Day 1: “Get yourself out there” said the voice on the end of the phone. Staffan had heard it was a good year for voles and a good year for voles means a good year for owls, especially one particular species: the Great Grey – undoubtedly Europe’s most charismatic owl. A quick call to friend and fellow Wild Wonders photographer Jari Peltomäki of nature tourism company Finnature, and I’m touching down in Oulu in northern Finland. It’s raining.
Day 2: Raining again. Jari has promised his family a holiday so I’m left in the more than capable hands of Finnature guide Ari Latja. The forest road is bumpy and long but eventually Ari stops the car. The mosquitoes are making hay in the damp still conditions but their incessant buzzing is quickly forgotten when, only a hundred metres into the lush boreal forest, Ari points skywards revealing a messy bundle of twigs on which sits a fantastic looking adult Great Grey with two young chicks at hand. In spite of the challenging conditions, I’m slavering as I consider the potential picture-making opportunities. Ari produces a handful of dead mice to tempt the female owl from her nest but surely she won’t just fly down with us standing so close? This is a wild owl after all - surely we need a hide or something to conceal us? Ari puts the mice on a log and we stand back. For twenty minutes she considers the options. Her oldest chick is begging for food and gradually she fixates on the mouse from her 20 metre-high nest. She casts a beady yellow eye in our direction and moves to the rim of the nest. Moments later she is airborne. Gliding earthwards, the opportunity for pictures lasts only seconds. Grasping the prey in her huge talons, her wide wings pump the air and push her almost vertically back to the safety of the nest. I’ve travelled to a few places and photographed a few things but that was special. Very special. Now, did I nail the shot?
Day 3: The answer is ‘sort of’ but the light levels were so low that sharpness is difficult to guarantee. A frustrating edit reveals lots of great poses and lots of near misses. Today, there is another problem: sunshine. Even worse than low light is very contrasty light! Are we ever happy? No, not really. After a few attempts to photograph the owl flying using a remote trigger, I try something different. Instead of putting my camera in front of her, I lie down with the mosquitoes myself. Now, will she accept me with the same willingness she accepted the camera. Incredibly yes! I’m shooting at 35mm as she flies in landing only a metre or so from where I lie. This is a true wild wonder!
Day 4: Last night we didn’t get back until midnight and because the sky is so clear we were up again at 4am – the light in the middle of the day is just too harsh. In any case, the owl is indifferent to our offerings – maybe the male has had a successful night hunting – and we leave with no pictures. The same thing happens in the evening and initial euphoria is now tainted with doubts. I knew I wouldn’t get many chances but it’s now a possibility that her behaviour has changed and my luck has run out for good. Frustrating.
Day 5: The weather has changed again – it’s been lashing with rain all night. It’s 6am and we approach the nest site. I get in position and Ari offers the mouse. This time, she is interested and tilts her head back and forth coordinating her flight logistics. After just a short wait, she launches from the nest and pounces on the lifeless prey. Luckily for me, she is obviously hungry and so are the chicks. For an hour she flies around the forest above our heads.
Day 6: It’s been raining all night again and our 6am start is delayed a few hours. Now the clouds are lifting the light is as good as it’s been. But when we arrive at the nest site, the female is nowhere to be seen. We wait. And we wait. Enough time passes for even Ari to be concerned. She could of course be out hunting compensating for a night without food. We’d feel better if she showed soon it has to be said. Suddenly, the oldest chick starts calling and the female swoops onto the nest with a shrew. We seize our chance and offer her a mouse. She swoops immediately again accepting my presence and the sound of the camera with apparent indifference. Tonight I’m exhausted and struggling to think of new ways to record this quite unique phenomenon. I have a troubled sleep.
Day 7: Another night of rain but the clouds clear quickly bathing the forest in contrasty sunshine. It’s my last visit to the owl and this time, I just sit and watch. I’m no sentimentalist but I’ve grown attached to this subject and will be sorry to leave. Ari and the backroom staff at Finnature have served me a feast of visual delights and I leave the site for the last time – honoured, humbled and happy. I defy anyone – even the most hardened urbanite – to experience such an encounter with a wild creature and not be moved to redouble their efforts to protect it. Look at the pictures and think.
Please note that blogs reflect our photographers' opinions and not necessarily those of the directors of Wild Wonders of Europe.