Photographing Owls (Owling)
My experiences photographing Owls in Hampshire
A few years ago now in the early 2000’s I was driving home late one evening when a Barn Owl flew across the road in front of me on the outskirts of a rural village near my home in NE Hampshire. This was one of the first I had seen locally and so a few nights later I visited likely looking habitat nearby at dusk and to my pleasure found a bird hunting for voles in an overgrown field.
This was to be the start of a fascination with finding and photographing Owls locally and elsewhere in my home county of Hampshire. At this time many of the fields in the area had remained unploughed for some time and voles must have been plentiful in these areas. These fields often attracted Kestrels to hunt during the day and Barn Owls could be sporadically found here in the evening. After concentrating more effort in covering the area I had managed to see all of the five most likely Owls here within a few years.
At dawn one spring morning I will never forget I found a Barn Owl resting and preening in the entrance to its Oak tree roost hole, it allowed me to approach in my car and photograph it using the first Canon DSLR I had owned and an entry level Sigma zoom lens. The tree overhung the road and it must have been accustomed to a little traffic, a fact that worked in my favour and allowed me to capture an image I am still proud of now and that further bated my enthusiasm to cover the area and for owls and photography.
Over the following years I’ve been blundering through a process of trial and error with various Canon DSLR bodies and lenses, clamps, torches, straps, brackets, beanbags and tripods, monopods and flashguns trying to come to a point where I have the ultimate set-up for Owl photography at night. It’s been a learning curve but I have found a combination / setup that has been working for me.
Hampshire is no Norfolk and we have to work hard for our Owls here but in the right places Barn Owls can be found at low densities. Tawny Owls and Little Owls are relatively common, Short-eared Owls are recorded, generally in the winter in varying numbers every year, but the holy grail of Hampshire Owling has to be the Long-eared Owl!
I have seen various Owls in various places in Hampshire but my main focus has been on a ten mile loop that takes in mixed farmland and woodland which I would drive at night looking for Owls to photograph from the car. Getting to know the best areas and in some cases individual Owls is an important part of the process.
Tawny Owls are by far the easiest to find and can be found at anytime of night but certain weather conditions can work in the photographers favour.
Tawny Owls like to hunt from a perch where they can use their excellent sight and hearing to detect their prey, normally small mammals. A small visible movement or a barely detectable rustle in the leaf litter is all they need. On a still moonlit night they will be able to hunt easily almost anywhere within their territories. If you are lucky you can find them resting up between meals but these conditions make it easy for them to hunt and they therefore spend much of the night inactive. Hunting becomes more difficult for them when condition worsen, if the moon light is unavailable despite their excellent site they will have to rely on their ears to detect prey. If it is windy or raining then the interfering sounds created by these conditions will hinder them further. It is in these conditions that individuals are even more likely to use a favoured perch overhanging a road; roads are bare open areas, so a rodent or perhaps amphibian crossing a road should be easily seen by highly sensitive eyes at times when it is more difficult to hear. Wet and windy autumn evenings can be excellent and you may see many Tawny Owls in areas where they are common. At this time the population is swollen by inexperienced first year birds and I suspect that many of the Tawny Owls that have allowed me to photograph them are in their first year; sadly many will die during the following winter. Look for Tawny Owls hunting in this way from any overhanging branches above the road, they will also use wires and telegraph poles.
Canon EOS 7D Mark II Body
Little Owls are far more numerous than many people realise, though they have declined considerably over the last two decades.
They are small insignificant creatures that can be seen at anytime of the day or night, but they are most active at dusk and dawn and easily overlooked. Little Owls famously favour more open areas than Tawny Owls. An old orchard or farmland with scattered trees and buildings suits them well. They will spend more time on the ground than other Owls where they hunt earthworms and insects especially if it’s wet. It is also worth looking for them on or near security lighting or streetlamps where they hunt moths and other insects, they are less occasionally seen around roads where they may hunt moths grounded by the rain.
Like Tawny Owls they are more easily heard than seen but visiting a likely looking area on a warm still spring evening when they can be very vocal and excited, is a good way to determine if they are present. Unlike Tawny Owl they are easier to find and photograph in the daytime.
Barn Owls of course favour open farmland or grassland where they can find voles to hunt, they also require a tree hole, building or nest box in which to rear their young.
Set-aside fields, game strips or fields with good overgrown margins and hedgerows are a good place to look. Once you have located an individual or a pair they can be quite faithful to a nest or roost site which doesn’t necessarily make them easy to photograph! Barn Owls hunt in flight and so they really struggle in prolonged spells of rain when their plumage can become waterlogged. On wet nights I have also found them hunting from a roadside tree or post. They are more likely to be seen in the daytime if they are desperate to hunt after long spells of rain or during the spring and summer when they have chicks to feed. I have had some very memorable encounters with Barn Owl and I never tire of watching them but I don’t regard them as easy to photography.
In my experience in this area I’ve never quite got the location and timing to come together for Barn Owl flight shots, if they are in good light they have been at distance, or if at close range its always after the good light has been lost. I’ve had them hover in front of me checking me out, which is always magical.
I have managed to find Short-eared Owl locally on a few occasions in autumn and winter but photographing them hunting in east Hampshire has in the same way as Barn Owl, yet to work out as well as i’d like.
Short-eared Owls require similar habitat to Barn Owls, however since they are migratory they can also be encountered in less typical habitat. Photographing them in Hampshire requires patience, knowledge and a bit of luck. Farlington Marshes has had a return to form with this species in recent years and I have had the occasional chance to get down there and photograph these wonderful birds in the daylight at reasonably good range.
Perseverance is the key and it is good idea to be armed with as much knowledge as possible regarding favoured hunting areas and being in the right place at the right time.
I have perhaps been rather lucky with Long-eared Owl!
Though they are a secretive and under recorded breeding bird in Hampshire, they are difficult but more likely to be encountered in the winter when they use communal and traditional roost sites. I was lucky enough to find a roost on my patch and was carefully able to photograph some there. They are very nocturnal however and so I was never able to see them hunting.
It is imperative not to disturbed Owls at their roost sites and only photograph them from a sensible distance.
Equipment and technique
Most of my Owl images are now taken using my Canon EOS 7D and Canon 400mm F/5.6, this lens is light and manoeuvrable and of an ideal focal length for Owl photography from the car. I generally use my Canon Speedlight 580EX which has been sufficient, a beanbag which I rest on the car window to support the lens and camera and a high powered torch of half a million candle power.
In order to photograph anything successfully at night you will need a flashgun to illuminate your subject and give you enough light for a properly exposed photograph. The more powerful the flashgun the better as the more reach it has the more successful you will be, Owls can be very wary or sometimes confiding but few will allow you to get really close so the further your flashgun will throw the light the better. Since you are unlikely to be at point blank range you will need a telephoto lens, somewhere in the region of 400mm is about right. The basic technique involves slowly driving around country lanes in the dark carefully checking likely perches for Owls. However do be aware of how this looks and be prepared to be stopped by gamekeepers and the police!
You never know what other birds and animals you may find too. I’ve had some nice experiences with finding roosting Pheasants, Woodcock and Lapwings feeding as well as nocturnal mammals like Badgers.
I keep my setup to hand on the passenger seat of the car ready for action when I find what I’m looking for. The idea being that Owls hunting by roads should be used to cars and the car serves as a hide. Some will fly off as soon as the car stops but others won’t. I rest the camera on the window so a beanbag is a very useful addition to your Owling gear. One of the most crucial requirements is a torch, even the best lens and camera combo won’t auto focus in the dark. Focusing manually can overcome some focus hunting issues but if you can get the camera to do the job properly you’ll save valuable time. For this you’ll need light and there’s not a lot of that around in the small hours! Your headlights may help but the flexibility of a torch makes things a whole lot easier. Having said that one thing this kind of photography isn’t is easy. If you run though all the factors that need to fall into place before you even press the shutter, well you’ll need perseverance and you are relying on a degree of luck every time.
And so good luck to you, and please, please remember the birds come first, it is very important that particularly during the nesting season photographers are careful not to disturb Owls. Photography from the car is normally ok, but please be responsible and do not linger, you may be preventing a Owl from hunting properly if you do, in adverse conditions it may be imperative that they do catch food so please be mindful and respectful of your subject.
Be particularly conscientious near young birds that have just left the nest.
At this time they may be virtually flightless and naive enough to be approachable, for a photographer this is a tempting time but it is better for the birds if you take a few photographs or none at all and leave. Be aware that lingering may be preventing the parent bird from bringing food to an Owlet, at the very least vacate the area for a few hours; it may be possible to return later. The same applies to roosting Owls during the day. Do not approach too close and do not linger. Remember these birds are protected by law and disturbing them is an offence.