Category Archives: Background

Great Gray Owl on the Hunt!

Yesterday evening I finally captured a good photograph of a Great Gray Owl hunting. Over the past two weeks, I have hiked many miles of trails, driven many back roads and watched an incredible number of owls in my quest to get some good images of the “gray ghost of the forest” while it was hunting. Here is the result of the quest!

Lift Off! Vole in Sights!

From this point on I want to take a different tack with this post. Why has it been so difficult for me, a decent wildlife photographer, to obtain a hunting photo? Perhaps because I refuse to bait owls with pet shop mice?

Have you ever seen a dramatic photograph of an owl reaching with its talons to grab a mouse or a vole? While the image may not involve baiting, please consider that Great Gray Owls hunt by hearing their prey beneath the snow. Mice and voles normally do not run on top of the snow. With their phenomenal hearing, these owls triangulate their prey, strike and punch through the snow. In addition, while watching owls hunt I can personally attest that the habitat in which you find Great Grays normally has “meadow like” sections, but there are always trees, snags, brush and other stuff which often prevents a straight line of sight to where the owl ultimately strikes the snow in search of its prey. After all, an owl sitting on top of a tree while hunting may fly in any direction. If you doubt that fact, find yourself an owl, and watch how it turns its head almost 180 degrees from the way it is facing. Are you are able to predict in which direction will be its next flight?

My friend, Michael Furtman, who is a great outdoor photographer and author has been writing a series of Facebook posts on the issue of owl baiting. For those of you not familiar with the issue, photographers w/o any conservation morals purchase pet shop mice and set up each photograph. In short, they sacrifice a life for every photograph in their quest for the perfect raptor hunting image. In addition the owl gets accustomed to humans which is dangerous. These are wild creatures which need to survive in the wild. Associating humans with food is dangerous for them. If you want to do some follow-up research on the subject of owl baiting, browse to these sources.

Now back to yesterday afternoon and my quest to capture a good Great Gray Owl hunting image. Notice how my photo given above was not taken on a bright sunny day. Owls hate bright light (sunny days) and high winds. These birds are nocturnal and hunt by hearing their prey (windy conditions make it hard to hear mice or voles). Thus, yesterday afternoon was perfect for owling … light snow, darker skies and calm winds. From a photography vantage point the conditions were horrible. A baiter would want to find an owl on a bright sunny day, and lure it out of its deep cover with pet shop mice because of the perfect photographic conditions.

In total I spent almost 2 and 1/2 hours with this particular owl yesterday, both in the early morning and late afternoon. This owl was not a “roadside owl” which folks are able to photograph from their cars. Instead I had hiked deep into the forest to good habitat, and found a cooperative owl. Not once did this owl flush due to my presence. I kept my distance and let the bird hunt.

Here are some of my “failure photos” and two images which show the habitat in which the owl was hunting. These pictures are as important as my success image for demonstrating why I often find the perfect owl pictures suspect.

Yesterday’s Owl Habitat on the Ground. My owl captured a vole with this strike, but it was impossible for me to get a clean photograph. I was slogging through knee deep snow, and obviously had no idea where voles were running underneath the snow.

Owl Hunting Photos: Failure #1 – Hmm … the owl did not fly directly at me! Light snow!

Owl Hunting Photos: Failure #2 – Eh gads… the owl flew away from me again. Not fair!

Great Gray Owl Thinking … I’m performing. Why can’t you get one of those perfect hunting images. What kind of photographer are you?!

Less is Often More in Bird Photography!

Quick! Grab your lens with the longest reach, zoom in and take a bird photograph! How many of you, myself included, have this viewpoint when it comes to birding photography? While I understand this philosophy, quite often “less is often more” in bird photography. Your goal should not be to always get the closest view for an image. A good landscape photographer understands that composing the shot is as important as the physical land being captured in an image.

Put another way, if possible every picture should tell a story. Over the past two days I have arrived on my “owling grounds” 20 minutes before sunrise. Here are two sequence of photos which tell different stories. In each case the second image is the “traditional” birding photograph. Which photo is better? Neither! Photography is art. Don’t get stuck in a rut of always taking the “zoomed in” photograph.

Sunrise Over the North Woods (not zoomed in 100% in order that more trees are captured in the background reflecting dawn’s early light)

Great Gray Owl at Dawn (zoomed in as much as possible to get my birding photograph)

Owling! (or Humaning!)

Great Gray Owl at Dawn (zoomed in as much as possible to get my birding photograph)

Finally, Pine Siskins greeted me when I returned home from birding this morning. A few winter finches are beginning their long trek back north.

Power to the Pileateds!

While skill is important in birding photography, lucks doesn’t also hurt! We have a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers which have taken up residence in our wooded yard next to Amity Creek. This pair has been fun to watch over the winter. Here’s to hoping they set up house in our yard. Regardless, I should be able to find their hole/nest this June.

Power to the Pileateds

On another subject, I have set up a new image search for my photographs. The database is taken from my Flickr account and includes not only my better bird images, but also my northern Minnesota landscapes and night time photographs including the Northern Lights.

Use this Flickr web link and enter your query term as indicated. You may also change the sort sequence in addition to selecting other options.

Extending the Telephoto Reach of your Sony A6000 / A6300 / A6500

As noted previously in this blog, for my birding photography I use a Canon Sx-60 super zoom / bridge camera, but for my landscape and night photography I shoot with a Sony mirrorless camera, now the A6000 (previously a NEX-5t). This choice suits me well as the bridge camera gives me lots of zoom for a modest price in a package that allows one to easily hike into the back country. I picked Sony micro 4/3 mirrorless cameras for my night photography because Sony is known as the top sensor manufacturer leading to optimized cameras for low light picture taking (Sony makes sensors for a HUGE number of other manufacturers). The mirrorless system is also a good choice due to performance, size and it will not break the bank.

Now the point of this post. For some time I have thought it would be nice if I could extend the reach of my Sony A6000 telephoto lens. The longest “e mount” lens is a manual zoom 55 to 210 mm (82 mm to 315 mm equivalent). Having a longer lens would be nice for night time moon photography, some occasional bird photographs in low light (bridge cameras due to their very small sensors are limited in low light photography). However, my research into telephoto options yielded no results … only cheap lenses that would be 100% manual. While I am not opposed to manual lenses, birds tend to move quickly and therefore I wanted to be able to still utilize autofocus and all the other native capabilities built into my camera.

After hours of research via Google, I stumbled upon the Olympus Teleconverter TCON-17X. If this system worked, I would now be able to attach the teleconverter onto the end of my Sony 55-210 mm zoom lens and create a a 35 mm equivalent of a 535 mm lens given my micro 4/3 sensor. I also needed to purchase a seven dollar step-up ring from 49 to 55 mm (an adapter that will allow you to mount the Olympus teleconvertor on the Sony lens). Here is the YouTube video of this combination which convinced me to make the purchase.

As they say … the proof is in the pudding. Here are two photographs of a Pileated Woodpecker taken two days ago after a snow storm in some very low light (i.e. thick clouds). The images are straight out of the camera with no lighting / shading adjustments, etc.  I was approximately 30 yards away from the woodpecker, and the bird was about 40 feet up in the tree. The final two photographs of this woodpecker are two images on which I took some time, and processed with minor lighting adjustments.

Amity Creek Pileated Woodpecker without teleconveter

  • 210 mm zoom (315 mm equivalent for a 35 mm system)
  • A6.3, 1/400th of a second, ISO 640

Amity Creek Pileated Woodpecker with 1.7 OlympusTteleconveter

  • 315 mm zoom (535 mm equivalent for a 35 mm system)
  • A6.3, 1/400th of a second, ISO 800

Amity Creek Pileated Woodpecker with 1.7 OlympusTteleconveter

  • These two photos were NOT part of my test. They are from a slightly different location, and have been processed for minor lighting / shading adjustments. Finally, some cropping of the photos was performed.