A Very Owly Spring

I love owls. I’m not sure when it was that I began to take note of them but I distinctly remember my dad having an appreciation for them when I was a kid and buying him photo books of owls on special occasions. I suspect things may have started there, as we looked through the books together. These days, photographing owls is something I find tremendous joy in and I’m currently only one species away from having photographed all of the owl species native to Alberta. While some owls are far more common than others, every encounter feels special and perhaps none more so than the experience I had this past spring, watching two young great horned owlets grow up almost from day one, alongside their dutiful mom, over the course of several weeks – and conveniently at one of my favourite dog walking locations. 

Over the winter the parent owls had taken over a red tailed hawk’s nest while they were away down south and made it their own. I first spotted the owlets while on a walk with my good friend Will Phan who had seen them the day before. There were two tiny floofs popping out of the nest, one barely visible at all, and neither were more than a day or two old. They were high up and could only really be seen at 600mm but that didn’t deter me from checking in on them every seven to ten days to see how they were doing. Over the next few weeks you could see them sitting patiently alongside their mom in the wind, rain or sun, growing bigger each time before finally branching out, fledging and taking their first small flights away from the nest. 

One thing that myself and many other wildlife photographers do to help keep the animals we photograph safe is not share locations or even post about the encounters until months after the fact (which is why I’m writing this blog in October). While most wildlife photographers practice good ethics and nature first principles, many feel a sense of entitlement towards the animals and prioritize getting a photo over the welfare of their subjects. This is a practice that I find abhorrent and that has resulted in the starvation of some overly observed owls in very public locations, others abandoning their nests and some being outright baited and harassed by unethical individuals. I had hoped given that these owls were off the beaten path enough that their location would stay secret for a while but alas, it didn’t take long for folks to start sharing the location publicly. As expected, the bad actors soon came along and two men were seen one morning shaking and kicking the tree the nest was in to try to get the owls to pop up and look their way. I can’t even begin to express the anger I feel towards people who would do such a thing and I hope I can encourage others to not share locations or images until well after the subject has moved on. 

Thankfully, no one else was around for most of my visits and it was just me, the mum and the babies. I managed to get some wonderful shots of them, at first as tiny balls of fluff cozied up to mom and then as the vicious little birds of prey they were fast growing up to be. One of the two was much braver than the other and was the one who first ventured further and further away. Eventually the shy one found its footing, figuratively and literally, and took its first short flights away from the comfort of the nest as well. Towards the end of my time with them, all three would be sitting in a nearby tree, in the golden light of the setting sun, with mom showing them the ropes so they could one day hunt on their own. I was so incredibly grateful for the time I got to spend with this little family and watch nature do what nature does best. 

And as amazing as these weeks were, they weren’t my only encounter with owlets this past spring. On a chilly April 18th there were reports of a group of saw whet owlets along the trail of a nearby park. I was conflicted about going and adding to the amount of people that were likely surrounding them but decided to meet up with Will just to see what the situation looked like. We were surprised not only by the fact that this group of four little ones was in a tree right on the trail but that there were very few folks there as well. We respectfully took a few shots in the rapidly fading light and just hung back to observe these little cuties yawning and tilting their cute heads from side to side. We were the only two still there in the blue hour light and just as we were about to leave the owlets started to become more active, stretching out, bouncing along the branches and flitting here and there. Soon all four were flying all around us, unphased by our presence, vocalizing and calling to one another as they tried their hands at hunting. It was one of the most incredible moments I’ve ever had while birdwatching and I just stood in the trees mesmerized and taking no photos. In times like this, when you know the photos won’t turn out, it’s better to put the camera away and immerse yourself wholly in the experience. It’s something I won’t ever forget and one of those magical moments in nature that keeps me coming back for more.  

These days, it seems like there’s a lot of external pressures being exerted on our daily lives. Coming out of the pandemic and rebuilding various aspects of ourselves or our careers, the rising costs of inflation, the looming threat of nuclear war…all of it feels very heavy and I worry that we haven’t even begun to unpack the toll this is taking on our collective mental health. Having these quiet moments with these small owl families this past spring was a lovely distraction from everything going on and was a powerful reminder of the healing power of nature. While we all can’t be so lucky as to have an owl family in our backyard, we can find moments of peace and joy going for a walk or sitting in a park watching other species of birds going about their day, unfettered by the follies of man. So please, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all, carve out a little time in your day to get outside and decompress with the neighbours we often take for granted.

*Prints are available of any of the images you see in this blog. Please contact me if you”re interested.