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People's Choice - Randy Shipley of Medford won the People's Choice award from online voters for his photo of a storm of snow geese (and one white-fronted goose) taken in the Klamath Basin.

Winner of 2015 Oregon Outdoors Wild Bird Photo Contest is a quick study

ASHLAND — A great gray owl was just as curious about Melvin Clements as Clements was of it on one soft-lit August morning in a mountain meadow east of Ashland.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The large and somewhat rare bird showed no signs of wariness of Clements and his tripod as it flew counter-clockwise in the meadow.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"The morning light was just coming into the meadow when I took a series of pictures of it," says Clements, of Ashland.{br class="hardreturn" /}
One particular image not only captured the essence of America's largest owl, it captivated the judges of the 16th annual Oregon Outdoors Wild Bird Photo Contest enough to snare first place.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Among 275 entries that were, ironically, loaded with owl images this year, Clements' clean, flowing photo was so clear that even the owl's feet were sharply visible.{br class="hardreturn" /}
It was quite the catch for the 67-year-old retired Ashland Police Department captain who took up photography only three years ago. It didn't take him long to get the hang of the annual Oregon Outdoors photo contest, nailing second place with a rough-legged hawk photo in 2013 and garnering an honorable mention last year with a close-up shot of an eagle. {br class="hardreturn" /}
"The owl was such a great shot, I couldn't resist entering it," he says. "So the owl did it."{br class="hardreturn" /}
Retired since 1999, Clements has long been something of a birder, and he likewise had an interest in one day becoming a photographer, but he didn't really go for it until 2012, he says.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"Once I added the camera to it, I've really gotten into it," Clements says. {br class="hardreturn" /}
This summer, his Nikon 70D camera was often trained on great gray owls, normally secretive birds with wingspans of up to six feet, but which are so thickly feathered that even the biggest ones don't eclipse four pounds, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.{br class="hardreturn" /}
They live in high-elevation forests of the North and West, with Southern Oregon and Northern California considered the southern end of their range, according to the lab. They are most often found around mountain meadows, where they listen for mice and voles that are the staple of their diet.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"Since August I've been on a crusade to photograph these great gray owls," Clements says. "They're such beautiful birds."{br class="hardreturn" /}
He travels up to the Dead Indian Plateau about three times a week, and so far he has located six separate owls in seven different meadows, he says.{br class="hardreturn" /}
On this particular day, this owl was sharing its hunting grounds with another, more skittish owl that kept its distance.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The subject of his images, however, was decidedly more outgoing.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"My presence didn't seem to bother this owl at all," he says. "It flew within 25 feet of me and landed. It was so close that I had to reset my lens down to try to get a picture of it," Clements says.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The bird was flying between listening posts — perches along a meadow's rim where the owl stands and listens for prey — when Clements captured him using 100x400 lens. {br class="hardreturn" /}
Clements says he'll continue his pursuit of great gray owls, but they aren't his only focus. In addition to the winning owl photo, he entered pictures this year of a rough-legged hawk, a pair of western grebes, a blue-winged teal and a snowy owl. His favorite among his five entries was the shot of the grebes running across the surface of Klamath Lake.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"Like any photographer, I'll shoot anything that is in front of the camera, if it's interesting," he says.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.{br class="hardreturn" /}

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