Melvin Clements of Ashland won the 2015 Oregon Outdoors Wild Bird Photo Contest with this photo of a great gray owl in flight.

Owling on the mountain

When Melvin Clements captured a stunning image last year of a great gray owl flying across a mountain meadow, he had more than the right stuff to win the 2015 Oregon Outdoors Wild Bird Photo Contest.

That birding photography trip — and scores of others since then — created a bond between Clements and the biggest of North American owls, to the point where Clements goes "owling" with his camera every chance he gets. He has spied 59 of these creatures in 2016 alone.

"They're just such a majestic animal," says Clements, 67, of Ashland. "They're very difficult to find. I made 108 trips to find the owls that I've found this year."

With Clements' victory now part of history, attention turns to the present — the 17th annual Oregon Outdoors Wild Bird Photo Contest kicks off today.

As in past years, Mail Tribune judges will pick their top five photos, and online voters will choose the People's Choice winner.

The contest is open to anyone, as long as they are from Oregon or the photo was shot in Oregon. The deadline for entries is Friday, Dec. 9, and online voting runs until 5 p.m. Monday, Dec. 12. Winners will be published in Oregon Outdoors Friday, Dec. 23. Online voters can vote once per day. To enter or vote, go to www.mailtribune.com/birdcontest

Last year's contest drew 275 submissions from 99 photographers.

Second place went to Tara Grealish of Jacksonville for a photo of a mallard in the Rogue River.

Third place went to Norman Barrett of Medford for his photo of a red-necked grebe on Agate Lake.

Fourth place went to Melanie Tucker for her photo of a gadwall taking flight.

Fifth place went to Michael Clark of Ashland for his photo of a backlit scrub jay.

The People's Choice winner — for an unprecedented third straight year — went to Randy Shipley of Medford. His 2015 winner caught a storm of snow geese in flight.

Last year's contest drew numerous owl photos, but Clements' clean, flowing photo was so clear that even the owl's feet were sharply visible.

"The great gray owl is really fascinating to study, and we're so fortunate to have them in the area here," Clements says.

Great gray owls are normally secretive birds, and they sport wingspans of up to six feet. They are so thickly feathered they look huge, but even the biggest ones don't eclipse four pounds, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Great gray owls live in high-elevation forests of the North and West, with Southern Oregon and Northern California at the southern end of their range, according to the Cornell Lab. They are most often found around mountain meadows, where they listen for mice and voles, which are the staple of their diet.

Clements hunts for owls on the Dead Indian Plateau east of Ashland with his Nikon 70D camera, using a tripod and 100-400mm lens when the weather permits.

"Cameras don't like rain, so days it's wet out there, I don't go owling," Clements says.

He believes the 59 different times he's seen great grays actually translate into nine different birds in a dozen different meadows and canopied forests, Clements says.

Retired since 1999, the long-time birder got bit by the shutterbug in 2012. Clements says winning last year's contest brought notoriety in this niche subset of outdoor life.

His photographs have been part of two Klamath Bird Observatory talks on great gray owls, and a print of his winning image is part of a Friends of the Ashland Library silent auction, with bids up to $130 and counting until the close of bidding at 2 p.m. Sunday.

He's also hung out with other local owl aficionados and wildlife photographers, including Peter Thiemann and Harry Fuller.

"I'd say it's kind of opened doors for me," he says.

While Clements has taken hundreds and hundreds of owl photos this year, he will not be entering any of them in this year's contest.

"I just want to give someone else a chance to enjoy what I enjoyed this year — to say I have the first-place photo in the Mail Tribune's Wild Bird Photo Contest," Clements says. "Probably next year, I'll join you guys again."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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