Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Owl in Winter Wind

My back to a short, dense Sitka spruce—a lone sentinel against the driving wind accelerating up Gastineau Channel, across the Mendenhall State Wildlife Refuge—I try to blend in to the otherwise white landscape. Across the snow-covered flat, two pairs of buffy white wings are tossed like moths as they crisscross the morass in search of meadow voles to fuel their northbound migration.

There is always a question of whether to sit still and wait, or try to move closer to the owls. I have watched other photographers play whack-a-mole, moving four hundred yards across the wetland, only to displace the owls who have not-so-surprisingly decided the best voles must be over where the people just left, then turn back around and mirror the chase.

My strategy is nearly always the same. I watch the birds for a while from a good distance, see if I can find a pattern in their movement. During that time I adjust camera settings and take test photos. I want to be prepared should I get lucky. Then I move to a spot where I think they might go next. They are difficult to predict, and more often than not, I am wrong.

After watching them for 15 minutes, I decide to walk about a quarter of the way across the snow-covered marsh to this lone spruce. Thinking more about camouflage than windbreak, I am hoping my sage-green and charcoal jacket will blend into the foliage.

After 15 minutes, one of the short-eared owls zigzags my way. I step around the tree to take a shot. Hearing my shutter, he turns his head. I click again. The wind carries him on, leaving me to, for the first time this morning, feel the head-on assault of the Taku wind. I am prepared for 35 degree temps. With no gloves, scarf or ear covering, I am not dressed for this gale.DSC_7455.jpgI am done. Walking back to the truck, directly into the wind, I am both exhilarated and numbed. Near the road, I stop to chat with two woman on their way into the marsh with their dog. I warn them about the fierce wind. They ask me if I got any good photos.

I show them one of the two—the first time I look at my results. Seeing the sharp yellow eyes of a short-eared owl looking directly into my lens tempers the cold. It also leaves me questioning the effectiveness of my camouflage.DSC_7456.jpgThese owls won’t be around long; they have places to go. I hope to be back before they wing away—next time better dressed, and hopefully, a little lucky.


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