One of the great things about being an owner in a production company is that you have the resources and equipment to pursue independent projects. Another one is the opportunity to meet some really interesting people. This past fall, while on assignment with Polar Bears International up in Churchill Manitoba, I got the unique opportunity to meet a unique individual. Denver Holt is a world renowned owl researcher with twenty plus years of field work under his belt and a thick Boston accent. He’s also a very down to earth, fascinating guy and bases his Owl Research Institute just 4 hours away (practically next door in Montana terms).
While sipping whiskey and waiting out a snow and wind storm on the Tundra we got to talking and ended up deciding to work on a film together. He’s worked on several big one’s but he’s such a dynamic individual, I thought he should be in front of the camera and show off some of the science he and his crew does.
I’ve since made two trips over to his neck of the woods to learn about what he is doing and to do a little filming. On the first visit, I saw my first snowy owl, held a long-eared owl, and locked eyes with a tiny saw-whet owl from three feet away. I also learned that in the Mission Valley where he lives, the bald eagles will come in during calving season and feed on the left over placenta. They don’t bother the calves so the ranchers tolerate them and they get a much needed food supplement while the fish they normally feed upon are less accessible.
I had grand dreams of the incredible footage I was going to be able to get but was soon humbled. I spent 2 full days (I had to leave early) driving the Mission Valley looking for eagles. I learned a few things. 1.) Cows aren’t really that tame. 2.) Eagles don’t like people hauling big cameras out of their cars while they are eating gross things. And 3.) Newborn calves are pretty darn cute.
I quickly developed and search pattern for locating eagles (hint: look at the title). First find some cows, generally those close up to a barn or farm house. Then look to see if they have any calves with them. Finally, check for eagles. Sometimes this was easy, other times I’d go over a low rise and 5 eagles would take off from fence posts or the ground. In the end, I was able to get what I needed, footage for a minute or so sequence on other birds of prey in the area, but typically from a long way off.
If you ever get a chance to go up to the Mission Valley in winter, keep an eye out for Raptors. Lots of species pass through or reside there in winter and are easily seen (if not filmed) by driving the grid of dirt roads and glassing them with binoculars. Don’t forget to check the ground for eagles.