Harvey: A Story of Ethical Observation and Photography

Northern Hawk Owl Flying

Harvey flies into the sunset after an unsuccessful hunting attempt.

 

It was a frigid morning for my Father and me, as we quickly exited the hotel and made our way to his ice covered CRV. The skies were pitch black with the early morning hour, and we were eager to get our day underway. We arrived at our destination, the outstanding boreal habitat of the Sax Zim Bog, just as the first rays of warm sunlight kissed the sky. There were a few clouds, scattered about aimlessly, lit up in vibrant hues of orange and pink against the retreating darkness of the night.

We stopped in a safe spot and collected our gear so that we were prepared for any eventuality. After a short time, the sun was rising steadily over the horizon, blanketing the drab and cold winter landscape in beautiful golden light. We began to drive slowly down the road, scanning and searching the area for any sign of life. These are the moments that I often cherish over all others. It was deathly quiet, barren even. Even in the emptiness of it all, it was breathtaking.

 


 

As I was scanning a row of tall, dead trees far back away from the road, I saw a telltale little blob at the very tip of a distant tree, and was immediately filled with excitement. After a quick look through my binoculars, I confirmed that we had indeed found a Northern Hawk Owl. Little did we know, this small owl would steal our hearts and occupy much of our time in the bog in the coming days. We spent half an hour observing the bird before finally moving on to other areas.

Later in evening, we returned to that lonesome road to search again for the owl. We drove ever so slowly down the road, scanning every pole, tree, and bush for signs of it. We found it sitting atop a telephone pole far down the road from where we observed it earlier that morning. It was alert, and actively hunting. We stood in front of the CRV, a good distance away, as we did not want to disturb its hunting routine. We were rewarded with some amazing photographs as the bird successfully snatched a vole from beneath the snow. As it flew back to the pole, and towards the fading sunlight, we became smitten with the owl. My Father even gave it a name. Harvey. Harvey, the Northern Hawk Owl.

 

Northern Hawk Owl Flying

A flyover from Harvey as he heads to his next hunting perch.

 

Over the next six days, we spent much time with Harvey. We were on an out of the way road, which meant that we could observe and photograph Harvey without too many interruptions from other folks, a valuable opportunity that I rarely pass up. Dad and I enjoy spending time with an animal, getting to know and understand it. We let it get to know us, become comfortable with us and, generally, the animal shows us a side of itself and its character that many others never get a chance to see.

We were always watching Harvey’s movements, being sure that we were not making him feel uncomfortable or threatened. As a result, Harvey rarely gave us more than a glance now and then, I think to see if we were still there more than anything else. We observed and photographed him hunting, preening, soaring, and diving. It was a spectacular experience.

 


 

On the fourth day we spent with Harvey, which was also our last day before returning home, I decided that I wanted to try and capture Harvey from a new angle. I wanted to make a photograph where he was flying towards me. This is a rather tough thing to do as a photographer, and especially if you’re a photographer that believes in attaining photographs in an ethical manner. It is not impossible…but it is not easy either. Having spent a good deal of time with Harvey in the previous days, I had a pretty good idea of his hunting routine. He would move from telephone pole to telephone pole. The times he spent at each location always varied, but I was not bothered by that.

The poles were situated about 40 or so yards apart. I parked the CRV a fair distance from where I wanted to be, and walked to the telephone pole I believed he would fly to next. I then went a few yards farther, and sunk myself into the deep snow. While it was quite cold, -26 degrees that morning if my mind serves me, I was layered well enough that it didn’t affect me very much…at first.

 

Northern Hawk Owl Flying

Harvey often dipped low into the grasses when moving from perch to perch.

 

I sat and waited. I figured that if Harvey was bothered by my presence, he would let me know by flying to the next pole away from me. It took 30 minutes for him to make a move. As I had expected, he flew directly towards me! I was so excited that I made the rookie mistake of not adjusting my camera settings as the light changed. As Harvey landed on the pole above me, he briefly looked down as I made my way back to the road and away from him in quick fashion. It was no time at all before he was back to listening for the telltale sounds of mice and voles making their way through the snow. I looked down at the back of my camera, and instantly realized that I had blown out the highlights in all of the photos. They were ruined.

I set up again, under the next pole, and this time he flew towards me within 5 minutes or so. I was able to capture a nice photograph or two, but it still wasn’t what I was looking for. I decided that if Harvey was comfortable enough to come to me, at such a great distance, that I would sit and wait patiently on him. On to the next pole!

 


 

While sitting at the third pole, a large white pickup truck approached, and stopped directly in front of the pole where Harvey was currently hunting. It was obvious that the folks inside were taking photos of him. I was getting quite irritated, but after a minute or so, they moved on down the road and stopped beside the pole that I was sitting near. A middle-aged man exited the truck, and brought his very nice camera setup with him. I smiled and said good morning to the man, and he replied in kind. He went on to ask how I was getting Harvey to fly towards me. I got the distinct impression that he was asking me if I was using bait to lure him in, but I did my best not to assume, and explained that I simply guessed where he might fly, and then sat there silently until he decided where to hunt next. The man nodded, snapped a few quick photos from the road, and then moved on. Not more than 2 minutes later, Harvey flew towards me again.

After that series, Dad and I decided to give Harvey a wide berth. We watched him hunt for a while, from the comfort and warmth of the car, before deciding to move on and spend the last hour or so of light searching for other wildlife. As we drove away, fittingly into the sunset, I thanked Harvey for being such a wonderful creature, and allowing us to spend time with him. It is an experience I will never forget.

 

Northern Hawk Owl Flying

Harvey, flying above me, but straight towards me as I waited patiently behind the pole.

 

The takeaway from this, folks, is that the ways in which we enjoy viewing our feathered friends (or any other creature) do not need to be rushed. I am often asked how I “get” the expressions and poses that I do in the photographs that I make. My answer is always the same. I never “get” anything when I am out with my camera. I am “given” everything. There are many ways in which one might obtain certain kinds of photographs. Some of those tactics are harmful to the wild creatures we love, and some less so.

Ethics is a powerful word, often used to assert or defend one person’s own view of right and wrong over another’s. This tends to lead to strife and arguments. I have even seen years long friendships end over these issues. As a lover of nature, and a self-described conservationist, it is hard to see these things happen and not speak out on them in some way.

 


 

And so, I want to issue a challenge of sorts to those that read this. When all is said and done, ethics are nothing more than a set of guidelines from some outside entity. For those of us that are enamored with birds, those ethical guidelines generally come from the American Birding Association, or the National Audubon Society. I simply ask that you not let these ethical guidelines be the “be all, end all” list of rules for you. Instead, read them thoroughly, and ask yourselves how those guidelines apply to what you do, and why they are meaningful to you. Ask others the same when debating the merits of one thing or another. I am willing to bet you might find yourself more deeply tied to the nature you love and want to protect. We can all be better birders, photographers, conservationists, and stewards of our wild things and wild places. Understanding, that is the way I believe we get there.

As always, a huge thank you goes out to all of you that read what I write. Without your support, so much of what I do would not be possible. Keep your eye out for some great new things coming soon from Wildside. If you have any thoughts, questions, or comments, I would love to hear them and chat. Have a great week folks!

-Justin

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