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Snowy Owls by Tim Kuhn

Written By onci on Wednesday, February 8, 2012 | 7:51 AM

For those of us in the northern parts of the U.S. and in the southern parts of Canada this is an irruption year for the Snowy Owl migration. An irruption year occurs in species that respond to irregular changes in the food supply. Snowy Owls depend on Lemmings for food. This season the Lemming population is well below normal so the Owls need to find food elsewhere. For this reason Snowy Owls have been showing up in way higher numbers than usual and farther south than usual. For those of us that live on the outer limits of their migration this is great news for it gives us an opportunity to see and photograph these majestic birds.

In my part of the world the Snowy Owls tend to gravitate towards tidal flats that house rodents such as mice and voles so that is where I set out to photograph them. The scene is an open tidal flat maybe a quarter of a mile deep and miles long with lots of dense salt tolerant underbrush. Some of the flat is a mix of seaweeds and terrestrial plants while other parts are under standing water. There is also a damp wind coming off of the bay that can make the temperature seem a lot colder than it really is adding one more complication to getting good shots.

Upon arrival I look out over the flat and see many little white spots that easily stand out from the drab vegetation. Looking through the camera I cannot believe what I am seeing. Clustered all around the flats are groups of Snowy Owls resting in the morning light. It is an unbelievable sight, one that I have never witnessed before in many years of wildlife photography. Like the proverbial kid in the candy store I set out with great excitement to photograph the Owls.

These Owls are far south of their normal range; they are very hungry due to the lack of food in their normal territory.  They really don’t have much of an energy reserve so one must be very cognitive of that fact and not disturb them. They also rest during the day usually sleeping or cat napping, it is best to let them continue to rest up and not keep them on guard. One must keep all this in mind when photographing them giving the animals the respect they deserve; forcing these birds into the air is a major faux pas.  Fortunately for the photographer all this resting is a good thing.

The birds are quite approachable if both care and patience are employed.  I would spot a bird and decide if it is one I want to photograph. I would consider perch, background, lighting, pose and all the usual suspects plus a bird that was awake, not one with its eyes closed. I would work my way around the subject, giving them a super wide berth until I was at an angle that I wanted to be in for the light. I would then work the background trying to remain at the good light angle, doing all of this a good distance from the subject.

Then ever so slowly work my way closer, usually when the bird wasn’t looking in my direction. Using this technique I was able to get close enough with an 800mm lens to fill the frame both horizontally and vertically. The real trick is that when you are done photographing a given bird to move away without disturbing them. Somehow it’s easier to be patient when approaching a subject than it is when you are going away from a subject. Still there is a certain satisfaction of not carelessly putting the bird into the air. 

I had such a wonderful time photographing these gorgeous birds, I can only hope I will get another opportunity to do it again.

Tim Kuhn

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