I regretted not listening to my buddy Conrad Tan who had been here before.
“The snowy owls are on the beach. It’s cold. It’s a long walk. Bring more water,” He said.
Living in Los Angeles, I imagined any beach would be like Santa Monica Beach, where I would park my car next to the ferris wheel and Merry-go-round, walk down the stairs next to Bubba Gump Shrimp Company to the beach. And the snowy owls would be there waiting for me.
Ocean Shores, WA, certainly didn’t look like Santa Monica Beach…
The snowy owls stayed at the very tip, which was a 50-minute walk for me from the parking lot. Since it was a thin piece of land extending out into the ocean, it was windy and cold. The highest wind speed recorded there was 150 mile per hour in the 1960s.
I did listen to Conrad a little bit. I brought one small bottle of Aquafina 500mL water, which I finished within the first half an hour in the morning. I never expected that it would be so difficult to walk long distance with the camera gear on my shoulder. It was like walking while hand-carrying a 50-inch LCD TV. It was okay in the first few minutes, but the weight got to me quickly and it became a daunting task. To me, walking 100 feet with the 50 pound camera gear felt like walking miles without any gear.
Now, it’s way past sunset. I didn’t have a flashlight. Everybody else had long gone.
The sweat dripping off my forehead was burning my eyes, as I was marching on this beach in Pacific Northwest with my 50 pound photo equipment on my shoulder.
Yet my sweat was instantly dried by the cold 40-mile-per-hour gust from the Pacific Ocean blowing from my left. The roaring sound of the breaking waves was like thunder. I could hear nothing else. Heck, I could hardly see anything. It’s so dark.
I couldn’t see the parking lot clearly from where I was. From the weak ambient light, all I could see was sand and a few scattered distant light. I was disoriented.
I wanted to wipe my eyes. But I couldn’t lift my hand up. Indeed, the backpack strap on my left shoulder had slipped for a long time. But I didn’t have strength to fix it. What happened? My whole body wasn’t listening to me. I couldn’t take another step forward anymore. The fact that I just finished an exhausting 9-day Yellowstone trip two days ago wasn’t helping either.
My heart was beating in a rate it felt like jumping out. My lips and throat had never felt so dry. I hadn’t drank a drop of water for 12 hours.
I had walked for 40 minutes and it felt like hours with the heavy gear on my shoulder, yet I didn’t seem to be able to walk out from this place. Was this Blair Witch Project? How did I end up here? Why did I even come here? For what?
It’s because of the owls.
Owls are super cool. Any beginning wildlife photographers would eventually be drawn to owls.
Because owls are…
Mysterious: A lot of people have never seen a wild owl in their life.
Elusive: A lot of them are only active at night. Their flight is completely silent. I love elusive wildlife.
Powerful: They all have strong fluffy feet like mitten and sharp talons. Their hearing is amazing. All birds fear them. A photographer once was attacked and lost his eye while trying to photograph a Tawny owl:
Owls look just like us: Their face resembles human, with a relatively flat face and forward facing eyes, eye lids, long eye lashes, and bill that look like human nose. They would yawn like human too.
And among all owls, snowy owl looks the most majestic with their white feathers and huge size.
One might have to travel to the high arctic and search for days to see one. Even then, you still have to ask for a permit from the Owl Institute to build a hide to photograph the nesting snowy owls in Barrow, Alaska.
And who would forget Hedwig from Harry Potter.
If you have watched “Legend of The Guardian: The Owls of Ga’Hoole”, the king and queen of Ga’Hoole are both snowy owls.
So, are there any easier ways to see them in the wild?
A word that would make bird photographers around the world pumped up and hopped onto the next flight to come.
It turned out that once every six to eight years, lemmings, the main food source for the owls living in the high arctic, will be insufficient. The owls would have to migrate south to look for food.
In 2004, hundreds of Great Grey Owls irrupted into Minnesota. They hunted in day time and could be seen easily pouncing for voles and lemmings in the snow. I missed that opportunity. I wasn’t going to miss another one. This time, one of the hot spots was in Ocean Shores, WA, and the irruption species was snowy owls. I certainly didn’t want to wait another 8 years.
How many 8 years we have in our lives?
My hands were shaking due to excitement the first morning when I saw my first snowy owl.
Anyways, I took a deep breath, gathered all my energy, and ignored all my body pain. I kept walking and walking for god knew how long.
Things started to get familiar. The rocks, the curb, the buildings…
I finally got back to my car and put all the stuff in the back trunk. But there’s still no water.
I had my mouth open, gasping for air. My head was slightly tilted to one side yet I didn’t have strength to turn my head back. I was driving in such an awkward position.
My eyes kept glancing left and right. After 10 minutes, I saw a gas station.
I used all my remaining energy to walk in the gas station store. I took one big bottle of water and one big bottle of ice cold Gatorade to the cashier and paid for it.
There, I picked up both big bottles like a cowboy with double pistols. I had my left hand holding the water bottle, my right hand holding the Gatorade. I gulped them down furiously, a big gulp to the left bottle and then a big gulp to the right bottle repeatedly. I had a brain freeze. A happy brain freeze. The guy at the cashier looked at me in awe.
Never felt so good. It’s good to be alive.
—- Drift Wood —-
There were about 20 snowy owls at the tip of the beach. They were quite well scattered. After photographing one snowy owl, I had to walk for at least a few hundred feet to reach another snowy. There were piles and piles of drift wood on the beach. Some piles covered an area of 100 feet by 100 feet.
On one occasion, I saw a snowy owl perched at the edge of the beach about 400 feet from me. I was so happy to see Mount Olympics behind the owl. It would make an interesting photo. So I walked quickly towards the owl.
Then I saw a big pile of drift wood in between us. It would be a lot of extra walking if I didn’t walk right through it.
As I was walking through the pile of drift wood, I paid a lot of attention to the owl to make sure I didn’t disturb him/her.
What I didn’t pay attention was the drift wood I was stepping on. As I was climbing up onto a big piece of drift wood lying on top of the other drift wood, I suddenly felt a lightness in my left foot. Because of my weight, I cracked open a big hole in the drift wood. I began to free fall into the hole. I didn’t know that a lot of drift wood was half decomposed and they were very fragile though they looked just like any other piece of wood. And I never knew that the pile of drift wood could be so deep underneath. I fell almost 4 feet straight down. As I was falling down, what came to mind was the Indiana Jones movie, where I fell onto a “deadfall” pit trap with a lot of sharp tree branches sticking upwards. Usually the bad guys died that way.
I used both hands to protect my equipment and finally landed onto some hard wood on the bottom. I landed with both of my knees. The sound of the impact was loud. Tears almost came out. I saved my camera equipments. I stayed in that position for 30 seconds before I could move again. When I looked up. This was what I saw.
And it was published in a newspaper. Click here.
—-”The Mysterious Lady”—-
The second day I learned from my mistake and brought 6 big bottles of smart water and a bottle of Gatorade with me. Indeed I never went to any hiking trails without multiple bottles of water since then. The feeling of dehydration was not for the faint of heart.
After trekking for 50 minutes with the 40 pound gear on my shoulder and the extra water bottles, in freezing cold and gusty wind, I felt like crap.
I had to walk through three different habitats:
Sand: With the weight of the extra camera gear, I sank into the sand with each and every step.
Tall grass: In order not to get tangled up with the tall grass, I had to raise my leg really high in each step. Otherwise I would trip and fall down with all my equipments. Damage could be unimaginable.
Drift wood: As mentioned… all I could say was that drift wood had to be respected.
On the third morning, after I got to the spot with two snowy owls on a driftwood, I bend my back to put the tripod down, right beside some other photographers. I was completely exhausted. I was breathing heavily, with sweat dripping. I was saying to myself, “oh man, this sucks. I am so freaking tired.”
While I was whining and whining, I looked to my left. There stood a beautiful lady. She was smiling cheerfully looking at the owls. On her right shoulder, there was a big Gitzo tripod with a huge camera and a heavy 500mm F4 super-tele lens. Her left hand was holding a big camera with a 300mm 2.8 super tele lens. This set of equipment weighted much more than mine.
Yet she was smiling!
I immediately shut up on my cursing, realizing how such a crybaby I was. I looked down on myself.
Though we never talked to each other, I would never forget her bright smile. I admired her dedication so much! I had learned from her and never again would I complain about the weight of the equipment.
Five months later, my parents and I went to Alaska. (The trip where I saw the dall sheep and rainbow at Denali National Park) After Denali, we decided to drive from Anchorage to Seward to see the Glacier before we flew the small plane to Lake Clark National Park to see the bears. (The trip where I saw the insane Bear vs Beaver scene in Lake Clark). Just a few miles outside Anchorage, we saw a lot of birds flying around in the Potter’s Marsh. I quickly made a U-turn and parked the car to see what’s going on.
There, I was so excited to see the Arctic Tern nesting. It was like a carnival, with arctic terns feeding their young right in front of us. I was told that it only lasted a few days in a whole year. I told my folks that the trip to Seward would be postponed indefinitely, because Potter’s Marsh would be our destination of the day.
My dad and I happily photographed there for an hour while my mom urged us infinite times to get going.
It was very windy that day. Photographing the terns would be ideal because they almost got frozen in the air when they flew towards the wind. My dad even got a in-flight picture of a arctic tern catching a dragonfly!
After an hour, a photographer came to me and asked if I was the driver of a blue rental car. I said yes. Turned out the photographer’s tripod fell down due to the wind and bumped on my car. The photographer was kind enough to call the rental company and got everything fixed. I gave the photographer my photography card and said if there was any question just contact me. My card had a snowy owl on the front.
The photographer looked at my card and said, “Was this taken in Ocean Shores?”
I said “What? How do you know?”
The photographer said “Because I was there.”
I started to look at the photographer’s face, who was standing in front of me.
I looked at her face again and again like a psycho, trying to search thru my memory.
I said “Oh my god, you were the smiling photographer who were carrying the 500mm and 300mm standing next to me in Ocean Shores.”
She smiled “Yes, that was me.”
I asked “How could you carry so many stuff and was still smiling that day?” That was my question that I didn’t ask 5 months ago.
She said, “I had bruises on both of my shoulders afterwards. But who cares, it was the snowy owls!!!”
So yes, we “bumped” into each other twice. The second time, literally.
And we are still good friends.
What are the chances? If I didn’t stop by the Potter’s March in Anchorage that day, if we left just a bit early, if the wind didn’t blew, or if her tripod didn’t bump into my car, I would never show her my card with the snowy owl on it, and I would have never re-united with her.
——- Lost and Found ——-
The second morning, I found a great spot where a snowy owl was perching on a drift wood with the roaring sea as the background. It was quite unique in that I had not seen a photo with a snowy owl in front of a roaring ocean.
Suddenly, a girl in her 20s walked up to me, and asked if I dropped something. She showed me a CF card holder.
I checked and made sure my CF card holder was still in my jacket pocket. So I said no to her. She walked away.
Then something came to mind. I read through a lot of forums about the snowy owl irruption before the trip. I remembered a famous bird photographer mentioned in naturescapes and Birdphotographers.net, and Fred Miranda forums that he lost his card holder weeks ago here. I didn’t know that photographer personally, but I remembered his name, his name was Arash, because I had seen his amazing birds in flight photographs that inspired me for a long long time. Here is a link to his amazing photos. I ran to that girl and asked if I could take a look at the card holder. I opened the holder. Lo and behold, the photographer’s name and email were written on it. Guessing that Conrad may know the photographer, I called Conrad. We quickly linked up with Arash. I mailed the CF card holder with the 7-8 cards in there to him. He was very kind and sent me a gift even though I told him there was no need. We have been good friends since then.
In a place with rain, snow, gust, sand, tall grass, and drift wood, somehow the CF cards survived through all this, was found by the girl and got back to the owner, and the photos were all intact. Was this fate?
—- Gone in 1/60 seconds —-
When I reviewed the pics taken from the last two days in my motel room at night while munching down some General-Tso’s chicken with rice I bought from a nearby Chinese Fast Food store, I found out that the snowy owls closed their eyes most of the time during the day. And even when they had their eyes open, the pupils shrinks to block out the sun. They definitely looked “cuter” when their pupils were dilated, both in early morning or after sunset, in order to let more light in.
So I set out to get there really early the third day, also my last day at Ocean Shores, to get a different kind of “big eye snowy owl” shot.
I also planned to get the beautiful morning sky background to add to the mysterious mood of a snowy owl.
I knew I only had a small window of a minute or two right before sunrise to achieve this. Too early, the light would be too low. Too late, the sun would come out and the pupils of snowy owl would shrink.
That morning, I trekked in the dark to get to the spot where snowy owls frequented, then I lay flat on my belly on the beach, and crawled around to look for them. And of course I accidentally scratched my Canon 70-200 2.8 II lens on my waist. That poor baby.
The reason that I crawled was because its easier to approach a bird, and that I needed to stay low so the background would be the beautiful sky, not the distant brown long weed.
The owls were especially active in the morning and they tended to fly around from one drift wood to another.
After several attempts, the place started to light up more and more. I knew that time was running out. I finally located a snowy owl perched on a nice looking driftwood.
I was inspired by Charles Glazer, my tour leader from the previous Yellowstone trip, whom got two frost bites in his fingers while trying to take a photo of a bison in frost in -50F. He said he used a shutter speed of 1/30 with a 600mm lens and a 2x converter during a snow storm.
So I learned that a slow shutter speed was actually possible if handled properly. I decided to use 1/60s shutter speed to get my shot this time.
The snowy owl never stayed still. They kept looking left and right, front and back continuously for potential enemies. So 1/60s was very risky to get a sharp shot. To get a sharp picture with a 500mm lens, it typically required at least 1/500 second shutter speed. Now I was attempting a shutter speed of almost 10 times slower. It would be very difficult to get a sharp photo especially because the snowy owl was restless and kept moving. But that’s the only shutter speed to obtain proper exposure.
I knew that I only had one chance, now that I felt the sun would pop up from horizon at anytime. I observed the special pattern that he would look to his left, stay there for 2 seconds, then quickly turn to his right and stay for 2 seconds, then look to the front, stay for 2 seconds towards my direction before he turned to his back.
I waited and waited. There weren’t that many 2 seconds before the sun came out.
Left…. Right…. Front…
I had to pray when I rolled my finger onto the shutter for a shutter speed of 1/60 second.
I reviewed the photo in the camera LCD, and saw a snowy owl in purple-ish sky background. The pupils of the snowy owl were huge.
Within a few seconds, the sun popped up from the horizon and it’s bright and golden everywhere…
So I scratched my lens, had severe dehydration, got bad bruises in my knees, and was completely exhausted.
——— But as the mysterious lady said, “Who cares. It’s THE SNOWY OWL!!!”