In Washington State and in other areas around the world, we have been blessed with a second year in a row of a snowy owl irruption. This cyclical event that is somehow linked to food availability and snowy owl reproduction up north generally occurs every 7 or 8 years. It apparently is known to happen over a few consecutive years as well. As a result, we have snowy owls wintering in many of the same locations they were found last year as well as some that are pretty surprising, such as the Sunset Hill neighborhood in Seattle, WA. One of the popular gathering places in Washington is on Damon Point in Ocean Shores, WA. Up to 10 owls have been counted hunting and hanging out on the driftwood and in the grasses of the point.
After many days of freezing fog in Seattle and hearing of beautiful weather in Ocean Shores, I headed out to Damon Point on Monday despite it being a holiday (Martin Luther Kings Birthday and Inauguration Day) and knowing that these local celebrities will attract lots of other folks wanting to see them. The weather was changing for the worse the next day and I needed to get out of my house. I was not surprised to see a large number of cars parked at the trailhead for the point. The biggest problem with large numbers of people is that the chances of the owls being constantly disturbed goes way up.
My goal for the day was to do my best to not be part of the problem. After hiking 1.5 miles to the first group of photographers surrounding an owl, I decided to hike to the end of the point and find any that weren't already surrounded. These owls are amazingly tolerant of people. I adopted a strategy of not approaching the owls directly. I would pick a spot that seemed a reasonable distance away from the owl. I then walked to a point that was 90 degrees from that spot and the owl (creating a line that was perpendicular to the direct line of site of that spot to the owl). I would then walk casually to the selected spot and sit down. With this method I found that the owls were generally unperturbed by my presence and they seemed to not get anxious. I am confident in saying that no owl flushed due to my attempts to approach.
I can't say the above about some of the other folks, though. Watching others allow themselves to be overcome by the enthusiasm of being near and taking pictures of these celebrities was rather educational about how not to approach them.
First bit of advice: You can't sneak up on an owl! I don't care how much camouflage you are wearing! The key is to be non-threatening. I found that sitting on a log or in the grass was deemed acceptable by all of the owls, just don't make large crashing sounds with your equipment like one fellow did. If you do want to move, try doing it when the owl is looking away and make small movements.
Second piece of advice: Approach casually. I had one fellow come up abruptly with his tripod and plop it down to quickly snap a few shots. Sure enough, the owl flew off.
Third piece of advice: Don't move around much. Yes, I know you want to get that perfect angle. More than likely, though, you will end up scaring off the owl and pissing off the others around you. There was one woman that kept stalking the owls with her tiny lens. I tried to avoid the owls that she was stalking, but she inevitably started to stalk an owl I had been sitting with. When I could see the owl getting visibly anxious, I tried to let her know that this was the case. She was not deterred until I said loudly, "You need to stop moving." Luckily, she did stop and sit for a time before backing away and leaving. The owl settled back down and I was able to get some nice shots of it in the setting sunlight.
One last bit of advice: Be careful how you leave. In one case, a fellow photographer was generally good about his approach and sitting still (accept for the loud crash he accidentally made when setting some equipment down). Unfortunately, when he was finished with the owl I was sitting with, he abruptly got up and marched off. The owl flew off due to his motion.
Here is a challenge to fellow photographers: Pretend that you have to throw out all the pictures you take of your subject if the owl is flushed by your actions.
One of the downsides of my strategy is that most of my pictures don't have wide eyed owls staring back at me because they generally ignore me and aren't stressed. Those that I did get were "thanks" to other people, including any flight shots (which tend to be from behind due to people approaching from behind me). These owls are generally pretty sleepy during the day unless they are actively hunting, or being harassed by ravens. That is natural!
If you go to Ocean Shores or other popular gathering places, be respectful of the owls and others that are enjoying them. They are amazingly tolerant, but respect their comfort zone and everyone's experience will be better for it.