Photographing Canada's owls in the wild.
Story and photos by Leigh Lofgren
I cannot remember exactly when owls became a passion, but as a child, I loved the tale of “The Owl and The Pussycat”, so when the opportunity arose to photograph both the Snowy and Great Grey Owls in the wild with world-renowned bird and nature photographer David Hemmings in Canada, I was ready to go.
Along with five other photographers, I joined David in Saskatoon, British Columbia for five days of photographing the stunning Snowy Owls. We were staying at the only place in town that was open and eateries were almost non-existent as it was truly in the wilds of BC and COVID lockdowns were in effect at the time.
Snowy owls are also known as the Arctic, Polar or white owl and are diurnal, as they are forced to hunt by daylight due to the Arctic summer. They are one of the heaviest owls at 4.5 pounds and are covered with lot of feathers, including the feet, which insulates them from the freezing conditions. They swallow their small prey whole, eating a variety of food and after eating, will bring up ‘pellets’ consisting of fur, feathers and bones. The beak is almost covered by facial feathers that assist in sensing prey and is hooked to grip prey and tear flesh. Their wingspan is 4-5 feet, they fly silently, and can see movement from more than 400 yards away. They are extremely vulnerable, as their numbers have been declining. The males are totally white, while the females are white with black spots and without question, is one of the most beautiful birds I’ve ever seen. They are also one of the fastest birds I’ve ever seen and within seconds of seeing prey, they descend in lightning speed upon the unsuspecting victim and seconds before they strike, the talons curl in a death grip.
Our days were long and very cold, sometimes in brilliant sunshine with stunning blue, clear skies and other days, the chilling winds froze us so quickly that within 10 minutes we were forced to return to the van to get warm. Cameras froze, lenses became iced and my frostbitten fingers got a beating. The countryside was stunningly beautiful in blankets of white snow, making sightings for the Snowy Owl extremely difficult and shooting them not much better, especially from so far away. It was a waiting game to see if they would spot prey and before you realized it, they were moving at such speeds it was difficult to keep up. Not every morning or afternoon brought us owls, but when it did, it was breathtaking and magical.
With wildlife photography, nothing is taken for granted and having no success in seeing Snowy Owls one afternoon, we got a surprise visit from a Great Horned Owl, also known as the Tiger or Hoot Owl.These owls are extremely adaptable and is one of the most common owls in America. With long earlike tuffs, yellow-eyed stare and deep hooting voice, this predator is a powerhouse that can take down birds and mammals larger than itself.They are covered in very soft feathers that warm them in cold weather and help them fly very quietly in pursuit of their prey and they can maneuver among the trees of the forest with ease. They have large eyes and their pupils open wide in the darkness, providing excellent night vision. The eyes don’t move, but their heads can swivel more than 180 degrees and can see in any direction. They also have facial disc feathers that direct sound waves to their ears and their strong talons, when clenched, require a force of 28 pounds to open. They are a very large owl and one of the tallest at 18-25 inches, weighing in at 3.2 pounds, with broad wings and a long tail. Females are larger than males. Owls never cease to amaze me and once again, I was mesmerized by their utter beauty.
When our trip ended, four of our group left to return home, while the rest of us traveled six hours to Calgary, Alberta for four days of photographing Great Grey Owls. Here we met our guide, photo-grapher Harshad Karkera and other members of the group. After introductions and dinner, we were up early the next morning to seek out the Great Grey Owls, who are active at night, dusk and dawn. They also hunt during the day in winter and when they have young at the nest.
They have excellent hearing and can find their prey by hearing alone, even under a cover of thick snow. When a small mammal is detected, they will hover above the snow and plunge their talons in to grab it.
They do not build nests, but rather take over used raptor or raven nests without adding any further materials. The Great Grey is also one of the tallest owls and towers over most other owls. Their body size is smaller with thick, fluffy plumage and they prey mostly on rodents. Silvery gray in color overall, they have fine white, brown and grey streaks with yellow eyes that shine through the grey and brown concentric circles on their face. They weigh 2½ pounds, their wingspan is 53-60 inches and both male and females look similar and are 2-3 feet tall.
Our four days were spent driving endless miles through forests and wide-open spaces in search of these beautiful, tall owls. Like the Snowy Owls in snow, the Great Grey blends in naturally to its environment, but once you see them, your world once again opens up. Watching as they glide silently and effortlessly through the forests and above deep snow has you momentarily holding your breath. As it sits on a tree branch with snow lightly falling, all is quiet in the forest and so you remain still, watching, waiting, until suddenly the owl is barreling towards its prey and hits the snow so gently. Sometimes, the owl would take a moment, or so I thought, to ensure his prey was in his talons before once again silently lifting off to the safety of a tree where it would feed.
Time goes too fast and suddenly, my time with the owls was over and my 12 days spent with owls, fellow photographers and David, were some of the best I’d had. The owls are magical, mystical and truly beautiful to behold. At the end of my favorite story, the owl and the cat dance hand in hand by the light of the silvery moon and so I dance hand in hand with the owls in dreams and memories.
If you would like further information on these two trips, the owls or David Hemmings, please do not hesitate to contact me and be sure to visit my website at www.leighlofgren.com . Prints and canvases are available, so don’t be shy and they make great gifts.
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Stories and photos by Leigh Lofgren, published in the Nov-Dec 2022 issue of Lakelife magazine.