Great Grey Owls in Finland

Years ago, when I was camping alone in a big forest in Sweden to photograph Black grouse, I woke up by some deep whoo’s in the middle of the night. I had never seen a Great grey owl in the wild before, but knowing there was one calling not far from my tent, made me shiver. These are the kind of moments in nature you never tend to forget. Very happily I fell back a sleep after a while, and tried to find the owl in the morning, without any success. It would take me until last week to finally see them, when I travelled to northern Finland after I heard there were a lot of sightings of owls coming out of the forests and hunting on the open grounds.

The news was already out since weeks, even in the local newspapers, but I couldn’t leave, because I had some other trips planned earlier. Last year I tried to find Great grey owls, but didn’t succeed. Now I knew this was the unique chance I didn’t want to miss. My friend Ben joined me, and with little expectations we travelled to Rovaniemi, where our guide would help us to find the birds. There were a lot of owl sightings all over Finland and Sweden, but we knew the higher up north, the more snow we would get, which makes the pictures that more ‘nordic’. Behaviour of the owls differs a lot individually, some flying away at big distance, and some taking no notice of you at all (really ignoring you…amazing). Populations of voles in the fields were still very good, and we witnessed quite a massacre because of the hungry but skillful owls!
Weather had been changing quite dramatically last week, and after a warm time with even some rain, it started to cool down again. Temperatures in the morning went well below -20°C and that was quite a change with the temperatures I experienced the week before, in Portugal… Because of the cold temperatures the owls had changed their behaviour a bit, so we had to find out how they were hunting now, and where other owls could be found. But our Finnature guide, Antti Vierimaa gave us a lot of hope, and was a great help with finding ànd photographing the birds. Really great to see motivated people like Antti, gives you a lot of good spirit! Even when it’s -20°C and snow is more than one meter deep 😉 I think we can even now correctly pronounce Lapinpöllö, the Finnish word for Great grey owl… What a language!

Although I had my new Nikon D4 with me in Portugal to photograph the Great bustards, I knew this was the time to test it on the AF-speed and resolution. Also Ben had his just out of the box D4 with him, and combined with our D3s, D3x and D300s we could see the benefits of our new camera after several thousands of shots of the owls, posing and flying in all sorts of conditions. Coming home and editing pictures had never been this fun, with such a high ‘keepers’ rate, making it actually more difficult to select…If you can get your hands on one, go for it! If you can at least, because we seemed to be one of the first ones to get a camera (thanks NPS Belgium ;-), and there is a big demand for this new camera…

If you want to photograph Great grey owls too some day, contact Finnature or join my waiting list on Tierra Photo Tours. You will be contacted when the owls are easy to find and to photograph, and we will travel in a small group. It’s a wonderful experience!

All pictures are taken within four days in the Ounasjoki valley close to Rovaniemi, with Nikon D4, D3x, D3s, D300s combined with 600mm F4 VR, 70-200mm VRII, 200-400mm VRI, and converters 1.4x and 2x. This was only possible with the great help of Antti, so thanks Antti!

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