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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Barn Owls - on 11th and 13th April, 2013

At the end of my last post, which was about a fine male Redstart in our garden being the bird that caused us to break our annual garden record for bird species - less than a third of the way through the year, I promised that my next post would be about Barn Owls. I was tempted to break that promise as, just one day after writing that post, we added another garden first for the year in the form of a Willow Warbler. However, as that is just an LBJ, I've decided to keep my word!

On Thursday, my pal Titus (he who has Barn Owls nesting in his garden) and I did an evening shift on the Osprey Project at Rutland Water.  It was a very dull and murky evening, occasionally interrupted by rain. At times it was not too easy to see the Ospreys, but they were quite active for the first half of the shift. At that time, there was one egg in the nest. I expect that, by now, there are three!

Distractions were in the form of a Muntjac that was foraging round the hide, but all was quiet otherwise.

I'd been keeping a weather eye on the owl box which can be seen from Waderscrape hide. Three Barn Owl chicks had fledged from this box last year. However, no Barn Owl was seen to so much as poke its head out of the box. I was, therefore, quite surprised to see a Barn Owl appear to the left of the hide at 19:27. The light was, by now, really awful and the prospects of getting a decent flight shot were nil. These were the best that I could manage.


Barn Owl - Rutland Water, Manton Bay at 19.27
The owl was soon lost to sight, round the back of the hide, and Titus popped out to have a look. He was gone a few minutes, and then popped back to say that there were two owls hunting, well apart! I continued watching the Ospreys whilst Titus alternated between owls and Ospreys. When he told me that an owl had settled on a post, I couldn't resist popping out to take a few shots. Unfortunately it was a long way away! This was at 19:35 and 1/80 sec. handheld at ISO 3200.


Barn Owl - Rutland Water, Manton Bay at 19.35
At 19:52 I noticed that an owl was visible from the hide, and on a nearer post. This one was 1/30  sec. handheld at ISO 3200!


Barn Owl - Rutland Water, Manton Bay at 19.52
After this, one of the owls started circling the hide, and at 19:57 it settled on a distant post in front of the hide, by the water's edge. It was nearly fully dark by now and I wound down the exposure compensation in order to more accurately depict the light conditions at the time, and also to give me the best possible chance of getting any image at all!


Barn Owl - Rutland Water, Manton Bay at 19.57
We continued to watch the owls and the Osprey for a while but then shortly, at about 20:05 we decided that we'd better pack up and go home. We'd enjoyed well over half an hour with Barn Owls flying around. I'll never know whether I saw both of them as Titus was the only one who saw two owls at one time! I was pleased that I'd brought a torch with me - it was much needed as we packed everything away!

The following day I had a phone call from a good friend (you know who you are - thank you, you're a star!) who said he'd been talking to one of his customers who told him that he was seeing a Barn Owl every morning between 06:30 and 07:00 on a certain stretch of road. It was spending time hunting along the road,  but could also often be seen sitting on a freshly cut roadside hedge. My pal suggested that, as it wasn't too far from me, would I like to go and investigate? In reality it was about 15 miles (24km) from my home, but I've got some Little Owl sites in the vicinity and knew the area reasonably well. I went and spent that evening at the location to check it out, and hoping that the owl frequented this place in the evening too. Nothing was seen, however.

My alarm clock was set for 05:00 and, next morning, off I set. I arrived in the half-light at 06:20 to see a Barn Owl flying down the road towards me. I'd already sussed out the parking situation so was able to throw my Smart car into a gap and wait. It kept flying towards me and then, when it was only about 4 metres in front of me, it crossed over in front of my car! I know, from past experience, that there is absolutely no point in trying to take photos through the windscreen of the Smart. They just end up a blurry mess! Besides, it was far too dark for a flight shot.

The owl then set off back up the road, flew off into the nearest field where it settled for a while, and then came back to the hedgerow some distance away and headed back towards me. This one was taken at 06:29, 1/250 sec at ISO 2500 (the light was still very poor).

Barn Owl - undisclosed site, Leicestershire, at 06:29
It continued slowly towards me and then, to my delight, landed on top of the hedgerow in a position where I could take shots from inside my car. I stood a chance of some semi-respectable photos. This one was 1/250 sec. at ISO 800

Barn Owl - undisclosed site, Leicestershire, at 06:30
It stayed here for a short while and then it was off again, continuing up the road ahead of me and sometimes diverting into the fields on either side of the road. It seemed to me that it had no intention of coming back my way so I set off on foot to follow it, keeping as close to the hedge as possible to make myself less conspicuous, although I suspect that I was fooling no one!!

For virtually all the time, I was at a distance of  over 100 metres, and this only allowed 'habitat' shots. Frustratingly the light was improving all the time and the sun was shining, although still low on the horizon.

These next three  images were taken between 06:48 and 06:57 at ISO 500, 1/400, 1/250, 1/200 sec. respectively.




I was getting nowhere fast with the photography, and had followed the owl for over a mile when it suddenly turned and started flying back along the road towards me. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to wind the ISO up for a flight shot, and grabbed a number of frames, including the following two images, which I'm not too disappointed with, taken at 1/1000, ISO 1000 - what a difference to light a few short minutes can make!


Barn Owl - undisclosed site, Leicestershire, at 06:58
Immediately after this last shot was taken it flew up into a tree directly over the road from where I was standing - and settled behind a thick branch which almost totally obscured its position. Damn and Blast! I tried to move to a better spot but it was off again and then landed in the next tree along - again obscured by a branch, but this time only partially.

Barn Owl - undisclosed site, Leicestershire, at 06:59
It only stayed here a couple of seconds and then was off up the road again. It was now time for me to leave things alone until another day, and head home for some breakfast. 

This was a parting shot of the departing owl. I'd had 40 delightful minutes of its company, and was feeling very happy!

Barn Owl - undisclosed site, Leicestershire, at 06:59
On the way home I dropped onto a couple of my Little Owl sites, but only spotted two owls at one site. Little did I know that, a couple of hours later, I was to see a Redstart in my garden!

38 comments:

  1. Lovely flight shots! Have a great day!

    Shantana

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  2. Great post Richard, those shots in poor light are really super and the ones in better light stunning, really enjoyable viewing :-)

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    1. Thank you, Alan, for your very kind comments.

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  3. Great to see these magnificent birds and your patience and persistence got you some really great photos!

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  4. Wow...absolutely amazing owl images!!! Incredible.

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  5. Your owl shots are amazing! I enjoyed seeing the surroundings on some of them instead of cropping the photo down. For instance, the 3rd shot down with the owl on the fence post is so beautiful. I also enjoyed the flight shots very much.

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    1. Thank you Gail. Might be struggling for a while for more owl shots. We're going through a very windy spell at the moment, and owls don't like windy weather.

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  6. Great post, love the barn owl photos!

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  7. What a marvellous series of shots Richard! The in flights are amazing!

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  8. Richard, a pleasure to view your beautiful Barn Owl shots. I take it you are using a stabilised lens with those sharp handheld shots at slow shutter speeds; either that, or you have forearms like Popeye!

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    1. Thank you Jeremy. Yes, I'm using a Sigma 150-500 with OS. This helps a lot in poor light, but when the light is really bad I find that there's still a great element of luck in getting a relatively sharp image. It's rare that I use the lens at anything other than its full 500mm reach, and for anything taken at less than 1/150 second there will be many frames that are immediate throwaways, purely because of camera shake! The images in this post have been distilled from probably around 600 frames taken, and of those that made it through, there's also been a fair amount of post-processing on some of them.

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  9. Fantastic owl shots!!!! Owls are amazing. My other half fell in love with the Burrowing Owls and like you, I don't release specific locations but I do keep my eyes on them:)

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    1. Thank you Chris. Those Burrowing Owls, which are similar to our Little Owls (although ours don't tend to nest underground - but it's not unknown!), seem to ooze character just like our LOs do!

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    2. I just think owls are full of character. I can never get enough of them. Anytime I have the priviledge of seeing one, my heart goes pitter patter:)

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    3. Yep, it hits me in the same way!!

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  10. What a wonderful experience and you managed some lovely photos Richard! The close ones on the hedge and flying over the hedge are stunning but frankly I would be happy with all of them. I would actually be happy with any photo of a Barn Owl!!

    Regarding the Willow Warbler, an LBJ maybe but a fine visitor to the garden :-)

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    1. Thank you Jan. I'll probably post on the Willow Warbler soon.

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  11. What a wonderful series of shots!

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  12. Richard, thanks for your reply. I've got the Sigma 500 f/4.5, which doesn't have I.S., although I do sometimes get lucky with sharp shots at slow shutter speeds. The weight of this lens can help with stability, although it doesn't help with the back!

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    1. I carry my camera and binoculars on an OP/TECH USA harness. It greatly reduces back strain! Brilliant modular kit! They're very helpful with shipping to UK, although the web site doesn't reflect this. You can find them on www.optechusa.com.

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  13. Hi there - Barns Owls are such great birds - I love the way they ghost about in the countryside.

    Splendid pictures.

    Cheers and thanks for linking to WBW.

    Stewart M - Melbourne

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    1. Thank you Stewart. Keep up the good work!

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  14. Your images are beautiful, Richard. I love the way you captured the owl in such a gorgeous glowing light.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. I confess that the 'glowing light' was partially due to white-balance adjustment!

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  15. What a really nice post! I loved your narrative and the pictures are amazing. What a beautiful bird!

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    1. Thank you Wally. I've still not managed to find a way to see your own posts!

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  16. Some amazing shots of the Barn owl! well worth getting up early for I say:-)

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    1. Thank you Linda. I can't do it too often or I'll get into strife with my wife!

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