âWhen I was little, I loved dinosaurs like all other little ones,â said Owens, 21, a fish and wildlife biology student at the University of North Dakota in Hillsboro. âThen my dad is a biology teacher, so he finally told me that birds evolved from dinosaurs. And I think that’s when I was like, “Well, why would I want to have fun with dinosaurs that I only see on paper (when I can search) for dinosaurs that are in my garden ? “
Since joining UND in 2019, the aspiring ornithologist and wildlife photographer has taken his passion to a new level, exploring Grand Forks and the surrounding area with thin ears, keen eyes and a Nikon camera with a very large lens, for observing and photographing birds. .
The emphasis on birdwatching marks a comeback, of sorts, for Owens, who says he âsort of lost touchâ with the hobby as he progressed through elementary school. in high school and became more involved in sports and other school activities.
âIt wasn’t cool being the guy who loves birds, the weirdo who looks at the sky all the time,â Owens said. “But then I came back to school here for the fishing and wildlife, and I was like, ‘Wait a sec, I can just do this for fun anyway, it doesn’t matter. – and I started to take a little more interest in ornithology.
âThen I got a camera, and it was like, ‘OK, now I’m really going to go out and do this.’ “
That’s exactly what he’s been doing for the past two years as an active participant – and possibly the youngest – in the Grand Forks birding scene.
Common redfish. Contribution / Seth Owens
âHis enthusiasm is contagious,â said Dave Lambeth of the Grand Cities Bird Club, widely known as the oldest bird watcher in Grand Forks.
There’s something to be excited about, Owens says, adding that Grand Forks County regularly has the most checklists on eBird, an online bird sighting database.
âGrand Forks is a pretty cool place because we have so many trees and a variety of different habitats,â he said. âYou go a mile or two west of town, you run into this very saline meadow, which is an incredible habitat. It’s like some of the last tall grass prairies in the world. And we have prairie chickens, grouse (pointed tail) – we have all kinds of prairie birds. “
The tricky part, Owens says, is finding the time to research them all. Between classes, his job as a volunteer coach and team photographer for the Central High School wrestling team, and the short winter days, it’s hard to find time for birding during the week, says Owens.
Seth Owens gets into position for a bird photograph on Friday, December 3, 2021, along the Red River in Grand Forks. Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
He tries to catch up on the weekends.
âAlmost every weekend I try to go out for maybe four or five hours,â he said.
Bird watching excursion
It’s a sunny afternoon in early December, and Owens has a few hours between class and wrestling training to get out and see what he can see. He’s on a mission to the Lincoln Golf Course along the Red River in Grand Forks, hoping to spot another tiny little owl hanging out in a popular birding spot near the clubhouse.
Owens once photographed the little owl nestled in the lower branches of a large spruce tree, as well as an equally photogenic barred owl perched in a nearby tree, but there is always the possibility of more sightings and best photographs, he said.
Seth Owens recently photographed this little owl in Grand Forks. Contribution / Seth Owens
âOwls are also naturally charismatic,â Owens said. “It would be difficult to take a photo of an owl that isn’t interesting enough.”
There won’t be owl sightings this afternoon, but that doesn’t deter Owens. There is plenty of territory to explore nearby, along unpaved trails that wind south through the woods beside the Red River.
“Owls are also naturally charismatic,” said Seth Owens, who recently photographed this barred owl in Grand Forks. “It would be difficult to take a photo of an owl that isn’t interesting enough.” Contribution / Seth Owens
Sizerins, black-capped chickadees, blue jays, nuthatches and woodpeckers of all kinds are some of the winter species he sees and photographs regularly.
âI really like this area around the Lincoln Golf Course because there is a lot of diverse habitat,â Owens said. “We have birds that are going to hang out in these open spaces by the river, we have birds that are going to hide in tall canopies, birds that are going to hang out in spruce and evergreen trees, then chickadees and different thrushes and sparrows that go looking for seeds at the bottom and stir the grass.
The past two months have been particularly memorable for birding locally, Owens says, at least in part because of the unusually mild fall weather that produced some unexpected sightings. In November, Owens reported seeing two species of sea duck – Long-tailed Duck and Black Scoter – on the lagoons at Grand Forks Air Force Base.
âConstant rarities,â he calls the species of sea duck.
âThese aren’t ducks that you will often see around here,â Owens said. “They stand out, they are different – that’s the only way to put it – exciting.”
Most recently, Owens said he saw a Hermit Thrush on Thursday, December 2 in Grand Forks, “about four states north” of where it should have been.
âHe’s lost – he should be south now,â Owens said. âThe strange weather has brought in a lot of unique birds, and I think that makes it exciting. It is not ideal for them because they are far from the track. But for bird watchers, it’s like, “Maybe there’ll be a new one here.” You never know what to expect now.
And if he’s the first to see and report a particular species locally, so much the better, says Owens.
âIt’s almost a competition, I guess,â he said. âI’m very competitive, so I watch birding almost competitively, but it’s also just another excuse to hang out, interact with friends who like it and get away from the mundane aspects of life, sometimes, like doing homework. “
Red-breasted nuthatch. Contribution / Seth Owens
Going out to see and photograph the birds also makes the winter through the winter faster, Owens says, even if that means venturing out on days below zero.
âThis winter will be really easy to get through compared to the others,â Owens said. âI’m just going to go out and hang out for two hours. Even though I freeze my butt, there are little birds here that make me look like a weakling.
âIt’s always a goal to go out and find something new; it is the engine.
He might have a competitive streak, but Owens says he invites people to join him as well. As perhaps the youngest contributor to the Grand Cities Bird Club messaging group, Owens says he feels responsible for sharing his passion with anyone interested.
As with hunting and fishing, young people are also the future of birding, Owens says. Losing this participation could mean losing the connection with nature and conservation.
âIt’s scary to know that if I can’t turn on one or two more people behind me, the cycle is going to stop,â he said. “That’s why I share (photos and information) on Facebook and Instagram. â¦ I want to turn people on. Because I was lucky to have parents who really inspired me to explore and get excited about nature. And so it’s only fair for me to continue this cycle.
Time is running out and other commitments are calling, but the afternoon excursion with Owens along the frozen Red River produces 11 species: bald eagle, red-bellied woodpecker, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker , blue jay, American raven, black-capped chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, American robin, redbird and slate junco.
Seth Owens photographed this minor woodpecker on Friday, December 3, 2021, as he greeted a reporter from the Herald on a birding excursion along the Red River in Grand Forks. Contribution / Seth Owens
“If you want to come with me, I’ll take you outside,” he said. âLet’s go, it will be fun. You will learn, I will have a good time – everyone will win.
What he uses
Here’s a look at the photo equipment Owens uses on his birding tours:
Camera: Nikon D500. âIt’s very nice,â he said. âIt becomes difficult with the cold. It works great in the summer, but sometimes the batteries run down quickly in cold weather. You just have to pack some extras.
Lens: Sigma zoom lens 150 to 600 millimeters. âIt lets me zoom in, and it’s choppy, which is good,â Owens said. “When I get the birds up close, I’ll bring it down to maybe 150 millimeters.” When I have birds far away or if I want to fill the frame a little more, I open it up to 600. “
Tripod: Avant-garde Alta Pro. âI’m looking to upgrade, but they don’t come cheap,â Owens said. It also uses a gimbal head, which absorbs some of the weight of the large lens and makes it easier to move the lens freely. âI think the gimbal heads are great because you can move around so easily when they’re not locked,â he said.
As with everything, developing skills as a wildlife photographer takes practice, and Grand Forks, with its variety of habitats, provides a perfect classroom for learning the ropes, Owens says.
âI learned a lot just from practicing, and that’s how I got really comfortable with this camera and this setup,â he said. “For just about anything, it just takes time.”