My First Snowy Owl, Oh Joy! (Subtitled Mindfulness and a Photographer)

An abrupt flash of feathers in my peripheral vision, and there it was: my first ever Snowy Owl!

Oh joy! Oh joy!

And there I was without a camera.

© Babsje (

Sorry, no Snowy Owl photo – will the late sun casting a golden glow on Walden Pond be ok instead?

Sometimes I have felt that surely I must be the only wildlife photographer in the northeastern US who has NOT been hot on the trail of snowy owls this year.

Snowy owls have descended into North America from the Arctic in such numbers it’s being characterized as the largest “irruption” in decades. It’s not just the birding community that’s become fascinated by the snowies – mainstream media like CNN, the NY Times, USA Today, and even the Wall Street Journal are covering the snowy owl stories, and earlier this year the Boston Globe reported on the 7,000 mile round-trip migration of a snowy fitted with a tracking device. That’s a pretty scientific story for a general circulation newspaper.

In the birding community, hot tips about sightings and precise locations spread like wildfire on social media and text messages. The blood lust for “getting there” in time to see the snowy has been almost palpable.

With all the enthusiasm abounding, what was my excuse for not jumping on the bandwagon? Pretty simple, actually: I’m not a big fan of getting my camera cold and wet out in the snows of a New England winter.

I’ve been content with reading snowy owl success stories from blogging friends – thrilled vicariously by their happiness, gazing in astonishment at their outstanding photo captures – in much the same way a woman might enjoy being an aunt instead of a mother. I’ve felt genuine happiness for Nick with this beautiful photo, and Naomi with her wonderful series, and the owl videos from Petrel41 at Dear Kitty, and the magnificent snowy owl trip posted by quietsolopursuits, and excitement at the notion of all of these amazing owls straight out of Harry Potter invading our communities, but I haven’t felt the urge to get out in the field, myself.

Given that I wasn’t ever on the hunt for a snowy owl, it’s almost an embarrassment to have seen one so effortlessly this afternoon. Even moreso as I saw it on the street where I live.

The bus had just exited the commuter train station parking lot, and was about to turn right. I glanced left through the window reflexively, as a driver would do before entering traffic, and an abrupt flash of white and grey feathers at the periphery caught my eye. The bird swooped up to the top of a tall pole along the sidewalk, and quickly shook out then rearranged it’s wing feathers and settled atop the pole. It was large, very clearly not a hawk, and looked exactly like the photos I’d seen of snowy owls. When it swiveled it’d head to face me, the identification was clinched. My first snowy owl – oh joy – and there I was without my Canon, and my mobile had only 2% battery remaining, inadequate to launch the on-board camera app.

Long-time followers of this blog may remember that my first post, back in May 2013, told the story of a great blue heron encounter when I had no camera.

Back in May, I wrote of spending hundreds of hours seeking to capture the perfect moment, until one day I realized I was missing the moment IN the moment by working so hard to preserve that moment for FUTURE viewing. Technology had gotten in the way of experiencing the moment in the now. This is part of what I posted back in May:

Sunday, as I was walking, something made me stop suddenly and drew my attention to the right, into the woods and trees. From where I was at that moment about fifteen feet of thin, tall trees and underbrush sloped gently downward to the shoreline, and there, not ten feet away, stood a great blue heron.

They are usually very shy and erupt into flight at the first sensing of an approaching human, but for some reason this heron remained stock still. We stood there, staring eye-to-eye for a long, long time, though it could not have been more than twenty seconds. His eyes, doe eyes almost, soft eyes, like those of a deer. His long break, the orange-yellow of Aztec gold. His cap feathers, pure white. It felt as though I was looking at a being of kindness and intelligence, and an equal.

The silence between us was absolute.

We stood there, eyes-locked, watching each other, absorbing in full stillness, and then he leaned forward and lifted skyward in absolute silence, not an audible rustle of feather in the unfurling of exquisite wings – just soundless, effortless flight.

Suddenly, I wished I had brought a camera, and then just as quickly, I dismissed that wish – had the camera been there, I would have missed that experience. Instead of sharing stillness with the heron, I would have been absorbed in things like aiming and focusing and f-stops and bracketing and all of the composition things we do; by then the heron would have flown away, alarmed by my fidgeting with the gadgetry, and I would have missed the moment.

What does this story have to do with these photos? It’s a lesson in our choice to be present in the moment, as I was with the heron that afternoon, instead of focusing on the technology of recreating that moment for the future. It’s a lesson in mindfulness. And the herons? They’re a study of Patience and Grace.

And what about today and the snowy owl? Had I a camera with me, any photos would not have been art – after all, I was on a moving bus and would have had to shoot through a window splattered with road salt and grime, and without benefit of a tripod.

Instead, I have the photo I took today with my mind’s eye of the snowy owl shaking and folding its wings so clearly I imagine hearing the rustle of feathers. That beautiful white head swiveling to face me, our eyes locking for a few moments. That face, what a face. A face indelibly seared in my mind.

What I posted back in May is still true for me. There are ways of seeing and there are ways of seeing. The way of the photographer need not be only the way of gadgetry and technology and calculations. The way of mindful seeing can open the lens as wide as one’s imagination.

I like the synchronicity that the first post of the 2013 and the last of the year are both about the same thing: mindfulness in the presence of magnificent birds, absorbing the moment in the moment, unfettered by technology.


Thanks to Michelle W and WordPress for the Weekly Photo Challenge: Joy prompt.

Thanks once again to Stewart Monckton for the Wild Bird Wednesday prompt.


Remember: Walk softly and carry a long lens.™

© 2013 Babsje. (

Great Blue Heron, Snowy Owl, Walden Pond

Posted on December 31, 2013, in Art, Bird photography, Mindfulness, Nature Photography, Photography, postaday, Snowy Owl, Weekly Photo Challenge, Wild Bird Wednesday, Wildlife Photography and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 51 Comments.

  1. Like this very much. I used to remind my husband when he’d moan about not having the camera along about preserving the memory in one’s mind’s eye….. but, oh yes!!! it’s pretty marvelous to catch it on camera, too! I’m envious, but glad for you at the same time for getting to see a Snowy!

    • Many thanks for sharing that perspective,I agree. It IS wonderful to capture on film,er CF Card, er SD Card, but having the first encounter purely in memory feels somehow right. The sighting was on my street, 2.1 mikes west of home, and maybe I’ll have a walk there another day and see if the owl is still around, maybe not. Happy New Year to all.

  2. great post could do with some snow here after the last couple of days here. It’s been hot.

    • Many thanks, glad you like the post. I’ve heard it’s very hot there, so will try to send more snowy and cool posts your way!

      • To right we need snow, 30.0c over night here in South Australia. My dogs were pacing the floor over night trying to catch their breath

        • Oh your poor doggies! What I do for my cat when it gets grotesquely hot is I place one of those freezer gel packs (that are used to keep picnic foods cold) in a towel in her sleeping area and she sleeps on that to help cool her off. If you try that, remember to wrap the gel pack I something like a towel so the dog doesn’t get frost burn. Take care and be cool as possible.

  3. Congrats! And the description – wow! I envy your talent for capturing the essence and nuances of an experience in words. Beautifully done.

    • Thanks for your kind compliment, Nick! I tried diligently to observe as much as quickly as possible, what with the moving bus and all. They were majestic birds, just like your own majestic photo shows.

  4. What a great post, Babs. Definitely will be one of my favorites of yours. Super story. I can definitely relate. I have had similar experiences in my years.

  5. Of course, I have yet to see my first Snowy Owl. 🙂

    • Thank you! It has now been about 12 hours since I accidentally saw the snowy owl, and if I’m not mistaken, I’m now showing incipient signs of having caught snowy owl fever. There’s an urge to take my annual New Year’s Day walk in the direction of that location. With a camera. Oh no!!

    • Thanks again! I hope it’s ok, but I just added a link to your own snowy owl trip, this one: . Your photos there are outstanding.

      • Thanks, it’s alright by me. Those were shot with my old camera, the new one would get even better photos. There are snowys being reported all over the area here, but I made two half hearted trips to the airport to see if I could spot one. After hearing about the way that some people went to extreme lengths to get photos during the irruption two years ago, at the price of driving a couple of the owls to starvation, I decided that I wouldn’t try this year.

        • Great, you’re welcome. I know what you mean about photographers stressing the birds, and felt sad when I read in your post about the one driven to starvation. I have noticed in your recent posts your fine sensitivity to the birds, especially not wanting to tax them in this cold weather. On the flip side, I got a hoot out of how you introduced yourself to Mike, and how Mike kept eluding the guy with the BIG lens. Whatever was he thinking with all that brown/foresty camo outfit!? Now with The Beast, you can be the guy with a big lens, only with more common sense than that guy.

  6. I’d love to see one but we don’t get snow down here! Hope you have a second sighting soon! Happy New Year Babsje!

  7. A truly beautiful post. I realized I too have probably lost magical moments in the flurry of trying to capture that ‘perfect’ shot….thanks for sharing. And congrats on the Snowy sighting!

    • Thanks for visiting and for your very kind comments about this post! I thinks it’s very easy to lose sight of the experience on the other side of our lens at times, something perhaps universal for photographers at one time or another.

  8. Well done!
    Happy New Year to you!

  9. Great post. Happy New Year.

  10. Congratulations and Happy New Year! What a great way to start the year. And although I haven’t seen or photographed a Snowy yet this year I know what a thrill it is to see one for the first time. And I have been feeling less like chasing after them after realizing how stressed out and hungry most of them are, leaving them susceptible to infectious disease or just weakening their defense altogether. So don’t feel bad at all about leaving the camera.

    • Thanks so much for your kind comment, Happy New Year to you, too. You’re right about the need to be careful and not stress the snowy owls, and other birds, as well! They are especially vulnerable in winter, with the cold and food scarcity and the last thing they need is a horde of photo-hungry humans crowding their space. It certainly was a thrill to accidentally see that snowy, though, and I’ve thought about walking back there to see if he’s still around. We’re on the leading edge of a blizzard so I won’t be going back. The lovely memory will last me a lifetime.

      • Aspergillosis is the disease I was trying to think of last night when I first wrote you. Apparently a high number of stressed out Snowies, Gyrfalcons and Goshawks succumb to this disease. If there are wildlife rehabilitators in your area and you run across a particularly approachable bird you might want to ask for their help. The mortality statistics are pretty frightening. In the meantime, be careful and good luck with the blizzard, we’re in the middle of something that resembles one ourselves and it’s no fun!

        • Hi Lisa – That’s great for anyone who sees a distressed snow, to contact a wildlife rehabilitator, thanks for the suggestion. IIRC, that same disease can also strike smaller birds that feed at birdfeeders that are not thoroughly cleaned, if the seed is infected or allowed to molder. Good luck with your winter storm there, take care and stay warm. Its just starting here, but a good work from home day, housecat on my lap thinks so too.

          • Ya know I felt bad after writing you back like that, it puts such a damper on such a wonderful experience, especially when you feel like you have a connection with a creature – but this discussion has been all over the local list serve lately and it just really affects me. Or maybe makes me feel less upset that I haven’t seen one yet this year (as they all appeared while I was at work). There was one rescued from a building downtown a few days ago. It’s hard not to hope one lands up here. It’s almost as if they brought the weather with them.

  11. Great story, and I’m glad you got the photo! I’ve been trying to capture a Snowy Owl photo (there have been 3 seen in Stratford, CT) but so far I haven’t seen any. I’m hoping they stay for the winter, so I have more chances.

    • Thanks so much. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a camera with me the day I saw the snowy owl, so maybe another time. Good luck to you in your own efforts to photograph one. Maybe the snowstorm bearing down will make the weather feel more like the arctic for the owls.

  12. Reblogged this on Babsje Heron and commented:

    And my second-ever snowy owl viewing? Yup, once again, there I was without my Canon. We won’t discuss the quality of the photos I got with my mobile (there definitely is a large white-faced blob on the high wires, really, trust me on that).

    For marvellous snowy owl news out of Boston, read this: “100th Snowy Owl caught at Logsn Airport freed into wild.” I love happy endings. Here’s the link:

    Best, Babsje

  13. I watch way more than I shoot, for sure. It’s being out there, experiencing the magic, as you say.

  14. Great post – thoughtfully written. Congrats on the Snowy. Such gorgeous birds.

  15. I’m happy for you to see the snowy owl but I understand the frustration of not getting the photo. After much searching I was finally able to find and get photos of a snowy owl this winter and I thot I too was the only photographer in our area who hadn’t gotten one. Funny how that works.

    • Hi Lyle, thanks for your thoughtful comment, and for your empathy (or maybe its sympathy) at my being without a camera. Your own photos are wonderful, and I love your post that shows the photos of that snowy bench with your camera, and with you sitting there waiting, huddled in the cold. That, and of course the fox in the snow. Outstanding.

  16. Dat zijn die pech momenten die je nooit vergeet. Ik zag vorig jaar een oehoe op paaltje naast de baan zitten toen ik naar de dokter reed en nergens een plekje om te stoppen met de wagen, dat is balen

    • Hi Marylou. Je hebt gelijk – momenten die we nooit vergeten. Je hebt geluk dat je de Oehoe hebt gezien, ook al heb je geen foto kunnen maken! Bedankt voor je lieve reactie. Best, Babsje

  17. I’ve never seen a Snowy. So even If I carry my equipment with me It won’t matter. I have been caught without my camera before but that’s just part of life.

  1. Pingback: Beautiful Great Blue Herons – And There I Was Without a Camera (Quirky Artist Stories Nbr 15) | Babsje Heron

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