Making tackles at Lambeau Field is one thing, but photographing owls out in the wild is whole other animal.
Jake Ryan knows something about both.
The former Green Bay Packers linebacker who spent four years with the team from 2015-2018 has sat out in Yellowstone National Park for days just to get a shot of a great gray owl — a bird taller than a great horned owl and far more elusive than even the best running back.
“They’re called the Phantom of the North, because they’re so hard to find. They’re like ghosts,” Ryan said. “So when you do find one it’s a very, very exciting thing.”
An avid wildlife and landscape photographer, Ryan has awakened at 2:30 am to trek through the snow before first light to capture moose, bears, bald eagles and foxes. Owls are among his favorite subjects.
“They’re just unique. They’re mysterious birds. It’s just crazy watching them and how they hunt and … how they camouflage themselves,” he said. “I’ve gotten pictures of them that you can’t even see them. You can only see their yellow eyes. How they can do that and be so elusive I think is one of the coolest things about them.”
To capture one in flight requires preparation, patience and a little luck. “Getting one of those shots is the be-all and end-all,” he said.
Because Ryan knows his way around a breathtaking owl image, he was asked to judge the Superb Owl Awards, an inaugural competition inspired by … yes, a typo.
It seems football fans get so excited about the Super Bowl that on the day of the big game Google is flooded with harried searches that accidentally put the space between “Super” and “Bowl” one letter too far to the right so it spells “Superb owls.”
Try it and Google asks, “Did you mean: super bowl”?
It happens so much that it trends every year on Super Bowl Sunday, turning social media into one big free-for-owl with Superb Owl photos, memes, #superb #owl hashtags and every owl pun you can imagine. Everybody from National Geographic and the Sierra Club to birders and amateur photographers can’t resist posting photos of owls out in nature just to crash the Super Bowl party.
A Superb Owl community created on Reddit in 2011 boasts 386,000 members. In other words, the whole thing has become kind of a hoot.
The Superb Owl Awards, hosted by online casino review company BonusFinder, took it a step further. They invited owl lovers to compete in two separate categories — owl photography and owl art (drawing, painting or sculpture) — for a shot at prize pool of $10,000, including a Superb Owl ring and trophy for MVO (Most Valuable Owl).
Ryan selected the finalists based on creativity, quality, originality and overall impact. Beginning Tuesday, the public can go to superb-owl.bonusfinder.com to vote for their favorite entry in each category and a chance to win $1,000. MVOs will be announced at a later date.
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Ryan’s interest in photography began after he was injured during his sophomore season of football at the University of Michigan. He grabbed one of the team photographer’s cameras and started snapping. It wasn’t long and he had saved up a couple of rent checks to buy his own camera. He took it with him on his moped and shot photos all over campus.
“When I got my first check from the NFL, a lot of these guys were buying cars and houses and stuff, and I was buying photography gear,” said Ryan, who was selected as a fourth-round pick by the Packers in the 2015 NFL draft.
Since being released by the Baltimore Ravens in 2020, Ryan lives in San Diego and often plans his travels around his passion for photography. He’s been to Switzerland, Italy, Alaska and Hawaii. He most recently returned from the Faroe Islands, a territory of Denmark between Norway and Iceland, where the green grasses and sheer cliffs were like something out of a “fantasy land.”
He would like one day to get to Finland to shoot the northern lights and to Svalbard, Norway, with its polar bears and arctic foxes.
Maybe it was those years on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, but Ryan has an affinity for cold-weather photography destinations.
“I love the winter photography and the snow. I love the mountains as well. I don’t do much beachy-type stuff even though I do live in San Diego,” he said. “I kind of like getting in to the cold weather and finding animals that way.”
He sells his work through his online shop at jakeryanphoto.com and does occasional shoots for gyms in his area. The pandemic has complicated his plans to travel after football, including a visit to Lambeau last year to shoot some of the players and try his hand at sports photography. Next season, hey hopes.
While he would’ve loved to have seen the Packers in Super Bowl LVI, he’ll be pulling for the Los Angeles Rams over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
“Playing against (Rams quarterback) Matt Stafford for four years (when he was with the Detroit Lions), I want to see him win, to be completely honest with you,” Ryan said. “He was a really good guy to play against. Know the game so well. I want to see him pull this one out.”
Contact Kendra Meinert at 920-431-8347 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KendraMeinert.