Tag Archives: Great Grey Owl

Seasons change in their scenery

Those of you who are Simon and Garfunkel fans (or even The Bangles as they did their own cover version as well) might recognise this line from their song A Hazy Shade of Winter.  I am not long back from a fortnight in Finland, a trip that was very much planned with some winter imagery in mind.  Finland however had a mild spell in February and as a consequence things were just that bit further ahead than normal, and as a result this became a trip of two seasons – there were still some cold conditions though (-28 degrees celsius the overnight low), along with some heavy snowfalls (20 cm in one day) and some mild afternoons and heading south some fields showing that winter was over for the year. The result was an unusual array of opportunities that reflect just how nature begins to change as the season of Spring beckons.

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The Whooper Swan is Finland’s national bird, and one I spent a great deal of time working with in Japan earlier this year. These two were in a winter setting that immediately took me back there – along with their familiar calls.

They are however just returning here after wintering further south in Europe and so far more attractive to them were the fields and farmlands where Spring was already in place and they could look to refuel before the final push to the north of the country a few weeks later for breeding.  I really enjoyed photographing these beautiful birds in this different setting.

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These Spring like conditions also created opportunities to work with the light and colours in a forest hide in the Oulanka National Park too – subtle lighting around this Great Spotted Woodpecker and classic backlighting on this Siberian Jay among the highlights.

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In these conditions I wasn’t hopeful that the main target for the hide, Golden Eagle, would actually turn up.  With the weather this mild, the female will already be on the nest and the male less interested in visiting his winter feed site.  I needn’t have worried though as he did turn up: and again when returning to the hide a couple of days later when the weather had turned wintery again, falling snow completely changing the feel of the whole place as you can see from these images taken over the two days.

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This changeable couple of days also worked well when spending time with a pair of Black-bellied Dipper who were busy pairing up and checking out local nest boxes as they planned for the imminent season ahead.  Falling snow and slow shutter speeds all added to the variety of opportunity.

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A personal priority for the trip was to spend some quality time with one of my favourite birds – Black Grouse.  The lekking season had already started in earnest thanks to the mild spell and so I enjoyed a total of 6 mornings being settled into the hide by 5am in anticipation of their dawn arrival and displays. The first 3 of these were at a lek site near Kuusamo – just inside Lapland, and still very snowy and cold so it was no huge surprise when the first day was a no show.  The second was more successful but the birds chose to lek just a little over a large snow ridge: very enjoyable but only a few images were possible, the spraying snow from their wings as they squabbled particularly appealed to me.

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The final morning here was absolutely perfect in terms of light and conditions, but sadly another no show: quite a sunrise mind which more than made up for it!

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The final 3 mornings were a few hours south at a lek near Oulu and here the snow was patchy but clear; cold mornings meant heavy frost coverage and some fantastic light with which to photograph the amazing antics of these endearing birds as they strutted their stuff and undertook the occasion sparring match with a fellow lekker.

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A great experience, and one that was matched on my final evening in the Oulu area when quite by chance we happened across a Great Grey Owl hunting in some fields near the road.  It was late and the light was not fantastic but the high ISO capabilities of the 1Dx really helped out and again; although not award-winning images, it was a very special hour spent with this simply gorgeous bird, the first seen in the whole Oulu area for the last 30 days so a really fortunate find.

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The final leg of the trip took me across to the town of Lieksa near the Russian border to spend 3 long days (15 hours at a time) in a hide in the hope of seeing the extremely elusive and rare Wolverine.  Here the snow had very much taken a back seat and Spring was taking over and Wolverine females will already have young kits in their dens so any sightings are to be much appreciated given their increased wariness at this time.  We were blessed with a couple of good visits quite close to the hide, some climbing (which as you can see confirmed she was feeding young) and on the final day a flurry of snow which to me was a fitting end to the nature of my overall trip.

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I had had a whole load of pre-conceived images in my mind when planning to run these two trips. The more travelling with my camera I do though I have come not to expect anything and simply look to go with the flow – work hard on the decision making (and thanks to Antti and Era respectively on this front too) but leave nature to create the opportunities.  Once again she didn’t let me or my guests on the two trips down, revealing some very different images to those I had perhaps thought of some 12 months back.  Clearly she knows best after all!

Familiarity…but no contempt.

They say that familiarity breeds contempt but even though I have been running Birds of Prey photography workshop days now either under my own name or more recently through Natures Images for almost seven years I can genuinely say that I still enjoy them hugely.

Cheep the Great Grey Owl is a bird I’ve worked with throughout that period of time and she’s an absolute star when it comes to offering flight photography opportunities such as this: I’ve seen images of her in all sorts of camera club displays when I’ve been on the talk or slideshow circuit and why not – it’s a dramatic image and a great experience.

The perhaps uninspiringly named Busby has been on the scene since I started too but can still offer great opportunities when the lighting, setting and his natural instinct to lift his wings all fall into place once again.

New birds can come such as these recently arrived Hobby and the most naturally curious Barn Owl, and that offers the opportunity to learn their new idiosyncrasies, just how they position themselves and what sort of lighting or location will do them best justice photographically.

And just occasionally the weather will throw up something totally different which not only brings new inspirations but also the chance to experiment with slower shutter speeds and darker backgrounds to emphasise the spray as this female Merlin shakes the steady rain off her feathers and the young Peregrine seeks to sit out the downpour too.

All of these images have been taken in the last few weeks either on a Natures Images workshop or weekend break and have proved a salutory reminder what these sorts of days have to offer over and above the obvious in terms of great image opportunities.  Many people turn their noses up at working with captive subjects such as these but in terms of a photographic learning ground if you’re relatively new to the art then the time this genre allows you to really get to grips with the little things that make the difference to your images is only going to etch it into your brain when you find yourself having to respond instantaneously in the true wild.

For the more seasoned photographer though, and especially the old stager who organises the days (yours truly that is) then sessions here are in many ways a microcosm of just what working in this game is really all about.  It may appear (and at times actually be) a bit glamorous and I for one get to some amazing places and to see and work with some amazing subjects and that’s the output that the world at large sees. The vast majority of it though is about looking for something new from what you think you’ve already covered, thinking about what might work better, spending time looking for the nuances and characteristics of your subject that you want to express in your images, being able to recognise and respond to the opportunities that the weather conditions offer you and remembring that it’s great to be out with your camera rather than stuck in the office!   Birds of Prey workshops remind me of all of this every time I run one and that’s why although I may be very familiar with them they get respect and enjoyment in terms of how I treat them, not contempt.