New Year’s Gifts

Snowy Owl in flight, Grays Harbor, WA

Forget Christmas - my greatest gifts this holiday season came at New Year's. This morning promised to be one of  the first clear days after several rain-sodden weeks -- welcome to winter in the Northwest...! On a whim, I got up at 4 AM and headed to the coast, where reports have been coming in of a remarkable gathering of Snowy Owls on a remote stretch of beach.
I normally approach these rumors with some skepticism - too often I am greeted in the field with the phrase "wow, you should have been here last week!" But this time, I was right on target. At one point this morning I saw as many as 12 Snowy Owls, escapees from the far north, looking out over the long grass, searching for a meal. This year may be the best on record for Snowy Owl "irruptions", when large groups of mostly immature birds escape the harsh arctic winter in the hope of finding food and shelter farther south.
If you live anywhere in the northern states, and have always dreamed of seeing - or photographing - Snowy Owls, this may be your year. They seem to favor places that resemble their tundra birthplace - patches of grassland with logs or stumps on which to perch and look for food. The beaches of the Pacific Northwest are pretty much ideal. (Having said that, the last wild Snowy I saw was on a Seattle church steeple...)
Having quickly managed to get some handsome portraits, I decided to concentrate on trying to get a shot of an owl in flight. This was not easy, since the wind was strong -- and every owl I saw take off quickly got blown in the wrong direction. I decided, therefore, to just focus on a sitting bird - and wait. Instead of trying to catch a random bird flying past, I would wait to get this bird taking off. It took almost an hour - but he eventually launched. (Happily, not because of anything I did: I had held still so long, I was frozen to the spot.)

I got three frames as he took off, only one of which was in sharp focus. But one was all I wanted. And, with the owl gone, I could stand up and try and get the blood flowing again.

Snowy Owl in flight, Grays Harbor, Washington

Nikon D300 with 500 f4 lens
© Kevin Schafer 2013


    We were there the 2nd and 3rd, and had such an amazing time with wonderful weather (albeit a frigid wind) and gorgeous owls. Perhaps we crossed paths? I had an amazing opportunity on the 3rd when two Bald Eagles flew overhead, and several of the Snowy’s launched into the air. The one I was shooting flew right at me–it was an amazing experience, and I got one sharp photo (out of several shot), much as you did. The light on your image is gorgeous–much better than mine!

    I would like to point out that while we were there we were dismayed by how many photographers were just flocking to the owls, and getting closer and closer and pushing them until the flushed and flew to new perches. Every time that occurs, they use up precious energy. Our actions can have an adverse affect on them–last year, when the Snowy’s came down, several died because they were in such poor condition. They come down to the lower 48 when there’s not enough food up north, and sometimes they are in desperately poor condition when they come. Every time we change their behavior we run them down even more. I haven’t heard any speculation yet this year as to whether the owls are in good or poor condition.

    As photographers who, hopefully, love the animals we shoot–we should all be aware of situations like this. I think it’s a responsibility, especially when published nationally, to encourage people to be aware of how their behavior affects the species they shoot.

    Charlene, I agree completely, and saw some of the same behavior among the photographers I encountered. I consider it a successful shoot when I leave the animal where I found it without pushing it or changing its behavior. Having said that, every owl is different, and while some allow a close approach, others flush at the first sight of humans. I just hope people will be aware of the birds’ behavior and behave responsibly; as you say, these birds are in an unfamiliar place trying to find food to survive – let’s give them a break! Meanwhile, your flying shot is terrific. Better than anything I got!

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