Capturing The Snowy Owls

Snowy Owls are not normally spotted this far south. This guy was huddled in the snow along the highway.

Welcome to another edition of Let’s Talk Photography!

Anyone who loves capturing wildlife knows that there are certain times of the year that are best for capturing creatures at their best. For example, summer isn’t so great for getting photos of deer, especially buck, because they are just starting to re-grow their antlers, however, fall and early winter are when you’ll find giant buck with beautiful racks out and about during rut. Birds, on the other hand, are scarce during the winter and abundant during the summer. So, it’s safe to say that whatever species of wildlife you’re trying to photograph has its own season and that’s what we, as photographers, get excited about and look forward to.

This brings me to the elusive snowy owl, which, in recent years has been making an annual pilgrimage south and can be seen quite predictably in places like Presque Isle in Erie, Pa. The owl, which is a dominant raptor has been making trips south in search of food as a result of an abundance of owls in recent years. The younger owls have had to make their way down from the northern tundras to find food and avoid the competition in their natural environment.

A few years back, we had two or more of these beautiful owls appear right here in Jamestown and they were spotted in a few places between Kiantone and Riverside Rd. on Route 60 just south of town. Once the word got out, several photographers gathered to capture the owls and share in the excitement of seeing them. That’s when I was able to capture these images. They’re not the best, but I did what I could with the camera I had at the time.

This year, I’ve already seen postings on Facebook of photographers in Erie who have spotted and photographed a few owls that have made their way to Presque Isle. I’m planning on making a trip to see if I can get some better shots now that I have a much longer telephoto lens and better camera for the job. I’ll be taking my son, Jacob, with me so he can see one of these owls up close.

I was about 30 feet from this owl as it sat and watched me trudging through the cow pasture where it decided to rest for the day.

This brings me to the second purpose to this story. While I love to share with everyone my experiences and pass on information such as where to go to capture the eagles or snowy owls that visit or live in our region, I also cringe sometimes about causing a rush of people to show and interrupt the wildlife. So, instead of cringing, I’d like to share some thoughts on etiquette that photographers should consider when venturing out to take wildlife photos.

Animals and birds have an expectation that their habitat is a safe place from the noise and threats of us vertical walkers. When we crash into a field or along the edge of the woods with our cameras to take a photo, we are intruding in their safe space and we sometimes force them to move on to a new location where they can regain that feeling of safety. This drives the wildlife into territories that may be dangerous for them or push them into communities where they run a greater risk of being harmed by passing cars or people.

The most important thing to remember is that you are a guest in their environment. You should always plan on shooting with the longest possible lens or zoom and take special care not to approach any nesting areas or dens so you don’t present a threat to their young. Also, don’t make it your goal to find a spot and set up camp and hang out all day. Your presence puts wildlife in a heightened state of awareness and becomes a distraction that stresses them out and causes them to escape their daily routines.

Another tip when planning a trip to photograph wildlife, such as the snowy owls, is to take into consideration that you may not be the only person out there trying to capture them. Be aware of other photographers in the area and don’t ruin someone else’s shot by crashing in and making noise or getting too close. Seasoned wildlife photographers (that’s all those other guys, not me) will meticulously plan out their day and set up early to get the right spot with the right light and they will disguise themselves so as not to stress out the subject. They will lay in wait with super long lenses so they can allow the owl or eagle or elk or whatever to go about its day completely oblivious to the people with the cameras. This allows the photographer to capture moments that set their photos apart from the everyday shooter. The moment you cross into the creature’s habitat, you make them tense up and watch you closely, which will destroy the moment for those who have been waiting for that special shot.

Finally, if you’re planning on travel in a group, try to arrive and go into the shoot as a group quietly and quickly and get out after a reasonable amount of time. A large group will surely scare the wildlife away so try to make your group small.

I know it sounds a bit pretentious, but sometimes these opportunities are “once in a lifetime” and some photographers wait years to get the chance to photograph something like a snowy owl. Sharing these thoughts is my way of saying that I hope you get out and capture these owls while they’re and I hope your “once in a lifetime” opportunity is as good as everyone else’s who might be on the other side of the field or beach.

Until next week, happy shooting!

Is there a topic that you’d like to learn more about? Send feedback, share your photos, or offer topic suggestions to If you’re looking for a place to connect with local photographers in Chautauqua County, search for the group “Shoot ‘n Share Chautauqua” on Facebook.