How to Hunt for Snowy Owls in Traverse City

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.

Shooting tips

  • Take a variety of lens lengths with you if you have them. These guys might end up waaaay across the field from you, or they might perch relatively near on a building that you happened to be parked at. (Yep, not glamorous: look on telephone poles, buildings, fence posts, snow plow piles…)
  • Shoot with a fast shutter speed – at least 1/your lens length if you’re on a full-sensor body, even faster if you’re on a cropped sensor. You don’t want your hard-earned owl photos ruined by lens shake. (I shot all of these with at 600mm on a cropped sensor to give me a little extra reach. I also shot all of them at no less than 1/1000s shutter speed.)
  • Use a tripod. I didn’t, but it’s solid advice. I missed some good opportunities because I lost the owl in my herky-jerky-ness. The owls don’t seem to move too erratically – they’re making a beeline for prey – but at 600mm, any wiggle in your arms translates to a big swing in your viewfinder. The tripod will eliminate some of that, and will also allow you to slow down that shutter a bit if you want.
  • Shoot on burst mode. Again I didn’t, but I should have. As a landscape photographer, I am a single-shot gal. It would’ve been wise to press and hold the shutter while the owl was active to get a variety of images.
  • Aim to have the owl facing into your frame. Your images will be more compelling if your owl looks like s/he’s interacting with other elements in the frame.
    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.
  • Really, be patient. These cool creatures might sit for long periods of time before doing something. Hang out with your bird. Marvel at its grace and fierceness. Be in awe of its strength and beauty. And be ready. Your photos will be more engaging if you capture the owl in action as opposed to what it does most, which is look like a spotty lump of snow 😉
    Got any other tips? Share them with me on Facebook or Instagram. Happy hunting!