Snowy Owls

Well, hello again! My previous blog contained a shot of a snowy owl, but since I have had countless people ask me about them, I feel it's a good subject to get into with a bit more detail.

First though, some background, and bear in mind I know nothing compared to a million other photographers and nature-lovers.

Snowy Owls are typically found in the arctic regions.  Think of northern Canada, Alaska, Eurasia.  Males are mostly white while females can be differentiated by their blackish-brownish spots. During the winter, they will travel south, literally hundreds of miles and have been spotted near where I live for years, but it wasn't until this year that I started to get some information on general locations.  That information is very well guarded, and I suppose I understand why, even if I don't agree with it.

My search this year began in the fall, talking with a fellow photographer I'd met on a trail in Algonquin Provincial Park. Together we walked and were lucky enough to find a moose after hiking a loop of one of the campground trails.  We talked about other wildlife we'd shot and the topic of snowy owls came up and a general area where they might be found.  We exchanged information and ultimately went on our way.

I followed his work with interest (Darrell Richards) and he was good enough to pass on some advice on areas where he had been having success.  For a couple of weeks, when I had a spare day off I would head up and try my luck, but it was not to be.  Birdwatcher websites were of little help.  Giving the name of a town isn't a lot of use, but it is a start at least.

Finally, it was a tour with Georgian Bay Wildlife, operated by Andrew Major, that led me to my first shot.

A snowy owl blends in perfectly with it's surroundings

I have no idea how, while driving 70km/h he managed to spot this one which was easily a few hundred yards into a farmer's field, partially obscured by a small swell of snow, but he did.  I guess that's what experience and patience does for you.  For anyone who is interested in wildlife, I can't recommend his tours more.  He is extremely personable, friendly, outgoing and very knowledgeable.  He passed on many tips along our drive in regards to what to look for and typical places they might be found.  Putting all that aside, there is no beating the price for value.  Ever.

In this case, the shot isn't stunning as she was still probably 150-200 yards away, but it does illustrate that they can hide very well and to get all artsy, it speaks to me.

In the weeks that passed, I returned to the area at least another 7 or 8 times in order to try my luck.  It seems that while they are arctic owls, they don't seem to enjoy hard, pounding snow which is the only way to describe a few of those trips.  The sun may shine at home, but you sure don't have to go all that far north to see the weather change into something less desirable.  During the drive up, there are a few signs equipped with flashers warning that the road ahead is closed due to winter conditions.  Lovely.

During this dry spell, I decided to try someone else's advice and took a drive out to Kincardine, Ontario.  Beautiful area by the way.  In talking to another couple in Algonquin, they showed me photos of numerous Snowy's they said were there, including a road (which doesn't exist) to look on.  Yup, don't trust anyone who sees you're interested in something they have!  Well, it was a beautiful drive anyway, even if it was hours of driving 40km/h scanning fields endlessly.

Finally, just last weekend, my girlfriend and I got up early and made the trip back up north to the Collingwood area.  Here we began another search.  Following Andrew's advice, the path simply took us through areas with open fields.  We didn't have a particular direction, other than to generally head east.  Field after field, turn after turn, eventually I decided I would start to make our way towards the general area where we found the last one.  

Continuing to drive very slow, I happened to notice movement in the sky maybe 50 feet off the ground and there it was.  The unmistakable wings of a snowy owl headed right towards us.  Stopping the car, I grumbled that the camera wasn't ready - my own fault.  Together we wondered where it had disappeared to.  Turning the car, blocking the road (empty farm road, it's okay), we scanned the fields, finding nothing, and then there, at the top of a hydro pole, there was this little thing of beauty.

A quick snap..

Not wanting to waste any time, I grabbed some quick snaps of it way up high in case it didn't enjoy our presence.  I did NOT want to go home empty-handed.  Fortunately, it had only a mild interest in us.  I had plenty of time to shoot and then chance to a much longer lens and shoot some more.  Incidentally, did you know the label on that pole by the owl's claw indicates it is made by NGK, the spark plug maker? Who knew! 

It wasn't long before the road was filled with other cars including photographers.  They mentioned that down the road there were three more; two in one field and one in another.  Unreal, a snowy owl bonanza!  Well, of course we went down the road and sure enough, there they were! 

I'm not overly keen on trespassing on people's land, but.. well.. with the use of a 2 person hovercraft with attached helicopter blades, we soared, just inches off the ground across the field, not touching anyone's property whatsoever, pausing occasionally to shoot a few shots in case it spooked and flew off.  As our hovercrafticopter slowly got nearer though, that's exactly what happened.  As luck would have it though, it flew right towards us.

Snowy owl in flight

It's true what they say, you might see them, but you'll never hear them.  

After it passed by, we returned our Helihoversnowcat.. oh fine, we trespassed.  We hiked into the field, I admit it!  We hiked back to the car and then eyeballed the owl across the road.  Unfortunately I do have some morals, and seeing that it was relatively close to a house, I wasn't going to be that disrespectful as to hike right past it into their field.  I know, one isn't any better than the other, I get it.

The day goes on and we ultimately discover a home base where the Snowy's seem to be fed by eager photographers and we take some time to shoot a beautiful female up on another pole.  As luck would have it, Darrell pulled in behind our car and we chatted some more where we exchanged experiences and shared some useful photography tips back and forth. 

In the end, I finally have this partially scratched off my bucket list.  I still need the perfect shot, but for now, these will do for a good start.

Finally, one last shot of this beautiful female.  What's not to love.

Is it me or does it look like she has a moustache?