By Benjamin Olson, Minnesota, USA: I remember my first encounter with baiting owls quite vividly. During a week long trip to the Sax Zim Bog to photograph the resident Great Gray Owls I had an encounter with another gentleman who introduced a different kind of photography to me: Manipulation. For the first couple days I thought the use of live bait was an interesting method, and I even photographed the birds that other photographers were baiting. But as I began to think more thoroughly about consequences of using live bait, I began to feel remorseful and even began to regret that I had even taken the images in the first place. During that week I watched this man feed ~150 mice to the Great Gray Owl and a Northern Hawk Owl, and at one point I even saw the Northern Hawk Owl come grab mice out of his hands. This was my breaking point. I deleted all of the images I had captured of the two owls influenced by bait and began a project that has altered my approach to wildlife photography.
For the past year I have immersed myself into the habitats of the animals that I wished photograph, with the philosophy that if I spend enough time with these creatures they will become accustomed to my presence and allow me to photograph them within close proximity without the use of any baiting or calling methods. My goal is to create wildlife images without any habituation or association to humans as a food source, or to impart any negative repercussions on the animal or habitat because of my presence.
During this year’s Snowy Owl irruption I ran into the same problem with people baiting, just as I did the year before. People were feeding the owls directly on the roads, using “fake” mice tethered to fishing poles to lure them, and even putting mice into hamster balls and under aquariums to prevent the birds from obtaining them. I was infuriated, to say the least. I almost gave up searching for the white owls, let alone photographing them because the way people were behaving out in the field. I couldn’t stop my search, and persistence finally paid off. Over the course of two and a half months I spent a third of my time working with a single female Snowy Owl. At first, she wouldn’t allow me within 200 yards, but as the winter progressed and I monitored her body language, I was able to get her accustomed to me. By the end of my time with her, she would allow me within 10 feet, all of which was done without feeding her or calling her once.