NOTE: CLICKING ON PHOTOS WILL LAUNCH A LARGER VERSION IN ANOTHER WINDOW.
Until the past few months, my only entanglement with any owl was through the classic candy commercial (see below). And since I already know how many licks to the center of a Tootsie Pop, I’ve had no reason to re-engage.
There even are Barred Owls down the street in Seward Park, but they’ve always seemed too elusive and nocturnal to seek out.
I saw a Snowy Owl, wa-aaa-ay far away, through someone’s spotting scope at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. By then, because I’m an Audubon memberI’d known we were enjoying an echo irruption, a repeat of a mass appearance every so often by certain bird species. I’m also a bird watcher who has looked for almost everything but owls, so that distant Snowy was my first sighting of one in the wild.
At the end of a bird photography course with the Owl (and Woodpecker) King, Paul Bannick, he’d taken the lot of us to the site in the Samish Flats known to area birders as “West 90.” There, in a driving rain, I trudged with him through the muck to look at likely perches and burrows of Short-Eared Owls. A couple fellow students told me that West 90 usually was teeming with the Short-Eareds, but that was the first of several times to come that they seemed to take it upon themselves to evade me.
Instead of resorting back to Hoo-ooo-ooo cares mode, I was bitten by a desperate urge to photograph a Short-Eared Owl. I went back to West 90 a couple times, and drove all the way up to British Columbia, in such of the wise creatures, but “all” I got were Snowies, which actually are a far more elusive sighting for this region.
About the time when I was ready to abandon my quest, Betty Udesen, a friend and former Seattle Times colleague, captured a couple beautiful images of Short-Eared Owls. She did so on one of three farms owned by another friend and former Times colleague, Harley Soltes. These are two of the most assiduously prepared photographers I’d ever worked with, and I have important shared history with both, so I took this as a sign.
While on assignment together, Betty once strongly suggested I removed my sunglasses when approaching women for interviews because “they won’t trust you if they can’t see your eyes.” She also became a local celebrity for her series of photos of birds with tea-time settings and I have a framed copy of her “September Chickadee” hanging in my home. I once spent three weeks in the Soviet Union (you young people Google that) and another week up in the Apalachians with Harley. He also photographed my wedding.
My hope renewed by those two, I decided to take another big swing. On the way up to Boundary Bay, where I’d seen the Snowies, I stopped at Rawlins Road, near Fir Island, up by the Skagit Flats. Another photographer had told me that Short-Eared were so abundant there, it almost was too easy to photograph them. I saw none. Up at Boundary Bay, a hiker told me he’d just seen Short-Eared Owls, but they were gone by the time I arrived and didn’t return during another hour wait. On the way home, I stopped at West 90, saw a lot of Northern Harriers, which I love, but only the rump of a Short-Eared disappearing into the sunset.
All those times I’d hauled around the big battleship lens, a 600mm. But for a rendezvous with my daughter Sassia on Whidbey Island, I rented a slightly smaller 500mm. Moreover, I left my telecoverter at home. Without the extra reach, I figured this trip would come up empty for Short-Eareds, too. I got my first decent pictures of a raptor (Red-Tailed Hawk) with prey, then drove up the island to swing back to West 90, where I’d kill time until having dinner with Harley and his wife Sue. To get there, I made a nearly heart-stopping drive across the bridge at Deception Pass; I suffer from vertigo and it took nearly half an hour before my breathing returned to normal.
I must have paid a karmic fee with my death-defying drive over Deception. When I got to West 90, I immediately spotted low-flying raptors who certainly were not Northern Harriers. These looked like brown torpedoes with wings, and made a scratchy barking sound, like a Chihuahua with laryngitis. My heart soared because they certainly were Short-Eared Owls. I don’t know them well, so I could not get very close for a long time. But I do know from my short-lived experience that raptors have favored perches. I saw this one land twice on the same post, so after it left the second time, I set up closer but obscured myself behind a large bush. And I waited. And waited. At some point, my phone rang. I took my eye off my camera’s eyepiece for a second to look down and, when I looked back up, the Short-Eared was on the perch, right in front of me. But they are skittish and, when I fumbled around for the shutter, it flew off.
I was crushed, so much so that I forgot what ensued next. As I noticed with the Snowies, owls will flush, circle around and return. That’s what this Short-Eared did, with me firing away. But I didn’t remember until I was editing my files the next day. Finding the following was a little like discovering a car in your driveway on Christmas.