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Snowy owls in Northern Illinois

I’m not much of a wildlife photographer. I’ve never really had much of an opportunity to photograph majestic wildlife other than in a zoo.

This year, I’ve had the opportunity to track and photograph a few birds. First was the bald eagle. It was awesome seeing a bird that holds such significance in our nation. However, it was much more exciting to find and photograph the snowy owl.

I went out searching for the owl a few weeks back, thinking the arctic bird would make an excellent cold weather feature photo. After a couple hours of searching and no luck, I called it a day.

The following week, I paired up with a man that is much more experienced when it comes to tracking and photographing birds. He took me to an area in Illinois that has similar features to the owls native tundra. We spotted four different owls that day. Some were on roof tops. Others were in snow-covered fields. Spotting them can be very difficult. They are a seriously camouflaged bird.

Snowy owl

A snowy owl perches on top of a home Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. An unusually large number of snowy owls have been reported throughout the northern U.S. this year. MAX GERSH/RRSTAR.COM ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl sits on a snow bank in a field Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. An unusually large number of snowy owls have been reported throughout the northern U.S. this year. MAX GERSH/RRSTAR.COM ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl perches on top of a grain bin Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH/RRSTAR.COM ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl sits on top of a barn Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH/RRSTAR.COM ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl sits in a field Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH/RRSTAR.COM ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl sits in a snow bank beside the road Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH/RRSTAR.COM ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl takes flight Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH/RRSTAR.COM ©2013

On that outing, I was seriously underpowered when it came to my lens. I was shooting with a Canon 300mm f/2.8 with a 2X teleconverter attached for an effective 600mm f/5.6 lens. All of these images still required a significant crop.

I decided I wanted to go back out again to get better owl photos. I borrowed a 600mm f/4 lens from a friend and headed out this morning. I kept the 2X teleconverter handy for an effective 1200mm f/8. I also brought along a 1.4X teleconverter to give an 840mm f/5.6. Needless to say, I had a bit more reach this time around.

The light wasn’t ideal. I saw three different owls (possibly a fourth). I also had a little more time this morning. Here is my take in no particular order.

Snowy owl

A snowy owl perches on a utility pole Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl perches on a pole Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl perches on a utility pole Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl scratches Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl perches on a utility pole Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl perches on a barn roof Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl grooms itself while perched on a barn roof Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl yawns while perched on a barn roof Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH ©2013

I reluctantly include this next photo. I am a photojournalist. With that comes a set of ethics. I refuse to stage an image. Ever. In wildlife photography, that staging element can come by a photographer baiting the animal. That’s exactly what happened in this next image.

I was sitting, watching the owl as it was perched on a rooftop (as seen above). I was waiting for the owl to take off to get some shots of it flying. Another car pulled up behind me and a man got out with a camera. He seemed to walk around in the road a bit. Then all of the sudden, the owl darts down toward him and picks up a mouse. No doubt that photographer baited this owl.

Beside the ethics of staging an image, there are a whole slew of issues with baiting. This owl then followed the photographer that fed him. It was learning a behavior not natural to the species.

This topic is debated endlessly so I’ll leave my rant to that. Just to be clear, I am 100% against baiting wildlife.

Snowy owl

A snowy owl swallows a mouse Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. The mouse was dropped by an unidentified photographer. MAX GERSH ©2013 ***NOTE*** I did not bait this owl. A photographer pulled up, got out of his car, tossed a mouse, took a shot, then left.

Snowy owl

A snowy owl flies over a field Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl flies over a field Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl flies over a field Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH ©2013

Snowy owl

A snowy owl flies over a field Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH ©2013

 

Snowy owl

A snowy owl perches on the roof of a barn Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Lee County near Steward. MAX GERSH ©2013

To read more about the owls, read the article my coworker wrote for the paper.

 

 

 

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4 Responses

  1. Max~

    Nice shots from today’s shoot and again nice to see you again today. You’ve captured the baiting quite nicely and agree wholeheartedly about the practice of baiting. Do not do practice it nor will I, as you saw from today’s shoot, the owl followed the guy in the car that threw the mouse. If that is not influencing wildlife behavior than I’m not sure what one can call it. Again, nice captures and hope to see you out again polishing up on your wildlife shooting!

    John

    • Thanks, John. I’ve learned a lot about birds from you and I’m sure we’ll see each other in the field many more times. Thanks again for all your help over the past few weeks (including today helping me get out of the snow!).

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