Wednesday, June 06, 2007

In Search of the Great Gray Owl

I had bought a book, Watching Yellowstone & Grand Teton Wildlife, at one of the bookstores in Yellowstone hoping to get some ideas in addition to our past trips' experience finding wildlife. I had been excited to see the great gray owl listed as one of the species. Naturally I hoped to find one. The book mentioned several places, one of which was the meadows south of Canyon. It also mentioned areas near the Blacktail Plateau. I heard one of the ranger talks about the birds around the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. He said you could sometimes see them in the trees along the roads around the canyon. So while we kept our eyes open, we had not seen any.

While I was standing around waiting for the coyote pups, I visited with the wife of the photographer standing next to me. She gave me some great information about where to see one. In addition to the vague "meadows south of Canyon," I had the more detailed description, just south of Canyon where there are pulloffs on both sides of the road. She had heard that you needed to walk around the edges to see it. She warned me to be careful if I did walk through this forested area because there were bears, better not to walk it alone. She and her husband had walked through the area looking for the owl, and when they got back to the car, they saw the owl in a tree from the parking lot! They had checked in the mornings, but had only seen it in the evening.

As we came home that night, I checked out where this area was. No gray owl that I could see. But, of course, when you have not seen an animal or bird, you don't necessarily know where to look or what size it will appear in the distance. Will it be at the top of the tree or lower? WIll it hide deep in the branches? But this is an area we pass several times a day, so we got in the habit of checking it out each time we passed.

This morning was gray and cloudy. We did get up and out pretty early, hoping for that special grizzly sighting. We stopped at this pullout to check for the owl . . . I see something . . . is that it??? WOOHOOO! It IS the great gray owl. And what a cute white "bow tie" or collar.

I see a gentleman walking back from the forested area. I check to make sure he has indeed seen the owl. He warns me about a buffalo back there. He gets his photo gear. I watch him walk around the marshy ground. It is going to be a hike with that big lens . . . But, yes, I'm going to go for it. I make my way around on the higher ground, through the fallen tree trunks, worrying about stepping on the beautiful delicate flowers. I get in range to take my first shots. The owl's back is to me. . . I take a sample shot just to check for exposure . . . oh dear, off he flies. He's still in sight, but I've got more tree trunks to maneuver over.

Another couple wander over with their camera gear. Turns out they've been observing this bird for 10 years. They are hoping for flight photos. I see the owl fly behind them a couple of times, but at this point he has gone much deeper into the forest. I'm not too eager to keep chasing it deeper and deeper. As is my personality, I visit with the first gentleman - we chat about photographing birds in New York City's Central Park. He did a photo book about 10 years ago about buffalo. We talk about my upcoming trip to Africa . . . He's been - we talk about what he's seen. Yes, I'm chatty. And then . . . all of a sudden . . . the owl is back! Thank you, God!

He poses quite nicely for us. My new photographer friend suggests that we move a little closer. The owl is calm. What an experience to be so close to such a big beautiful owl. I get shots of him grooming his feet, ruffling his feathers. I'm trying to be conscientious - I try different ISO's, different f/stops to vary my depth of field, verticals, horizontals. It begins to sprinkle. I don't want to move. My battery gets low, my other battery is low . . . I keep shooting. Henry brings me two jackets - one for the camera, one for me. My hair is damp-so much for the work with the curling iron before I left for the day. I finally figure that I've either got a good shot or I don't and I start to leave.

After I walk a few steps, I realize I have a different angle . . . more shots. The other couple has moved into the position where I was. Time for me to leave. As I trudge my way back to the car, I see both Henry and the other photographer heading my way to help with my gear.

What an experience! Now I know what to look for. Maybe I'll get another chance with different lighting on a different tree. But for now I'll savor the pleasure of just getting to see and photograph this great bird.

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