Rainy day Grey Ghost - Alexander Becker

Rainy day Grey Ghost

Published: 12/17/2018

It had been pretty much constant rain all weekend with pretty much zero breaks, and increasing boredom, and I was running out of terrible movies to watch. The cabin fever and lack of photo opportunities had finally set in and I decided to head out anyways. I was originally going to drive out to the coastline to look for Snowy Owls, but at the last minute decided on a spot more local to look for woodland owls like Saw Whets and Great Horned. This park does have a number of harriers, which I've photographed before, but I rarely ever have luck with them as they often way too far away. Between the tough task of finding owls and distant harriers, I was not particularly optimistic. To really drive that home, the rain started picking up as I was driving over.

After about 5 minutes in the park I spotted a male Northern Harrier, typically called a Grey Ghost, out in the field. They're generally rare to see so I was excited to even get a glimpse of one. You can then imagine my surprise when it started coming closer...and closer...and then finally....pretty damn close. 

With the falling rain and low light conditions causing havoc on the camera's autofocus system, I just took a ton of shots and hoped to get lucky for what I imagined was a one (maybe once in a year?) off pass. After a minute or two he headed off to the next field and I checked the back of camera. You can only imagine how excited I was to see this shot.

Tabbing through the rest of the shots (many soft or just too noisy from the slow shutter / high ISO) I also saw this low banking shot. This shot sums up one of the reasons these birds are so hard to photograph. In tandem with being highly erratic flyers, they often fly low to the ground, causing the autofocus system to grab onto grasses. The Nikon system panned out here though giving a sweet environmental in flight shot.

I thanked my lucky stars to get some keepers of a Grey Ghost in the rain conditions (albeit lower light than I would want) and figured that was the end of that. I saw the harrier sitting out in a field quite far away and kept going looking for the owls. The rain had stopped at this point (although it was still pretty dark) so I kept hiking around. I didn't find any owls, but when I came out back into the fields I saw the harrier flying again. And actually stayed pretty much in the same spot allowing for, again, a decently close pass, as below.

The harrier stayed in the same area doing circuits as the rain picked up again. This shot below is one of my favorite ones with the small in frame scene and rain almost looking like snow. 

I was able to get the harrier against a number of backgrounds and poses, often with the distant tree line or fields.

At one point I was laughing as the harrier just looked completely miserable in the rain. You don't want to anthropomorphize too much, but does this bird look completely done with it or what?

The harrier continued his circuit heading further away and out of range. I saw some deer out in the distance so I checked them out. They also appeared to be sufficiently done with it. The rain had picked up a lot at this point as you can see in the frame below.

I left the deer be before doing another lap in the woods -- still no owls. No surprise there! But again when I came out the Grey Ghost was just sitting there, allowing again a close approach. I've never gotten remotely close to a sitting harrier, and this one cooperated well. I could have likely gotten closer without flushing him, but didn't want to stray off the path or stress him out in the wind / rain as they are likely more reluctant to fly.

A bit later, the rain and wind had picked up and eventually the harrier took off. I was over the moon with the below shot. I love the wind swept grasses in the background and the falling rain. You can get a sense of how determined this bird is flying into that mess.

All in all it was a pretty awesome experience. I've always chased these birds without much luck, or just picking up the odd pass, so to go from that to multiple passes in one day, especially with the falling rain, is just nuts. I'll definitely aim to head back out in the snow and see if I can get some of these similar shots in that setting. 

It goes without saying, but just to be safe, none of these shots were a result of baiting or any sort of manipulation of the bird. All shots were taken with a Nikon D500 and 200-500mm f/5.6 lens and processed in Capture NX-D. You can see how I process these types of images in this blog post.

As always, I welcome any questions or comments, and feel free to follow me on social media!