Walking through Northern California's Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge last year with her camera in hand, Marilyn Patterson literally overlooked the weird bird in front of her.
The bird, perched majestically on a leafless branch, turned out to be a reclusive long-eared owl. Patterson snapped its photo, which ended up with an ethereal quality that shocked even its shooter.
"I was totally surprised to get that," says Patterson, 65, of Medford. "We didn't see it because it was right in front of our faces.
"So a lot of it was dumb luck, just being in the right place at the right time."
That dumb luck helped Patterson capture first place in last year's Oregon Outdoors Wild Bird Photo Contest, besting 326 other entries submitted by 141 photographers in the 13th annual contest honoring wild birds and the shutterbugs who chase them.
It topped her second-place finish in 2011, which she earned with a photograph of a Laysan albatross chick shot on Sand Island in Midway Atoll.
After finishing first and second in the only two years she entered, Patterson doesn't expect to be defending her title this fall. Apparently her luck, dumb or otherwise, has run out for now.
"I don't think I've come up with something to enter," Patterson says. "We didn't go many places to get my pictures taken. I didn't shoot anything that I thought was a real eye-catcher.
"I did get a neat picture of a herd of elk, but they don't fly," she says.
Images of aerial denizens are a must for the contest, which is open to amateur and professional photographers who either live in Oregon or shot photographs of birds in Oregon.
A recap of past winners shows that exotic birds shot in far-flung locales aren't any more likely to win than homegrown birds in familiar settings.
In 2011, Curtis Mix of Medford won for a photo of a yellow warbler taken in his backyard. Lance Coenen of Grants Pass pulled the same trick in 2010, winning the contest with an action shot of a hummingbird feeding in his backyard.
Deb Harder of Medford won in 2009 for a photo of a sandhill crane she captured while on a birding trip to Del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico in 2009. But the year before that, Jerry Pogue of Ashland took top honors when he captured a pair of sandhill cranes in the snow just a few miles from home, near Howard Prairie Lake.
Patterson and her husband, Bill, have traveled near and far in recent years, with Patterson bringing along her trusty Nikon D300 camera with a Nikon 70-200 mm lens.
Her foray to see the Humboldt County redwoods last year led to her contest win, but since then, the photographic pickings have been slim.
Patterson has spent far more time volunteering at Medford's Family Nurturing Center than playing traveling shutterbug.
"I haven't had quite the same opportunities that I've had in the past," she says. "We take a lot of walks and see a lot of birds, but I don't always bring my camera."
Though her recent photo-forays haven't been as productive as she'd like, Patterson did take a few local birding walks and managed an in-state safari to Eastern Oregon. She had hoped Zumwalt Prairie would generate opportunities to capture some of the many raptors that call the area home, but the best image she could muster was of a Rocky Mountain elk.
"We were also hoping to find a pin-tailed grouse, but that didn't happen either," Patterson says.
Wallowa Lake also proved to be a beautiful bust.
"We couldn't get the picture of the pileated woodpecker we were after," she says.
On the domestic front, Patterson's been after a particular hummingbird that occasionally sips from her backyard water feature in southeast Medford.
"You can actually see its tongue when it's drinking, but I've not been able to get a shot of it," she says. "When you're sitting on your porch drinking wine, you don't always have your camera."
Still, Patterson has four weeks to come up with a humdinger of a photo good enough to at least defend her title.
"I probably won't be entering this year, unless I find something really wild in my backyard," Patterson says.
"I'll keep trying."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman