Part 1: Celebrity northern Saw-whet owl saves my sanity

March 20, 2019
I lost my balance and fell bum-first into the snow, for the second time within a five-minute period. This time, however, I was unable to re-position my camera before impact. My lens went glass-first into the snow – the solid, cylindrical hood protected the glass from any serious damage, but a thick layer of snow was scooped into the plastic structure and encased against the glass.

I was frustrated, but not surprised. For me, losing balance and falling is a natural byproduct of attempting the intense physical demands of snow-shoeing in two feet of dense snow.

My gear is weather-proof, so I knew my camera and lens would be fine. I, however, was faced with the daunting task of getting back on my feet. I poured the snow out of the lens, put my gear back into the safety of my backpack and slide it a few feet away. I knew I would need as much space as possible to get myself vertical.

I flailed my body over so I was on my hands and knees, hoping to use my arm strength to leverage myself to my feet. But the more I pushed my arms into the snow, the more they sank deeper into the ground. I guess I had momentarily forgotten how snow works.

Realizing there was no extra leverage to be had from that position, I thrust myself sideways. Balancing on my left hip, I struggled to dig my snowshoes into the snow beneath me at an angle. Somehow, I managed to muster the leg strength needed to unfurl my body from its snowy tomb.

When I re-gained a sense of equilibrium, it occurred to me to wonder why my friend Jamie was not there to help me get up – he usually was. Then I remembered he had wandered off to the trees to check out some tracks.

A glance behind revealed a disheveled mass of camera gear, camo and snowshoes. Jamie was struggling at the base of the trees. He had also fallen and was engaged in the same in-eloquent dance with the slushy demon substance I had just completed, writhing around in the snow like a turtle stuck on his back.

Pine Marten, not found on on this snowshoeing adventure. (Jasper, 2017)

Luckily, Jamie vertical-ed himself before I could even offer to help. We both looked towards our destination – a picnic area that appeared to contain nothing more than several mounds of table-shaped snow.

We glanced behind us and were shocked to see we had only covered about 200 meters. The picnic area was at least 600 meters away. There was just no way we would make it. Exhausted and humiliated, we turned around and followed our tracks back to the car.

Why were we so anxious to visit a picnic area in the middle of winter? We were following a lead from our friend who had seen a pine marten in this area on three occasions over the past five years or so.

I realize this doesn’t exactly sound like a solid lead – using the term ‘long-shot’ to describe the chances of finding a marten in that specific spot is likely an understatement.

But Jamie and I had already spent countless hours examining and following all sorts of animal tracks and signs since the beginning of winter – lynx, wolves, weasels, martens, saw-whet owls, etc. So far, none of our efforts materialized into finding any of these sought-after animals. We were willing to follow any clue we could get.

Winter is typically slow for wildlife in Alberta, especially in the mountains where there is not as much activity. This winter, however, I have been extra motivated to get out west in an effort to immerse myself in the territory of some of the wildlife I love to photograph.

One of the hundreds of marten tracks I’ve seen this winter.

A big part of my motivation is a project I am working on for a Masters program – I am exploring the process of learning as much as possible about Canadian animals through tracking, observing signs and recognizing typical territories. My theory is this knowledge will better equip me to successfully photograph these animals some day in the most respectful and unobtrusive manner as possible.

So, I have been doing a lot of driving, walking (including some more attempts at snow-shoeing), observing and collecting data this winter, and very little photographing of actual animals. I do, however, have hundreds of pictures of tracks, poo and holes in trees, which I have happily collected as part of my research.

While not motivated by a Masters project, Jamie shares my drive to explore and learn. I’m grateful he has joined me for many of these excursions out west, especially considering they were not likely to result in any exciting animal findings. And none of them have so far – we have covered a lot more ground since the failed attempt at a winter picnic with a marten.

Focusing on animal signs has been fascinating. I have learned so much from the hours of intense examination and observation. However, spending so many hours ‘not photographing animals’ is getting to me.

There’s the logical knowledge that no matter how many tracks we see, our chances of finding and photographing an elusive animal are slim. Yet there is still a hope that we will be rewarded with some sort of surprise sighting  – a pine marten, for example, would be nice.

Plus, all this exploring through ‘natural’ territory made me painfully aware of all the human-created obstacles our wildlife have to deal with – roadways, oil and gas plants, clear-cut forests, fragmented environments, off-road vehicles, registered trap lines – the list goes on. It can be very disheartening.

Complete insanity may have taken over by now had it not been for a few precious moments spent with this adorable little owl on January 16.

Saw-whet Owl, seen in Lethbridge on January 16

Read Part 2 Here.


  1. Delford Martin

    Lovely read. Good luck with your Masters.

    • Kerri Martin

      Thanks so much Delford 🙂


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