Winter is one of my favourite times to be a wildlife photographer – because of the annual arrival of snowy owls to southwestern Ontario.
For each of the past six winters – several times a week – I have packed my gear and headed north of Waterloo, Ontario to the tundra looking farmland where I know I will find snowy owls roosting or hunting. For people residing elsewhere the Ontario Field Ornithologists’ website (ofo.ca) is a good resource as it provides a history of sightings too.
Preparing for Owl Photography
I always check the hourly weather forecast so I have an idea of what sort of conditions I might encounter. If a heavy snowstorm is predicted I put off the excursion but snow showers are a welcome opportunity.
Three years ago I invested in snow tires for my car. Until that point, on three separate occasions, I managed to get myself stuck in snow banks or ditches and required the assistance of some good Samaritans in getting back on the road. Filling up with both gasoline and windshield wiper fluid is a good idea too.
I time my arrival for late afternoon when I can drive the area and spot owls. They are normally found roosting on the ground along fence lines or hedgerows and I drive a lap of my go-to area seeing which owls are where. Later they will move to fenceposts and utility poles as twilight approaches and they are thinking about the hunt.
Over the years I have introduced myself to the farmers along my route and asked for permission to go into their fields. If I get a particularly nice shot I have also gifted them prints of the owls. Most of the farmers are willing to provide ‘owl intelligence’ also. They see them more than we do.
Outdoor Photography Gear
Along with my preferred combo – a Nikon D500 and a Tamron 150-600mm which I leave on my passenger seat so as to be ready for action – I bring cloths and a small towel to wipe any snow or other moisture off my gear if needed. And, since cold temperatures drain batteries quicker I always carry a spare in my mid layer breast pocket. This practice has served me well as there have been times where I have switched batteries just in time to capture the in-flight shots.
I dress as warmly as possible from head to toe: a wool hat not a baseball cap, which can get blown away in a wind, Gore-tex hiking boots and wool socks, merino wool base layer, water repellant hiking pants, fleece or recycled material mid layer and a warm down filled jacket. I have struggled to find gloves which offer both protection and dexterity. This year I purchased a pair of Mountain Hardwear High Exposure Gore-tex gloves which are an improvement over past gloves.
On the passenger seat I also keep some Twix – you can substitute your own chocolate bar if necessary – and a Nalgene bottle filled with water. If your mind is on your stomach its harder to endure the weather.
Approaching Snowy Owls in a Field
Approaching owls is tricky. Some are more tolerant of humans than others and most seem to become more tolerant when they recognize me day after day. Dr Karen Wiebe, a biologist at the University of Saskatchewan has told me that, in addition to recognizing me, they might well recognize my car. One female owl I had ‘gotten to know’ over the winter of 2017/2018 caught a bird in a field and then proceeded to feast on it about ten metres away from me. She was obviously comfortable with my presence because she dined for the next hour and fifteen minutes in the same place. I lay in the snow snapping away.
When I do go into a field I will approach in a zig zag pattern and never straight on, stopping when I am about 30 or 40 metres away. If you get too close the owl will fly away and you will likely get a rear end shot. Also, it is amazing how wide the wingspan is on these owls and if you are too close the wing tips might not be included in the image. The alternative is to zoom back appropriately.
Owls like to take off into the wind and so I position myself with the wind and sunlight at my back preferably. Once in position I then wait for the owl to move on its own terms. They are territorial birds so late afternoon is when they jockey for position. I know that the more tolerant owls might keep me waiting for a couple of hours.
When sunlight hits the white of the owls it can light up like a light bulb so paying attention to the histogram is important.
Even with warm clothing standing or kneeling in a snow covered field with wind chills near -30C is going to be uncomfortable but patience and endurance is necessary. You want the owl to fly of its own accord. This can be to move to its preferred hunting spot or by the presence of the larger adult female owls.
Finally, after a session outdoors in freezing temperatures I generally open the windows of my car and keep the heat off as I change locations. That is so condensation doesn’t get inside my lens and camera body. If I am finished for the day I put the camera and lens in a proper kit bag before turning on the heat. I also wait a few hours before bringing my camera out of the bag in the warmth of my home.