June 25, 2017

Story of a great horned owlet

Hi there,
 
Just 4 things. (1) How I'm doing (2) What I'm pondering (3) Camera news (4) A wildlife story and my thought process
 
1. Summer break
 
My Facebook feeds have been filled with lovely pics of bear, mountain goat and loons families in the last few days, which warmed my heart, and reminded me that summer is here.
 
I will have two weeks of vacation. It's my first long vacation ever since I switched to stamp-collecting and taking iPhone selfies, so I will let you know how it goes.
 
Having said that, my back pain is getting better. Right foot is still numb from time to time, but it's so much better, which almost makes me cry. Never felt so grateful to be able to walk from the parking lot to the grocery store without stopping. 
 
2. Gratitude
 
I enjoyed an interview recently when Tony Robbins and Gary V talked about gratitude. Scroll to the 14:40mark and check it out.
 
Gratitude
 
It's an interesting week. I ran into quite a few old colleagues, and met new people. I don't know why but I kept pondering about a …
 
famous Chinese fable about horse
 
(3) Camera news
 
I just saw a friend sharing another YouTube review of Sony A9 with an adaptor to Canon super telephoto lenses, which further confirmed what my friend told me earlier. Hmm.. the AF tracking isn't working well.
 
Having said that, I took my Sony A7RII (I only returned the A9) and the brand new 85mm 1.4 GM lens out, and took a few pics of human beings this week.
 
It's super slow compared to the Canon 1DX Mark II, though I have to admit the “eye focus” function is amazing.
 
And when I viewed the Sony files at 100% at my 27 inch iMac, I screamed every time.
 
“My eyes!”
 
And I had to hold myself tight in my chair from falling down. 
 
I was absolutely blown away by the details, sharpness and tonality. Holy crap. I even had tears, looking at the technology marvel of the Sony sensors.
 
After years of looking at the 100% view of my Canon files, it's definitely a culture shot. Any photo postings between Sony and Canon don't do it justice. You really have to buy it and see it with your own eyes to know what I'm talking about.
 
(4) Wildlife story and what I really think about in the field
 
Some of you resonated with me from my newsletter few weeks ago, about the importance of taking pics that people would remember.
 
It's critical we stop taking “me-too” photos, because (i) no one can tell the difference between yours and other similar pics (ii) nothing is “personal” in those photos, and you become a documentary photographer.
 
In the last few years, I've been trying to connect more to the animal. What does the animal make me feel? Why am I so intrigued at that moment? And I try to capture that feeling. 
 
Many years ago, my friend told me about a great horned owl family nearby in Los Angeles.
 
Two chicks had just fledged. And they would come to the ground to play after dark. If lucky, they would come down a bit earlier when it's not completely dark. And that would be a photographer's heaven.
 
It was my first time to tackle low light photography. And I had a lot of fun “documenting” the two owlet siblings at very high ISO.
gho3
greathorn_squash
greathornowl12
It felt like yesterday. These two siblings would completely ignore our presence, and flew right between my friend and I when it's almost pitch dark.
 
Just imagine having the top predator with 5-feet wing span low-flying past you, almost touching your shoulder. I still remember the breeze on my face from that wing flap. 
 
Then I went back the next year, only to find out hundreds of photographers and visitors gathering there, some even having picnic below their nest, with children playing, and dogs running.
 
Someone must have posted the spot publicly. It was like a zoo. I felt bad for the owls and didn't go back again that year.
 
I heard the owls didn't show up the next year.
 
Then, earlier this year, the parents came back, and had three babies. 
 
But unprecedented heavy rainfall happened in Los Angeles this year. And unfortunately, their nest collapsed and fell onto the ground during one severe rainy night.
 
All three chicks fell straight onto the ground. One was instantly killed. One was seriously injured, but was rescued by the park ranger the next morning. The third one disappeared, likely being eaten by coyotes or whatever. 
 
The parent owls left, and moved to another tree half a mile away.
 
Realizing that all three of their chicks were gone, they started to build another nest.
 
And that's the end of the story. Nature is cruel.
 
Have a good weekend.
 
Well not really of course. 
 
I hate to say it, but you wouldn't believe what happened next.
 
A week later, the third (disappeared) owlet re-appeared out of nowhere, and was sighted to have walked on the ground for half a mile from near the original tree to the new tree to look for her parents.
 
She still couldn't fly. So basically she had no way to defend herself walking in the open field if anything happened. 
 
And she made it.
 
Some lucky souls captured the whole sequence of that long march, and the heart-warming reunion of the chick and her parents.
 
So after the reunion, the owlet stayed up in a shorter tree near the parent's new nest, and each night the parents would bring her food.
 
She would rarely come down to the ground anymore, however.
 
In another word, no more ground-level owl photography.
 
Three days later, a guy caught wind of this story from a friend.
 
And that guy is typing right here…
 
I went to the place after work, hoping to see this heroic owlet.
 
To me, she's elusive, mysterious, and brave. She lived through the rain and the fall from the tree, and was a warrior. Intrepid is the word. 
 
I really couldn't imagine how she survived the week on the ground, with no food, and under constant threat of humans, dogs, coyotes, hawks, etc.
 
I saw her high up the tree for many evenings, and she would not come down.
 
Then one evening, everything changed.
 
She finally came down and landed somewhere at eye-level.
 
She could fly now.
 
I tried to create a photo to show her my respect. And I immediately saw my opportunity. 
 
Somewhere nearby, I saw some yellow wild flowers.
 
The heavy rain in Los Angeles made these flowers bloom, but also destroyed the owlet's nest, and almost killed her. So these wild flowers were closely related to the fate of this owlet.
 
I immediately walked towards those flowers. I needed to include these flowers in the photo.
 
But the light was on both the flowers and the owlet, which didn't give me the sense of drama.
 
So I waited, and prayed that she would stay.
 
When the last ray of light became more saturated, the yellow flower turned golden, and the shadow area in the background turned to the cold bluish green, which created the complimentary colors that I wanted.
 
To create a sense of mystery and elusiveness, I must have foreground blur. I wanted the wild flowers to wrap around the owl, blocking most of her except her head. 
 
Wind was blowing, and the flowers with their long stems were moving vigorously, sometimes blocking the whole owl, sometimes revealing the whole owl. Suddenly the owlet leaned forward and turned her head, with a confident look.
 
At that particular moment, I saw an opening. Some flowers were above her, with some on the left of the frame balancing it, all turned into golden yellow bokeh with their relative much closer distance to my lens. 
 
I was handholding the super telephoto lens, so manual focus would be difficult, especially when the movement of the owl was so quick. So I used the high-precision cross-type focusing mode to focus through the flowers onto her eyes. 
 
That's when I clicked the shutter.
 
And here's the intrepid owlet below, who has survived through all the hardships.
 
(Click on the image to see the higher res photo on my website)
 

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Tin Man Lee

Tin Man Lee has a deep love for wildlife and photography. Most recently, he won the Grand Prize of Nature's Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International with the winning photo currently displaying at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, while having a full time job in medical imaging. He is the judge for Nature's Best Photography Asia and Viewbug. Through this blog he hopes to share what worked for him and what didn't while learning the craft of wildlife photography.

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