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Nature Photography - Done Naturally

Northern Hawk Owl

Better lucky than good!

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ululaNever discount the value good good, ol' fashioned luck when taking up bird photography!  By 2004, I'd been birding for a few years and I'd gotten some decent photos.  However, birding was still relatively new to me, and many species still seemed very "exotic" to me.  Towards the top of that list of "exotic"-sounding birds were some of the northern owls that sometimes come down for the winter, such as a Snowy Owl, Great Gray Owl, or Northern Hawk Owl.  By 2004 I'd never seen one of these, and frankly, I'm not sure I ever expected to see one!  Snowy Owls are occasionally around in South Dakota in the winter, but the other two simply aren't found here.

However, by late November 2004, word started to trickle out through the birding world that something incredible was happening in Northern Minnesota.  The area northwest of Duluth called Sax-Zim Bog had always been a hotspot for northern rarities, but the winter of 2004/2005 was something special.  Great Grey Owls and Northern Hawk Owls were being seen in an abundance never before seen in the area.  As word started to trickle out, an increasing stream of birders headed for northern Minnesota.  By mid-December, the stories were mounting, and I just had to go. I took 2 days off work and headed north, leaving at 2:00 AM in order to get there just a bit after dawn, and maximize my chances of seeing one of these rare owls.

I could have slept in!  Within minutes after arriving in the area, I came across my first Great Gray Owl.  Then another.  And another.  Then a Northern Hawk Owl.  Another Great Grey. Another Northern Hawk Owl.  In about 15 hours of driving around the area over 2 days, I saw well over 30 Great Gray Owls and over 30 Northern Hawk Owls.

In terms of photography, however, the Great Gray Owls were being more "photogenic" than the Northern Hawk Owls.  The Great Gray Owls were sometimes allowing a quite close approach, while I was having trouble getting close enough to any Northern Hawk Owls to get a photo.  I was having a blast, seeing all these incredible birds, was getting a bit frustrated at the lack of an opportunity to photograph a Northern Hawk Owl. Then as I was driving along "Stone Lake Road'", I saw  Northern Hawk Owl, sitting at eye level in a bush, just a few feet off the road.

You never know how a bird will react as you approach it.  One of the most frustrating components of bird photography is having the bird flush and fly away, JUST as you're in a position to get a great photograph.  I played it extremely cautious with this bird.  I took some long-distance shots just to document it, but then slowly approached in my car.  Birds are often more tolerant of a vehicle than they are of a human being, hence my desire to stay inside the car and try to "stalk" the owl while driving.  I would drive extremely slowly for a few feet, stop, drive a few more feet, stop, etc. 

This particular Northern Hawk Owl didn't seem to care whether I was approaching slowly, or whether I had the USC Marching Band accompanying me up the road.  It wasn't long before I was a mere 15 feet away from the bird....then 10...then even closer.  I had been taking photos the entire way, getting ever closer shots, but before long, I was sitting in my car right next to the owl, so close I could almost reach out and touch him!  In fact, I was SO close, it was too close for my lens to focus, and I had to move over to the passenger seat to get enough distance to take some shots.  I took dozens and dozens of extremely close range photos of this bird, but soon stopped, moved back to the driver's side, and just watched this bird from extremely close range for another half an hour.  It's still one of, if not THE, highlight of my birding hobby.  He never budged from this perch, as he just looked around casually, as if this were something he did all the time. 

I had a Canon Digital Rebel, one of the early ones, and my trusty (and still relatively new at the time) Canon 400mm 5.6L lens.  As you can tell from this photo, even the very earliest Canon DSLRs were capable of providing truly wonderful image quality, and things have only improved since 2004.  It was a quite bright and sunny day, so there was plenty of light to shoot with, allowing me to basically have my choice of camera settings without worrying about not having enough shutter speed or depth of field.  I chose a low ISO value to minimize any noise (ISO 200), and a moderately high depth-of-field (aperture was f/11).  When you are shooting birds at extremely close range such as this, even though you're only shooting one subject, you need an increased depth of field to make sure most of the bird itself is in focus.  Choice of a shallower depth of field, such as the wide-open f/5.6 on my Canon 400mm lens, would have resulted in the tail and other components of the bird that were further from the camera being out of focus.

In terms of camera settings, it was a straightforward and simple situation to handle.  The real morale of the story here?  Don't discount the role of plain dumb luck in bird photography!  Sometimes a bird just decides to cooperate, and I was certainly thrilled to find and photography this beautiful Northern Hawk Owl.

Camera Body:   Canon Digital Rebel
Camera Lens:   Canon 400mm 5.6L
ISO:   200
Aperture:   f/11
Shutter Speed:   1/500th
Flash:   Not Used
Support:   Camera resting on car window frame
Date:   12/13/2004
Location:   Sax-Zim Bog, MN



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