Snowy Owls of Boundary Bay, BC
by Jon Huyer
January 17, 2013
Female snowy owls at Boundary Bay. All photos taken with a Canon 1DX, 500 mm f/4 lens, 1.4 teleconverter, tripod mounted.
When I told people that I was going to Boundary Bay to take part in an eruption, they naturally looked at me a bit funny. But what I was really referring to was an irruption, which is a sudden and infrequent increase in the population of a species. Last year saw a tremendous spike in the population of snowy owls, due to a corresponding rise in the lemming population in the arctic. The vast increase in the food supply allowed for the population increase, and when the owls migrated south for the winter a large number stopped at Boundary Bay, near Tsawwassen. I wasn`t able to make it there last year, but I did spot several snowy owls east of Calgary in the fields near Strathmore. This year I heard that the snowys had returned to Boundary Bay, so I made plans for a visit. And although the numbers are down significantly from last year, it was still a fantastic photographic opportunity.
Boundary Bay is a marsh area that has been set aside as a wildlife sanctuary. A dike road (closed to traffic) provides a vantage point from which you can spot the owls. Many are too far away to photograph, but it is quite likely that you`ll find some within 30-50 metres of the road. Venturing into the marsh is not allowed. I used a 500 mm lens with a 1.4 extender on a full frame camera to get adequate focal length. A 400 mm lens on a crop sensor camera would also be sufficient in most cases.
Photographers are required to stay on the dike road. The owls, on the other hand, can go wherever they wish..!
This being the west coast in the winter, you need to be prepared for any kind of weather. Especially the wet kind. I arrived in a blowing rainstorm, and photography on the first day was impossible. However the second day was overcast, and the owls were quite active which gave me my best shots. The following two days were bright and sunny, and the owls tended to prefer to sit and sleep. However the golden light at sunset was fantastic, and allowed for some wonderful shots with the owls posing quite cooperatively.
Sitting through a brief rain shower
Basking in the glow of the late afternoon light
You likely won’t find any snow at Boundary Bay, so the owls will stand out strongly against the brown background of the marsh. This makes it quite easy for the camera`s autofocus system to track them, when they happen to take flight. And it was the flight photos that I was especially keen on. I could set the focus to `full spread` mode, activating all the focus points, and then I just had to keep the bird in the frame when shooting. I used a tripod with a gimbal mount to allow for easy movement of the camera and lens. A ball head can also work, but is much less steady. Be sure to set your exposure to centre-weight bias, to avoid overexposing the white bird against the darker background.
1/1000 sec @ f/6.3, ISO 640, centre-weighted metering
A huge unexpected bonus to the snowy owls was the presence of a large number of short-eared owls, that hang out in a field on the other side of the dike road. They are active all day long, providing plenty of opportunity to catch flight shots. If the snowy owls were sleeping in the sun, then I went straight to the short-eared owls. These owls are much more difficult to shoot than the snowys, since they are the same colour as the background. So to get the camera to hold focus, I activated the centre points only and tried to keep the owl in the very middle of the frame. Easier said than done! They are fast fliers and they change direction very quickly, while hunting for voles. Fortunately with big memory cards you can just hold the button down and keep trying until you achieve success. And when it does come together, it is a great reward indeed.
Short-eared owl in the field --- a very challenging subject!
Once in a while they will come close enough for a decent shot
A rare moment when a short-eared owl is actually sitting still
You`ll also find northern harriers in the area, hunting in the field alongside the owls. They are equally attractive birds and a great deal of fun to photograph. Bald eagles are everywhere, but most are sitting high in trees and as such don`t provide the best composition. Great Blue Herons are also plentiful, and once in a while you can get a nice close-up.
Female northern harrier
Male northern harrier
Great Blue Heron
If you want to see the owls, you'll need to go soon before they head north again to the arctic. To reach the marsh, head south on 64 St or 72 St from the Ladner Trunk Road in Delta, and park at the end of the road. The prime viewing area is between these two roads, on the dike. Here is a link to the parking area at 72 St: http://goo.gl/maps/tQ0J1 As the population irruption continues to fade, next year may see few (if any) snowy owls at Boundary Bay. But another cycle will likely occur anytime in the next 6-9 years, and when it does, I will certainly be back.
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