For the second year in a row, there are fairly large numbers of snowy owls that are wintering nearby. Near Seattle, snow geese are a regular winter feature, but snowy owls are a rare treat. Reckless photographers, though, are in danger of driving our infrequent visitors well back north — or even worse.
I understand the need to get close. I’ve written about the standard approach to wildlife photography before. Looking at the work produced in some photo clubs or the winners of some contests, it’s easy to assume the crowning achievement of a wildlife photographer is to get so close to the subject that you can’t even squeeze the entire animal into the frame.
Not only would they be wrong, they could also be putting their wildlife model at risk. And as I’ve learned over the years, you can often get closer by staying farther away. I’ll explain more about that in a minute.
The influx of snowy owls this far south is known as an irruption. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why it happens, but it is related to their food supply. Either population of snowy owls grew dramatically this year or the number of voles, their favorite food, plunged. In either case, predators outnumber prey in the Arctic this year, forcing the owls to spread out over greater distances to feed.
Boundary Bay, an open area in southern British Columbia near the U.S./Canadian border, is where many of these owls end up during an irruption year. There are some voles, but there are also lots of short-eared owls, bald eagles, and coyotes. And those predators are there every winter. Snowy owls, likely starving even before they made their extra long journey south, have to compete with well-established, experienced hunters for the limited food there.
These are years when every calorie matters for the birds wintering there, which is why it’s particularly upsetting to see a handful of photographers march past the “do not enter” signs to scare the owls into flying. Every time this happens, the owls expend energy — energy that, especially in a year like this, they might not be able to replace at their next meal.
That’s bad enough, but I can’t imagine their behavior even results in good images. When you scare an animal, it flees from you. Capturing the backside of an animal isn’t much of an accomplishment and it’s not likely to win you any accolades.
The best images wildlife generally result from keeping a respectful distance and letting your subject approach you. Snowy owls typically aren’t afraid of people; they don’t see many of us high on the tundra. By being quiet and waiting patiently in one spot, I’ve had numerous owls decide on their own to fly toward me, often landing on a perch not far away. They knew I was there, but they decided to come closer to me anyway.
This approach to wildlife photography is time consuming and requires tremendous patience, but it provides incredible photographic opportunities, it doesn’t put the wildlife at risk, and it rewards me with an amazing nature experience. Words can’t describe the wondrous intimate feeling when a snowy owl sees you, approaches anyway, and decides to nap 50 feet away.
Often, the best way to get close is to stand back.