by Dr. Robert Berdan
December 29, 2018
A female snowy owl Bubo scandiacus takes flight.
On Friday, December 28 I headed east of Calgary in my Jeep in search of snowy owls. It was sunny and clear, -7°C with a light wind - perfect weather for snowy owls. I have been photographing the owls around Calgary for almost two decades. The first owls usually arrive in the area late October and they stay in the area until mid about March, but they may leave to travel north earlier if the weather is warm. I still remember the thrill of finding my first snowy owl that was sitting on top of a telephone pole. They are not easy to spot until you know where and what to look for. The mature males are almost totally white, though immature birds have dark barring on their feathers. Females are usually heavily barred with dark feathers.
Female snowy owl in flight by Kamal Varma
When it is particularly cold they will puff up their feathers. They are opportunistic hunters feeding primarily on rodents small mice and voles. They will however also capture muskrats, rabbits, prairie dogs, raccoons, ptarmigan, ducks, geese, ring-necked pheasants, Hungarian partridges, grouse, American coots, grebes, gulls and song birds. They will also eat fish and carrion and occasionally cats and small dogs. They need to catch about 10-12 mice per day to survive. Most of their hunting involves sitting and waiting on a perch above the ground in trees, on fence posts, telephone poles, and oil or gas refinery pipelines. In fact they may choose almost any elevation to spot prey.
Snowy owl perched in a tree
Snowy owl perched on a fence post
Snowy owl perched on a tall fence
Snowy owl perched on a telephone pole with full moon behind it.
Snowy owl perched on a hay bale - a picture of a snowy owl on a hale bale is also featured on the back of some Canadian $50 bills.
Snowy owl perched on gas pipeline
I have also seen snowy owls perched on barn roofs, but never in a barn window unlike Great Horned owls. In summer snowy owls nest in the arctic above the 60th parallel and both parents care for the young. Their nests are usually found on the ground and can contain between 3-12 eggs. In the arctic they feed mainly on lemmings and voles. Males will sometimes kill and display their prey to impress the females.
Female snowy owl by Kamal Varma taken on another winter day
In winter snowy owls migrate south to open areas that resemble the tundra and are found as far south as Texas. In winter, a number of snowy owls come to the the prairies and can be found east and south of Calgary. In Alberta their winter territories are held exclusively by female snowy owls that defend roughly 1.3 to 5.3 square km for up to 80 days. Males are virtually pure white while females and young birds have black barring on their feathers.
Male snowy owl perched on a Telephone pole.
Male snowy owl in flight (DM)
Their alarm call is a barking "Krek-Krek", but I have never heard them make any kind of sound. They have the second largest wing span of owls found in North America. Their life span is about 10 years in the wild though they can live up to 28 years in captivity. In Canada it is estimated that their are about 10,000 to 30,000 pairs.
Snowy owls have thickly feathered feet that protect the bird when temperatures dip below - 30°C.
The owls can not move their eyes so they will turn their head to shift their gaze. They have 14 neck vertebrae and can swivel their head 270 degrees.
Photographing Snowy Owls
I have been taking folks out to see and photograph snowy owls for several years. I take 1-3 people at a time, I do not bait the animals, but I am not critical of those that do. Some photographers believe that the only way to get a snowy owl flying straight at you is to use bait - that is simply not true - see photo below.
Above is a face-on photograph of a snowy owl in flight taken by Kamal Varma © who accompanied me this past week. He used a 400 mm F2.8 Canon lens. I had walked out in the field in order to get closer and the bird flew away from me and towards Kamal.
In flight photograph of a snowy owl by Kamal Varma ©
The main challenge in regard to photographing snowy owls is to find them. Finding the owls takes time. You can look at Internet birding sites that report sightings and their location but your best chance is to go out with someone that knows where to look for them. Because they are white when they are on the ground they can be challenging to see in winter. It also helps to take a second person as I find that when driving I have to keep my eyes on the road and a second person can double the number of birds sighted in a day trip. A pair of good binoculars is very helpful as is stopping frequently on the back-roads and glassing the fields. They are easiest to see when on they are telephone poles or fence posts. When the birds are on the ground its best to look for movement.
Female snowy owl in a prairie field in winter. If they hold still they are difficult to see.
Above is a series of photographs I took using a Nikon D500 and a 500 mm F4 lens at ISO 400, with the camera in continuous high shooting mode. As soon as I saw the owl lift her shoulders I started photographing and was able to catch a series of images of the bird taking flight. Flight shots from telephone poles are difficult because the wires can get in the way and the bird often flys away from you. If you are too tight and the bird expands its wings while flying the wings can be cut off by the camera frame so this is where a zoom lens comes in handy.
White on white a snowy owl taking flight from a telephone pole against an overcast white sky. I was lucky to capture the bird with the wings in this position otherwise they would have been clipped.
I use two approaches to photographing snow owls. If the birds are on a telephone pole I stop about 2 telephone poles away, get out of the car and walk slowly toward them stopping every 10-15 feet to take a few pictures. Sometimes they will allow me to get right up to the pole without flying away. Other times I might drive slowly past them and photograph out the open car window. Each bird responds differently. You can tell when they are about to fly as they will lift their shoulders and sometimes defecate before taking off - this is a good time to start shooting. Capturing the owls in flight is challenging - the longer the focal length of your lens the harder it is to keep them in the frame. Zoom lenses are ideal because you can pull back the zoom and follow the bird more easily (e.g. 200-500 or 100-400 mm lens is ideal). It is essential to use a fast shutter speed 1\1000s or faster and if necessary to increase your camera ISO speed to achieve faster shutter speeds. A 70-200 mm lens would the be the minimum telephoto lens to bring along. Some photographers have difficulty handling larger lenses, a monopod and a tripod can be helpful, but you should be comfortable using them and be able to set up and disassemble them quickly. Sometimes the birds will fly away by opening or closing the car door - so do this quietly. You can also use the car as a blind - in some instances I have driven next to an owl sitting on a fence post and it has allowed me to photograph it for up to 20-30 minutes or longer.
Female snowy owl in flight - photographed with Nikon D500 and 500 mm F4 lens.
Dressing for winter owl photography
Good winter boots, warm clothing, a thermos bottle with coffee or hot chocolate and some snacks can make for a comfortable outing. Winter boots or gaters are essential if you plan to walk out into the fields to get closer to the birds. It is important to take photos as you approach the birds. Some birds will allow close approach others may fly away when you are 100 meters away. I find it is helpful to move slowly and not look directly at them but weave at an angle and take your time. Sometimes I have to be content to just watch them with binoculars if they are too far away. A birding scope can also be helpful. I use a 4 wheel drive jeep on the backroads which sometimes are not snow plowed. It is also a good idea to bring a cell phone, bag of sand and a shovel in winter and let someone know when you plan to be back.
I am rarely skunked when going out to look for snowy owls but that said I can not nor can anyone that doesn't feed the birds guarantee wild owls - they move around. The best I can do is scout areas ahead of time. I sometimes drive a 100 km of back roads to see one owl. On a good day I can spot owls sometimes about every 10-20 Km. Usually I see from 3-6 owls on a good day. On my best days I can find 10-14 owls, but these days are rare. Weather and other factors can affect their distribution and visibility. I try to keep an open mind when going out looking for snowy owls and I will also photograph other wildife like deer, foxes and coyotes if they present themselves and I also take some winter landscapes - a day in the field beats a day in the office.
While driving on the prairies in winter you can sometimes see other owls e.g. Great Horned owls are found in trees and barns, short-eared owls are often spotted near marshes. Hungarian partridges, snow buntings, crows, horned larks, and black-billed magpies are common on the prairies around Calgary in winter.
Great Horned owls are found around Calgary all year long. They often nest in old barns or found in trees. Short eared owls will occasionally rest on fence posts.
If you might be interested in in photographing snowy owls I charge $299 per day and I provide transportation from my place for 1 to 3 people - my schedule is flexible - see my workshop section or contact me if you have questions. If two folks book at the same time I offer a $100 discount, folks that want to come along but don't bring a camera can join us for an additional $50. I provide transportation from my place in Calgary, Northwest and offer snowy owl outtings during December, January and February. RB
Related Articles on this Web site
Photographing Owls in Winter Around Calgary
The Lucky Swedes Photographing Snowy Owls Around Calgary
White Ghosts of the Prairies - Photographing Snowy Owls Near Calgary
White Ghosts of the Prairies - Photographing Snowy Owls Part II Mossleigh, Alberta
White Ghost of the Prairies seen by infrared (Part 3) Snowy Owls
White on White – Finding, Identifying and Photographing Snowy Owls In Winter
Photographing a Lonely Winter Day in December
To learn more about owls I recommend the book by Dr. Wayne Lynch
Owls of the United States and Canada - buy it here on Amazon.ca
Robert Berdan is a professional nature photographer living in Calgary, AB specializing in nature, wildlife and science photography. Robert retired from Cell\Neurobiology research to take up photography full time years ago. Robert offers photo guiding and private instruction in all aspects of nature photography and Adobe Photoshop training - including photomicrography, macrophotography.