Earlier in the winter I wrote an article The Agony and The Ecstasy of Owl Photography: Owl Baiting about seeing a Great Gray Owl being baited. I was so turned off by the experience that I felt like I never wanted to see an owl again! Luckily this feeling faded over time and this weekend I was able to regain my love for owls.
Read on to hear about my positive experience seeing Great Gray Owls and for my lessons learned this winter about ethical owl photography.
What’s So Special About Owls?
A friend gave me a book a couple of months ago about the symbolism and mythology associated with certain animals. I dismissed it as being too “out there” for me, but today I dusted it off and read the section about owls. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it!
No bird has as much myth and mystery surrounding it than the owl. The owl is a symbol of the feminine, the moon, and the night. It has been called a cat with wings. It has been worshiped as an idol and hated as the reincarnation of the devil. It has been believed to have great healing powers, both in North America and other continents.
The owl is the bird of magic and darkness, of prophecy and wisdom.
Interestingly for a bird that’s caused so much debate among birders and photographers, it’s also been interpreted differently by various cultures. For some cultures it’s a symbol of evil and death and for others it’s associated with fertility or wisdom. What is it about owls that has so powerfully captured the human imagination in different ways?
Why Do You Love Owls?
Symbolism aside, I think it’s interesting if you love owls to think about why. For me, it’s the idea of this bird of prey silently hunting throughout the night while the rest of the world sleeps. Most of the time we only see owls roosting during the daytime, but its their mysterious nighttime life that intrigues me! Those eyes and that amazing hearing ability are fascinating.
Great Gray Owl Weekend
I had the type of weekend that most people who are into birding will understand well. You head into the weekend with a certain idea or plan of what you’ll be doing. But then you get that phone call or an eBird rare bird alert, “Great Gray Owl seen in your area!” Cancel all weekend plans, your heart starts racing and you jump in the car hoping the camera battery is fully charged.
Owl Hunting at Dusk
My Saturday night was spent driving up and down a stretch of road peering into the fading light hoping for a silhouette of an owl to appear. At 7:20pm, 9 minutes after sunset a small group of birders finally located the Great Gray Owl. Shortly thereafter it began hunting and we saw it catch a mouse only a few feet away from us! Getting a glimpse into owl’s nighttime existence had to be one of my top birding experiences of all time!
I was so energized I barely slept Saturday night and woke up Sunday feeling my owl “hangover.” After breakfast I checked my phone and saw a message, “Great Gray Owl located right out in the open.” Here we go again: my heart is racing and I jump in the car hoping I put the memory card back in my camera!
Sunday was more the type of experience you get with seeing a Barred or a Great Horned Owl during the daytime. They are sleepy, being mobbed by Chickadees and Crows and just want to rest so they can hunt again that evening. We were respectful, kept our distance and then left the owl to sleep.
I was back at my house Sunday late afternoon and I felt this restlessness I couldn’t shake. The Great Gray Owl was in my mind and I made a last minute decision to head back to the spot to see if it was still there and being more active with the setting sun.
When I arrived I discovered the owl in a different spot, only a few feet away from the trail! We locked eyes and I couldn’t look away.
The yellow colouring of the eyes is very symbolic. It makes the eyes much more expressive, but it hints of the light of the sun, alive in the dark of the night.
I took a few steps backwards and the owl got back to its business of looking around and listening: it was in hunting mode! It then became quite active and flew around the area. On my way back to my car, I left the owl perched right out in the open on a dead tree stump. It looked so majestic perched in that spot, I had a “moment” of being in complete awe of this beautiful creature.
Owl Photography Ethics
I would love to end the story there, but let’s be real that encounters with owls aren’t always that sublime! Everyone wants that special moment alone with an owl, but this type of experience is harder and harder to come by. How do you strike a middle ground between the “celebrity owls” in known locations and the hard to come by solo owl experience?
I recently watched an informative Audubon webcast with Kenn Kaufman and Melissa Groo about the ethics of bird photography. They suggested to think about what your photography subject’s needs are. Why is the bird at a particular location and what is it needing to achieve?
You should prioritize your subject’s needs over your own needs as a photographer or birder.
If you want to apply this concept to owls, one example is to think about finding a roosting owl during the daytime. In this situation, the owl is there because it needs to sleep. With this in mind, I’m now making an effort to spend less time with sleeping owls and I avoid making noises to get the owl to wake-up and look towards the camera.
Audubon has some excellent guidelines to ethical bird photography that are a good starting place when you’re thinking about ethics.
Like the title of my previous article suggests, when you’re seeing and photographing owls there can be agony and there can be ecstasy! This past weekend helped tip the scales back towards the ecstasy side for me, but I’m aware that this won’t always be the case.
If you love owls and think they’re special, then it just makes sense to consider their needs above your own when you’re taking photographs or observing them. It was 100 times more exhilarating and rewarding to see an owl hunting on its own versus my experience watching it being fed by humans. Plus I still got great photographs and didn’t have to worry that I could be negatively impacting the owl.
For some amazing ethical owl photography examples, please check out the Instagram account I created to feature ethical photographers: Ethical Owl Photos.
To read more about the symbolism of owls and other animals, Animal Speak is currently $12.50 on Amazon:
It’s also available in Canada.
If you love owls, let me know your reasons why in the comments! ↓