Stow Maries Heaven!

If you are someone who follows me on Twitter or Facebook, you will know that last weekend was a very special weekend! I travelled down to Essex to met up with Russell Savory, a wonderful photographer who part-owns and works at Stow Maries Aerodrome. Russell has worked tirelessly over the last few years to save this site and then help manage it very much with wildlife in mind. His hard work and patience with the wild residents means he has built up a trust that enables quite spectacular photographic opportunities. The site is private and you can understand why…… such a fragile environment and habitat (not to mention the trust) would easily be destroyed if the site was over-run with general public. The aerodrome itself is open to the public, but many of the shots you will see of mine, were in the areas not open to the public.

Built by the RAF towards the end of the 1st World War,the site was abandoned in 1919 and remained within the ownership of a farming family ever since. The aerodrome was the home to 37 (Home `defence) Squadron, Royal Flying Corps and then after 1918, 37 Squadron RAF. The site was then purchased by Russell and Steve Wilson, who are working to restore this unique site to as near its original state as possible.  More information about the aerodrome can be seen on their website by clicking the image below.

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Russell arrives at the site at 4am every morning during the summer months and does a drive around the site. The wildlife are now used to seeing him in his specially adapted car! Russell’s fantastic photography is a testament not only to his dedication, enthusiasm and hard work in developing and maintaining this site for wildlife, but also in the trust he has developed with the inhabitants. You can see his images on his website by clicking the image below.

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I was delighted to be invited down to the site and my tweets over the last week will have given you a flavour of the magical time I had. The site boasts all five species of British owl, but it was the Little Owls and Barn Owls that made my weekend! Both were feeding young, meaning they were very visible whilst out hunting to feed hungry mouths. The carefully managed grassland which is untouched by chemicals of any kind, provides the perfect habitat for Barn owls, in particular and their hunting success rate was phenomenal…. a minute or so of quartering, a dive and they would be up with a vole!

Russell and I started at 4am and, as we drove round, he pointed out special areas…. green woodpecker nest, owl boxes,  favourite perches etc… he knows this land like the back of his hand! His ‘unique’ car works as a mobile hide.

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I have not had much of an opportunity to see wild Barn Owls, let alone photograph them, so it was very exciting. Watching them silently pass you at dawn, quartering the grassland and then twist, dive and disappear is a very special experience! Photographing them is a challenge. Tracking their movements and trying to keep them in focus and cope with changing settings as they move from grassland to sky meant I got lots of shots wrong! Russell makes it look easy! As time progressed, though, I began to improve and started to get a few flight shots I was pleased with. I only have a 100-400mm lens, so not the kind of zoom that the bigger lenses might afford me. I was happy to get shots of the owls ‘in context’ with their landscape though… and if I got the owl in focus, it was a bonus!

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We did have a couple of very special moments, when the owls rested in one of the many derelict buildings that there are on site. One, in particular, stayed at a broken window for a few minutes. With my heart racing and viewing a scene that is the dream of most wildlife photographers, I knew I had to get it right! A wild barn owl sitting in a broken window really is the stuff of dreams and this individual really made my dreams come true! Not only did he pose in the window, but then flew over the front of the car and alighted on a post on the opposite side of the car. I have never been so close to a wild barn owl and as Russell slowly opened the front passenger window, I gingerly leant over at an awkward angle from the back seat! The owl filled the framed and my heart was in my throat and my hands were shaking! I knew it would only be there for a few seconds. Checking the settings were correct, I fired off a few shots. At one point it turned and looked straight at me! I don’t think I will ever forget that moment!

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Within a few seconds, it was gone… silently disappearing into the dawn in search of the next vole.  Fumbling with the back of the camera, I checked the image… I was delighted! Settings were right and I had my first, full-frame Barn owl photo! I don’t need to describe the smile on my face! 

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My Barn Owl images are loaded into an album on my Flickr site and that can be seen HERE

If that wasn’t enough excitement,  the Little Owls provided even more amazing photographic opportunities. I fell in love with these great little owls. They are so charismatic and full of expression! This family are nesting in the roof cavity of an old building and have four young that are about the fledge. The adults are very active and perch all over the place watching, bobbing and hunting.  They were a total delight to spend time with and I got some absolutely cracking shots in all sorts of light conditions. 

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Again, I have uploaded all my images onto a Flickr set and that can be seen HERE

The final joy of the visit were the hares. I have only ever seen a fleeting view of hares.. usually as they see away through a field. There is a healthy population of Hare at Stow due to the way the land is managed.  Russell was very good at creeping up on individuals and then stopping the car at the right distance so as not to disturb them. We would then sit quietly and, if we were lucky, they would come closer. I got some lovely shots and it was wonderful to be able to watch these great mammals within this habitat. My hare shots can be seen HERE

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I set a few Bushnells up whist I was there and the highlight was capturing a short clip of  a hare….

 

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I cannot thank Russell enough for inviting me and putting up with my mega enthusiasm and excitement for 2 days! A  massive thanks, also, to all the other wonderful people I met at the aerodrome. It is very much a community project and the atmosphere there, along with all the amazingly friendly people who give up their time to volunteer there, make it a very special place indeed! Thanks also to Denis, helicopter and drone flier, who attempted to teach me how to fly a mini drone…. not my forte! Denis is working with Russell to capture footage of the site from the air, using different drones with cameras mounted underneath. I will be working with them on an exciting little project to mount the Bushnell Equinox Z night vision on a drone and to do some night-time aerial videos!

Until my next visit……