Short-eared owls are one of my favourite birds and each winter, here, on the North Kent Marshes, we often get them in fairly high numbers. This is entirely dictated by, of course, their food supply being mainly short-tailed field voles. These small rodents have cyclical populations and in turn determine how many “shorties” will be present. On those years (approximately every 7-8) where vole numbers are at their peak, so too are the owls. This year, though not exceptional, was pretty good and a pair took up residence on an area of private rough grassland I had been photographing barn owls on that winter. The 2 rarely mixed. When the barn owls were hunting, shorties were absent and vice versa. Birds of prey are notoriously territorial (for good reason!) and so, I guess, it wasn’t that surprising. I’d spent a couple of months photographing barn owls, the results of which can be seen here, and so when the shorties began to stake claim on the area, I was keen to get some images.
Initially, I would visit at all times of the day and weathers. It was soon apparent, however, that they were far more active from midday on and significantly less so in the morning so I decided to concentrate on that part of the day and shoot other subjects at first light instead. I used a combination of a semi-permanent wooden hide, dome hide and my 4×4 which really proved it’s worth during wet weather when access to the site would have been nye on impossible!
They would use certain parts of the field more than others for a period of time until, I guess, they exhausted the food source, and so, for the following 2 images, I set up a dome hide adjacent to a hawthorn. I’m not keen on using fabric hides in such exposed areas. It doesn’t matter how well you peg one of these down, they just act like a sail and if the guy ropes hold, the hide poles themselves, don’t! But, sometimes, there is no alternative. On occasion, I have used a hide framework made of dexion with a Fensman hide cover thrown over it which is far more stable. Ultimately, you simply can’t beat a solid wooden hide.
The two images below came as a result of slowly and at intervals, driving my 4×4 down the rough track where they were hunting. I stopped a good 100m from them but then the wind picked up, hail started to fall and the owls took cover. After about 45 minutes, the wind subsided and the sun shone, providing ideal hunting conditions for them.
My favourite image of this species to date taken moments after the above. It flew around my car and then towards me. The 300mm f2.8 fitted to my D300 had trouble keeping focus due to the background and so I did so manually until the last moment. Out of 6 shots this was the sharpest and the one with the nicest wing position.
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About Robert Canis
Robert Canis is a professional photographer specialising in the natural world.
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