Bob MacDonnell Photography | THE HOLY GRAIL


June 28, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Having worked most of my adult life as a photographer, I tend to treat wildlife photography like a job (even though the pay stinks) . Of course, if it was a job it would be one that I really enjoy, but what I mean is that I set goals and try to assign myself projects to work on. Yes, nature is unpredictable and I try to look out for any opportunities that may just pop up, but I also pick specific targets that I try to work on.

This self-assignment approach started when I rekindled my wildlife photography after a six-year hiatus. I was looking through my old slides and saw that I didn't have any good screech owl photos. I was disappointed to have nothing on such a common owl, so I made it my mission to find them. I started looking in suitable habitat, listening for them at night and checking just about every tree hole I walked or drove past. At first I was frustrated and had a fatalistic attitude that I wouldn't ever find something that I was looking so hard for. The breakthrough came after a few months. I was on my way home from work and drove past a tree with a couple holes in it that I'd passed a hundred times before. It was almost dark, but this time I noticed that one of the holes wasn't empty. I backed up and took a few shots out my car window in the marginal light. A few days later, I returned in slightly better light and got a few more shots from my car, since it was a on a busy road with no place to park nearby (I realize that I may not have been the safest driver during this period). The owl did not stay in that spot very long, but a short while later I found another "screech" in a tree on the side of the park road. This one was much better for photography. Over the next several months, I found two more. The flood gates had opened and I soon had hundreds of screech owl photos.

E SCREECH OWL 08-02-1521232E SCREECH OWL 08-02-1521232OLD LYME, CT Eastern Screech Owl (Otus asio) red phase. E SCREECH OWL 08-02-1621312E SCREECH OWL 08-02-1621312NIANTIC, CT Eastern Screech Owl (Otus asio) red phase. E SCREECH OWL 10-05-0122525E SCREECH OWL 10-05-0122525LYME , CT Eastern Screech Owl (Otus asio).

Full of confidence that my new approach was foolproof, my next project was to photograph a Great Horned Owl nest. Presto, like magic, two appeared before me. I was on a roll, so logically my next assignment, in keeping with the owl theme, was to find a Barred Owl nest. That's where the wheels ground to a screeching halt, and just fell off altogether. For the past four springs I have been looking for a Barred Owl nest without success. There were a couple close calls, where I'd heard and seen a pair repeatedly in the same location, and was sure they were nesting there. I just couldn't find where. At first it was just frustrating, then as the hours were consumed fruitlessly, it became a slight obsession. As years passed without finding one it became my nemesis, my curse, it became my Holy Grail. 

This spring the curse was finally broken, and like the 2004 Boston Red Sox, it happened in the unlikeliest way. I had very little luck finding any nests this spring, and it was getting late in the season. On a drizzly morning I went hiking in a spot I had not been for a couple years carrying only my binoculars, hoping to scout out possible photo opportunities. The trail took me up to a hilltop, and through a hole in the leaves I saw a narrow cavity in a large oak tree. I immediately thought, "Wow, that looks like a perfect nest hole." I trained my binoculars on it, but didn't see anything inside. The hole was about 30 feet up in the tree, which was growing at the bottom of the hill, so from the hilltop it was right at eye level. As if I was willing it to be an owl nest, I stared into the hole with my binoculars for a minute or two, but nothing appeared. I continued down the hill and a hundred yards down the trail when a squirrel suddenly chattered in alarm, clinging to a tree trunk with its tail twitching. The woods erupted with sharp thrush calls, vireo rattles and titmouse whines. Was it me that was causing all the commotion? I stopped walking and scanned the woods for whatever it was that was alarming all the woodland creatures. I stood there for several minutes but didn't see anything. The rain started to pick up and the chatter died down, so I started to walking back the way I came. Something big and brown flew over my head, and down the trail where it just disappeared. I stopped back at the top of the hill and stared back into the tree cavity for a bit and a face appeared.

BARRED OWL 15-05-2883090BARRED OWL 15-05-2883090Barred Owl (Strix varia) at tree cavity nest in Connecticut forest. A Barred Owl stared out at me, then squeezed out of the hole and flew off. The Holy Grail was finally within reach, but I didn't have my camera with me and had no pictures yet. I returned later that evening and waited under a camouflage blind to see if I could get some pictures, but no owls appeared. A few days later I tried again in the morning, but saw nothing. Was this going to turn out badly? I had the same nervous feeling when the Red Sox came back from 0-3 down to beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. What if they lost to the Cardinals in the World Series? I would be the cruelest failure of all time.

Until I had a picture, I couldn't relax. So I waited, standing under a bag blind for hours. Four hours passed and I started getting hungry. Six hours, still nothing, my back and legs were starting to ache. Eight hours, nothing, I think I was starting to hallucinate. Finally, late in the afternoon, I heard a faint two-syllable call. Then, again, a little closer. At the bottom of the tree cavity, the top of a fuzzy white head appeared. A minute later an adult owl landed on a branch just above the nest. With my lens trained on the hole, I didn't dare move. The owl dropped down into the nest and reappeared with the remains of a bird of some type. With the camera on silent drive, I managed about five or six shots before the owl flew off. Again, the light was pretty low, and the shutter settings were marginal. I checked the pictures in the LCD and there was hope. I drove home and immediately downloaded them and checked them on the computer. At last, the Holy Grail was in my grasp.

Over the next two weeks, I visited several times and got to watch the owl chicks grow and make their way out of the tree cavity. I got to see the adults roosting in the nearby woods, and bring food to the nest, usually once during the day. Occasionally other hikers walked by on the trail while I was there. I was dressed in a mesh bug suit and hiding under a camouflage cloth just off the trail and realized this could be seen by some (or most) as a bit strange and even threatening. Most didn't even notice me, and to the few that did, I explained that I was photographing birds, without revealing the specifics. The owls knew when I was there, but I kept my distance and they seemed to tolerate my presence. 

One of the highlights of my nest watch was seeing a chick climb out of the tree cavity for the first time. At first they could barely be seen in the bottom of the nest, but as they grew, they appeared more frequently and began flapping their wings inside the hole. One day, I was bored and waiting for something to happen. Suddenly, a downy white chick lurched into the bright light and, using its beak, pulled its way out onto the edge of the cavity. It was quite unsteady and I was petrified it would fall out of the nest, but it propped itself up and stared out into the woods for a while. Another highlight was seeing a chick studying a small flock of songbirds that were flitting around it in alarm as it perched in the opening. It was also a treat to see the adults bringing food to the nest and watching the nest almost invisibly from nearby.

As they grew, I wondered how the chicks would leave the nest since it was up about 30 feet, and there were no branches below the cavity. I arrived one day and found one chick out on the trunk of the tree where it forked, about four feet above the nest cavity. The other was perched in the opening of the nest hole and was trying to walk its way up the tree, but could not make it all the way. The chick above the nest was climbing up and down the trunk and hopping from one fork to the other. The adult owls were close by and seemed more nervous this time. I took some pictures and video and decided to leave after a while, wondering if it was the last time I'd see them. 

Barred Owl (Strix varia) nest in Connecticut forest. Barred Owl (Strix varia) nest in Connecticut forest. BARRED OWL 15-06-0983838BARRED OWL 15-06-0983838Barred Owl (Strix varia) roosting near nest in Connecticut forest. Barred Owl (Strix varia) nest in Connecticut forest. BARRED OWL 15-06-0983804BARRED OWL 15-06-0983804Barred Owl (Strix varia) adult near nest in Connecticut forest. BARRED OWL 15-06-1184036BARRED OWL 15-06-1184036Barred Owl (Strix varia) chick branching from tree cavity nest in Connecticut forest. Barred Owl (Strix varia) nest in Connecticut forest. BARRED OWL 15-06-1184099BARRED OWL 15-06-1184099Barred Owl (Strix varia) chick branching from tree cavity nest in Connecticut forest.

When I returned late the next day, I looked from a distance with my binoculars, but there was no sign of the chicks in the tree. As I started to walk down the trail toward the spot where I had been photographing from, one of the adults flew out and landed in a tree just in front of me, staring down at me. The chicks had likely branched out of the nest, still unable to fly, and were most vulnerable at this time. I decided to leave well enough alone, whispered a quiet thank you under my breath, and retreated back to my car. The Holy Grail was finally attained, I was grateful for the time I had with them. With my faith in the self-assignment approach restored, there are plenty of new Holy Grails on my list to find now. 




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