In the company of Short eared owls

On Friday, I joined my photography pal, Pete Walkden, to visit a site where Short eared owls have been making an appearance regularly. I have only seen these birds once before, several years ago and my attempts to photograph them failed miserably! Photographing birds in flight is a challenge and takes a fair amount of practise. It is an art to be able to track the bird in the eyepiece,keeping the centre focus point in place, let alone  checking your exposure and shutter speed! I was really keen to see what I could achieve this time. Despite the fact I do not spend as much time with my camera as I would like to, my photography is improving and opportunities like this are a fantastic way to further improve skills and to learn what setting make for the best image.

The forecast looked promising… the skies were bright and the winter sun always makes for a good light. The only thing against us was the wind, that seemed to be picking up. Owls do not particularly like hunting in the wind… for obvious reasons. This wind was not any old wind either… it felt like it was straight from the arctic and blowing right in our faces!

The site is in Gloucestershire…. open farmland all around and a couple of large fields that were rough grassland. This kind of grassland is perfect for voles as they create burrows deep in the base of the grass. The owls roost on the ground, completely camouflaged, but hunt often in daylight, giving great opportunities for photographers! The fields were edged with a tall dry stone wall. This meant that the photographers that had turned up (and there were about 20 of them) were all able to stand behind this.

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The field was huge, but often the owls chose to hunt close enough to us for amazing shots… especially if you had a monster lens…. which many of those there did have! I just had the 400mm, hand-held, as it is light enough to do so!

With the temperature hovering at 0 degrees and an icy wind that gave a wind-chill of way below zero, it was chilly to say the least…. and we scanned that filed for 5 hours before the owls decided they were hungry enough to make an appearance. We had both layered up to the hilt, but even so it was mighty cold!

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Just as Pete was panicking the owls were not actually going to make an appearance ( as they had done for the last few days he had spent there!), our long-awaited resident rose up from the field opposite and graced the skies in front of us! The sun was low in the sky and the light was beautiful, coming in from behind us. Unfortunately the wind was blowing towards us, meaning the owl often hunted into the wind, meaning its back was towards us. As I attempted to track its rapid movements across the skies, it would sometimes turn into the sun, and I fired away, hoping my camera had locked onto the subject!

It was SO difficult to keep the expanded focus point on the owl as it changed direction and moved from low to high in the sky, but as I checked back on the camera, I was excited to see that some of my shots, at least, seemed to be on target!

These owls are a photographer’s dream…. their plumage is incredible and their pale faces and rich golden eyes, edged with black, make them stunning subjects.

One individual chose to hunt pretty close to us for over an hour… in burst of 5 – 10 minutes. I really wanted some shots with it close to or in the grassland, but it spent a lot of time above, in the sky, making exposure very difficult. I had seen some of Pete and Andy Howard’s amazing shots, along with many others on the Internet… and it made me appreciate the skills of these guys.  To capture that moment they dive, with the correct exposure, composure and shutter speed is definitely a skill!

We stayed until the light was too low for any decent shots and our frozen hands could no longer feel the camera let alone fire a shot. It was time to head to a  pub with a wood burner for some supper and to warm up!

I couldn’t wait to have a look at the shots I had captured. Yes, I had loads of blurred ones or where the owl was racing out of the shot… or not in it at all! Sometimes, though, I got it right and was thrilled with my results. These are certainly the best shots I have taken to date. Here are a few screen shots to give you a flavour….

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I like to get a bit ‘arty’ with my shots too and I feel these owls look great in black and white, so I cropped and processed a few to show something a little different to the many shots we see on the Internet…

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It was a privilege to be part of this owl’s world; to see it hunting within this landscape and to appreciate its stunning beauty and power. I hope I have captured some of that in my images.

My other favourite shots can be seen on my Flickr account HERE.