Northern Hawk Owls
Reprinted from the BT Journal, Vol. 6, Issue 2, May, 2001
“It’s an INVASION!!!” he exclaimed. I’d just gotten off the plane, Pro Trekker on my back, Eagle Creek Monster Trunk in one hand and Lowepro Madison 1100 computer case balanced atop the Lowepro Pro Roller 2 in the other hand as my good friend Arthur Morris greeted me with overwhelming excitement. We had met in Nome, Alaska to photograph birds in June of 2000, venturing there primarily for the fabulous shorebirds in breeding plumage. The last thing either one of us expected or planned on was an invasion!
Artie went on to say, “there are 14 Northern Hawk Owls here; they haven’t been here in nearly 80 years!” Now I’ve seen hawk owls for years in Alaska and for one reason or another, every time I had an opportunity to take their photo something would happen so I would end up getting skunked. Artie’s news didn’t excite me much, knowing my previous track record with hawk owls and when I relayed this to Artie he replied, “folks are seeing them everywhere, point blank range!” I knew better than to go by what “folks” had been seeing (been down that road before) and since Artie hadn’t seen them yet I paid the invasion no never mind. That was at least until the next morning, our first drive on the tundra of Nome.
Driving out of town on the Iditarod route into Nome, we headed towards one of the small “villages.” We traveled through the village and went all the way to the bend in the road, reaching the “train to nowhere” about 22 miles out. We were both scanning both sides of the road the entire time, looking for any birds to photograph and much to our great disappointment, saw darn few. So few we never got out of the car to even set up our cameras, once! A few words crossed both of our minds as we realized that either we were way too early or the birds were late in arriving. We’ve been there, done that before with tundra nesters in Churchill; we know the drill all too well!
We turned around and headed back down the same road we had just driven, our eyes still peeled for anything bird like, anything! Then, there sitting atop a pole was a small silhouette, perched with its back to us, backlit. We went forward until we could identify the bird, it was a Northern Hawk Owl! Well, we proceeded to get our gear out and set up when Artie said, “it’s flown off.”
That was my typical experience with the hawk owl, so I put my gear back into the car and proceeded down the road. We were coming into the village that we had passed through earlier when we saw another hawk owl off to our left and just a few feet above the ground. This time my bad luck was going to end, as the drought was over and it was about to pour! I would finally have a photograph (or a couple thousand) of the illusive Northern Hawk Owl.
Nome was my “transition” shoot when I finally decided at the end of two weeks that I would no longer shoot conventional film. This came about from shooting for two weeks, switching back and forth between the F5 and the D1. That’s the way it was when I suited up to do battle this first time with the Northern Hawk Owl. With the D1 on the 600f4 AFS with TC-20e attached, I figured I had all the horsepower I could muster to get a nice image (that’s 1800mm of horsepower!). In my vest pockets were the TC-14e and F5, 20+ rolls of Agfa RSX 100 II and Lexar Media CompactFlash cards. I was ready to rock and roll!
In total sync, Artie and I worked our way the hundred yards from the back of the vehicle around the owl to photograph it frontlit. The world around us was quiet; you could hear a lens cap drop for miles. And you could see for mile after mile after mile on the Nome tundra, being as flat as a board and just as bare. In this setting we approached the owl as stealthily as 600mm armed photographers can. The ground all around us was covered with last year’s dead grasses that crunched with each step, emitting such noise that I’m sure could be heard all the way back to Nome. Despite all of this, the owl stayed put, “teed” up to photographic perfection.
Slowly, ever so painfully slow, we walked around to get into position to shoot. We set down our tripods for the first frames, some distance away still from the owl. I put my eye up to the viewfinder, expecting at any moment for the owl to fly. I was finally looking through the viewfinder and focusing on a Northern Hawk Owl and just as the lens snapped into focus, the owl flew! Since I shoot with both eyes open, I saw the owl had flown a very short distance to our right, actually giving us a better background. Now if we could just get the owl in the viewfinder again!
We picked up our cameras and slowly, ever so slowly again moved towards the owl. The distance wasn’t more than 20-30 yards when we set down our tripods and captured the first frames of Northern Hawk Owl. The jinx was broken! Over the next fifteen minutes, Artie and I moved in closer, perfected our angles for the best background and started to bang away flashcard after flashcard, roll after roll.
We had worked our way up to the owl so we no longer were using the 2x but rather the 1.4x. Just then, the owl flew off again, this time going some ways up the beach. Once again, we picked up our gear and followed. Again the owl let us approach and we started ripping off the film again and filling up the flashcards. (Switching between the F5 & D1 got old fast!) In fact, it occurred to both of us that photographing this owl was getting down right easy! There had to be a reason for our being able to approach the owl so closely now, shooting with just the straight 600mm, right out in the open.
The mood and behavior of the owl seemed to have changed since it landed on this newest perch. The “lazy” attitude it had as if it were just shaking off a hangover was replaced with the alertness of a guard dog on duty. The owl’s head was turning left and right, upside down, every which way as it peered down into the grasses all around us. I had been so wrapped up in just getting close and capturing this cool little dude on film, I hadn’t taken time to look at the grasses we were walking through on the sandy beach.
I stopped and started to look at the grasses in the direction the owl was studying so closely. I didn’t see a thing but I did hear, ever so faintly, rustling in the grasses once in a while. I just assumed that it was a slight breeze causing the noise. We were kneeling on the ground, photographing the owl, as the perches were pieces of driftwood, no more than knee high. All of a sudden, something ran up my pant leg for a brief moment. It really startled me, but I never saw what it was. The hunt was on for me to find out what was in the grass.
I stared and stared until finally I saw a dash of brown fur right in front of us. I kept watching when I suddenly saw another brown fur blur, then another! We were in the midst of a vole explosion and the owl knew it (probably why the owls were in Nome in force). The change in the owl’s attitude came from the fact that it was on the hunt. This little piece of basic biology is what permitted us to get so close to this small owl, the Northern Hawk Owl, which is the size of a phone receiver.
In a very short time the owl really started to get into the swing of things, flying very short hops from perch to perch in the attempt to find the best vantage point to grab a vole. Each time the owl moved, we moved with it and the images we began capturing were beyond our wildest imaginations. Finally, the owl made a very short flight, ending with a complete 180-degree turn in the air to come down on a vole. With the vole in its talons, the owl flew across the road, perching on a long driftwood log.
We started to walk toward the owl, stopping at the vehicle long enough to download all of our shot film and reload with fresh. We had probably gone through 30 rolls in those 30 minutes. We approached the owl not knowing how it would react to our approaching it when it had food in hand. Slowly we came up on it, the owl not making any sign it had any intentions of leaving. We stopped about 45 feet away and set up to shoot. It was perched beautifully on the lichen covered root end of the driftwood log. There it just sat, not doing a thing.
So we just sat, watching the owl do nothing. You’d think that it would start eating but rather it just sat. Watching it through the lens, I started to see small body movements in the chest and throat. After watching it for a while, I realized what was going on. Since we rehab small owls, I had watched them many times prior to the process of casting a pellet. This is what the hawk owl was doing, getting ready to cast a pellet and until it had done so, it wasn’t going to eat the vole it had just caught.
Well, even with this advance knowledge of the event forth coming, when it actually did happen it was so fast and so lacking of any drama, we didn’t capture it on film. But we did get all the blood and guts glory of that cute little brown vole being shredded! You should have heard the motordrives rip as we shot the action of the brains being picked out and eaten, head severed and eaten and then all the entrails being pulled out of the body cavity (gee, sure hope you’re not eating while you’re reading this). This was killer stuff and considering it was the first time I had gotten to focus on a Northern Hawk Owl, I was in pig heaven!
At this point in the dismembering process the owl stopped, hopped down behind its root perch and cached the remains of the vole. We would discover by following the owl for the rest of the morning that it had a half dozen cached vole remains in various perches in the area. No sooner than the vole was safely cached the owl flew off to perch near where it had caught the vole.
We went over to see what the owl was doing as it had on “it’s time to sleep” look. (Just as well because between the light getting a little hard and totally running out of film until we went back to the hotel, we were done shooting.) Through our viewfinders we could see the eyes of the owl close slowly until it nodded off. We were perhaps thirty feet away at the time, the owl not giving a hoot we were present. (You know I’ve been dying to use that word in this piece.) With that, we joyously packed up our gear and headed down the road.
I repeated the above scenario with most likely the exact same owl for the next four mornings! You just can’t imagine how many images of Northern Hawk Owl I have in my files. It got so silly, just how close we could get to the owl and move about, that I could take all sorts of before and after images for this or that educational purpose. I could do depth-of-field and exposure studies as well as tests with different lens/teleconverter combos and distances. In all honesty, there were times when I wondered if the darn thing was alive!
The rest of the time I spent in Nome, I kept looking for other birds to photograph and to be honest with you, it was slim pickings, I was simply too early or the birds were late for the nesting season. It wasn’t until the last days of the trip that shorebirds started to show up. There were plenty of other things to photograph like Moose, grizzly and Musk Ox, but I was skunked for my main objective, shorebirds. But that’s OK; it gives me a great excuse to go to Nome again, as if I really need one!
Have I photographed a Northern Hawk Owl since? Nope! Have I had the opportunity to? More than I want to think about but each time for one reason or another, I’ve never captured another frame of the Northern Hawk Owl since Nome. Since I have about 4000+ frames between digital and conventional of Northern Hawk Owl, it’s not like I have any shortage of Northern Hawk Owl images. But you know, that cute little devil is in my blood now. Every time I see one, I can guarantee you that I will grab a camera and attempt to capture the image. No matter how successful I am though, it won’t ever be the same as the invasion of 2000!
(Note: It was from my experience, photographing the Northern Hawk Owl in Nome, June 2000 with both the F5 and D1 that convinced me to shoot with just the D1. With all those images to compare side by side and to see how the cameras work in the same conditions and situations, it was obvious to me that the D1 worked so much better for my style of shooting, solving problems so I could be a better communicator.)