Photography by Jim Doty

    Home     About     Photos     Learn     Blog     Contact

Great Gray Owl, Whitefish Point, Michigan
Jim Doty, Jr.

Whitefish Point in Michigan's Upper Peninsula is a great birding site for migrating birds in the spring and fall.  When I arrived at the visitor's center I checked the log book for sightings and found a recent entry for a Great Gray Owl.  Wow, I thought,   it would be great to see, even if I couldn't get close enough to photograph it.  I checked to see where most of the photographers were (west of the lighthouse) and headed in the opposite direction (east of the parking lot).  I searched the trees near the beach with no success.

I occupied myself photographing chickadees flying back and forth and stopping among the evergreens near the beach. I also took some uninspired photos of some hawks passing overhead.  I'd been out quite a while when I finally spotted the owl.

I worked my way ever so slowly towards the owl with a non-direct, zig-zag approach.  I avoided eye contact as much as possible, and paused whenever the owl seemed the slightest bit nervous. I took my first photo at a distance of about 60-70 feet.

After an hour and a half of a careful approach, I was finally only 10 feet away from the owl. As I finished the roll of my camera the owl was unconcerned with my presence so I reached into my backpack to get a new roll of film.

I did ambient light photos, fill flash photos (in manual mode), and variations on cropping and horizontal and vertical compositions. I bracketed exposures (both ambient light and fill flash) and tried everything I could think of to insure a good image. The owl seemed quite disinterested as I continued to take photos. At one point two motorcyles roared into the parking lot, easily visible from where I was. The owl became nervous and began to fluff its wings. When the bikers killed their engines, the owl calmed down.

In no time at all, the second roll of film was gone and I was out of film. (NOTE: Put more film in your backpack or carry more memory cards than you think you will ever need.) I carefully eased away from the owl, went back to my car and got more film out of the trunk, and slowly worked my way back to the owl. The owl seemed totally unconcerned so I was able to work my way back to my original spot more quickly than the first time, and I took more photos. In fact by now the owl had its eyes shut much of the time. I would wait until the eye opened its eyes to look around and check out any unusual sounds. When the owl would look back in my direction before closing its eyes, I would click the shutter.

I was most of the way through my third roll of slide film when it all came to an end. A birder came quickly down the path (too quickly) and stopped about 50-60 feet from me and the owl. The owl immediately became nervous.  The birder had stopped when he spotted me and my long lens and camera mounted on a tripod, but he didn't see the owl in the thick brush and trees so he didn't know at first what my lens was pointing at.

When he finally spotted the owl he grabbed quickly for his binoculars - too quickly. The owl was gone in a flash. It was an interesting lesson in the right and wrong way to approach wary wildlife. The owl was totally at ease with my presence only 10 feet away, but took off at the rapid movements of a birder much farther away.

The birder was clueless that he was the reason the owl flew away.  I may need to get camouflage, not for the wildlife, but for staying out of sight from other people. But I was a happy camper with nearly three rolls of Great Gray Owl images. I couldn't wait to send the film off to my favorite labs. With a digital camera I wouldn't have needed to take so many photos to be sure I got the image I wanted. The results would be instantly visible on the back of the camera. Times have changed.

You can order a print of this photo in a variety of sizes from either the Wildlife or Michigan galleries at

Photo Info: Canon EOS 3 camera, Canon EF 100-400mm zoom lens, tripod, Kodak Elite Chrome Extra Color (EBX) ISO 100 slide film. Aperture for all photos at f/8 or f/11. Shutter speed varied with the lighting conditions. Fill flash for some of the photos including the one at the top of this article.

June 26, 2000
Updated Jan. 14, 2013

[Home] [About] [Photos] [Learn] [Contact]

Copyright © Jim Doty, Jr. All rights reserved.

Shop at Adorama - one of the best, largest, and most reliable camera dealers on the internet.