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.
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. (https://babsjeheron.wordpress.com)
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 postaday, WPLongform. Bookmark the permalink. 44 Comments.