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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

Wherein he Gets the Girl

Saturday at the lake with herons.

I barely could keep my eyes open as the photos downloaded, and then wasn’t awake enough to pay proper attention and look at them all, but one thing jumped out right from the start. The male. The male was missing the finger end of his wing…

Injured young great blue heron in territorial stance.

Injured young great blue heron in territorial stance.

The first outing of the year each May is mostly about getting back into the elements, feeling the water flow beneath the kayak, tuning muscles that had been idled winter-long, and exploring the lake to inventory the changes over the winter months. Any expectations for great blue heron sightings are low; if lucky, I get to see a solitary heron foraging along the shoreline, but at this time of year, half the population is generally sitting on eggs wherever they nest, which isn’t very near this lake (or at least isn’t visible from navigable waters).

This year, true to form, I was the first to put in at the boathouse, and had a leisurely solo paddle along the north shore, then delving into a tranquil remote cove, and back up again to the farthest reaches north. Lovely. No herons in sight, not even a high-altitude flyover, but such a sweet paddle. Winter was mild here that winter, there had been no big snows, so not much had changed along any parts of the shoreline, and there were no new recumbent pine trees that had crashed down since the previous autumn. It was so very good to be back on the lake, even if there were no herons about.

After finishing that circuit, I turned south, venturing deeper to pass under the tunnels and beyond into the only part of the lake where water skiing and fast powerboating are permitted. It’s a dangerous place for kayaks and other people-powered things, but the high season wouldn’t start til the following weekend and the lake was very quiet just then. It was worth taking the chance of the kayak getting swamped.

Not far beyond the last of the tunnels is a very small island with very tall trees. Cormorants roost there in numbers, and a mute swan pair nest beneath the pines. Great blue herons had a large nest there that had been used for generations. Four years ago, though, they abandoned the nest mid-summer due to human encroachment. It was a very sad sight, the abandoned nest. Then, three years ago, a fierce storm took down the top of the nesting tree. It didn’t look promising on the island for the herons for a few years. Two years ago, though, just before the high season started, I paddled down to the island area and was excited to see a young heron on a branch of what remained of the still-tall roosting tree. He was snug against the trunk, preening. Had he been born on that island? Was he waiting to attract a mate? Would they start a brood there? I wondered.

So, that Saturday, I went back there to see if he was again in that roosting tree. Binocs up. Focus. Focus again. Wait for the powerboat wake to subside and then focus yet once more. Several cormorant nests with birds in them, nests that weren’t there last year. Focus higher in the tree. A heron, ten feet above the cormorant nest. No, wait – two herons, very close together.

I watched transfixed as they preened, and then one peeled off, soared over my head, and landed in the pines across the channel from the island. A few minutes later, he reappeared – carrying a stick in his beak – and soared back up to his mate.

I have often said that I would never photograph nesting herons up close because I wouldn’t want to interfere with their breeding by getting too close, and a suitable telephoto lens would be too expensive and too heavy for use in a kayak. Plus, it wouldn’t be the same traveling to one of the rookeries that get overrun by photographers. So, I was content knowing I’d never photograph them, myself.

But here they were on my lake that Saturday, nesting – no travel involved, no expensive telephoto needed, no interfering with their mating attempts, no crowded rookery.

Goosebumps erupted at the realization that these weren’t just any herons, they were birds that I’d been watching for seven summers. Each year, if lucky, I’ve been able to see fledglings from that year’s crop, but have never seen the actual nesting. Until that Saturday.

I watched from a safe distance for about an hour as the male flew off and returned, back and forth, with sticks for the nest, and then as the female wove them into the nest. It was a very new nest, probably not more than a couple days worth of building so far. Mostly the female did the weaving, and sometimes the male helped before flying off to gather sticks and boughs.

What a thrilling scene, to watch these herons nesting on my lake. Curiosity was intense as I wondered exactly which two of the birds I know so well were they. I could guess through the binocs, but wouldn’t be be able to tell for certain until I downloaded the photos afterwards.

I was exhausted when I returned home after kayaking for more than four hours and could barely keep my eyes open as the photos downloaded. By then, I wasn’t awake enough to pay proper attention and look at all the shots, but one thing jumped out at me right from the start: the male.

The male was missing the finger end of his wing – it was the same two-year-old male who had suffered traumatic wing-end damage the previous summer, and who had tried valiantly that autumn to seduce the older female heron. I had been apprehensive about his odds for survival with that injury, and was elated that my fears had been unfounded. He had survived migration and the winter with his damaged wing, and he had found a mate and was building his first-ever nest.

Gorgeous in his now-adult plumage, he got the girl.

(This took place May 19, 2012.)

And in the end, then, I was mistaken about never photographing nesting herons, wasn’t I? Thanks for the nudge, WordPress.

© 2013 Babsje. (

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