So, you want to go out and photograph snowy owls this year

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The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) is a large owl of the typical owl family Strigidae. Until recently, it was regarded as the sole member of a distinct genus, but data now shows that it is very closely related to the horned owls in the genus Bubo.

Like the related eagle-owls, the Snowy Owl has ear-tufts; they are small and usually tucked away, however.

This yellow-eyed, black-beaked white bird is easily recognizable. It is 52–71 centimetres (20–28 in) long, with a 125–150 centimetres (49–59 in) wingspan. Also, these birds can weigh anywhere from 1.6 to 3 kilograms (3.5 to 6.6 lb). It is one of the largest species of owl and, in North America, is on average the heaviest owl species. The adult male is virtually pure white, but females and young birds have some dark scalloping; the young are heavily barred, and dark spotting may even predominate. Its thick plumage, heavily feathered taloned feet, and colouration render the Snowy Owl well-adapted for life north of the Arctic Circle.

Snowy Owl calls are varied, but the alarm call is a barking, almost quacking krek-krek; the female also has a softer mewling pyee-pyee or prek-prek. The song is a deep repeated gahw. They may also clap their beak in response to threats or annoyances. While called clapping, it is believed this sound may actually be a clicking of the tongue, not the beak.

Young owl on the tundra at Barrow Alaska. Snowy Owls lose their black feathers with age, though particular females retain some.

The Snowy Owl is typically found in the northern circumpolar region, where it makes its summer home north of latitude 60 degrees north. However, it is a particularly nomadic bird, and because population fluctuations in its prey species can force it to relocate, it has been known to breed at more southerly latitudes.

This species of owl nests on the ground, building a scrape on top of a mound or boulder. A site with good visibility such as the top of mound with ready access to hunting areas, and a lack of snow is chosen. Gravel bars and abandoned eagle nests may be used. The female scrapes a small hollow before laying the eggs. Breeding occurs in May to June, and depending on the amount of prey available, clutch sizes range from 5 to 14 eggs, which are laid singly, approximately every other day over the course of several days. Hatching takes place approximately five weeks after laying, and the pure white young are cared for by both parents. Although the young hatch asynchronously, with the largest in the brood sometimes 10 to 15 times as heavy as the smallest, there is little sibling conflict and no evidence of siblicide. Both the male and the female defend the nest and their young from predators, sometimes by distraction displays. Males may mate with two females which may nest about a kilometre apart. Some individuals stay on the breeding grounds while others migrate.

Snowy Owls nest in the Arctic tundra of the northermost stretches of Alaska, Canada, and Eurasia. They winter south through Canada and northern Eurasia, with irruptions occurring further south in some years. Snowy Owls are attracted to open areas like coastal dunes and prairies that appear somewhat similar to tundra. They have been reported as far south as the American states of Texas, Georgia, the American Gulf states, southernmost Russia, and northern China.

In January 2009, a Snowy Owl appeared in Spring Hill, Tennessee, the first reported sighting in the state since 1987. More notable is the huge mass southern migration in the winter of 2011/2012, when thousands of Snowy Owls were spotted in various locations across the United States. Now, in the winter of 2013/14, an explosion year along the eastern part of North America. In Southern Ontario alone, more snowy owls have been spotted than the last two years combined.

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This powerful bird relies primarily on lemmings and other small rodents for food during the breeding season, but at times of low prey density, or during the ptarmigan nesting period, they may switch to favoring juvenile ptarmigan. They are opportunistic hunters and prey species may vary considerably, especially in winter. They feed on a wide variety of small mammals such as meadow voles and deer mice, but will take advantage of larger prey, frequently following traplines to find food. Some of the larger mammal prey includes hares, muskrats, marmots, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, prairie dogs, rats, moles, and smaller birds entrapped furbearers. Birds preyed upon include ptarmigan, other ducks, geese, shorebirds, pheasants, grouse, coots, grebes, gulls, songbirds, and even other raptors, including other owl species. Most of the owls' hunting is done in the "sit and wait" style; prey may be captured on the ground, in the air or fish may be snatched off the surface of bodies of water using their sharp talons. Each bird must capture roughly 7 to 12 mice per day to meet its food requirement and can eat more than 1,600 lemmings per year.

Snowy Owls, like many other birds, swallow their small prey whole. Strong stomach juices digest the flesh, while the indigestible bones, teeth, fur, and feathers are compacted into oval pellets that the bird regurgitates 18 to 24 hours after feeding. Regurgitation often takes place at regular perches, where dozens of pellets may be found. Biologists frequently examine these pellets to determine the quantity and types of prey the birds have eaten. When large prey are eaten in small pieces, pellets will not be produced.

Though Snowy Owls have few predators, the adults are very watchful and are equipped to defend against any kind of threat towards them or their offspring. During the nesting season, the owls regularly defend their nests against arctic foxes, corvids and swift-flying jaegers; as well as dogs, gray wolves and avian predators. Males defend the nest by standing guard nearby while the female incubates the eggs and broods the young. Both sexes attack approaching predators, dive-bombing them and engaging in distraction displays to draw the predator away from a nest. They also compete directly for lemmings and other prey with several predators, including Rough-legged Hawks, Golden Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Gyrfalcons, jaegers, Glaucous Gulls, Short-eared Owls, Great Horned Owls, Eurasian Eagle Owls, Common Ravens, wolves, arctic foxes, and ermine. They are normally dominant over other raptors although may (sometimes fatally) lose in conflicts to large raptors such as other Bubo owls, Golden Eagles and the smaller but much faster Peregrine Falcons. Some species nesting near Snowy Owl nests, such as the Snow Goose, seem to benefit from the incidental protection of snowy owls that drive competing predators out of the area.

Here are some quick tips to keep in the back of your mind when you are heading out to shoot some birds of prey in flight...

Direction of flight

Did you know that large birds of prey like to take off into the wind for more uplift? Because of this it is always best to stand downwind.

If you do this it means you’ll get the birds flying towards you for a better shot. You will also have a better view of their eyes and wingspan.

Focal length

A 300mm f2.8 telephoto lens on a camera with a 1.5x crop-factor sensor gives you an effective focal length (EFL) of 450mm. This is a great focal length for shooting wildlife as it blurs backgrounds. However, using a 500mm lens f4 or 600mm will get you that much closer to your subjects for more intimate results and increased details.

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I shoot with the Sigma 120-300 f2.8, a Sigma 150-500 f5-6.3 and a Nikon 400mm f4. I also have a 1.4x teleconverter that i use with the 120-300mm. With that teleconverter on the 120-300 f2.8 I now have a 168-420 f4.0, and that does not take into consideration with the crop factor.  Take that 420 and apply your own crop factor and that will give you the focal length that lens now offers…

Keep your distance

Always be aware of what’s behind your birds. Move around so the background is clean and uncluttered. Make sure you compose your shots so the background is as far away as possible – it’s better if it’s 50 or 60 feet away rather than 10 feet away. The further away the background, the more out of focus and less distracting it will be, especially shooting at f4 of 5.6. 

Speed it up

You’ll need to use a fast shutter speed to capture birds of prey as they move quickly, even quicker still when flying. With an aperture around f/4 or f/5.6 on a telephoto lens use a shutter speed of at least 1/500 sec – or, better still, 1/1000-1/2000 sec.

High speed shooting

When photographing wildlife and birds, it’s best to use high-speed continuous shooting mode to increase your chances of getting a good shot. Most DSLRs have a High-speed Continuous shooting mode, varying from 4 fps to 8fps…

Set your camera to shoot with back button focus. This makes it much easier to lock focus and acquire more shots that are in focus.

Aperture Settings

There are a couple trains of thought. Some like to use an aperture of f4 to f7, others prefer to shoot at apertures of f9 or f11. If you want a bird in flight entirely in focus, think of the focal plane that will be in focus. Take the snowy owl in the photo above. That bird has a wingspan that can get up to 6 feet. At certain angles the sing tips would be out of focus at f5.6. I photographed the owl at f11. Even at that aperture, at the distance of 60 feet, only the front wing, head,  body and top of the back wing are in focus. The back wing is a little blurry at the very back.

I would have suffered a background that was not diffused enough, but it worked in the snow, and the owl looks pretty good.

Do not forget the lighting

It is always best to shoot when the sun is closer to the horizon. I always try to get the sun behind me so that it is lighting the bird properly with natural light. This can be overcome using an external flash and a better beemer. It will give you a burst of light to fill in the shadows if the natural light will not do the trick.

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What to wear

Dress warmly and in layers. We always suggest a clothing list of the following when headed out for a day of shooting snowy owls.

Long underwear that has a cold weather rating

A layer of light fleece pants over your underwear

Snow pants that are rated for wind protection and snow protection

Winter boots that are above your ankle, and possibly half way up your calf

Undershirt with cold weather rating

Sweatshirt or wool sweater

Winter jacket with wind and snow protection

Two layers of gloves. The first a thin glove that is tightly fitting.

A mitten, not a fingered glove. The mitten keeps your fingers together and keeps your hand warmer

A winter hat. Most of your body heat is lost through your head. Wearing a winter hat is key to keeping warm.

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Kevin A Pepper

Kevin is a photographer and educator based in Waterloo, Ontario. His first love is photographing nature, regardless of the season or weather condition; the Ontario landscape and its wildlife are his inspiration. But you will also see other styles of photography in his portfolio. From street photography to urban exploration of abandoned buildings and architecture, he loves to capture it all with his camera for his corporate clients and his growing personal portfolio. Kevin’s images have been featured in Canadian Nature Photographer, PHOTONews Canada, Photo Technique Magazine, The London Free Press, The Weather Network, and National Geographic Online. His diverse client list includes the City of Cambridge, Olympus, GORE Mutual, TVO, and African Lion Safari. Kevin also operates “Northof49 Photography”, a company launched in 2012 dedicated to teaching amateur photographers through International and Canadian-based workshops. In the coming year, Kevin will be leading workshops in Iceland, Mongolia, Tanzania, Venezuela, Provence, and numerous destinations across Canada. Website: www.kevinpepperphotography.com