Owl clear things up: I’m talking about camera hunting, not gun hunting. We’re only shooting photos here. So WHO thinks finding a snowy owl sounds like a hoot? After my recent hunt, I have to say…it’s for the birds!
Okay, okay, I’m done being punny.
Some snowy owl background
They spend their summers in the Arctic hunting mostly rodents. If the rodents have a bumper crop, the snowy owls tend also to have a bumper crop, which means lots of young owls spread out after they leave the nest. When this happens, snowy owls might be seen in places that they’re rarely seen. In the winter, their migrations are widespread, and they’ve been spotted reliably in northern Michigan for the past several years. They’re pretty territorial about their hunting grounds – especially as they get older – so you might only see one covering a pretty big radius. They’re no strangers to daylight, either; they’ll hunt anytime they can find food. Snowy owls like to hunt in open places, and will often do so right from the ground. This means that when they travel from the Arctic down to Michigan, they might end up at un-photogenic locations like the airport, or the ballpark, in addition to prettier places like open fields and the dunes. And they are happy to sit on a fence, or light post, or the ground for a long time, watching and listening for signs of edibles in the area.
What does all this mean for owl seekers?
It means that you drive slowly by fields – along US-31 south of Traverse City seems to be a good place – and you watch for a big white blob. You use your telephoto lens or binoculars to confirm whether you’ve spotted your bird of interest. (Even large hawks are exciting to find when you’re on a fruitless mission to spot one of these giant Arctic visitors.) Maintain a respectful distance once you confirm your sighting. If you approach and the owl flies off, don’t approach again. Aside from being rude and potentially endangering these beauties with bad human behavior, snowy owls have been known to dive bomb humans. I have no interest in being attacked by a bird with wingspan rivaling my own. Last, be patient. I struggled with this. I am happy to hike miles into the wilderness to capture a specific scene, but I am not happy sitting in a car hoping that one of these birds catches my eye. Some people spend hours circling an area they’ve previously spotted these owls, and will await their return. This is key to good photo opportunities. I am not a birder. I do not have that patience.
Watch for good contrast in the light. It will be hard to resolve details on these guys if you shoot them backlit, unless you blow out the background – not ideal. Position yourself when possible so that the owl is catching more light – or is lighter – than its surroundings.