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Seeking the Snowy Owls

Photography courtesy Cindy Conlin

A photographer’s patient pursuit of elusive wildlife


It’s a sunny day on the north shore of Lake Ontario, and Cindy Conlin is on a mission to find a snowy owl. She almost abandoned the idea of ever seeing a snowy – a lifetime favourite.

The morning started early – just before dawn, when Cindy dressed for the trek, first with thermal underwear and then adding layer upon layer, topped with her photo vest, balaclava, and trademark toque. After driving across Presqu’ile Provincial Park, hiking 45 minutes to an ice bridge, she crossed to one of the islands, cleats helping with the heavy snow and ice. It’s another long hike to the far side, where she hopes she’ll find her snowy.

“Then I waited,” she sighed. “It’s winter and cold. I’m sitting on the ground, very still. I use a monopod, which doubles as a walking stick on the crossing, and gives the equipment some stability. I went across 10 times before I saw a snowy, and by then I’d given up. The first nine times, I waited for hours, and all I saw were ducks. The 10th time, I went to photograph ducks and a snowy showed up.”

It’s the plight of a wildlife photographer, although Cindy is still reluctant to claim that description, despite overwhelming evidence she has earned it. Although her photography equipment is enough to make a seasoned photographer have lens envy, Cindy is the first to admit the greatest investment is time.

She spent eight hours each of those first nine trips before she found her snowy owl, yet she kept returning until she was rewarded. “It was the best moment. I floated home with about 200 photos of my snowy flying. For that one series of shots, which took half an hour, I probably have 70 or 80 hours invested.”

It’s a day she’ll never forget. “There was so much ice and they were so far away. The ducks were at the edge of treacherous ice where I wouldn’t dare go, so I waited, and I learned owls hunt ducks. It was a life lesson. The peeking owl was watching for ducks and planning its attack.”

That half hour – one she has repeated several times since – was the culmination of a lifetime love. When she was 16, Cindy bought her first camera, a Pentax ME, after working after school and on weekends to save for it. “I was always drawn to photography, and loved animals, and wanted a camera so I could see the images and memories captured. I love seeing animals in action, foxes jumping for prey, birds in full flight with wings spread, the nuances of their lives and existence expressed through precise motion.” Inspired by nature and wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen, her favourite image is Catch of the Day.

In her early photography days, film was the only option. “It was difficult then,” she admits. “One of the worst times was out west when I shot an entire roll and didn’t realize until much later the film wasn’t loaded properly; I lost every photo. I’m still annoyed at that. It was on Cascade Mountain and I thought I was taking beautiful images.”

Life intervened, and Cindy graduated from fashion merchandizing, continuing her interest in the arts, but her career didn’t head in that direction. Instead, she spent 20 years in sales with Mars. “When I started work fulltime, photography went on the back burner. I enjoyed my work immensely, but photography was always tugging at me.”

Five years ago, she took an early retirement. It was a deliberate change to give her time to pursue her passion for photography on a more permanent basis. Cindy’s husband Mike was already retired from National Grocers and operating an organic lawn care company. They decided to move from Kingston to Brighton, to be closer to Mike’s mother who had a home in Presqu’ile, where Cindy and Mike now live, and to Cindy’s mother in Toronto.

With Mike’s enthusiastic and ongoing support, six years ago Cindy bought her first digital camera. She studied the camera, took a course through Henry’s, taught herself Lightroom, and loved it. “I could see the potential, and like everyone who switched over the years from film to digital, could see the results right away. With film you’re never really sure if you’ve nailed the lighting and exposure and focus. It was awakening!”

Cindy started by taking photos of seagulls, studying their movement, learning how to be patient, capture what she wanted, move in concert with the camera and the subject. “There are a lot of them, so they were easy targets,” she laughed. “I learned about motion and light from them and realized I should have purchased a full frame camera.”

She upgraded, trading her equipment to something approaching top-of-the-line, learned it all over again, and realized the new gear was, “A comfortable place for me with what I want to do.”

She visited the Toronto Zoo, learning more about animal photography, researched wildlife sanctuaries and preserves to broaden the subject matter, and took Internet courses, constantly improving her craft. She invested in lenses, from macro to landscape to portrait, and now relies on a core of six lenses, including her favourite wildlife lens, a Nikon f5.6 200-500mm, which has caused some lens envy in her peers. Every new addition is intensely researched, justified, and followed by hours of Internet-based instruction.

The solitude of her craft left her feeling disconnected, so Cindy joined the Brighton Photo Group. “I’d wanted to join for a long time, but I was still working and couldn’t make the meetings or the outings during the week. I wanted to meet and learn from fellow photographers, and the outings were important because I could see how other photographers honed their craft and shared ideas.”

Through the Brighton Photo Group, Cindy met Mike Gaudaur of Quinte Portrait Studio and has appreciated his professional guidance. “He’s been great with sharing knowledge any way he can and is very generous with his time and energy. He’s just a super person and is always willing to help.”

Cindy loves the destinations and opportunities, and recently joined the Quinte Photo Club for additional opportunities. A trip to Topsy Farms on Amherst Island resulted in a photo of a herd of sheep that is her bestselling piece. “I get a lot from these groups; the camaraderie, the trips, the opportunity to go behind the scenes at special places with fellow photographers.”

Through the Brighton Photo Group, Cindy became a volunteer photographer for the Brighton Digital Archives’ barn project, another subject close to her heart. “I’ve always loved barns, and when the BDA asked for help, I volunteered immediately. It is community oriented and a great project. Besides, it gave me legitimate access to these lovely farms,” she added with a smile.

“I met such great farmers who have such pride in their properties.” One of her assignments was the farm of David Down, co-chair of the project and a beloved farmer, highly respected throughout the region. Cindy arranged a meeting with David and when she arrived, he was across a field on his tractor. He gave her a big wave and a smile, returned to the yard, and off they went in his truck, adding his big dog to the mix. “He showed me three family barns and shared so much history – not just of the barns, but the family, and the history of farming in the area.”

Sadly, a few weeks after that meeting, David was lost in a tragic accident. “I’ll cherish those memories, that ride in his old truck with his dog across the fields and along a farm lane, forever,” she said.

When Cindy was a teenager, capturing memories with a camera was a significant part of her inspiration. As she became comfortable with wildlife photography in controlled settings, she ventured farther afield. She is a regular visitor to Parc Omega, a wildlife preserve in Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours, Quebec. Cindy, often with Mike at her side, will head out at 4 a.m. for the trek to the sanctuary, where she photographs moose, wolves, elk, deer, and bears. She takes a similar trip to Algonquin Park, adding pine martens and grey jays to her portfolio.

At each stop, each adventure, she connects with nature, animals, and other photographers, earning their trust and becoming part of an exclusive group. “Once we realize a photographer respects wildlife and won’t disturb it, we share secrets,” she shared, adding hints passed along led her to the pine martens. Another photographer told her about a location for a Northern Hawk Owl in Quebec, and Cindy was thrilled with the opportunity. “They are extremely rare, and I had a chance to photograph it. It was there all winter, but they kept it a secret until just before it left the area.”

She visits often, seeking her raptors. She knows a spot in southern Prince Edward County where the saw-whet owls prepare for their migration. “They’re so small they can’t fly far from shore, and it’s a good spot. It was about 10 feet away, and so charming. That and the snowy were my two favourites.”

She found a barred owl at Presqu’ile and tracked down a great grey owl near Smith’s Falls. “I spent the entire day there and finally saw it at 6 p.m. It takes a lot of patience. Ironically, a week later there was a great grey owl spotted along Lakeshore in Brighton.”

Hawks and owls are Cindy’s passion. She has a life list of photos. She’s a list kind of person, very organized and methodical, with an artist’s eye, and a joyous soul. They all combine in the composition of her photos, even those serendipitous moments, like her ostrich photo, which was the first piece she sold. It’s perfectly composed and delightful, and she sold it at her first show, where she was a special guest of artist Steve Smylie. “Shows have really helped me,” noted Cindy. “I had zero confidence in terms of public acceptance of my work. I liked it for me, it works for my walls, but had no idea how other people felt about it.”

Other people were just fine with it. Cindy sold eight pieces at that show, including one taken in Algonquin Park to a visitor with a cottage in the park. “It worked for his walls, too,” she smiled. “That was a very exciting moment.”

With a successful show under her belt, Cindy decided to try the art show at Applefest in Brighton. “I was in the community centre, not on the main street. Sort of off-Broadway, and I really enjoyed the response. I thrive on that input and interest and it encourages and inspires me to do better.”

This past year, Cindy made it to Broadway, exhibiting her art at Applefest on the Main Street, with thousands of people exposed to it.

Comfortable with crowds, and with four years of wildlife photography behind her, Cindy sought a new challenge and headed for the Toronto International Film Festival. “I love movies and wanted to try for a photo of Lady Gaga. She was going to arrive at 6 p.m. and I was in place by 2:30, standing on a cement block quite a way from the red carpet. The organizers said my lens was too large to be in the front row. I saw her and only had a few seconds, but the light from the media tent lit her face perfectly. It was such a fleeting opportunity. TIFF is my new annual obsession and whetted my appetite for portrait photography.”

Cindy is pursuing night photography, (she shot the Dark Sky Area for CQL’s Spring 2018 issue) with Sedona on her radar. She’d like to do an African safari, visit Khutzeymateen Provincial Park for a grizzly bear trip, find a short-eared owl, rumoured to be on Amherst Island, and find a fox diving in the snow.

As long as she can point her lens, she’s happy. “Photography is my 10 out of 10. I love it. I feel the stress flow away. The anticipation, the need for patience, the unexpected, the realization wildlife photography just happens. Prince Edward County and Algonquin Park aren’t far away and I’m living in a beautiful wildlife area. Lake Ontario is my front yard and Presqu’ile Provincial Park is my backyard. I walk through the park every day in the winter, and I never know what I’ll see. It’s so rewarding and relaxing. There is a fox den between us and the lake. We can sit on our front deck and watch them and watch terns dive just beyond the shore.”

“I never want to leave; I’m living my dream here. It’s a dream come true.”