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The Magic of Owls


Short Eared Owl. Skagit County, Washington.


“Of course, owls have been associated with magic for a long time, and feature in many old illustrations of witches and wizards, second only to cats as Most Magical Creature.”

J.K. Rowling

Hard to believe that my family has now lived here in the Pacific Northwest for more than twenty years. When we first arrived, our vision of the region centered on forests and trees. Not the town of Bellingham, or Whatcom County, and not the shore and the close-by Salish Sea. We brought our ideas with us from the East Coast, and those centered on western old-growth forests, raging rivers fed by ice and snow, and towering mountains (the birthplace and headwaters for many of those rivers).

Short Eared Owl at Rest. Skagit County.

My daughter, who was eleven when we moved, thought more about earthquakes, erupting volcanoes and how we had ruined her life. Luckily, like her mom and dad, her heart was quickly won over by the beauty of this region, the ability to snowboard in waist deep snow, and to climb in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.


Dreams and images of forests definitely included those magical creatures like deer, coyotes, and owls (at least for us with east-coast, urban backgrounds). And we are blessed to have all of these in our woods. We listen to the hoot of barred owls and coyote howls almost every night. There are other things in our woods as well! Bears and cougars (maybe Sasquatch?), but we have never seen those. And while I might be thrilled to see any or all, my wife, dog, and neighbors probably do not share that anticipation.

On The Hunt! Skagit County.

“Have you ever Stared into the owl's eyes? They blink slow, then burn: Burn gold in the dark inner core of the snow-shrouded cedar.”

Robert Penn Warren


Owls are associated with a sense of mysticism, magic, knowledge, enlightenment, and even death. Their silence in flight has led many cultures to believe that they are spirit guides who come to remind us of our past lives and help us understand our future. Revered for their knowledge and intelligence, a keen sense of hearing, and an ability to see in the dark.

Protecting her Nest! Skagit County.

A few years after we arrived, we were treated to a rare appearance of snowy owls here in Washington State and just across the border in British Columbia. This was an irruption, or a sudden change in population densities usually triggered in northern wintering birds, including snowy and short eared owls, due to low food availability in the boreal arctic. Unfortunately, the specific conditions that brought them here have not happened since, and at that point my photography skills were not up to the task of getting good images. Snowy Owls remain very high on my “to-be-photographed” list.

Flight! Skagit County.

For more images of owls, including snowy owl photos that I couldn’t capture, see my friend Paul Brannick’s website. In addition to being an amazing photographer, he is a writer and an owl expert. His two most recent works are Snowy Owl: A visual Natural History and Great Grey Owl: A visual Natural History. Unlike me, Paul isn’t waiting for the snowy owls to return to nearby coastal areas, but actively pursues them with his camera up north.

Hidden In Plain Sight! Skagit County.

So, owls (more than 200 species worldwide) are something I want to photograph.


I know that short-eared owls (Asio Flammeus) are often seen along the Salish coastal areas, but while I spend a lot of time there, I have never seen one close enough to get its picture. So, a few weeks ago I drove out to find them. * It was well below zero, low light, but I hoisted my camera over my shoulder and hiked out across the grasslands. Two hours later, I had seen nothing with feathers!


Ok, not every day brings great photography, and I was fine with that. I got back into my truck and headed home. About a mile down the road, I saw an owl out the passenger side window, then another. I looked left and found another two owls on that side. From their erratic, low-to-earth flight path it could only be short-eared owls whose flight is often described as moth-like, and the rare owl species that nests on the ground and not in a forested habitat. There they were, with me, and with my camera. What a way to ring out 2022!

In Flight 2! Skagit County, WA.

Short eared owls are also diurnal, meaning they hunt mostly voles and other small rodents during the day (Snowy Owls are diurnal as well), which makes taking photos a bit easier. Short-eared owls live on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. These owls have elaborate courtship flights, and while I am not sure that was what was going on, I did enjoy their erratic and high-speed engagements in the air. No photos of that but it was great to watch!

Baby Barred Owl. British Columbia, 2022.

Short eared owls are fierce competitors with the Northern harrier, and are frequently seen hunting in the same areas. Harriers are also on my “to-be-photographed” list. I see them every time I am out but have never gotten a good photo.


I hope you enjoy my photos.

Confluence! Magical merging of the North and Middle Fork Nooksack River. Whatcom County, WA.

Muted Magic ! Nooksack River, Whatcom County, WA.

Endnotes:

· *It is interesting how you need to dedicate yourself to finding a specific species. While you may see diverse wildlife on trips, it helps to focus on what you most want to see. Especially if you want to find something that has eluded you for years. A year ago, I took a trip to find porcupines, something that I had only seen once or twice. We found them in southern Oregon. Then it was kingfishers, a constant companion on river trips over the years – but no photos. Finally found that along the coast in Blaine, Washington. Then it was foxes, a special trip with that as the agenda found me spending days watching kits and fox families frolicking and scampering about. A few weeks ago, owls. It helps to tune everything out, and concentrate on species’ specific location and habitat, flight, and movement, and looking for just that one thing!

· This past weekend, I helped to teach a bald eagle photography course on the Nooksack River. Again, location and habitat, flight, movement, and dealing with snow and ice and very cold conditions. Many taking the course had phone cameras, not ideal for wildlife or birds in flight, so we talked about continuing undaunted and relying on luck, a too-often necessity for any photography. And of course, on the ethics of all photography. Putting wildlife first before any photo, and not endangering (or annoying) any species, yourself, or others.


"At home, I love reaching out into that absolute silence, when you can hear the owl or the wind." Amanda Harlech





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