Category Archives: Background

eBird Range Maps

A very useful tool when birding an unfamiliar region, or just looking for a specific kind of bird in your home area are eBird Range Maps. This map based tool will pull up Google Maps with eBird sighting reports superimposed on top. Whether on a mobile device or a personal computer, you may move the map around, select different date options, bird species and much more. Use the linked version I have provided attached to this post, and after setting some parameters bookmark it to your own computer. Once saved to your own device, you may easily load the tool, make a few changes and have a local bird guide! Please note that sensitive species such as Great Gray Owls will not be accessible via the range map.

I have annotated a screenshot of a Evening Grosbeak eBird Range Map. I often switch Google Maps over to satellite mode once I zoom in on a desired birding area. This helps me learn in advance what kind of habitat I will encounter.

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.