Great, Gray Day…

Shot of the Month – March 2013

Great Gray Owl, Canada (5875) Like many people I am a bit gaga over owls.  I find them mesmerizing.  They seem so majestic.  Masterful.  The embodiment of grace, power, and resolution.

Since moving to Vermont finding and photographing owls had been a top priority.  The venture had not been going well — I managed a few sightings last year but I had not   captured a single noteworthy image.

And then a few weeks ago a dramatic change of fortune.  We found two Great Gray Owls wintering near Montreal, Canada.

It is hard to describe how fortunate I feel to have captured this image, and more importantly, to have had the opportunity to observe this animal over two consecutive weekends.

A quick inventory of the miracles.  First, just seeing a Great Gray Owl is pretty amazing unless you hang out in the Boreal forests of Canada.  Not many people do.  Second, seeing a Great Gray hunt?  Astounding.  And finally, to actually get a decent shot of the hunt and record this spectacular behavior?  I must have died and gone to Errol heaven.

Upon seeing this image a friend, also a photo enthusiast,  lamented how she often missed the “decisive moment” and wondered how I had managed to pull it off.  The decisive moment is typically that split second at the height of the action — just as the lion lands on the zebra, or just as the bald eagle catches a starling in mid air.  (I initially responded that I didn’t get THE decisive moment, which in this case, was when the owl dove into the snow feet first to grab the mouse underneath the surface.  But, this moment comes in as a pretty close second)

Capturing that key moment has less to do with big lenses or fancy cameras.  Sure they help, a tiny bit, but there are lots of people who have expensive gear nowadays and they rarely get the shot.

The most successful wildlife photographers are large part naturalist, or biologist, either by training or by practice.  For consistent success one must really understand an animal and its behavior.  This requires many, many hours in the field observing nature.  Only then can you begin to predict where to find an animal and have a sense of how it will react in different situations.  It is this body of knowledge that tells you when to go and where to go.  It tells you which lens to use and what settings to apply to your camera BEFORE the shot happens.  It helps you understand how to behave to avoid detection or scaring off the animal.

For me its a numbers game.  It’s all a matter of putting the hours in.  The more you are out there, the more chances you will have of seeing something special.  And the more you observe the more you can predict what will happen next.  It is difficult for weekend photographers like me and my friend to get those hours in so we are rarely properly prepared to seize those scarce opportunities when they arise.

In just the roughly 24 hours that I spent observing the owls over 5 days patterns and insights began to emerge.  I noticed that one owl liked to roost on a preferred branch, in a preferred tree most mornings.  Another Great Gray seemed to like to patrol a field and a group of woods a bit further away.  I began to understand the difference in the light patterns in the morning vs. the afternoon.  I began to understand the dramatic shift in exposure caused by the snowy fields compared to the wooded areas and how to adjust for it.

My small, but growing understanding of the landscape, the animal, and the interaction between the two  helped me get this shot.  Even after just 9 hours of observation I had a better sense of where to set up my tripod if I wanted to have a chance of capturing a Great Gray Owl hunt on “film.”  I didn’t get it perfectly right — the owl flew 20 yards past where I had set up my equipment.  But I was right just enough to still be close enough to get the shot.  Luck also helped.  Originally the owl had his back to me.  To my amazement, once he had the mouse in his mouth he spun around and faced me.


(And they lived happily ever after….ok, at least two of the three parties involved did)

Until next month…. 🙂