Great grey owl digging for voles (Near lake Oulujärvi, Kajaani, Finland) by Neville Turton
Interview 23 February

The Great Grey Owl: Story behind the photo

Neville Turton, runner-up in the Wanderlust Travel Photo of the Year 2013 Wildlife category, tells the story of his breathtaking photograph

The Great Grey Owl lives in northern boreal forests and is usually reclusive but when their local prey is scarce they often move south and hunt in open farmland. Here they become more tolerant of the presence of people and provide photographers with the opportunity to take dramatic action shots.

In order to see them, I went to Finland for three days with the tour operator Finnature who provided a guide and invaluable advice. It was a matter of waiting at home until one of their bird watchers found some owls and then catching a plane. This was early February when days were short, snow was deep and temperatures very low.

We were in the fields at first light and when an owl was spotted we carefully approached it. They were usually seen sitting high in a tree or on electricity lines listening for their favourite food, the voles which forage along tunnels beneath the snow.

The owls have super-sensitive hearing which enables them to accurately locate their prey. They then swoop down or dive head first to try to catch it.

The first time I went out into the field my compact tripod sank into the deep snow, leaving only about half protruding! Fortunately I also had a long monopod which had the added benefit of allowing me to relocate and to follow the owl.

We didn't use hides or put bait out for the owls and it was just down to patience and being able to react very quickly when they swooped or dived. It was often necessary to stand motionless for 20-30 minutes at a time in freezing temperatures.

Initially I had difficulty finding the correct camera settings to freeze the action and cope with the bright snow and almost all the action photographs that I took on the first day were blurred. In the end I had to use settings that I would have considered rather extreme under other circumstances.

 

In this shot (chosen as the wildlife runner-up by Wanderlust's judges) the owl dived for a vole, missed and then tried unsuccessfully dig it out of the snow.

I'll never forget the excitement of watching these creatures hunt or the feeling when you manage to take that perfect shot.

Equipment: Canon 5D MkIII, EF100-400 mm L lens on a monopod.

Settings: Focal length 400mm, f6.3, 1/2,500 sec, ISO 3,200, Exposure compensation +1.33

Judges comments:

"The timing of this owl in flight is impeccable and exposure of the snow almost
perfect." Photographer Paul Harris FRGS.

" A marvellous image and clearly a very talented photographer” Wildlife photography expert Paul Goldstein.