Lords of the Forest – the Owls of the North

Click on image to enlarge

For those that regularly follow my ramblings, this is a blog I didn’t think I’d be bringing you this year at least.

Certainly it looked that way after arriving back from my trip to Finland in March with good friend Danny Green. It wasn’t as though we didn’t put in the work (including lots of trudging through waist high snow drifts) but the conditions just weren’t right for winter Owl photography.

At the same time though we were told to come back in the summer as it was a good vole year. And a good vole year means a good year for nesting owls

It was fortunate then that I was returning to Finland in June, this time with Nature’s Images, to photograph the bears that live in the boreal forest on the border with Russia. I’m pleased to say that Pressie accompanied me on the trip on this occasion as she loves the bears. Just before we headed out, I’d seen an image go up on the Face Book page of our Finnish hosts of a nesting Great Grey owl. Trying not to get my hopes up too much I called Mark at Nature’s Images to see what he knew about the situation. Ironically he’d just received an e mail confirming not only the possibility of Great Grey Owl but also Northern Hawk Owl in the vicinity of our where we were going to be based.  Back of the net!

On our first morning after our arrival at Martinselkonen Erakeskus our group, led by another great friend, Paul Hobson set out with our Finnish guide Jarno searching for owls. Our first target species was Northern Hawk Owl. I’d spent quite a lot of time on the winter trip  looking for hawk owls and knew that they are not easy to find (let alone work with, but that’s another story!). This particular area though seemed to be something of a stronghold for them and we found one sitting right at the top of a tree, their habitual vantage point of choice. The conditions were quite overcast during the morning, so it was a question of thinking of creatively. I deliberately overexposed this image in order to create a high key effect. I’m still not sure whether it works or not, but it was a good start and wonderful to be able to share a new species with Pressie.  They are beautiful birds. I love their striking facial markings and barred under parts.

Click on image to enlarge

After saying goodbye to the Hawk Owl we moved on to the nesting site of the Great Grey Owl.

The nest site was located deep in the taiga forest, on private land owned by Jarno and his family for generations. On arrival I was initially disappointed to find that the adults weren’t anywhere to be seen. Paul seemed less worried though. For reasons that quickly became obvious. I can be hard of thinking sometimes.

Jarno gave us a quick debrief as we set up our gear. The female was out hunting and would be back shortly with prey for her hungry chicks. It was impossible to predict which direction she would fly in from and we would only get an opportunity of a few seconds before she settled back on the nest. The nest itself was the hollow cavity of a broken tree, a typical nesting site for this species and from the images I’d seen coming out of the site before we flew out, I knew that once settled she would be partially obscured. No pressure then!

We didn’t have long to wait. I saw something out of my peripheral vision. I turned my head and watched as she glided in majestically on silent wings, holding a vole in her bill. I was the first to see her and had just enough time to breath ‘from the left’ as she flew towards the nest. I thought about going for the flight shot but discounted the idea in favour of sticking with the original plan of trying to capture her as she landed. It made for the better sequence I think (Paul’s head was in the way of getting the flight shot anyway!).

Click on image to enlarge

Click on image to enlarge

Click on image to enlarge

If there’s one thing that I’ve learnt about owls is that they seem to posses a contrary nature. Confounding our expectations she stood perched at the edge of the nest staring at us, vole still in bill and remained there for at least ten minutes. Long enough to change lenses for a more intimate portrait shot and even shoot some video footage. More importantly though enough time to take my eye away from the camera and look at her. I mean really look at her and to try to take in what was a truly memorable experience. In a life time where I have been lucky enough to observe Great Whites, swim with Whale Sharks, sit with Cheetahs, being in the presence of a Great Grey Owl is up there with the best of them. I can’t tell you what a privilege it was.

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You have to be up close to one to really appreciate what magnificent creatures they are. In terms of length, they are the largest owl in the world standing taller than the European Eagle Owl even. They also have the largest facial disc of any raptor and set within it those fierce, yellow piercing eyes. Its relative size though belies a certain stately elegance. They truly are the lords of the forest.

The light conditions were perfect for Forest photography by this time. Bright overcast, so no harsh contrasting light that is often the blight of this woodland photography.

Over the next few days our routine was the bears (hooray!) in the evening through to sunrise and then straight out after breakfast to spend some more time with the owls. Which is why on our final day when I wondered out loud to Pressie why I was so dog tired, it was pointed out to me I’d only had a few hours sleep over the course of the entire trip. ‘Oh yes’ I observed dryly. ‘That probably explains it’.

On each subsequent visit to the nest site the female Owl was already sitting on the nest which was a shame and we never did see the male. To be honest though, I was more than happy just to look at her. It was also a great opportunity to work on various compositions to try and make the scene looking interesting.

Click on image to enlarge

Click on image to enlarge

Occasionally, we would also get glimpses of the chicks which was heart warming.

Time was also spent looking for Hawk Owls and we managed to get much closer on one occasion in better light conditions.

Click on image to enlarge

Click on image to enlarge

A big thank you to Jarno for affording us what was a once in a lifetime opportunity with the owls. And to Mark and Nature’s Images for kindly agreeing to absorb the additional cost of the first day’s photography. A typically generous offer and one of the reasons I work with them.

This was only one part of the trip though, there was much, much more to come. Next time, time to make the aquaintance again of some old friends…

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2 Responses to Lords of the Forest – the Owls of the North

  1. Ian says:

    Lovely shots. Special ones are 5 & 7 for me! I think most would be chuffed with just the experience of seeing these owls!

    • jcoxfoto says:

      Cheers mate. I’m with you on number five and seven has some nice light. I’m glad the real joy of just getting to see a GGO has come across. The photography came a poor second as always to enjoying such a wonderful wildlife watching experience. I do have one with a chick but had the wrong angle on it. Paul had a better angle. Well worth looking at his blog of the trip also http://www.paulhobson.co.uk/Blog.aspx

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