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Photographing Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls in winter

©2010 Richard Chamberland
©2010 Richard Chamberland

Michigan winters can often be memorable events. Tales of white-out-style blizzards, radiator-freezing temperatures, and even seasons with no snow are retold each time a new winter begins. For us, the winter of 1992 will always be remembered as the winter of the invading owls.

The unusual event commenced in November of 1991 when we began hearing numerous reports of Northern Hawk Owl sightings in scattered locations throughout Minnesota and eastward into northwestern Ontario. In normal winters one or two Hawk Owls wander from their Canadian boreal forest homelands and turn up, to our delight, in our neck of the woods in northern Michigan. But the impressive number of sightings throughout the Midwest seemed to be a portent. Was this the start of an invasion year?

In early December we decided to find out for ourselves, and accompanied by several birding companions, we headed for Chippewa County in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to do some winter birding and check out the Hawk Owls. Soon after arriving we spotted four Hawk Owls in short order, dispelling any doubts we may have had about an invasion.

Late December brought more reports of an invasion when numbers of Great Gray Owls were sighted in several Midwestern locations. The chance to spend several days in the field with Great Grays always seemed like one of those “ultimate experiences” you read about but which rarely come to pass in your lifetime. We waited anxiously for the Michigan reports. In late January, when temperatures dipped below zero for several days in a row, we received a call one evening from a friend who had just returned from a birding trip in the Upper Peninsula. He excitedly rattled off his list of sightings: Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, Red and White-winged crossbills, a Gyrfalcon, numerous Hawk Owls, and (saving the best for last) several Great Gray Owls! We were on the road the next day.

On our first day, while driving in the open country around Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, we picked out six Great Grays. We observed the birds at dawn and dusk. Great Gray Owls are typically nocturnal, hunting at night and roosting during the day. However, they will become crepuscular (active during dawn and dusk) during periods of stress. As the weather continued to deteriorate, the owls became progressively more active during daylight and could be seen hunting from the tops of trees at midday. During this period we tallied the highest number of owls sighted, 28 Great Grays and 15 Hawk Owls. I was eager to start photographing.

I spent the next seven days photographing owls. Starting out the first morning, I didn’t think I would last very long with temperatures hovering around 11 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) and a stiff northerly wind penetrating every seam in my clothing. With my fingers and face exposed, the danger of frostbite was very real. But the grand spectacle of the owls in such a pristine setting buoyed my enthusiasm and I stayed out there from first light until dark.

Since I do virtually all of my photography by stalking my subjects, getting around in the snow with relative ease required snowshoes. In the type of weather I was facing, staying on the move seemed like a good idea. The stalk-and-wait method proved to be the best approach for photographing these owls, in spite of the severe cold. The owls seemed unconcerned about the presence of a human in their midst, as long as I kept my distance and didn’t interfere with them.

My equipment consisted of two Nikon F4 camera bodies, one stashed deep inside my layered clothing to keep its battery and moving parts warm, the other mounted with a Nikkor 500mm f/4 lens. The bitterly cold weather did its best to drain the life out of me and my batteries, so extra batteries were essential. One camera contained Fujichrome Velvia film and the other was loaded with Kodachrome 200 for low light situations. On snowy days I relied heavily on K200. In order to stop the action of the falling snow against a dark background, I generally try to use a shutter speed of 1/125th second, sometimes as low as 1/60th second. On bright days I photographed with Velvia (ISO 50) but set the camera film speed at ISO 100. With special processing to push the speed one stop, one can take advantage of the image sharpness and color qualities that Velvia offers.

Upon returning to our motel after a long day in the field, I made sure to place my lens in a tight-fitting plastic bag, seal it, and place it in the coldest part of the room. This procedure helped to prevent condensation on the lens. If I tried to head back outside with moisture on the lens, I’d end up focusing through a coating of ice. Also, when bringing a lens into a car, I always avoid using the heater (a tough thing to do sometimes) to prevent condensation. Foggy and icy lenses make for a miserable experience. And speaking of miserable, every bone in my body was aching when I hit the sack that first night. But I reasoned that since the sight of so many Great Grays must have been a dream, my aches and pains were just part of the same dream.

After I spent several days in the field from dawn to dusk, a few of the owls became accustomed to my presence and allowed a relatively close approach. In some cases I could have virtually walked right up to the bird. But there are disadvantages in getting close to your subject. Foremost in my mind was avoiding any undue stress on the owl. Winter can be difficult enough without photographers interfering. Another problem is shooting angle. Since the birds generally perched near the tops of trees, I would be forced to shoot up at the bird, giving a less attractive angle for composing a photo and risking the chance of being whitewashed by a crack-shot owl. By keeping your distance with a longer lens, like the 500mm, it is easier to focus on the owl’s face and magnificent eyes, a prerequisite for getting the best owl shots. Shooting at an upward angle does have one advantage — on a sunny day you can capture the bright blue background. Even on bright days in the dead of winter, light levels are never great. I generally favored a faster shutter speed (1/125 to 1/500 sec.) over depth of field because of subject movement. A constant breeze or body movements by the owls made it difficult to get the birds in sharp focus, necessitating the use of faster shutter speeds and faster film like Kodachrome 200.

In addition to their approachable nature, another advantage to photographing the Great Grays was their size, which gave me more opportunities to obtain well-composed photos. Also, because of the birds’ weight, they were often forced to land on the lower, stouter branches of trees, allowing for better camera angles. The much smaller Hawk Owls proved to be more difficult. My persistence paid off, however, and occasionally I got a good look at a Hawk Owl when it missed a meadow vole and landed in a lower branch of a tree to prepare for another try.

The opportunity to watch Great Grays hunt for meadow voles, their primary food source in the area, provided for some memorable scenes. One Great Gray, which was surveying the landscape from the top of a fir tree, suddenly flew across the field toward a meadow vole that was bounding frantically on top of the snow. Just before impact, the owl extended her talons. She slammed into the snow, but missed her target. Knowing the cantankerous nature of meadow voles, I wasn’t surprised to see the vole turn and leap at the owl in albeit futile counterattack. Undaunted, the owl grabbed the vole in midair and quickly consumed it by tipping her head back and swallowing it whole.

Some of the owls we observed were tenaciously territorial. One female Great Gray Owl, nicknamed “Big Baby Mama” for the bawling vocalizations she made to proclaim her territory, had selected an old apple orchard to hunt in and would not tolerate intruders. When another owl or raven entered her turf, she would let loose with a wide array of guttural hooting noises. If that was not sufficient warning, she would leave her perch and physically drive off the intruder. While she was away from her perch, other owls would dart in and snatch prey, only to have “Big Baby” return and chase them in a spectacular display of aerial acrobatics until they relinquished their catch.

Observing a bird’s behavior in a truly natural way is just as important as photographing the bird. Marlene and I prefer to observe animals in the field without trying to interact with them or manipulate their actions in any way. That philosophy applies to my photography as well. During our stay among the Great Gray Owls, a few individuals who also heard about the owl invasion were observed using various methods to attract owls for the purpose of photography or entertainment. One occurrence we witnessed emphasized the detrimental effects such behavior can have on wild birds. While I was photographing a Great Gray one afternoon, a group of people pulled up in a car 150 yards away and proceeded to bait the owl with an artificial lure. The owl flew across the field toward the bait, no doubt anticipating a much needed meal. Unfortunately, three other Great Gray Owls from different parts of the field and surrounding forest were also attracted to the same bait. All four birds converged on the bait at the same time and a fight ensued. In this case, baiting could have caused injury or weakened an already stressed individual, since no nourishment was available to offset the energy spent.

Owls that are encouraged to seek food from people in this manner also run the risk of being shot by poachers. Having recently witnessed a Great Gray Owl being shot and killed, Marlene and I understand the dangers these invading owls face during their brief stay in areas populated by humans. In our lectures and workshops we encourage unobtrusive behavior when observing and photographing animals.

The morning of our last day in the field with the magnificent owls was very windy and snowy. As the day progressed the skies began to clear, and by late afternoon the air was crystal clear, calm, and extremely cold. A few owls were hunting in a field bordering a Norway spruce plantation. As twilight approached, more Great Grays came in to hunt. We lingered at the edge of the field, bathed in the sun’s dwindling red glow. The hunting owls, silhouetted by a glorious sunset, looked like large flying moths. It was satisfying just to be there and observe the owls’ natural behavior. These ephemeral visitors from the North deserve their space, too.

Marlene and Rod Planck live in Spruce, Michigan. Rod is a natural history photographer who offers seminars on photographic technique. He is a self-taught naturalist and has placed his work in a multitude of publications.

Originally Published