Sunday, 4 December 2011

A weekend of hooting aboot with Snowy Owls

Just over 3 weeks ago reports started coming in that snowy owls were appearing on our shoreline after a four year absence. Snowy owls migrate south during winter from Alaska and on certain years when the lemming count is low they migrate south in large numbers. Needless to say I was pretty excited at the thought of seeing my first snowy owl let alone being able to spend time photographing them. Lousy weather and life's commitments (more on that later) over the last few weeks have prevented me from venturing out to see them. It has been torture seeing my photographer friends post some awesome photos these last two weeks so I blocked this weekend off from socialising to go see them for myself.

Accessible wildlife means hoards of people, so I planned to leave the house a good 1.5hrs before sunrise so I could drive down and scope the area for the owls well before the sun came up. Funny how I don't seem to mind getting up early to go crawl around in the mud and cold looking for wildlife but yet getting up for work takes full effort just about everyday. I am sure I am not alone with that feeling.

On Saturday I got up at 5:30am and was out the door about 10 minutes later. When I arrived at the owl hangout it was still completely dark but this meant I was first on the scene so grabbed my little inadequate flash light and headed out into the shoreline to find me some owls and a good spot before other photographers arrived.

Here are some basic description facts before we get into the details from the weekend. The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). Description courtesy of wikipedia.

This yellow-eyed, black billed white bird is easily recognizable. It is 52–71 centimetres (20–28 in) long with a 125–150 centimetres (49–59 in) wingspan. These birds can weigh anywhere from 1.6–3 kilograms (3.5–6.6 lb). The Snowy Owl is one of the largest species of owl and in North America is on average the heaviest owl species. The adult male is virtually pure white, but females and young birds have some dark scalloping; the young are heavily barred, and dark spotting may even predominate. Its thick plumage, heavily-feathered taloned feet, and colouration render the Snowy Owl well-adapted for life north of the Artic Cirlce.

Like I said, when I arrived it was still dark but it did not take me long to spot about 17 owls clustered together in an area by the shoreline. I though seeing one would be awesome but 17!!! man I knew this was going to be a sweet morning. Light was terrible so I knew I was going to need a lot of patience if I wanted to come away with some good results. The snowy owls spend all summer being stalked by artic foxes so it takes a lot of patience and skill to successfully approach an owl. I decided to go for a dopey looking juvenile seeing as it was my first time with snowy owls and I did nott know what to expect. I have found with Bald Eagles that the juveniles are usually more trusting so thought I would apply the same logic to owls. They have usually had less encounters with predators.

The first photo was taken though my camera's viewfinder using my iphone, call it killing time while I waited for the sun to come up. It  gives you an idea of the lack of light, see camera settings in green.

Image © Jamie Douglas|Photography 2011

The owl below on the left below is my dopey little friend who I spent a good 2 hours approaching. Just when I found a sweet angle with a nice clean background a female turned up from out of nowhere and landed right beside it. I missed the landing as I was too busy checking my camera settings. I was thrilled when I looked through my viewfinder because the dopey little guy wouldn't open his eyes fully for me and as you can see, the female has the great big yellow eyes that complete any snowy owl image. I call this photo 'see no evil, hear no evil'.

I wonder if the mature female on the right was the little guys mother flying down to eye what was getting so close to her not-so-sharp infant?

So here I was with two snowy owls right in front of me and they didn't seem to be at all bothered by my presence. I was starting to get cramp at this point but decided to sit and enjoy the moment for a little longer. The trick with wildlife photography is to spend a long time in the field understanding your subject and making sure you get in and get out without disturbing the wildlife.

Techs: 400MM @ F8 // 1/160// ISO640// Exp comp +1
Canon 7D with 400mm F5.6L
Image © J M Douglas|Photography 2011

Wildlife never fails to take your breath away. Just as I was contemplating leaving a third owl came flying over the head of the two above and was in hot pursuit of a rather large rodent which I presume was a rat. I could do nothing but just aim my camera and hope for the best. I knew I was on a very slow shutter speed so I didn't have time to change it and used the panning technique to follow the incoming owl and taking advantage of the camera's eight frames per second. I like how the eyes and face are sharp and there is plenty of motion in the wings.

Techs: 400MM @ F8 // 1/60 // ISO400// Exp comp +1
Canon 7D with 400mm F5.6L
Image © J M Douglas|Photography 2011

Techs: 400MM @ F5.6 // 1/320// ISO800 // Exp comp -1/3
Canon 7D with 400mm F5.6L
  Image © J M Douglas|Photography 2011

See hi res images and more on my new work in progress website:
*Please note, website under construction. More to come in 2012.


  1. Good to meet you out there. I like the little in viewfinder image done with your phone.

  2. Pretty sweet to see snowy owls, would not mind that! You got some nice shots of them.

  3. Oh wow, such lovely images and good to hear about the return of snowy owls after such a long gap!! :)

  4. Thank you folks. I will be going back soon so expect more later this month.