The crude and calloused wood of a hole in a mature cottonwood tree stood in perfect contrast to the delicate features and finely manicured feathers of the tiny owl tucked inside.
When I first saw this unbelievably adorable owl, my heart swelled with appreciation and I was moved to tears. It didn’t matter that I already knew he was likely in the hole and would likely pop his head out at some point, I was still overcome with such a sense of joy. It only lasted seconds, or maybe micro-seconds, but I still get a sense of over-whelming appreciation when I think about it.
I had been wanting to see a northern saw-whet owl for seven years, ever since I saw my first in January 2012. In fact, this owl is one of the species I have been intensely focused on learning about over the past few months as part of my MA research.
However, none of my hours of reading, observing, learning about territory and staring into the branches of trees, led me to finding this owl in Lethbridge on January 16.
This saw-whet owl had gained the status of celebrity, having been seen in the same spot in a park for weeks and accumulating quite a following of photographers and observers. I owe my sighting to word of mouth, social media and some friends.
Celebrity animals are always accompanied by an out-pouring of strong opinions among the wildlife photography community, and this saw-whet was no exception.
Posts to wildlife groups on Facebook elicited a number of what I see as fairly typical comments around the impact of crowds of people photographing animals. Articles are written about how bad photographers are behaving, highlighting a seemingly over-obsessed culture of only caring about getting ‘likes’ on social media.
Opinions vary – some believe it is unethical to photograph, and post photographs, of a celebrity animal at any time. Some believe photographing celebrities is okay with certain species, not a good idea with others. Some believe it is okay as long as you don’t spend too much time and contribute to the crowd by sharing the location further.
Embedded in all of this however, there seems to be this underlying insinuation that photographing a celebrity animal is cheating, and no one deserves to see and enjoy animals unless they put the time in to finding subjects on their own.
Perhaps I’m being too sensitive, but I allowed myself to get caught up in the polarity around this saw-whet owl and the larger issue of celebrity animals. I worried about what others may think of my ethics as a photographer for photographing (and posting a photo the day after) of this owl.
The whole situation really bothered me – not because I thought I did something wrong , but because the indescribable micro-seconds of pure joy I experienced when I first saw this owl were over-shadowed by all this other ‘stuff.’
Specifically, I really hate the fact that I could be judged as an unethical photographer (and generally bad person) based on one photograph. I see this happening all the time in the overly polarized climate of social media.
I have seen fellow photographers demonized over one photo, one action, one circumstance, because people re-share photos in an effort to ‘expose the evilness of other photographers,’ with no effort to get any information or context from the person who took the picture.
Nothing this dramatic happened to me, but I just can’t not be aware of how I could be judged and scrutinized over every photo I post.
In terms of celebrity wildlife, I acknowledge the potential issues with large crowds of people surrounding animals. I definitely understand the need to be conscious of the potential impact of sharing locations.
However, I do not believe every celebrity situation is completely bad, 100 per cent of the time. There is also the potential for some positives, as I have written about before in the case of a celebrity northern pygmy owl.
As always, my decision to photograph this owl was guided by an inner value of love and respect for the animals I photograph. I would never purposefully do anything I believe could potentially harm an animal.
I am not perfect, I am always learning, but I put so much thought, energy and effort into my impact on wildlife. While I have been known to get caught up in some of the debates, this saw whet owl experience has renewed my intention to focus on the only thing I control – my own actions.
While there is still some anxiety infused in my feeling around this special little owl, at the core of my being, I am just so appreciative I was gifted with this opportunity. I have no doubt that my intense focus on learning about and observing signs and habitat will lead to another encounter with this beautiful species some day.
Thanks to my friends who were part of this journey, and my sister who brought me coffee while I was waiting for the owl to appear on a chilly January morning.
I also met some new friends in Lethbridge, and specifically want to mention Gayle and John Krampl for their helpfulness and kindness. John is an amazing photographer – I highly recommend following him on Instagram.
And thanks to the Helen Schuler Nature Centre in Lethbridge for your dedication to connecting people with nature, and your thoughtful accommodation of an excited insurgence of owl and weasel obsessed wildlife-lovers and photographers (the weasel is a whole other story).
Until next time, continue loving life and everything wild 🙂