Wildlife Photography Stories: Spotting an Elusive Snowy Owl

A longtime wildlife photographer fulfills his 20-year dream to proceed with caution to capture a snowy on camera.

Reader Contribution by Andrew Weidman
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by Andrew Weidman
The author’s camera caught a magnificent snowy owl fluffing its feathers.

I know last time I promised we’d talk about what to do after you’re done shooting. As far as that goes, we have a motto at my house: “All Things Are Fluid.”  Plans change at a moment’s notice, usually at the last moment. What that means to you is that this installment will be completely different from what you’re expecting. Besides, let’s be honest — file storage is boring. I promise, we’ll discuss it, just not today.

Recently, life gave me a surprise, a good one, fulfilling a dream I’ve nurtured for the past five years of birding and photographing wildlife. A snowy owl flew into town.

Searching for the Elusive Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls are a rarity here in South Central Pennsylvania. These large, striking birds of prey spend most of their time in the far north, wandering across the arctic tundra. For reasons still poorly understood, every winter a few individuals, usually juveniles, will travel south (or “irrupt”) into the Northern States. Occasionally, one or two will stray as far south as the Mason Dixon Line, the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, or popular boundary between North and South if you’re a Civil War buff. I heard reports of a snowy traveling as far as Washington, DC, this year.

I’ve been admiring other photographers’ snowy shots, green with envy, for the past five years, all while hoping and praying for my own opportunity. I’d scan the fields as I commuted through PA’s farm country, always on the lookout for a big white bird. In that time, I spotted a lot of snowy owl grocery bags, a bunch of Owly snow clumps, and one or two snowy barn cats. Never any actual owls, not that I have a lot of luck with owls in general.

Meanwhile, actual snowies were being spotted and reported all around me, always just too far away for a reasonable twitch, the term birders use for driving a ridiculous distance just to see a rare bird that probably left 10 minutes before you got there.

Tracking Snowy Owl Sightings

This year actually brought two snowies to the area — or maybe they were the same individual passing through the area twice. The first time was the first week of the year, and in true Murphy’s Law fashion, I was down for the week with vertigo, twitching in a completely different fashion every time I moved my head too fast. By the time I knew which end was up again, the bird had left the farmhouse roof where it had been sheltering and was on the wind again. Of course. All that was left to prove it had even been here were the photos all of my friends were sharing.

Fate finally smiled on me a few weeks later, when a friend posted some new shots of a snowy in a field in Lancaster County.

There’s a a certain online etiquette among birders regarding rare and threatened birds and their locations when they arrive in a new place. Most times when someone posts photos on social media, they will keep the location vague; sometimes as vague as the county, rarely as specific as the town, and never the street or physical location. At least most never post tight specifics. This is to keep the bird from being mobbed by paparazzi. Close friends will share locations with each other, but only by private message. Still, the word gets out.

I saw the first photos Sunday night. By Monday morning, I had received PM’s from two friends, the original poster and another, who both knew I wanted desperately to see a snowy for myself. The bird was actually fairly close to where I work, and I knew I could swing by after work to see — and hopefully photograph — it.

Snowy Score!

As I neared the country road where the bird had been seen, the doubts set in. What if I couldn’t find it? Maybe it had already left; they do fly, you know. More likely, what if I drove right past it, not realizing it was there in plain sight?

Snowies do have mad camouflage skills, and I couldn’t forget all those snowy owl-shaped grocery bags I’d seen in the past, after all.

Even before I turned onto the road, I knew I was worrying over nothing at all. If all the cars were any indication, I had a pretty good idea where to find our arctic visitor. The tripods and monster lenses sealed the deal. There must have been 20 vehicles parked along a 90-degree bend in the road, including an Amish buggy or two, and even more photographers training their cameras on a spot in the fields maybe 40 yards out.

A big bored-looking white spot covered with smaller black spots. News travels fast, even on back channels, when it involves a snowy owl. An ultralight aircraft even buzzed the scene.

Having waited so long for this moment, I had a hard time quite believing it was real. The almost festival atmosphere just made it that much more surreal. Especially if you can envisage a festival in hushed tones. The excitement crackled in the air, held barely at bay to avoid disturbing our guest. No one shouted, no one made sudden movements, no one crossed the line of the field edge. And everyone paid attention to the owl’s behavior, which consisted of lots of ignoring, brief periods of observing, and lots of preening.

At no point did it shift its position or give serious suggestion of leaving. All in all, pretty chill for a wild animal with an audience.

Capturing Owls in Photography

The setup was a dream come true, too. The sun was sliding into sunset behind us, bathing the snowy in golden light. The bird had settled in the dividing line between a hay field and a corn field, providing us with a beautiful blurred neutral background. And the subject, as I mentioned above, was accommodating beyond dreams, giving lots of time for composition and experiment, while regularly repositioning and offering different poses.

Three quarters of an hour later, ecstatic and beyond pleased with the experience, hungry, and chilled because someone forgot to put my coat on when I got there, I headed out just as the sun set. I left with a full 16-gig SD card and the sure knowledge that good things were stored inside. I’d finally have my own snowy owl photos to share!

I also knew that meant more than 500 photos to wade through to find those good things. We really have to discuss file storage and culling practices.

On a final note: Always respect wildlife when photographing it. Stay back, stay quiet, and above all, never chase the subject. If it leaves, it leaves. There will be other opportunities later. Chasing only stresses the subject and never yields worthwhile photos. For you, the encounter is an opportunity for photos; for the animal, it’s a matter of life and death. And if the subject is rare or threatened, never give specific location details on social media. That being said, it’s okay to share privately when asked by a friend, just don’t broadcast. Remember the bird’s needs first.

Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Penn. Follow him on Instagram at Andrew Weidman Photography or on Facebook at Andrew Weidman.

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