There is no question that as a wildlife photographer you are faced with a lot of driving or flying. I actually prefer driving because it forces me to immerse myself in the habitats around me. Here is the thing, though, for a Snowy Owl, I would have driven across the country multiple times without a second thought. Until recently I had been searching for a Snowy Owl on the west coast for a little more than five years. I can FINALLY say I was successful in finding one, but not only one, four! I started my journey by picking up my buddy, Tyler in the Portland area. We quickly realized our drive to the middle of nowhere in north central Washington was going to be a long and arduous task. Between hours of classic rock and reminiscing on old music that we wish was still relevant we got to our destination. I had kept telling Tyler that in a perfect world we would see the snowies on the first day to relive some of the pressure. At this point we had been in the car for a little over ten hours and were starving to say the least.
But then out of the corner of my eye in the middle of some farm land, there it was. A Snowy Owl.
Our Biggest Challenge
More time than not, even in the best situations possible there are challenges. Our biggest challenge? We found four Snowy Owls, but guess what, they were on private land. This is something that I run into a lot as a bird photographer, birds don’t always seem to land in a state park or a public recreation area. After some driving back and forth and surveying the area we were in, we decided that the only way we were going to get decent shots of these owls was to go on the private land. I know what you are thinking, why on earth is it worth the risk? To be honest it is not, and its extremely disrespectful. So we did the ethical thing and knocked on the farm house door and asked the land owner.
This can generally go one of two ways, either you are told to leave and get off their doorstep, or you are looked at like a crazy person for wanted access to land just to photograph something. But every now and again you get lucky, we met the land owner and she was nothing short of amazing. Kathy let us on the property and could not have been more welcoming. She started talking to us about how she was relieved that we were photographers because she has had bullets fly through her window from hunters that were illegally on her land. We showed her our photos and plan to send her a metal print as a massive thank you! It just goes to show, if you are respectful and ask permission sometimes you can get access to areas that no other photographer has been. With that said, I urge you to always ask permission to access private land.
I will admit, these owls were not easy to shoot, in the setting sun it really took some doing to expose a completely white bird correctly against a bright sky. Luckily between bird tracking and the dynamic range of my E-M1X I had not problems working with the exposures in post. Going into this trip I was not quite sure how big to expect these owls to be, but once they spread their wings everything became very real. Needless to say these owls are huge! I would venture to say they are much bigger than than a Great Horned Owl, or at least seem like it with their fluffy feet. There are few times that I have been left completely speechless in nature and this was one of them. Watching all four of the snowies take off from their perches was nothing short of incredible. I am still looking back on these photos to make sure I wasn’t dreaming the whole time.
A Whole New Terrain
Finding these owls was hard enough, but when I say it was in the middle of nowhere I really mean it. It was actually easier to find the owls than it was to find a restaurant to eat lunch. We really had to work through some hunger on one of the days. Goes to show that even with as much research as I could do we still ended up eating a protein bar for lunch! Aside from being in the middle of nowhere the terrain we were shooting in had been badly burned by a very large wildfire last year. That came with its set of challenges.
As you can see from some of the photos the land is dark, hard and still burned because in this kind of highland rain is not as prevalent as in the valleys. A big issue we faces was the extreme amounts of wind. As some points it was hard to even keep my camera still. Luckily with Olympus I had just about the best IBIS I could have ever asked for so it wasn’t much of an issue. My chapped lips would definitely say otherwise though.
A Final Farewell
On our last day of the trip we decided it would be a good idea to go higher in elevation to look for some Great Gray Owls. As we climbed higher and higher out of the Okanogan Highland we ended up so close to the Canadian border that our phones thought we were in Canada and made sure to tell us that we would still have service. We hiked 14 miles in dense snow and looked in more trees than I would like to admit, but not a single Great Gray was to be found. I guess there is a reason they are the Phantom of the North. I did end up with one shot from our grueling hike in the snow and that was this beautiful Western Meadowlark. We decided to head back for one last look at our new Snowy Owl friends before we made the trek back to civilization and as the sun set behind the nearby mountains a dark shadow was cast over the small plateau we were shooting the snowies on. For just a moment the owl was still. I exposed the shot as long as I could and was rewarded with an epic portrait of a bright white owl with dense shadows in the foreground and background. It was a fitting end to an exhausting trip and I would not trade it for anything.
Keith Wallach is a wildlife and nature photographer based on the North Coast of Oregon. He specializes in bird photography and aims to bring awareness to coastal birds and wildlife by creating emotive imagery to spark conversation within the conservation space.