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Picturing the unexpected

Choosing patience over shortcuts, a pair of photographers reap a spectacular, surprising reward
By Johann Schumacher | Published: 10/21/2011

BRD-A1211-500Early on a morning in late November a few years ago, my friend Jimmy, a fellow photographer, called to tell me he had found a Snowy Owl on a Long Island beach. By the time I managed to break away from work, it was almost noon. Thankfully, traffic was light. I made good time navigating from my home in Queens to the bird’s location.

When I joined Jimmy, he was observing the owl at a distance. It was a young female Snowy — white-faced with a dark-barred body and chevron-flecked wings, appearing more feline than avian. She was sleepy-eyed, nestled atop a ridge of sand and white bits of shell amid tangled bronze-green stalks and spent seedheads of seaside goldenrod and straw-yellow beach grass.

That afternoon, bracing against a stiff west wind under unforgiving gray skies, we waited, trying to stay warm, hoping for better light. We watched and waited and kept our eyes glued on the owl. For her part, she paid us no mind, observing us but casually, unimpressed by big glass, indifferent to our image-making pretensions.

Sleeping, preening, yawning occasionally, inscrutable, ever so patient. We didn’t know it, but she was inviting us to slip into owl time.

The soul of our craft
For most of us, patience is a work in progress, an acquired virtue. Few are born to it. For the nature photographer, it is a prerequisite attribute, as essential as the ability to see the things that matter in a photo: light, color, pattern, rhythm, gesture.

Patience speaks to the soul of our craft — an acknowledgment that the character of our work, the way we go about our business, is as essential as the artistic vision and the technical competence of the photographs we make.

While we waited, Jimmy spoke of a workshop he’d heard of where the goal was to photograph Snowy Owls. Using live mice as bait, workshop leaders manipulated wild owls’ behavior in order to provide predictable and repeatable photo opportunities for their clients. Participants from as far away as Japan returned home with extraordinary close-ups of Snowies in flight to add to their portfolios. Jimmy is not easy to read, yet as he talked about the workshop, I detected a lack of enthusiasm in his voice.

The afternoon continued uneventfully. Not a single gull or harrier took note of the roosting owl. The light remained flat, merely growing dimmer as the hours passed. I resigned myself to the fact that this would be a day given to the study of Snowy Owl behavior. Photographically speaking, it was a bust.

But our fortunes were about to change.

A pearl-green wedge of clear sky was expanding ever so slowly at the western horizon. The owl, too, showed signs of life: stretching, fidgeting, taking a keen interest in everything around her. It appeared as if she might take off at any moment. Anticipating her flight path, I repositioned myself, placing the wind at my back.

Beyond the roosting owl, past the ridge of low-lying dunes, the eastern sky turned slate black just as the low-riding sun behind us breached the cloud bank, gilding beach grass and goldenrod and bathing the yellow-eyed owl in the brilliant late light of a November sunset. The transformation was startling precisely because it was so unexpected. It happened quickly, as if an unseen hand had suddenly tripped a bank of stage lights, disclosing a masterfully composed beach tableau featuring a golden-eyed raptor as its centerpiece. All that was wanting now was for the owl to hoist her white-lined wings like feathered sails against the wind, to be swept into the black sky and row swiftly, silently, toward us.

I ceased to be an observer — the photographer trying to get the picture. Instead, I felt drawn inside, connected viscerally to the present moment and awakened to the world’s ephemeral wild beauty, to its unfathomable mystery.

Perhaps this is what Walt Whitman was intimating when he wrote: “The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first, / Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d, / I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.”

Clash of the titans 

In winter, Snowy Owls usually fly to southern Canada and the northern United States, but a few birds typically wander farther south, sometimes as far as Virginia, Kansas, or northern California. And every few years, large numbers invade the cities, shorelines, and open fields of the northern states.

The owls often move into areas where Peregrine Falcons spend the winter, especially along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Virginia and in the Great Lakes region. Though rarely observed, conflicts between the species are not that uncommon. Both raptors are top-of-the-food-chain predators. Habitats and prey species overlap, competition for territory and food can be fierce, and confrontations are inevitable. Although each species is capable of killing the other, fights rarely result in death.

In one case, a Peregrine attacked a Snowy as the owl was eating a rabbit, and in another, a Peregrine that was guarding the carcass of a gull on a beach attacked a Snowy as it flew nearby. A Minnesota researcher has described the encounters as play, at least for the falcons.

In the scene we witnessed, the falcon, an adult male, relied on the element of surprise, using his speed and agility to attack. The owl, a young female, was at a decided disadvantage on the sand, yet it was the Peregrine that withdrew. The pugnacious owl had stood her ground.

A feathered missile
As it happens, there is more to tell. As the light faded rapidly, Jimmy and I followed the owl to the shoreline. Above the steady slap of the breakers, we found her settled in on the white sand, nestled against bits of wood and marine debris.

Wide awake now and fully alert, she nevertheless accepted our company without hesitation, despite the presence of a third observer. The newcomer, a lanky jogger in a blue wetsuit, hunkered down dutifully beside us, inquiring about the owl in hushed tones. He was clearly excited, elated about his bit of “dumb luck” at stumbling across the regal, wild, yet remarkably tame creature.

But our reverie was to be short-lived. I don’t think any of us, including the owl, was prepared for what happened next: Appearing suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, were a pair of dark, sharp-angled wings — a feathered missile, a Peregrine Falcon, slashing the space just inches above the owl’s head, strafing her mercilessly, not once or twice, but repeatedly. Again and again and again.

Here on the open beach, grounded on the soft sand, she was hopelessly outflanked, at a perilous disadvantage. Yet she fought gamely, or as best as she could, bobbing and ducking like a seasoned prizefighter. She hopped this way and that, forced into a desperate dance of awkward pirouettes and half-somersaults, improvising as necessary. When possible, she bared her own powerful talons, thrusting them skyward, desperately trying to fend off the attacking Peregrine.

The altercation probably lasted less than a minute, although at the time it seemed much longer, as owl and falcon sparred in grim silence before us. We were stunned.

Jimmy and I clicked away, but none of the images would do justice to what we had witnessed. What did it matter?

By exercising restraint, by refusing to take shortcuts, by respecting the space of this wild creature, we had allowed the events of the day to unfold according to their natural rhythms.

We had slipped into owl time.

Johann Schumacher is a graphic designer, nature photographer, and writer living in Queens, New York.