Photographing a Great Grey Owl in Ottawa

In February 2017, we set out to find the Great Grey Owl in Ottawa, Ontario. This “Phantom of the North” was the subject of our vlog on the Bird Nerds YouTube Channel. This is the world’s largest Owl by length, and a truly stunning creature to behold in its natural habitat.

In search of the Great Grey Owl

Travelling to Ottawa for a birding trip was something that we have talked about for a long time. Looking at the recent sightings on eBird only solidified the decision to go and see if we would be lucky enough to see the Great Grey Owl.

great grey owl

Friends of ours have recently moved to Ottawa, so this was a great chance to visit and see the city. What is not surprising is that, as bird photographers, we are always looking to add a birding component to any traveling that we do.

With the Great grey owl on minds, we hopped in the car and headed for Ottawa on Friday night. After a long drive with a few stops for snacks, we eventually arrived at the Best Western Downtown Ottawa by 1:00 am.

Where to find the Great Grey Owl in Ottawa

First thing in the morning, we headed out to the exterior of the Shirley’s Bay Area in the suburb of Kanata to March Valley Rd where, according to eBird, the owl was spotted as recently as the previous day. The dense coniferous trees along the Ottawa river offer an ideal habitat for this raptor.

Map of the Ottawa Area
The location of the Great Grey Owl in Ottawa (2017)

After a couple wrong turns, we arrived at the Marsh Valley and Klondike Road intersect, where the road was under construction. We detoured around to come down the other side where we saw another birder with his tripod set up – always a good sign.

When looking for exciting bird species that has been mentioned on eBird, it is common to run into a small crowd when you arrive at the location. It’s usually a mix of bird watchers and photographers, and hopefully, the bird in question is still present.

Our first Great Grey Owl, Ever!

We parked the car, threw our coats on, and grabbed our gear. Of course, the owl was perched in a tree far out in the open field beyond a barbwire fence in a restricted area, but we stood in awe staring at this beautiful creature from afar – just to see him through our lens was exciting.

Great Grey Owl

It is important to know the area and the habits of the bird species you are looking for. Checking open fields in the surrounding area in Kanata proved to be important considering the species we were looking for – who is often found perched on hydro poles, fence posts, in coniferous trees or wide open fields.

Photographing a Great Grey Owl in Ottawa (Video)

These were often our best chances to see the owl as it’s changed position brought him a little closer to us each day. When spotted back in the open field on day one, it was clear that the owl was being mobbed by crows that forced him from his perch to in behind tree cover.

This was when we decided it was time to move to our next destination to see some other species within our short birding window.

More Birding in Ottawa at Hilda Feeders

American Tree Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow

We headed to an area that we had passed on our detour to find the owl which was near the Connaught Range and Primary Training Facility of the National Defence. It was a small crescent road with several bird feeders set up, referred to as Hilda Feeders.

This area was very comparable to Dufferin Islands, in Niagara Falls in terms of the types of bird species, you will find there. With the sunlight at your back, and the birds flocking to the feeders, it is a great chance to get some shots of them perched on the surrounding branches.

The variety of bird species found included:

  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • American Goldfinch
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Bluejay
Parliament Hill, Ottawa Ontario
Parliament Hill, Ottawa

After an afternoon touring the city with friends, we returned to the owl location the following day. A balmy 12 degrees – the sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen in the sky, it was a beautiful day to be birding. Another indicator that a popular bird is close by or in the area is seeing cars pulled over to the side of the road.

Perched in the Sunlight

As we drove down March Valley Road, cars were pulled off to the side and birders were intently focused and armed with cameras. This time, he was a little bit closer.

Great Grey Owl in Ottawa Ontario
Great Grey Owl

Nestled in an evergreen tree, he wasn’t out in the open but he was positioned on the south side of the tree, and as photographers, we were able to take advantage of the sunlight lighting up those mysteriously beautiful yellow eyes when he would turn his head to look at us.

Bird Photography Tip:

The camera setting I like to use in tense situations when the bird may leave is Av mode. This will allow the camera to choose the correct exposure length based on the lighting situations. Of course, this will result in a blurry bird if your ISO is not high enough. Because it was a sunny morning, I was able to shoot using ISO 500, and be confident that my shots would land in the 1/500″ range or faster.

These camera settings worked well with my Canon 7D Mk I, Canon 300mm F/4L lens and 1.4X Canon teleconverter.


Birding in Ottawa

We enjoyed this opportunity for quite some time until he decided that he wanted a change of scenery and flew a ways back behind the trees until he wasn’t visible again.

We returned to Hilda feeders, with the same usual suspects seen on day 1. After spending some time there, we travelled back into the city to look for a Harlequin Duck that was described to us from a local birder and logged on eBird.

We followed the travel instructions and ended up along the Rideau River, looking for a bridge where the duck had been seen for several days, maybe even weeks – it was supposed to be a sure thing.

Common Goldeneye

We found the closest bridge, the Adawe crossing and walked along the bank for any signs of waterfowl. We did come across some Common Goldeneyes, both male and female but no sign of the Harlequin.

We headed back to the car and looked at a map, we realized that we were likely looking in the wrong spot, but it was late and we needed to meet up with our friends.

Common Goldeneyes, Rideau River in Ottawa
Common Goldeneye

One last chance before returning home…

Before leaving the next morning, we returned to the owl spot one last time to see if there were any other photo opportunities. He was even closer this day, perched on a fence post about 50 metres away.

We got some decent ID shots, but nothing spectacular. It was difficult having to shoot through or over the barbwire fence and I found it easier to stand on hardened snow piles in order to avoid the obstructions.

When we pulled up, we noticed how close he was and I rushed out of the car before getting appropriately bundled up. I figured I had some time so I returned to the car to grab my toque. When I was coming back to my spot, I noticed that the owl was finishing its flight away from us back to the fence post, I had missed a chance for a flight shot.

Great Grey Owl in Ottawa Ontario

Trevor said he heard a shutter going off like crazy, and figured it was mine but when told him I went back to the car, we were both pretty disappointed that I missed that chance. In hindsight, I should have just let my ears freeze off for the shot – next time. Shortly after, an authorized truck driving on the restricted side pulled up near the owl and he flew away.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have any more time to wait around to see if he would return, we needed to start our 6 hours drive back to Niagara, and it was time to say goodbye. We left behind the mountains of melting snow and the warm sunny weather.

The thrill of bird photography

This trip really reminded us how much we enjoy the spontaneity and fun element of birding. You can plan your trip and your day as much as you want, but in the end, you never really know what you are going to find or capture. We love heading out with this premise in mind and we love sharing that aspect with others who enjoy the hunt.

The Bird Nerds in Ottawa Ontario

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