Edited to add: Originally, I posted the location of where we hiked to see the Snowy Owls. It’s fairly common knowledge around Washington, but I suffered post-blogging pangs about revealing the location of a popular species like a Snowy Owl. After chatting with a wildlife photographer I dearly respect, I’ve decided to remove those references. Last year, I witnessed the frenzy and ethical breaches surrounding the Snowy Owl irruption, and my general policy is to not reveal locations, especially of sensitive species and nesting areas. So — even though this information is probably familiar to many who come here or who live in Washington or who recognize my shots — I’ve removed the precise location of where I took these photos.
I don’t know if the verdict is in for this season of owls. Is it another irruption of Snowy Owls (eBird)? Or, an “echo” year, following an irruption? An anomaly in Snowy Owl migrations or a climate change signal that portends of more Snowies in years to come?
What I do know is that the frenzy of last year’s sightings has all but disappeared. In fact, the local birding list has just occasional mentions of Snowy Owl locations, owing to the now common sight of owls on rooftops and owls on driftwood perches.
I thought this lull might be a good time, on a weekday off, to take a hike where Snowies are known to camp out. I avoided this area last year precisely because of the rare-bird frenzy. It was also my ulterior motive to walk the threshold of the ocean , a body of water that used to be a short MUNI ride from home, but which is now a three-hour road trip and a special affair.
At dawn, the weather report said sunny with zero percent chance of rain. Good day for a beach walk and photos, I thought.
Thirty miles out, this was the vision through the windshield … all fog and frost, not a hint of sun.
A few miles away from our destination, we rounded a bend and it might as well have been a scene from Brigadoon, with clouds splitting into blue sky and ocean song. I half expected a Lerner & Loewe score as we left the fog of the road and moor behind.
As you might be able to deduce from Hugh’s chapeau and ear flaps, it was beachy … but biting cold.
We arrived at 11:30am and walked a mile before seeing an owl hunkered down, far away, in ecru waves of grass.
A few photographers were set up at this spot, so we opted to leave the owl alone and explore the tide line for shells and inanimate macro ops.
Along the way, I had a life-bird sighting, even though I’ve never kept anything close to a life list. A cluster of Horned Larks was foraging, almost undetectable, in the sand, their brown backs a perfect match for the substrate. It wasn’t until I got eye level with them that I noticed the coloration on their faces.
Crouching in a sand pit, I didn’t see Hugh signaling to me. The larks suddenly flushed … and I saw why. A Snowy Owl glided right above my head and toward a distant nub of driftwood. Hugh had seen the owl come over the trees and swoop toward the birds and he was trying, silently, to clue me into a photo op. I failed the teamwork method a few times on this excursion. I had a series of similar photo misses.
I know an owl in flight is a coveted shot, so much so that some people live-bait or lure owls for photos. Those are practices I will never engage. The way I rationalize my lack of in-flight shots from Ocean Shores — despite several opportunities — is by telling myself that a sitting, preening owl is possibly content, whereas the flying owls I missed might have been flushed owls from another location. 🙂
We meandered the trails of the spit just for fun, and it wasn’t until we were on our way back to the car that Snowy Owls started showing up, materializing instantly and magically on driftwood logs like Endora from Bewitched.
We were told the owls might huddle lower on windy days, rising up to their perches as the sun warms the afternoon. We sat distant on the frigid sand, watching their eyes catch the glint off the water. There were just a few photographers milling about, and all seemed conscientious of the human-owl ethics barrier. Accidental interaction occurs because of the trails that wend through the grassland areas. Once in a while, someone comes upon an owl without noticing — and is literally on top of the owl before he realizes it. One such incident is pictured here. The owl sussed out the situation with the wayward human, then resumed preening.
My favorite of the shots below is the Snowy Owl fluffed like a powder puff, ruffling feathers during a preening session. I call that one “Shake a Tail Feather.”
Thanks, John, for the inspiration to finally make it out there … for the owls and for a therapeutic winter hike.
From the movie, What’s Love Got to Do With It
Looks like a really fun trip. Wish I had been there. I got to see a short-eared owl yesterday, to add to my life list.
Glenn, I’ve been told of a few locations around here that house Short-eared Owls. I’ve been avoiding them because they are heavily hunted. But … come January 28, the day after the season, I also hope to add them to my list! I wish you could have been among the Snowy Owls. You, of all people, would have enjoyed it tremendously.
Thanks for sharing these Ingrid and for also mentioning that you don’t bait, I don’t either because of my own personal ethics.
I wish I had been there too just to soak in these gorgeous owls and the beautiful habitat.
Baiting, especially live baiting, strikes at the core of my ethical being as well — for myriad reasons, most of which I think can be reasonably substantiated as harmful to one animal or another. I really should quit the two Flickr people who ended up in my contact list, and who obviously bait and don’t admit it. I see their images in my feed and it’s about time to strike them from my view, it’s so aggravating.
The clip from Bewitched made me reminisce. The “mortals” vs. “immortals” view at that time through Endora in a humorous way. I watched the “Painted Veil” (based on Somerset Maugham novel), the other day, with Edward Norton, one of my favourite North American actors. He plays the role of an eminent bacteriologist who takes his unfaithful wife to China, where there is an outbreak of cholera. She falls madly in love with him again, and the film then continues to focus on her character and how she evolves as a human being. He also played the lead role in “The Illusionist” which I watched a long time ago. I much prefer “The Painted Veil”, however, which looks at mortality itself straight in the eye.
PS, I like the last three images of the Snowy Owl and the facial expressions.
Really glad you guys made it down and had some sun as well ! It looks alot warmer in the sunny shots than it is standing in the cold taking them, yes? Hope you could see Rainier way back there. Rare to see Rainier and the ocean from the same spot.
The owls do seem to hunker down on windy days but do stir to life the later you can hold out in the day.
So glad you went !
Also glad you didn’t see anyone harassing the birds.
Rant warning: : )
My last two trips there sadly was a person each time relentlessly in being a jerk. One, dare I say.. flower child.. had her cell phone camera (yikes!) going and she was ruthlessly chasing birds and scaring an owl while photographers that had staked out and patiently were good folks, watched helplessly. She approached a bird I was watching and I got to the point of carefully waving her off and getting her attention and she kept coming-not trying to circle around to join me. Bird flies to a perch 100 yards away and off she goes again for the chase. I intercept her, can tell she is super excited about seeing the owls, and she immediately apologizes before I say a word.. and then I .. as nice as I can .. say “an alert fidgety bird is a stressed bird, a flying bird is a real no-no.” She seemed to get my drift-even blamed another guy behind us for being “the one” for harassing… Off I go.
I look back about 20 minutes later from afar and see her closely stalking a bird -with CELLPHONE CAMERA again
while a lady I had seen there for a couple hours in one spot now showing some real agitated body language. The sun was setting and making a perfect backdrop of pink alpineglow Olympic Mountains. Perhaps she waited all day until the bird demon ruined it for her. Never waited to see the bird fly as I went down the spit to the end.
Next trip repeat with an old lady in a red coat. I talked to her in mid-stride while she was chugging after a bird she just scared and found she was totally crazyyyyy : )
She only has a few years left so maybe I am too harsh.
My only hope is that one of those flower children or crazy old ladies leaves billions for a huge parcel of land
and builds a hunters moat around it !
Hi, John, thanks very much for all your help! And yes, it was cold! I had on my photographic flip gloves and we had hand warmers, but it was one of those days where even the hand warmers say, screw this, I’m not even gonna try. I could feel my fingers freezing into ice pops as I shot images … the thaw was a bit painful. 🙂
I wish I could say “I can’t believe” what you encountered, but I believe it. The “cell-phone wildlife photographers” are aggravating. I suspect they have no clue that closeup animal shots are taken, if properly, with longer lenses. In San Francisco, I had to stop people from chasing around baby birds with their cell phones during nesting season. Arrrgh! One technique I use, which is sometimes effective, is the paparazzi method. I very obviously train my lens on the person or I intercede by sitting to photograph the animals in question. It depends on the person’s motivation. If they know they’re doing something wrong, being in the focus of my lens will sometimes stop them. The problem is, there are people like the ones you mention, who are clueless about wildlife to the point where this method wouldn’t have any effect on them.
There have been times I’ve been hiking on trails, came around a bend, and had no idea I was potentially ruining another photographer’s shot. That’s what happened on our day with the owls, and it’s sad to say, but it’s actually refreshing these days when an animal is flushed by accident instead of deliberately! (btw, a moat might be an enticement not a deterrent.)
Ingrid, great points too about baiting. Really low of the low.
Really great you saw Horned Larks, can’t recall ever seeing them there.
Snow Buntings are there although haven’t seen any this year.
I am also waiting for the end of killing season to go up to the Skagit area and get some shots of some birds we don’t see here
on the coast much.
John, I’m with you on that. I was just looking through the photos of my Flickr contacts, and one person (an ex-hunter turned photographer) posted video of a Snowy Owl up in that area. It’s foggy and she’s surrounded by flushing Snow Geese and the firing of shotguns. In the video you can see her clear stress reaction to the jarring circumstances around her. I know I will never come to terms with this, because the effect on me is more and more profound as I get older. The effects permeate the environment for all of us.
I really enjoyed the photos and your entire post, Ingrid. Down here I can only dream of Snowy Owls but we do have Horned Larks galore, year around. I do believe that baiting raptors is a scourge, to the birds and to humanity.
The Ike and Tina Turner clip sure brought back some memories…
Ron, I feel so lucky to have seen them at all. I’m not sure where my life will take me in the time I have left, but the extreme northern climes and Snowy Owl habitat areas never seemed within reach, pragmatically speaking. To spend time with these birds closer to home, understanding (on some level) what it takes for them to survive and to get here at all, has been a genuine privilege.
What wonderful photos from your outing! Many cheers for you for your stance on baiting (and I’m heartened to see that view shared by several of your commenters). It would never occur to me to do such a thing, frankly. I think when a wild critter gives you the opportunity for a great photo, it’s a real gift. All the important ethical considerations aside, baiting a critter to get their photo is like buying yourself roses and pretending they’re from someone else, IMO!
All of your owl photos are just fantastic, but the last batch in particular made me smile – I especially love the one of the pair on the log and the one who looks like he just heard a great joke! How can anyone not want to laugh along? 🙂
As for your non-owl photos, that first one of the frosty fog is hauntingly beautiful, in a “glad I’m not the one driving in that” way! Love the macro of the shell, and that you got to see the Horned Larks (another gift!) But oh, those magnificent owls!
We’re having a musical mood mind mesh, as I’m listening to hits from the 60s, 70s and 80’s on Pandora right now! 🙂
Thank you, Laloofah. Isn’t modern musical access amazing? My husband got me hooked on Spotify, so I’ve been using that a lot now, too.
Yes, as far as wildlife ethics, my fellow bloggers here are shining examples of how to do it right. Although I came to photographing wildlife with the help of a birder/mentor, I still had much to learn. And, I still do. I’ve actually had ambivalence about owl photographs, based on what I witnessed last year in the frenzy. I’m in the process of assessing my choices this year and whether they were “right” by my own standards. The upshot is, I’ve gained incredible insight and inspiration from other photographers here who share my perspectives and appreciation for wildlife. If you link out to their beautiful photo blogs, you’ll see mention of the same issues and standards. It’s a genuine joy for me to meet people who care this much. And, you’ll also note that their images do *not* suffer for practicing ethical photography! My own ethics page/commentary is here: https://www.thefreequark.com/quark-philosophy/
As far as baiting, thanks for your perspective. It’s a practice more prevalent than people realize, but you don’t always know it because those who bait often don’t cop to it in their photo descriptions. I didn’t know it myself until I started educating myself on the issue. In some areas (like Quebec, I believe) it’s quite common for people to use live pet-store mice to bait owls for photographs. Although you’ll read comments supporting these practices (it’s a contentious issue), for me, it’s not even close to ethical, it’s not legal in some places, and it’s problematic on other levels.
First, I couldn’t in good conscience use a live, sentient animal to bait another. I physically would not be able to do it, it goes against my personal belief system. When I consider that people are doing this for a photo they’ll post on Flickr or 500px or a photo board, just to get accolades, I have to be measured in the words I use to describe my feelings. Ahem.
Second, you’re habituating the owls (or other animals) to human contact and handouts, which, in real life, often causes bad outcomes for animals whose survival should depend on wariness of us as a species. People also bait in ways that are potentially lethal. I don’t know if there are studies, but there are anecdotal accounts of owls being hit by cars because they’ve become habituated to mice being brought close to roads.
Third, you’re introducing prey that’s not natural to the owl, presenting a host of potential issues in terms of disease, etc. There’s also the argument that if the mice get away, beyond the inhumane aspect of releasing tame animals, you’re risking introducing species which don’t belong in those habitats.
If anyone else wants to chime in on their thoughts here, please feel free! 🙂
I love this post on so many levels Ingrid. The landscapes are so inviting and that first shot of the Snowy in the grass is absolutely mystical. The other shots of the Snowys are gorgeous and I am so jealous because I have never seen a Snowy Owl but with these last two year of irruptions, I’m certain it is in my future 😉 The last “shale a tail feather” shot is my fave.
The baiting of wild animals is totally unethical, period, end of story! I don’t see how anyone can condone such behavior for any reason.
Thanks for the amusing vids also. Seeing Bewitched again really took me back and seeing Ike Turner in the background of the Tina video blew me away!
Thank you, Larry. I know what you mean … I never thought I’d see a Snowy Owl. It just didn’t occur to me. It’s impossible not to love those faces (and I’m sorry for that anthropomorphic perspective). I’m always glad to have discussions about wildlife photography ethics, I think those topics should always be on the table, not just for those engaging in what’s considered “bad” behavior, but for people like me, too, who appreciate honing the field craft to even higher standards.
OK I am jealous!! Amazing owl photos. I would love to see one….
B, I never thought I’d be on the other side of a camera from a Snowy Owl. I feel very fortunate, indeed. Thanks for the comment!
Some absolutely wonderful images, like so many others found on these pages. A delight to see and explore the world through your words and lens
Thank you, Galen, for this very kind comment.