White Ghosts of the Prairies - Photographing Snowy Owls Part II
by Dr. Robert Berdan
Photos by Robert Berdan and Kamal Varma
February 3, 2013
View of Mossleigh Grain elevators and the Rocky Mountains from Alberta Highway 547 - taken in December of 2011.
February 2, 2013, Groundhog Day, fellow photographer Kamal Varma and myself left my place 7:00am in the dark. We headed first for some breakfast at MacDonald's and then drove north on Bearspaw road before heading east on highway 567 through Airdrie and then south through Strathmore looking for elusive ghosts of the prairies - snowy owls. The day before we checked the snowy owl sightings web site and there were a number of reports of the owls south- east of Calgary. It was overcast in the morning though the prediction was for clear skies later in the day. We didn't see any wildlife that morning other then magpies and a horned lark so we decided to head south east of Calgary to a small town called Mossleigh.
Groundhog Day (Pennsylvania German: Grundsaudaag, Murmeltiertag) is a day celebrated on February 2. According to folklore, if it is cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring will come early; if it is sunny, the groundhog will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow, and the winter weather will continue for six more weeks (source Wikipedia).
Mossleigh is a small town outside Calgary that has 2 restaurants, a motel, gas station and 3 grain elevators, One of the grain elevators was repaired recently and sports a new aluminium exterior - I prefer the old painted boards from a photography view point. I like to photograph grain elevators and think of them as sentinels of the prairies.
The area around Mossleigh is the best place I know of in Alberta to find and photograph snowy owls between November and the end of March. It's also a great place to photograph mule deer, great horned owls in abandoned barns and buildings, and tundra swans in the Spring time. If you stop in Mossleigh there are two restaurants that are worth visiting: The Mossleigh Bar'n Grill and the Aspen Crossing restaurant that is part of an old train. We stopped in the Bar'n Grill and I had a club sandwich while Kamal enjoyed his favorite chicken wings. While I was there I met the owner Dennis Sarafinchan and asked him if he had seen any snowy owls and of course he had and pointed us west of town and that's just where we found them. While I was at the restaurant I asked Dennis if I could take a spherical panorama of his restaurant and he agreed. See below.
Mossleigh Grain elevators 360 spherical pan from the railway track. Latitude. 50.716811214°, Longitude. -113.335228977°. Mossleigh is a great place for a day trip from Calgary especially for nature photographers and birders. If you wish to stay longer there is a small motel conveniently located beside the Bar'n Grill restaurant and there is an RV camp up the road at the Aspen Crossing.
Abandoned home and buildings near Mossleigh where I occasionally see and photograph grouse and deer. There is a bee-hive on the property and the property is private land so beware, tread carefully and with respect. Click here to view panorama in full screen mode.
As suggested to us we headed west of Mossleigh on Alberta 547 and then took Range road 255 south. It was about 3 p.m. and we were whining about how we had not seen a snowy owl all day when one flew in front of the car and landed on a fence post just in front of my jeep. Perhaps mother nature heard our whinning? We carefully approached the owl in my jeep and photographed her from my car window and since she seemed ambivalent to our presence we got out and slowly approached on foot while taking pictures. After about 5 minutes she flew off and literally disappeared from our view. A few minutes later I spotted her on the roof of a nearby red barn.
Photograph of this female snowy owl from my car window.
We were able to slowly walk towards the owl to get a more tightly cropped image (300 mm f/2.8 lens on Nikon D300 camera hand held). Eventually she took flight, but not before we both took a couple of dozen photographs of this beautiful bird.
With binoculars I scoped the area and saw she flew off to sit on top of a nearby barn (left - tiny speck on the top of the roof). Can you see her? This photograph gives you an idea of how difficult it can be to spot these owls even when they are on fence post or building. (Photo taken with 20-35 mm Lens, f/11).
Kamal Varma lines up his telephoto lens in order to photograph a snowy owl sitting on the roof of a red barn, but even with a long telephoto lens it can be challenging to photograph these owls at a distance.
Snowy owl on red barn. 300 mm f/2.8 lens on Nikon D300 (equivalent focal length 450 mm or 4.5X magnification).
Snowy sitting on the roof, photograph taken with a 300 mm f/2.8 lens, 2X teleconverter and Nikon 300 mm camera for a equivalent focal length of 900 mm or 18X magnification. I used a Gitzo tripod and Really right stuff ballhead. The camera was set to ISO 200, lens at f/5.6 and 1/2000 of sec. exposure. The image is cropped in slightly.
To find these beautiful birds a pair of binoculars will come in handy. If the birds are standing in a field they are almost totally invisible as they are perfectly camouflaged and almost impossible to see unless they move - hence the term, Ghosts of the prairies. We drove northwest back towards Calgary and spotted two more snowy owls on telephone poles. After crossing highway 1 and driving through Okotoks I headed toward Black diamond and back through Bragg Creek. I have never seen a snowy owl west of highway 1 A which constitutes the foothills, but I have seen and photographed several great horned owls and great Gray owls around the Millarville area.
Male snowy owl in flight. Adult males are almost totally white while females have black barring on their feathers with a nearly all-white breast. They prefer open plains in winter and in Spring migrate north to the open tundra. They feed mainly on small mammals and other birds. A friend of mine (Dave Lilly) captured a photograph of a snowy owl last year picking up a muskrat.
Female snowy owl in flight as she left the telephone pole perch. Photograph by Kamal Varma, Canon 7D, 70-300 mm lens.
Female snowy owl in flight by Kamal Varma taken with a 70-300 mm Canon lens. Sometimes a smaller zoom telephoto lens makes it easier to capture the birds in flight.
"White on white" - snowy owl taking off from its perch on top of a telephone pole on an overcast day near Mossleigh, AB
Snowy owl taking off from a telephone pole on an overcast day near Mossleigh, AB
Although snowy owls are common south east of Calgary you can't expect to see one on every trip and shouldn't be disappointed if you don't. We drove almost 200 Km before we finally had success and spotted three of them. Your best bet is to check out the snowy owl sightings web site to see where they have been spotted recently and then take your chances. It doesn't hurt to stop in Mossleigh and ask the locals. Generally it's easier to photograph snowy owls on clear sunny days, but I often prefer winter days with white skies. We didn't see any groundhogs, but clearly if their were any they would have seen their shadow which means we can expect at least 6 more weeks of winter. RB
James Duncan (2003) Owls of the World. Key Porter Books. ISBN 1-55263-214-8
J.F. McDonald ed. (1993) A Birdfinding Guide to the Calgary Region by Calgary Field Naturalists' Society (One of the best books describing driving routes where you can find certain birds around Calgary). ISBN 0-921224-05-2.