The Unbaited Owl

October 09, 2014  •  12 Comments

When I decided to pursue nature photography full time, one of the things I really looked forward to was connecting with the many like minded photographers who strived to capture nature in its pure and undisturbed form. I feel very fortunate to have done so. I've met photographers who sit for days or weeks in a blind, or sit in freezing temperatures, just to capture one fleeting moment in nature. Those photographers are the kind that I want to be associated with. To me, the story behind the image is far more important than the image itself. Yes, a technically perfect image is the goal. But without a story, the image is worthless to me.

I never realized, though, there was another side to "nature" photography. Owls are one of my favorite animals to photograph in nature. They are graceful, powerful and so incredibly beautiful. The images I saw from other professionals made me salivate for the same. Powerful Great Grey Owls flying right at me. Snowy Owls staring at my camera as they flew to grab a mouse from a snow covered meadow. I wanted this image so badly. So I set out for it.

The opportunity to capture an image of an owl in flight is limited. Owls hunt mostly at night. Your best opportunity to photograph them are very early morning or last light. So that's what I did. I went out morning after morning before sunrise and then again for the few hours before sunset. I watched. I listened. I learned. Lichen PerchLichen Perch

I learned that this could take a LOOOOONG time. Even after finding them, no owls flew at me. No owls were grabbing mice in front of me. I had to settle for images of owls tucked in trees, or if lucky out on a fence post. Don't get me wrong, I was incredibly happy photographing them. But I had more work to do to get 'the shot'. How did these photographers get these images???

The answer became clear with a little research. I was shocked to learn that professional photographers were heading to the local pet store and purchasing mice to bait the owls. They would take the mice out into a field, call the owl in, remove the mice, dangle them so the owl would get excited, throw the mouse out onto the ground and shoot away as it flew in to grab it. I couldn't believe it. How could a professional even consider this??

The FlightThe Flight This disturbed me on so many levels. It is:

  • not at all capturing nature as it unfolds naturally
  • completely deceiving to fans who think the images were captured as they happened in nature
  • putting the owl at risk (habituation, proximity to people/cars, diet, disease) 

The list goes on and on as to why this is wrong in so many ways.

I soon after found myself in many debates on the topic with many amateur and professional photographers. It all seemed to boil down to one simple reason. Selfishness. These photographers want an image to sell. They have a client to satisfy. They want to just see it happen at the moment they choose. They don't have the patience, or consideration for the owl (or mouse) to watch an event like this unfold naturally. Many of them said it simply wasn't possible to capture an image like this without doing so. I thought otherwise.

It took me many pre-sunrise mornings. It took me many late evenings. It took me to many locations, even multiple countries. But I achieved one of my first goals as a professional photographer. I captured my first images of wild, non-baited owls, in flight directly toward me, hunting, and eating rodents captured in their natural setting.

Last week I traveled to Calgary, Alberta. A friend who lives there told me about an area where Great Grey Owls are seen hunting along county roads. The thought of capturing one of these majestic animals in flight continued to be just a dream. But a new opportunity now laid just in front of me.

The first owl I saw was very late in the evening, barely enough light for shooting. But in watching the owl hunt, I quickly learned his pattern. He would sit on a fence post and listen. After many minutes of diligent listening, if nothing was seen or heard, he would fly a half dozen posts down and repeat the process. If a meal was heard or seen, the owl would perform a huge upward leap from the post, it would hover over the prey, then drop down with a powerful flap of its huge wings and pummel into the grass with its talons outstretched. I thought, with the right light, and good positioning, I can get this shot.

The week was a series of emotional swings. Some mornings/evenings I'd see the owls hunting feverishly, but in no light to capture an image. Other days I'd spend 12 hours looking in every tree in the forest and on every fence post on the road. And I'd see nothing. 

Finally I hit it. Early evening toward the end of my trip, a Great Grey Owl was out hunting in early evening light. It was perfect. I watched him to see what direction he was patrolling the fence line. He flew west, right into the setting sun. Perfect! I put on my long lens and headed 50 yards away from the perched owl. We both waited. He listened and scanned for rodents in the grass. I fixed my lens on him and shook madly in anticipation. He flew.

I knew immediately after I hit the shutter release that I had captured the moment I had tried to obtain for over a year. I had my first wild, non-baited owl in flight directly at me. The rest of the evening produced several other opportunities for images. I missed many. I captured several. But most importantly, I had the story to go along with my image...one you don't get from baiting.

Update:

Please enjoy a few new photos I have been able to capture in the years since the story above.

 


Comments

Diane Kehoe(non-registered)
Thank you for showing me some 'owl portraits' that I didn't feel guilty to examine closely.
I know some wonderful fields where groups of Short-eared Owls and Harriers both hunt at dusk but I haven't taken photos there because I would need to get in 'too close' to get the shots I'd like. I've found that I'm able to hold the memories of the moments I've shared in my mind, watching the Short-eared Owls and Harriers swirl together in the pink clouds of mist that settle in the West just as the sun sets. I haven't figured a way to take the photograph I'd like with my camera but I have made some rather tentative drawings of the shared hunting grounds.
I don't show anyone my drawings just in case another photographer might feel challenged to try to wade out into the thigh-high grasses to capture a 'real' image of Owls and Harriers 'close-up'.
Your patience has given us all a glimpse of how natural, "Natural" looks as opposed to the, "owl flying in to grab the mouse" shots we've all seen too often. Thanks for reminding us all to put the natural behavior of the birds first.
Daniel Dietrich
Thanks for the kind words, flutterbybev. Those are some great stories. Thanks very much for sharing them!

Daniel
flutterbybev(non-registered)
I have been an owl lover since about 1948 when my mother climbed up the haymow ladder, armed with my dad's welding gloves, and brought down a barn owl so my sister and I could see it closer. We confined it for a day, caught mice and tried to feed it, and when it would not eat in our presence, released it.
These owl pictures, taken because Daniel had great patience, are very special, and beautiful.
Those who use patience, and knowledge of the animals, and still give the animals their space are the true wildlife photographers. I missed a great video, but got a couple of nice photos once in our back yard. An immature hawk was sitting on a lower oak branch, scanning the neighbor's pasture. A squirrel (also immature ?) ran out on the same branch, within several feel of the hawk, and just sat there. They looked at each other for many seconds before the squirrel ran back and forth on the branch several times. I was sure I was going to watch him become lunch! The hawk never moved. I guess squirrel was not on the menu that day.
Another nice night shot, that begged a night lens, was a night my Labrador would not go out into the yard to do her business. She froze, and looked up. I could see there was something on the limb right above us. I took her inside, got a flashlight and my camera, and got a picture of a nice barred owl, using the limb for some evening hunting. Sometimes one's own yard has some great opportunities - even though we are in a subdivision, but with a rural area behind us.
Deborah Flowers(non-registered)
So so SO Fantastic!
It makes me sad to think of the birds (and other wild animals) being baited (put in dangerous and precarious environments) for a human to make a lousy photograph. And I don't mean 'lousy' as in bad picture... I mean it is a louse making the baited photo. No matter how 'perfect' the photo; if one had to artificially feed, lure, draw the animal to the lens, it's a lousy photo. In my opinion.
I do minimal bird photos because of the time it takes. Someday soon, I hope to have the time to wait on the birds. ;)
This is a beautiful set of photos. May I pick a favorite? I was especially drawn to the third one down in the "after" set of the Owl with talons stretched out in front. Coming in for a landing? All are truly beautiful though.
Great story! Thank you!
Joshua Holman(non-registered)
Thank you! These pictures are incredible and photos I dream of getting. I agree with you 100% on baiting.
I am a junior self taught birder/photographer and have lost sleep many times looking for owls and Night Hawks and know the feeling when you get the photo you want and have not affected the creatures behavior. I admire your patience and perseverance in capturing shots that many think impossible without bait. Keep it up!
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