Trip Report – Snowy Owl Photography Tour – July 2014

In Trip Report by Matt Shetzer

In the winter of 2013 while running my annual Bald Eagle Photography Workshop, I had the privilege of having a client, Dante, fly out from South Africa to participate in the workshop. After completion of the bald eagle workshop, Dante returned to South Africa. However, I guess something about the trip struck a chord with Dante, because a few months later, he contacted me saying that he wanted to participate in my next workshop, the summer session in which I lead a group to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Alaska to photograph the grizzly bears. Since the client was once again making the (loooooooong) trip from South Africa, he asked me if I could take him on an additional trip to photograph snowy owls. After some discussion, we came up with a custom itinerary and Dante, his wife Karyn, their friend Nauecho, and I set out for the North shore of Alaska to capture the birds in their natural environment during the month of July, 2014.

No baiting or captive birds used here! This is wildlife photography at its best!

Snowy Owl Picture

Snowy Owl in-flight over the arctic tundra

Wednesday, July 9, 2014
We boarded our flight from Anchorage to Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the entire United States! Despite having a population of less than 5,000, three 747s fly into Barrow every day. No roads lead into the town, meaning all cargo and food supplies need to be flown in. The four of us arrived in Barrow and after landing, we quickly got settled with a car and checked into the hotel, then met up with one of the leading snowy owl researchers in the world. We then toured the area to gain the local knowledge and understand where the snowy owls were this summer.

Our guide was more than happy to share some recent studies and information about the majestic birds with us. After the tour around the arctic tundra, we headed out for a walk across the tundra to a blind that had been set up for us. The blind, about 1/2 mile from the road across the soft and often wet tundra, was set up 100ft (30m) from a nesting pair of snowy owls with two chicks. We were close enough to snag great photos of the nesting birds using zoom lenses, but far enough away not to disturb their normal behavior. While the female owl incubates the nest, the male owl is in charge of hunting and gathering food for the family, primarily delivering brown lemmings to the female and chicks.

The newborn owl chicks, only about 20 days old, had recently began leaving the nest on foot, and the adult snowy owls were keeping track of them and diverting any unwanted guests. The snowy owl has a unique defense mechanism: the flying animal is colored is an iridescent (shiny) white; when an intruder approaches, the adult owls will fly away from their nest. The owls’ unique coloring draws attention away from the nest, which allows the young grey chicks to blend in to the landscape of the barren tundra. Once it is safe, the adult owls will return and tend to their young.

After hours of photographing these amazing birds, we watched a Pomarine Jaegers attack the male snowy owl. In a flurry of feathers, the snowy owl repelled the attacker. As our time out in the field was coming to a close, we were lucky enough to photograph the male snowy owl bringing a fresh brown lemming to feed the female. I guess chivalry is not dead.

Snowy Owl Picture

Nauecho, Matt and Karyn enjoying a tourist moment in front of the biggest snowy owl I’ve ever seen.

We then got back to our hotel- a brand new beautiful lodge- and enjoyed a relaxing dinner and chat. Exhausted from our day of traveling and ready for a full day tomorrow, we all went to bed early.

Due to Barrow’s location inside of the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets during the summer. Without sunlight as a guide, one can really lose track of time. Before you know it, it is 11pm! (On the plus side, there is plenty of time to chase down perfect pictures!)

Thursday, July 10
We left the hotel early this morning to get the most of out the day and capture some beautiful images of snowy owls. As we were driving, we spotted many snowy owls spread out across the tundra. Once the owls were sighted we would capture images of the their glowing white feathers against the arctic tundra as their yellow eyes would gaze at us. The sky was cloudy today, so we opted to capture our in-flight images on another day and focus on the the various ways in which the animals interacted with the ground of their natural habitat, the arctic tundra.

As the day went on, we headed back into Barrow for a little rest. As a break from the nature photography, we spent some time shooting in town, photographing the culture of this self-contained, isolated town. We photographed whale bones on the beach, including an enormous whale jaw bone, the (dwindling) icebergs floating in the Arctic ocean and the Elson lagoon, and headed towards Point Barrow, which is the Northernmost point in the entire the United States of America. Canada holds the northernmost point in all of North America, but Point Barrow comes pretty close; I’m not sure you would want to go further North, really.

Snowy Owl Picture

Female snowy owl in-flight. Notice the dark coloring of the female, which the males do not have.

We took a little break from the photography and enjoyed the cuisine of a tasty Asian/Sushi restaurant and the company of a local owl expert, who told us more about the area and gave us more information about the snowy owls.

As we headed back out to the snowy owl grounds that evening we were fortunate to photograph the Pomarine Jaegers and Steller’s Eiders. All of a sudden, we noticed the time. It was midnight, but the sun was still up! After a collective exclamation of disbelief, we headed back to our hotel for some sleep.

Friday, July 11
As we awoke to a beautiful clear blue day, we headed back to the snowy owl grounds to photograph these beautiful creatures in-flight. We were very fortunate to photograph a male snowy owl who would fly directly towards us as it was hunting lemmings. It would fly directly at us, and dive for the lemming with the beautiful blue sky in the background. It was almost as if the animal was posing for the camera. Whatever its motivation, we got some picture-frame shots.

Snowy Owl Picture

Nauecho ready to capture an image of a snowy owl.

We then headed back to town for a little lunch break and to photograph the old derelict wooden boats on the beach. The texture of these boats in the mist made for very moody images. After lunch we headed back on out to the field and photographed the owls in flight a bit more. You can never have too many images of the beautiful snowy owls in flight.

Saturday, July 12
Another beautiful day, and the day on which our group captured our best images. We couldn’t have asked for a better end to the trip. We were able to photograph a beautiful female snowy owl in-flight. They are beautiful to watch as they gracefully fly from perch to perch. Male snowy owls have all white feathers, but the females have some dark brown coloring in their feathers , which adds a nice texture to the photos of the animals soaring through the air. You may have seen this coloring on Hedwig, the snowy owl in the Harry Potter movies.

Snowy Owl Picture

Karyn and Dante walking back from photographing a very patient snowy owl.

As the day came to a close, we rushed back to the hotel where we packed up our gear and headed to the airport to catch our flight back to Anchorage. It wasn’t a sad ending though, because we were on our way to another great photography adventure: spending a week photographing Grizzly Bears in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve!!!

You have to love Alaska. It is a photographers dream.

Bird Species Photographed and viewed at Barrow, Alaska. Click for more information about the species of bird, including pictures.

Snowy Owl Picture

A male snowy owl on the right, delivers a brown lemming to the female snowy owl. Chivalry is not dead !

Snowy Owl Picture

Female snowy owl in flight with talons exposed

Trip Report – Snowy Owl Photography Tour – July 2014 was last modified: January 24th, 2016 by Matt Shetzer