Autumn weather in southern Ontario is unpredictable. These past few months, for instance, have included snow squalls, heavy rain and periods of fog which have lasted for hours.
It is easy to forego photography sessions when faced with inclement weather – there are myriad alternatives – but I remind myself that even in brutal photography conditions I have sometimes been rewarded with experiences that I might otherwise have missed.
Think of it: animals and birds still have to eat and drink despite the worst of the elements. Each time is another learning experience.
Earlier this year I encountered a merlin – a small member of the falcon family – while scouting the area south of my Cambridge, Ontario home. Thick fog limited visibility so instead of perching in the trees or on hydro lines this raptor was using a gravestone from which to launch its attacks on insects and smaller birds.
During an intense rain I will often navigate my way along a muddy trail to a local bald eagles’ nest in order to see what these magnificent predators are doing in the rain.
One time I arrived on site and saw both adults sitting by their nest high above my vantage point. To my surprise the male flew down to a tree across the river from me as if to take a closer look at this madman with the Nikon gear, dressed in gore-tex clothing from head to toe.
Landing on a branch he perched there for an hour as I snapped away. His feathers were drenched; his white head and tail feathers revealed the extent of his bathing.
Over the years I have been fortunate to photograph various members of the canid family – Ethiopian wolves, Eastern wolves and more locally, Eastern coyotes.
On an autumn camping trip to Killarney three years ago I saw this white wolf wandering along a road one evening. The light didn’t allow a decent photograph although the wolf wandered into the woods and stared at me for a while. I went back to my camp and vowed to return the next day.
It was pouring with rain that morning as I drove slowly along the road with my windshield wipers allowing short periods of a clear view. Luck was on my side as I saw the wolf again walking towards me along the side of the road.
As it got closer it walked into the woods for cover. So I turned my car around and drove ahead two or three hundred metres and parked again. Within minutes the wolf re-appeared and continued walking towards me. I snapped a few images then turned my car around and drove further down the road again and parked. Other than crossing the road a few times the wolf continued its advance probably comfortable that I was not a threat.
It is no secret – and if you have ever attended one of my photo presentations you will know – that my favourite species is the snowy owl. In order to capture images of this magnificent raptor it is necessary to be out in sometimes frigid temperatures with howling winds since this bird migrates south from the arctic in the winter.
Although I always check the weather forecast it is usually to see what direction the wind might be blowing so I have a better idea of where to find these owls since they normally orient themselves towards the wind. The image here of two adult male snowy owls in a territorial confrontation came about after I spotted the one on the ground during a snow squall.
The owl was familiar with me as I had been in the field with him more than a dozen times already over a three week period.
The wind was howling and visibility was limited due to snow but I knew the owl would eventually need to hunt for sustenance. So, I remained about 30 metres away sitting on the ground with my camera trained on him.
Occasionally, his attention was diverted to something behind me and I wondered if he might hunt a vole as I had seen him do a few times. I had ice building up on the back of my camera and my glasses were fogged up when I saw him turn. Instinctively, I began firing at that moment. When he left the area I got up and walked back to my car.
It was only when I sat down, wiped off my glasses and the back of my camera that I saw the reason for his sudden movement – a second adult male owl had attacked him.
I will admit that there have been times when I have questioned my sanity when out with my camera. But frequently I am rewarded with either a nice photograph or a unique experience.
The wind might be howling causing white-out conditions. The roads can be icy and so too are the fields in which I might find owls.
This picture was taken of an adult male seeking protection from the winds following an ice storm. I had driven down a non maintained side road after the storm then walked across an ice covered field to spend time with this owl.
After an hour or so the owl decided to go to its preferred hunting spot along a nearby fence line. As he flew past I could see ice on the back of his head. Better him than me, eh?
Inclement weather can often provide interesting wildlife encounters. Whether it’s rain, snow, wind or extreme cold there’s a chance for memorable encounters and the occasional picture.
I am keeping my eye on weather forecasts for the return of snowy owls to southwestern Ontario. My winter gear is at the ready and I can’t wait to encounter them.