5 TIPS TO FIND AND PHOTOGRAPH THE GHOST OF THE FOREST
After spending a significant amount of time photographing bald eagles over the years, I had become accustom to their behavior. Studying their migration patterns, diet and other habits in order to gain an understanding of the species had made them almost predictable. But when I decided to add the largest owl in North America, the elusive great gray owl to my portfolio, I had quickly learned that there was almost nothing predictable about this new subject. As our national bird, the bald eagle had been studied relentlessly over the years, making it easy to find reliable information. Unearthing comprehensive studies about the great gray owl and their behavior, on the other hand, was about as challenging as it was to find them in the wild.
Often referred to as “The Great Gray Ghost” by photographers, great gray owls are as elusive as they are majestic. The population has been under threat from deforestation, rodenticide and other human activities making them a rare sight. Their ability to calmly sit perched on a branch with little movement and their mottled gray plumage only adds to the challenge, making them tremendously difficult to spot even when they are well within range. Unlike the bald eagle, who predictably heads toward open water during the coldest days of winter, the great gray owl simply hunts wherever it likes.
When a subject is easy to photograph, everyone would have their own collection of images of it. This would be even more relevant in today’s information age than ever before. While there are a thousand quotes just like it, I think Epicurus said it best, “The greater the difficulty, the more the glory in surmounting it.” I haven’t always been lucky in my time as a photographer, but both experience and failure have provided many, many valuable lessons. After dedicating several weeks to photographing great gray owls over the past few years, I have created a list of five tips that might help you not only find this deceptive subject, but capture alluring images of them as well.
TIP #1: GREAT GRAY OWL HOT SPOTS
As you have probably noticed from the first few paragraphs of this blog, simply finding this elusive creature is the biggest hurdle. Unlike other subjects that allow us to follow their food source in order to locate them, great gray owls are extremely resourceful hunters. The two large disks that make up their face, known as “ruffs”, funnel sound waves to help them determine the location of their prey. Their ability to detect a rodent under two feet of snow from a distance of 30 meters makes them far less reliant on weather or other external factors for their survival. In other words, thanks to their incredible hearing, they can find food almost anywhere.
While their tremendous hearing makes them less predictable, their eyesight makes them easier to photograph. Unlike 60% of the owl population that are most active at night, great gray owls are not nocturnal. As their yellow eyes suggest, great grays are diurnal, preferring to hunt during the day. It might be nearly impossible to photograph most owl species without the help of electronic flash, but great grays can often be spotted in broad daylight.
From a geography standpoint, great grays prefer the cold climates of Canada and Alaska. However, during the winter months, hundreds will migrate to locations in New England, Wyoming, Montana and the Pacific Northwest in search of reliable hunting ground. The area just north of Duluth, Minnesota has proven to be one of the best locations to find them in the lower 48 states.
TIP #2: THE TRICKS TO FINDING THEM
Opinions on how to best locate the species differ greatly. Some bird enthusiasts prefer to rely on their automobiles in order to cover as much ground as possible while others choose to wait in one area in the event that a bird decides to return. Great gray owls are creatures of habit, often frequenting the same hunting ground for several weeks. Both tactics have merit and you can increase our odds of finding them by revisiting locations that have reported sightings.
Spotters are absolutely critical. Their aforementioned ability to blend into their surroundings means that each set of eyes that you dedicate to spotting them is essential. Human activity won’t necessarily cause them to flush, a movement that would undoubtedly increase their visibility. Photographers have been known to hike right past them without even noticing their presence.
If your goal is to capture images of the great gray owl while hunting or in flight, the magic hour is your best bet. Activity levels are highest in the early morning after they have gone without food for several hours. They instinctively become more aggressive toward finding a food source just before sunset, likely understanding that it will be harder to find at night.
Roosting often occurs in a tree line at the edge of an open field. While they are extremely adept at flying through tight spaces within the forest, the clearing that open fields can provide lowers the time it takes them to close in on prey. In addition, the unobstructed path of sound waves allows them to quickly identify the direction of its source.
TIP #3: THE ROLE OF WEATHER
I absolutely love photographing birds against a blue sky. Get the light direction right and you can record some absolutely amazing detail, often capturing the catchlight in the bird’s eye. Unfortunately, great gray owls prefer to hunt in fading light, limiting their activity when your light source is at its peak. As mentioned previously, the magic hour tends to be the best time to photograph them. However, many believe that their activity level also increases when cloudy skies are prevalent.
As with most large birds, great gray owls don’t like excessive wind. Preferring to hunt while perched rather than in flight, high winds can be a nuisance, causing them to seek shelter in the forest. Your best bet on a windy day might be to cover a small amount of ground on a hike instead of covering a large amount of ground in your car.
As storms approach, barometric (air) pressure typically plummets, serving as a warning to several animal species. Birds are especially sensitive to this change. Scientists surmise that they generally eat more when this happens because they instinctively understand that they will have a hard time acquiring food during an intense storm.
Anything outside of the normal range in pressure can trigger a great gray owl’s survival instinct, sending it into the forest to avoid what could turn out to be inclement weather. While you might enjoy a flurry of activity before the storm, you might also experience several hours or even days of little to no activity.
TIP #4: EQUIPMENT & CAMERA SETTINGS
Great gray owls spend the vast, vast majority of their day clinging to a branch. Their activity level is extremely low as they look to conserve energy for hunting activities. That said, when they decide to leave the branch, your camera settings will make or break your chance of capturing them in action.
Camera settings for roosting shots are simple because this subject can often look more like a statue than a living animal. Shutter speeds can be as low as 1/60th of a second, however, this assumes that you have something to stabilize your camera. The old rule of matching your shutter speed to your effective focal length (500mm lens = 1/500th of a second shutter speed) might be overkill, but a good rule if shooting hand held. But if you are seeking a flight shot and the owl decides to leave its perch, the shutter speed you chose to capture the “statue” images will likely be too slow. If your camera has a feature that allows you to quickly change from one favorite setting to another, I highly recommend putting it to use. Otherwise, you’ll come to respect how quickly this bird of prey can move after witnessing the amount of motion blur in your images. As with most birds of prey, a shutter speed above 1/1,000th of a second will deliver the best results.
Autofocus settings are also best when fluid. If your camera is set for a static (single focus) subjects, you will likely miss out on any action or flight shots due to the camera’s inability to track movement. I highly recommend setting your camera to focus continuously. Most cameras allow the user to reprogram a number of buttons on the back of the camera to lock focus on a subject when depressed even when set to a continuous focusing mode. This ensures that you can quickly make the change from focus lock to focus tracking in an instant, without the need to fumble around with menus or switches.
Anticipation is critical. Great gray owls have a unique flight pattern when in pursuit of prey. Unlike bald eagles and other raptors who utilize a relatively straight flight pattern as they approach, great grays use gravity to their advantage. Just before reaching their prey, they flare each feather to increase wind resistance, ascending several feet in the air in order to maximize the height of their fall. In what is often called the “pounce”, great gray owls effectively use this momentum to stun their prey. A photographer’s anticipation of this pattern is critical as this sudden change in flight pattern will cause many to miss the shot.
Every bird is different with some more acclimated to humans than others. Effective focal lengths of 500mm tend to be the sweet spot, however, larger focal lengths allow the photographer to take images without disturbing the bird in its habitat. The more exposed a species is to human activity, the more at risk they will become to the aforementioned threats to their survival. Several great gray owls have been hit by cars due to what was seemingly a lack of fear.
TIP #5: LUCK OR PATIENCE?
While hosting a private workshop near Duluth, Minnesota, my client and I had searched for several hours without a single sighting. The day was close to being declared a bust when we spotted a great gray perched in a small tree in the middle of an open field. Based on how the rest of the day went, we assumed it was too good to be true.
When an owl is roosting in a tree line, the decision is simple. A photographer simply needs to choose a shooting location that allows them to capture images of the bird in the open field and take their chances. But when an owl is perched in the open with seemingly endless flight paths to choose from, the chance that it decides to fly in your direction is minimal. We grabbed our gear and hoped for the best, fully grasping the slim odds that we were facing.
With the sun approaching the horizon the day had already been declared a waste. On the other hand, we felt that we might have been due for some luck. Rather than try to predict the owl’s flight path, we chose our shooting location based on the fundamentals of light. Wind was not strong enough to be a factor so we placed ourselves at a distance with the sun at our backs. Fully expecting the bird to fly away from us, providing nothing but tail shots.
The subject was in place. Mother Nature was kind enough to provide the light. Now all we needed was the owl to fly in our direction, fully understanding that the odds were about 1 in 20. Just as I got my tripod set, the owl launched from its perch heading directly toward us. I quickly put my eye to the viewfinder, attempting to locate the subject within the frame. As soon as my camera was able to establish autofocus tracking, the owl made a textbook move, suddenly flaring its feathers to increase altitude, then diving straight down to punish its prey. A few seconds later it resurfaced, rodent in its mouth, subsequently swallowing it in a few bites.
Was it luck? Was it patience? One thing is for sure, if you expect the hunt for great gray owls to be non-stop action, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.
Less than a third of great gray owls will make it to adulthood. Human behavior is likely their biggest risk to survival, with leading causes of death coming from rodenticide poison or being hit by a car. If you want to improve your chances of seeing them in the years to come, the best thing for all of us to do is ensure their survival. While our duty as nature photographers is to record images that allow others to learn and appreciate our world, we also have a duty to ensure that our own activity doesn’t limit the survival of our subject. Tread lightly, my friends.
BONUS TIP – MY MINNESOTA GREAT GRAY OWL PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP
I host a series of photography workshops in the Duluth area each winter. While locating them is a challenge, your odds can improve by taking advantage of my scouting efforts. We spend several days combing known hot spots to maximize the chance of success. If interested, I have included a link to my upcoming workshops below.
IF YOU ONLY REMEMBER A FEW THINGS FROM THIS BLOG POST…
- Check the tree line near open fields.
- Magic hour can be magical.
- They are more active on cloudy days.
- The more spotters, the better.
- Practice patience.
- Leave only footprints.
AJ Harrison is a US based photographer specializing in bald eagle, brown bear and landscape photography. His work has been recognized by publications such as National Geographic, Forbes and the National Wildlife Federation. He leads several photography workshops and tours in Alaska and the lower 48 states, including the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, Kenai Peninsula near Homer, Alaska, and the bald eagle migration each year in Iowa.