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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