Photographing Great Gray Owls in Winter

by Stuart McKay | February 20, 2015

Great gray owls © Stuart McKayI grew up in the outdoors and my dad encouraged me to listen to the birds, to see the trees and to feel the water. I also was brought up to respect all nature and that it’s improper to litter.

Today I run a commercial outfitter for fisherman 25 minutes north of Winnipeg, Canada.

My photography reflects my love for nature. We see so many wonderful things when we’re out there.

Great gray owl next to aspen tree © Stuart McKay

A Great Gray Owl poses next to an aspen tree, locally called a white poplar.

My first experience with a Great Gray Owl was when I was 16 years old and was near a little creek, about 20 minutes north of where I live, at the south end of Lake Winnipeg. I went walking down this creek, and without any warning, noticed this owl perched 12 feet off the ground on a hanging limb over the creek. It so impressed me because it was silent. There was no noise when it flew. That’s because owls have specialized feathers, which are serrated like a comb. That cuts down on the turbulence caused by wind. The feather’s edges muffle the sound as well. I learned that this magnificent owl was the official bird of the province of Manitoba.

Great gray owl takes off for flight © Stuart McKay

A Great Gray Owl takes off with silent flight.

About 15 years ago, I started increasing my photographic activity, and I made the plunge. I purchased a Canon product, Canon 7D. Now I have a 600m F4 lens—and that allows me to photograph Great Gray Owls without getting too close.

Great Gray Owls are quite prevalent in Manitoba—they’re not a migratory bird—I spend most of my time and effort photographing them during the winter. We have the luxury of so many amenities today—from vehicles to warm clothing.

Not everyone has a 600 mm lens, so people should consider that these owls can be stressed by approaching them too closely. It’s minus 30 degrees out there. You can see frost build up around their eyes. That tells you how brutally cold it is. The owls make their living by hunting meadow voles. For anybody to start tromping through the snow to get that shot, you’re disturbing the owls’ hunting patterns.

Consider using a 1.4 extender if you don’t have a large lens.

Great gray owl with catch © Stuart McKay

To photograph great gray owls, I sit in my car, window rolled down, lens poised, and just wait, keeping in mind one might very near be, since they can camouflage themselves so well against the bare branches.

They are absolutely stunning to watch. The head never sits still. It’s looking to the right, straight down, it’s constantly on the look and it’s picking up any vibration perhaps from the squeaking of the vole. When the bird starts to hear activity, the head focuses on that location. This can go on for quite some time.

Once in a while, you’ll see the bird move and tense up. You never know what’s going to happen next. They’re not always successful. Just because it leaves the perch locked onto the target, doesn’t mean it will get its meal. And that’s all the more reason to be very cautious out there. You can go home and stop at a restaurant to get a home-cooked meal. For great gray owls, they depend on getting their food outdoors in the cold harsh Canadian winter environment. Sometimes they do starve to death.

Great gray owl listening for its prey © Stuart McKay

A Great Gray Owl stares intently listening for the sound of its prey.

Photographing great grays can be serendipitous. Once I was watching a great gray sitting in a white poplar tree and I just happened to have had my tripod set up outside. Just as I looked through the camera with the finger on the shutter, the bird went into a vertical dive, with wings completely folded. It plunged into the snow, but it came up empty-handed.

Great gray owl plunging into snow © Stuart McKay

A Great Gray Owl plunging into the snow to seek a meal.

Great gray owl looking for meal © Stuart McKay

A Great Gray Owl plunging into the snow to seek a meal.

The owl is a stealthy hunter—you as a photographer who wants to capture the shot, have to be stealthy too. We need to do so with the utmost respect for the animal. That’s why I don’t go out to photograph great grays in the nesting season. It is wonderful to see the owlets, but I leave mom and dad alone. That’s the time when they become most vulnerable, when they’re feeding young.

Great gray owl emeges with a meal © Stuart McKay

A Great Gray Owl emerges from the snow with a meal.

If you’re patient and go out often, you will get those occasional incredible experiences. I remember one day driving along a highway in southeastern Manitoba where there are granite rock formations. I photographed 14 individual great grays that day. One was sitting on a beautiful pine tree. I don’t get to see them sitting with that type of backdrop often.

Great gray owl emerges from dive without a meal © Stuart McKay

A Great Gray Owl emerges from a plunge dive without a meal.

The bottom line is having patience and respect for the animal you are photographing. With time and dedication, you can get those great shots.

All great gray owls were photographed in Winnipeg, Canada, near Stuart’s home.

About the Author

Stuart McKay was born and raised in the Province of Manitoba, Canada, where he spent his youth participating in sports including hockey, baseball, football, swimming, golf, hunting, and fishing. He loved to venture off into the wild wilderness back country where he would spend hours exploring, taking in all the sights and sounds nature provided. Because of his passion for nature, teaching himself nature photography was easy, he said. His goal in life is to share his knowledge and experience with others so they may also enjoy nature. His works have been posted on National Geographic’s Your Shot among other online venues.

7 thoughts on “Photographing Great Gray Owls in Winter

  1. Hello, I really love your pictures and this article. I am currently studying Ornithology and have the opportunity to write about by favorite bird species; the owl. Is it possible for me to include your work in my assignment?

  2. It is much more difficult to find and photograph the great grey owls in southern Quebec, where I live. Very few owls visit our place each year. It is easier to find the snowy owls.
    Anyway, congratulation for your article,. Great infos and great photos.

  3. Thanks for the great article. It brings back great memories of visiting the late Bob Taylor in Winnipeg and spending a fantastic winter day photographing Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls.

    • I only met Bob Taylor one time and that was at Point Pelee where he was scheduled to give a talk. He seemed like a really nice fella with an easy-going personality. I knew about him mostly through his work with great gray owls. He’s got this great book called “On Silent Wings” about the species and it is one of the best I’ve read on the subject.

  4. Thank you for those kind and generous words Robert, very much appreciated.

    Nature has provided me with so many wonderful experiences over the years, far to many to remember.

    Through my photographic efforts, I attempt to capture the raw beauty the natural world offers us. Photography affords me the privilege to share my efforts with others who “may” not have the same opportunities as I. I guess it my small way or contribution of giving something back. Something that others may find a little enjoyment in.

    Thanks again Robert!


    Stu Mckay

  5. One thing you seldom see nowadays with great gray owls (photographically or in person) locally is the head-first plunge. That’s all I would see back in 2004 during the large irruption of these owls up here. Feeding owls is commonplace nowadays and most owls hunting shots are swoops instead of plunges. I just remember missing that aspect of a great gray owl in the wild.

  6. I posted a comment to you but was not logged in. When I logged in, my comment disappeared. Hope you do not get two comments from me.

    Wanted to compliment you on this fascinating documentation. I am a wildlife biologist living in Maine and I may never see the Great Gray. Your description of your experiences made me feel as though I was there. Good work Stuart!

    I respect your respect for the owls.

    Robert King

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