watched it shake I thought won't it be awesome if I could capture a slow-motion video of the owl shaking. I always carry an extra-large homemade bean bag in my vehicle that can sit on the window ledge of my door to provide a solid base for my camera if I am recording video from my SUV. But I was not in my vehicle, I was standing outside. So I braced the camera against my body trying to stabilize my Canon R5 as much as possible to minimize the shake that is so easy to discern in video footage. I always handhold my camera when photographing wildlife, so I do not normally have a tripod with me. I have my Canon 5R set to capture slow-motion video with one little click of a custom button (note it drains the battery quickly and takes up a heck of a lot of memory shooting in slow motion!). I pressed the shutter and hoped the owl would give another shake as he sat on the post.
Photo of the great gray owl in the action of shaking
Remember at this point I am to the right of the owl and anticipating it landing on the trees still to my right but to the left of its original position where it had been perched in the treeline. Essentially this equates to a V-shaped flight path with the owl going out into the field, catching its prey, landing on the fence, and then leaving the fence at an angle to land between me and where it had previously been. The camera is recording slow-motion video, and the owl has yet to shake for me. Instead after waiting about a minute, the owl takes off and not in the direction where I expected it to go. It did launch itself in the general direction but way more to the right than I anticipated. This meant that instead of me being beside its flight path I was in its flight path. I watched as this large owl, wings beating in a slow rhythmic motion started coming towards me. Within a matter of seconds, it had closed the gap between myself and him. I keep holding the camera, filming, not sure if I am about to be attacked and the owl starts to quickly climb and clears my head to land behind me on a tree. Wow, wow did that just happen? Yes, it did, and here is the video proof of that encounter. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.