Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Adventures in Photography: In Quest of the Northern Ghost

The winter of 2013-2014 was a record setting year for snowy owls in New England.   The normally elusive raptors were seen in droves.   An unprecedented irruption from eastern Canada brought hundreds of young owls to coastal New England in search of food and a warm climate.

The owls became one of New England’s most popular attractions.   Some visitors traveled from as far away as Italy to see the majestic creatures.   In some places, birders and photographers were so numerous, that small traffic jams were created.   Finding a quiet spot with a snowy became quite a challenge.

For me, pre-dawn hikes provided an escape from the crowds.   While the vast majority of people were still asleep, I would walk many frigid miles in search of the ghost of the tundra.   More often than not, I would find an owl just as the sun was rising.   Armed with five layers of clothing as well as numerous hand and toe warmers, I would spend the first few hours of the day observing a snowy in a peaceful bliss.

Photographing the owls artfully was my goal.   Simply documenting the owls was not enough for me.    I observed most of the owls for hours at a time.   I was hoping to see interesting behavior combined with beautiful settings.    In many instances I was able to accomplish my goal as seen in the image above.    Making beautiful images of such an intriguing subject was truly gratifying. 

One of the most memorable moments came on a frigid February morning.   I had spotted an owl far away on a snow packed beach.   It suddenly flew in the air to avoid the rush of a coyote.   At first, I thought that they may have been fighting over prey.   After a long observation, I realized that the coyote had tried to attack the owl in earnest.   The winter had been long and cold.   The coyote was probably very hungry indeed.

While I was too far away to make any images of the encounter, I was thrilled to observe the interactions of two top predators.   I began to wonder how often these types of engagements occur.   In addition to the coyote, I have witnessed snowy owls being attacked by a peregrine falcon, osprey, crows, swallows, and other snowy owls.   Surprisingly, I have yet to witness them making attacks of their own on prey.

All too often I have seen and heard stories of people harassing snowy owls.  Their beauty and mystique lures us to view them.  Unfortunately some people will take unethical and illegal actions to make photos of them.   Please respect all wildlife.   This will not only protect the animals, it may protect you, and it will likely make a better experience for the next person to enjoy.

Tip of the Month:  For wildlife photography it is important to know where local hotspots are and what season is best to view them.     By wisely choosing your location and studying the behavior habits of your subject you can maximize your chances of making a great wildlife image.  

Greg Lessard is a professional photographer.   You can join him on a three day trip to Acadia National Park this fall.   For more information contact the South Shore Science Center at 781 659 2559.

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