Tag Archives: Owls

Little owls with big personalities

Little owl (Athene noctua) tend to lay their first eggs in April-May and occasionally have a second brood. They lay 2-4 eggs and incubation is around 4 weeks with fledging taken nearer to 5 weeks after that.

The Little owl is in decline and this may be linked to Farming practices and the number of prey items available. These include earthworms, beetles and other large invertebrates, small mammals and occasionally birds.

Digitalwildlife.co.uk – A short snapshot into the lives of a pair of Little owls with two chicks

My observation of a Little owl pair over the years have been sparse and inconsistent but still interesting enough to add here as much of the behaviour of the juveniles is in contrast to the Tawny Owls (Strix aluco). Please see previous article here

Viewing conditions are a little difficult as this pair of Owl’s nest on private land. The birds would doubtless not use the old apple tree and nest box here to nest and to roost were the area accessible to the public.

Little owls are crepuscular meaning they are active predominantly at dawn and dusk, unlike the more strictly nocturnal Tawny owl. They are also far more likely to be encountered during the daylight, they can sometimes be found sunning themselves on a winters afternoon if the weather is right as well as sitting in the open near the nest site at breeding time.

My observations suggest this pair raise only one or two chicks each year. This last year (2022) certainly they reared two chicks to the fledging stage and unlike my observations with Tawny Owl, Little owl chick seems to stay near the natal site and return to the nest hole if they feel threatened.

Once they are able to make short flights, they still remain active near to the original nest until they become bold enough to disperse more widely to their own new territory in the autumn.

Richard Ford

BTO Birdfacts website

Click on the gallery below for higher resolution Little owl pics

Prowling for Barn owls

Some days as a wildlife photographer you can spend hours in the field and things just don’t fall into place. Poor light, poor weather, animals and birds just not doing what you’d hoped. It’s all about putting the hours in and you just won’t get result sitting at home on the sofa. There is always a little luck involved but great wildlife photograph’s also take planning, they generally don’t just happen.

It can sometimes take years of field work and patience in order to place yourself in the right place at the right time. And even then, the weather or light or behaviours of your subject all have to fall into place for the stars to align. I suppose if there was no challenge it would soon become boring!

For over twenty years I’ve been monitoring some local Barn owls Tyto alba. I see them sporadically, far less often than I look for them, despite having reasonable knowledge of their habits. Often if I see them hunting at all, it’s briefly at a distance or in poor light after the sun has set, or in the morning I may be able to watch them have a last attempt to hunt briefly before watching them head to roost before the sun rises.

Barn Owl Tyto alba hunting on the wing in early morning light

Getting good shots of Barn owl hunting needs the birds close enough for detail, in light that enables a high enough shutter speed to freeze movement. Barn owls, since they hunt on the wing, will struggle to hunt in the rain, their plumage isn’t all that water proof not to mention that rain messes with them hunting using sound, so a series of wet nights may mean they struggle to catch enough food and that can sometimes mean they will hunt in the daylight when it’s dry. In the breeding season the nights are short so if they have chicks to feed Barn owls may also hunt in daylight if needs must. I knew all this but it’s never really helped me nail any flight shots in daylight.

This particular dawn in early February was a beautiful one, after a clear night with a full moon. Ideal hunting conditions and most Barn owls would no doubt have been hunting successfully and resting up between feeds most of the night to then go to roost at dawn.

Barn Owl rising out of the frosted grass just after swallowing a vole

So, I have no explanation for why I was able to watch and photograph this Barn owl hunting from just before dawn to nearly two hours afterwards, by which time it was at times in full sunlight. It wasn’t always close, but twice it came within just a few meters of me checking out what I was as I crouched motionless against the hedgerow. I watched it catch a Vole not twenty meters from me, tease it from the grass and swallow it whole with a few gulps and jerks of the head. It knew I was there.

My photos aren’t perfect, though I am pleased with them, but the whole experience was mesmerising and unforgettable. Just me and a Barn owl sharing a beautiful sunrise and a frosty winters morning with three or four Roe deer Capreolus capreolus .

a pair of roe deer in winter

A pair of Roe deer Capreolus capreolus in winter

It was far less tranquil for a handful of unfortunate Voles however….

Richard Ford – Digitalwildlife.co.uk

Observations of a Tawny Owl Family – Spring 2022

By Richard Ford – www.digitalwildlife.co.uk       
& Justyna Bielska – www.facebook.com/JustynaBielskaPhotography


Owls of all kinds have always been a fascination for me as they must be for anyone with even a mild interested in birds and wildlife. Their friendly wide-eyed appearance and regular presence throughout myth and folklore give them added allure. For the wildlife photographer they have obvious appeal, being photogenic and a definite challenge due to their generally nocturnal nature.

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) is the most common Owl in the UK and they are no doubt present in most suitable woodland across the south of England. That doesn’t make them easy to find or photograph, they are certainly easier to hear than to see. Tawny Owls start their breeding cycle early in the year and may lay their first eggs as early as late February. Pairs stay on their territories and can be heard throughout the year with a peak in the Autumn.

During the spring of 2022 Justyna’s dedication and enthusiasm, coupled with her patience and fieldcraft resulted in her finding a Tawny Owl nest near the Hampshire / Surrey border in a nesting box designed to be used by Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus). Justyna’s initial notes start the story.

Tawny Owl, adult (and Fox Moth prey) with branching chick less than five weeks old. 6th June 2022 – Richard Ford © Digitalwildlife.co.uk

16th May 2022

This morning I decided to take a stroll around the forest to take some pictures of the Stonechats (Saxicola rubicola) living there. I noticed a small white stain while I was still on the path so I decided to stop as I knew that there was a nesting box there for birds of prey, though I’d never seen it occupied I decided to check it out.

As I came closer, around 50 meters I took a picture. On the screen I was able to see a dead chick hanging out of the box! I couldn’t say what species it was, but it looked like a bird of prey. When I studied the photo more closely, I realised that there was a shadow behind the dead chick that looked like the head of an Owl. I analysed its plumage and decided that it must be a Tawny Owl. I have heard them calling many times in this area but I have never seen one.

I was overwhelmingly excited to see one in this area, but I was also sad to see it in these circumstances. I had lots of questions appearing in my head.

Why is there a dead chick hanging out of the nesting box?
Is this Tawny Owl roosting or nesting here?
Is that dead chick a prey item or hatched there?
Are there more chicks alive in there?

I have never observed wild Owls in my life before but I have read a lot about them. I know a person who is more knowledgeable and has more experience in Owl photography than me. His name is Richard Ford from www.digitalwildlife.co.uk.

I decided to share this little secret with him. I know that it will stay between us. It is better for the birds if only a small amount of people know about the nest. I visited this place many times after that morning but I only saw the dead chick hanging out of the box. I started to lose any hope for seeing a happy Tawny Owl family.

28th May 2022

This morning was cold, sunny and foggy and I decided to visit the nesting box when I had finished doing some landscape photography. The dead chick is gone and so I went cautiously closer and took quick photo of the box. Zooming in on the back of the camera I could see a little white fluffy head sticking out from the nesting box. It was looking straight to my camera lens! Yes, yes, yes! There is a chick! It’s alive! I was so excited that I nearly shouted and had to cover my mouth with gloves. I quickly took another two or three photos and went away to avoid disturbing it.

Tawny Owl chick in nesting box , probably less than four weeks old.
28th May 2022 – © Justyna Bielska

I sat on the middle of the path and quickly shared the news with Richard. I was so happy to have this encounter but I was worried that this might be the first and last time I’d see it. I had a trip to Poland the next morning for 2 weeks.

29th May 2022

With Justyna away in Poland I was keen to assess the situation at the nest box. I have photographed young Tawny Owls at this time of year before when they are branching, at this stage they are less than ¾ grown, perhaps only four weeks old and they cannot fly. Even so they leave the nest and climb around the trees nearby keeping in contact with the parent birds which are never far away, using contact calls. However, Tawny Owl nests are not always easy to see into, so I was intrigued. After a while I located the spot and using my scope I was eventually able to see a pair of eyes looking back at me when curiosity got the better of the Owl and it would lift its head to peer over the lip of the box and look directly at me. It was grey and covered in wiry looking fluff with two large dark eyes. This was certainly a Tawny chick. There was no sign of an adult bird at the box but it was almost certainly nearby and I didn’t want to linger for fear of causing any agitation to the birds. Tawny Owls are known to be aggressive at nest sites and this was also in the back of my mind. A talon to the head was not something I wanted to experience. The absence of the adult at the nest itself suggested the chick was no longer reliant on being brooded and therefore it could be branching soon.

We were both keen to observe what would unfold but without influencing or disturbing things in any way.  Having seen Justyn’s picture of the sadly deceased chick, it appeared well grown even then. Why the chick was hanging dead out of the front of the box will remain a mystery. A failed extraction by a predator seemed possible given that it appeared to have been dragged out but environmental conditions can often affect the amount of food available and consequently chick mortality. Having said that Tawny Owls have one of the most varied diets of any Owl and lack of food seemed unlikely.

6th June 2022

It has been over a week since I saw the remaining chick in the box and I confirm my suspicion that it has left, no sign of the bird in the box and no sign of it in the trees nearby. Justyna is still away and has not been able to make further observations in the meantime. It could have been branching for up to a week but I assume that it can’t have gone far. I arrive in the area before dusk hopeful that I will be able to locate the chick and safely observe it for a short while, I am not expecting to see any interaction between it and the adults. I don’t plan to stay long in case my presence dissuades the parents from feeding it during this critical time in the owlet’s development.

It’s not long before I hear the distinctive call of the chick, it’s no doubt been camouflaged and silent all day but the sun has barely set before it makes its location known. It can’t fly at this stage so I’m surprised to see how far from the nest box it is, as well as how high it is in a mature Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris). I take a few photos but I’m surprised to almost immediately become aware of an adult bird softly calling from the same tree and it soon lands next to the chick! I freeze, though of course this bird will be well aware that I am there given its incredible hearing and eyesight. It seems the urge to feed the chick has overcome any trepidation it may have regarding a human nearby.

With camera in hand I hardly need to move to fire off a few shots and I am later able to identify the prey item offered by the parent. It looks to be a Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi) a large bodied insect that I’m sure will be only the first of many meals the chick will be provided with over the night.

Tawny Owl adult with Fox Moth (above) and Tawny Owl chick snoozing on a branch (below). 6th June 2022 – Richard Ford © Digitalwildlife.co.uk

I dare not move while the adult is present and I assume on being offered the moth it is swallowed whole but then something strange happens, the chick drops from the perch at least three meters up and falls to the ground. The adult has gone but I can hear soft contact calls from nearby. I don’t want to cause undue stress to the birds so I leave, wondering if my presence has caused this to happen.

The chick has likely been in this tree close to a public footpath all day and will have remained undetected by dog walkers and the public in general and as I find out tomorrow the parent has no doubt been observing things very closely all day long. On reflection the strategy of simply dropping out of the tree and changing location makes perfect sense. The Owl cannot fly at this point but it is clear that it can very effectively walk and clamber around both along the ground and in the trees. Why waste energy climbing down a tree when you are a hollow boned ball of fluffy feathers! Though the bird appears to drop like a stone in the most unsettling of ways it’s perhaps more like a foam ball and alights not uncomfortably on leaf little or in this case spongy heather on the edge of heathland and makes its way, as I have found, often a surprising distance to the next tree truck which it can ascend and roost in during the following day. I suspect regardless of the presence of myself or Justyna this is simply the strategy it employs every night.

7th June 2022

I am keen to find the chick the following day to learn how far it has moved and confirm my thoughts. I feel as if my chances are reasonably good given that I know where it was last night. How far could it have gone? I arrive in the late morning and move around the area slowly trying to pick up any signs of the chick’s location to no avail and it feels very much like looking for a needle in a haystack. I have however noticed an adult Tawny Owl roosting near the top of a nearby Scots Pine. It has no doubt spotted me long before I saw it and other than giving me the occasional passing glance it generally continues to snooze the day away until it is later discovered by some Jays (Garrulus glandarius) and it moves to another pine nearby. It seems clear that the adult wants to stay in the area but also that it isn’t concerned by me and other passing humans using the footpath. I am encouraged by this and assume it’s quietly keeping tabs on the chick that must be nearby.

Tawny Owl adult in day roost
7th June 2022 – Richard Ford © Digitalwildlife.co.uk

I am ready to give up when I pick up some very soft calls which I suspect emanate from the chick and I head towards the area they seem to come from but they stop as quickly as they started. I have all but given up when a single squeak has me turning to face what could be dismissed as a ball of lichen on the branch of a young Oak tree (Quercus robur).

Tawny Owl chick about five weeks old, in its daytime roost in a small Oak Tree.
7th June 2022 – Richard Ford © Digitalwildlife.co.uk

The chick is absolutely still but follows me with nearly imperceptible head movements and squinted eyes as a walk parallel to it just a few meters away, I had been standing oblivious to the chick’s presence in this spot for some time earlier, while watching the adult Owl which still now watches me with what seems like indifference from it’s roost in the nearby Pine.

I take some daylight photos of both birds and some video and I leave then both to the rest of their day shortly after lunchtime. It’s been an enlightening, educational and exhilarating twenty-four hours and I wonder if I’ll be lucky enough to see either bird again as the chick becomes more independent and mobile. Its location is some twenty meters from where I had seen it drop at dusk just a few hours before and in that time it has travelled over rough ground, Heather and leaflitter to ascend another tree and find itself two meters up in a safe site to spend another day.

A short Digitalwildlife.co.uk video drawing attention to the need to leave wild baby birds alone in the springtime.

11th June 2022

It’s been two long weeks since I saw the Owl last time. I knew that it had left the nesting box thanks to Richard who was keeping me updated. As soon as I was back in the UK I headed for the forest. I arrived around two hours before sunset and I didn’t have to look for long. She was sat on one of the Silver Birches (Betula pendula) around two meters above the ground and constantly calling for food from her parents. I was really surprised how quickly her feathers had changed to a light brown colour. I couldn’t believe that this clumsy bird was so good at climbing the trees. I decided to back away and observe it from a distance as I didn’t want to stress her out.

Tawny Owl chick in Silver Birch tree probably less than six weeks old.
11th June 2022 – © Justyna Bielska

Absolute darkness. My camera was showing ISO12800, 1/40 sec and f6.3. My only light source was a pocket torch. I am still gathering equipment as I’ve not been a photographer very long so I had to cope with what I had. It wasn’t easy in complete darkness.

Tawny Owl chick in Silver Birch tree probably less than six weeks old.
11th June 2022 – © Justyna Bielska

Suddenly the chick started to squeak. It was a sign that the parents have come with food. One of them landed on the nearby tree and was calling occasionally and looking around, while the other appeared and fed the chick a rodent. It looked like the rodent was too big and the branch the owlet was sitting on started to move as it tried to swallow it unsuccessfully. The seemingly clumsy owlet while trying to get closer to the adult appeared to fall to the ground like a stone. It stood up quickly and while holding its prey in its beak it quickly moved towards the forest with unsteady steps. I was really surprised that it was fine after such an fall. It looked like the chick was made of the rubber and knew exactly how to fall to avoid any damage.

I decided to go home as I couldn’t see them anymore and I knew that it would allow the parents to safely feed the owlet undisturbed. I couldn’t sleep that night, I was analysing the whole situation. I was super happy with the fact that I was able to see Tawny Owls in their natural environment.

Tawny Owl chick in Silver Birch tree probably less than six weeks old.
11th June 2022 – © Justyna Bielska

16th June 2022

It was very dry and hot this month. I was wondering how the young owl was coping with the high temperature and lack of water throughout the day. I know that overheating for young birds can be deadly. The bare minimum of water it needed was probably provided with the food. I decided to go to the same place where I previously found the Tawny Owl family but I couldn’t hear the owlet this time and I wondered whether I’d been seen already and the owlet was trying to remain silent. The first month is one of the most difficult and most dangerous months for the young birds and I wonder if it was still alive.

I started to look around and flash the torch on the nearby trees and I eventually found an adult adult Owl sitting in a Pine watching me. I tried to look around, hoping that I would find the chick somewhere in the nearby trees but after a while I decided to stop looking and go back home. On my way towards the car, I could hear quiet squeaking. It was music to my ears.

It was sitting around three meters above the ground on a young Oak.  I walked around this tree a few times but I couldn’t see the Owl. It is amazing how they can become one with their surroundings. She was constantly calling for food when I eventually saw her and so I took few pictures and went home, knowing that this owlet needs food and I shouldn’t disturb her.

Tawny Owl chick in an Oak tree around six weeks old.
16th June 2022 – © Justyna Bielska

20th June 2022

I met Richard at the site and we looked for the Owlet together. We managed to find her thanks to his experience. She was still like a puffy ball but her flight feathers were already much longer. She seemed more alert and her eyes were focusing more on the surroundings. I was surprised how far she had moved from the previous place I had seen her and how high she had climbed. She was sitting nearly on the top of a mature Pine Tree.

Tawny Owl chick approaching seven weeks old, high in a Scots Pine at dusk.
20th June 2022 – Richard Ford © Digitalwildlife.co.uk

Justyna and I found the chick that evening perhaps five meters up in a Scots Pine, and fifty meters from the original nest site, having zigzagged a route across forest floor and heath. It’s possible that it was able to make short flights between branches at this point, our photos from that night (above) show well grown brown flight feathers but otherwise the bird was still mostly grey and fluffy. The understory here was dense gorse bushes and this tree was probably thirty meters from the previous area the bird had been seen and fifty meters from the nest location. Our observations suggest it had moved across ground most evenings and even at 5-6 weeks old was covering some twenty meters over ground during the night and then climbing up mature trees and along branches. Justyna a week later observed it making short flights. This was the last night I was able to see the chick as it became harder and harder to locate although it will remain dependant on being fed by the parents for up to two more months.

I visited this area a few times after this evening with Richard. I knew that the Owlet was slowly moving deeper into the forest and becoming more mobile. I often stayed till late to make sure that the Owlet was ok but I never had a chance to see her as she was always going quiet as I came close.

27th June 2022

I spent a few hours looking for the Owl and managed to find her around an hour after sunset. It was so dark that I didn’t even bother taking the camera out. The young Owl was already able to glide from one tree to another which explained why I’d struggled to find her and why I thought I’d heard her in more than one place at a time.  I know that it will become nearly impossible to see her again and my last chance is to come early in the morning to take some photos of her.

28th June 2022

5am – I came to the forest early in the morning to increase the chance of finding her. I knew that Tawny Owls is active early in the morning when they are feeding the young ones.

It was quiet in the forest but loud noises made by Jays  caught my attention. Jays often abuse Owls when they spot them, and this is exactly what was happening right here. The young Owl was trying to hide and blend into the background and the Jays left as I got closer. I could clearly see how much she’d grown since I saw her last time. She’d got bigger, was able to keep her balance and reminded me much more of an adult Tawny Owl. She was just looking at me from time to time with her curious eyes but didn’t seem bothered by my presence. I stayed with her until she easily jumped off the tree branch and glided into the forest. It was the last time I saw her.

Tawny Owl chick in an Oak tree now around eight weeks old.
28th June 2022 – © Justyna Bielska

It was an amazing experience. I will never forget the emotions that accompanied me every time when I was trying to find her. I am overwhelmingly happy that I was able to see one of the most secretive birds in Europe. There are difficult times ahead for this young Tawny Owl. She will have to leave her parent’s territory and learn how to hunt so she can become fully independent. Hopefully this pair of Tawny Owls will lay eggs here again next year.


One of the most interesting things Justyna and I have learned is the distance the young bird is able to travel during the night across ground and up trees. Dropping out of a tree also seemed with hindsight to be a perfectly reasonable strategy, as unsettling as it is to watch. In order to move from place to place and avoid patterns that a predator could take advantage of why waste energy climbing down, when you are light and fluffy enough to easily survive dropping to the ground. The Owl as far as we could tell showed no real pattern with its movements away from the nest site, they seemed sporadic in direction and distance and became more so as the Owlet grew in strength and ability.

Observations like this do throw up as many questions as they answer and I would love to be able to study a similar situation next year. To see an Owl climbing the tree for example would be quite a sight. However, I would encourage anyone reading this to be very, very careful around nesting Owls which have been known to be aggressive but also because any prolonged human presence near to nesting birds could disturb them and also contravene the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Tawny Owls are protected by law and knowingly disturbing them is a criminal offence.

Justyna and I are both very happy that we were able to observe these birds behaving naturally without affecting their behaviour and we would encourage anyone else to be very careful to do the same.

Richard Ford &
Justyna Bielska


D. W. Snow and C. M. Perrins
The Birds of the Western Palearctic Concise Edition  1998

Photography by Richard Ford – Digitalwildlife.co.uk
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Photography by JustynaBielskaPhotography
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Owl Photography

Photographing Owls (Owling)
My experiences photographing Owls in Hampshire

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) juvenile
Canon 1D III and Canon 400mm f/5.6

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.

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)
Canon 350D and Canon 100mm-400mm MKI

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.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
Canon 300D and Sigma 120mm-400mm

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.

Little Owl (Athene noctua)
Canon 300D and Sigma 120mm-400mm

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!

Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)
Canon 350D and Canon 120mm-400mm

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 Owl (Strix aluco)
Canon 300D and Canon 100mm-400mm MKI

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

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)
Canon 300D and Canon 100mm-400mm MKI
Little Owl (Athene noctua) juvenile
Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f/5.6

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.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f/5.6

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 Owl (Asio flammeus)
Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f/5.6

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.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) with a Vole
Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f/5.6

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!

Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)
Canon 350D and Canon 120mm-400mm
Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)
Canon 350D and Canon 120mm-400mm

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.

Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola)
Canon 350D and Canon 120mm-400mm

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.

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) juveniles
Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f/5.6

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.

Richard Ford