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.
I have only been to this location once, in 1992. Those of you that are familiar with seal photography will know where Iam talking about and for those of you that don’t, all I will say is that it is on the Lincolnshire coast. Please read on to find out why I do not give it’s exact whereabouts. Back then, it was hardly known of and indeed all I wanted to do as a 22 year old was photograph grey seals that autumn. I understood through popping into my local library (this was, after all before the days of the web) that they come ashore from October to February to breed and give birth along the Norfolk and Lincolnshire coast and further. So, I first wrote a letter that summer to the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust who gave me the address of the warden who I also then wrote to. All this communication by ‘snail-mail’ took several weeks but in the end I was given details of where I should be able to find them.
I was advised by the warden to only go there at the weekend, for a very good reason. I drove up on the Friday with my dad, booked into a B&B then went to the local pub for lunch. Whilst at the pub we chatted to locals who gave us directions as to where the best spot is for seeing them so later that afternoon we parked the car where they suggested and walked along the dunes where lo and behold there they were! What a sight I thought. All the letter writing and driving had finally paid off. I remember taking quite a few shots but at the same time being mindful that I only had a certain amount of film with me. Seems funny looking back on it in this digital age that you had to consider things like that.
The following dawn we both walked across the beach, which took around half an hour to where the main colony was. The early mist cleared and I began shooting with seals all around. But, the images I was really after were of the seals swimming, perhaps with their heads bobbing in the water, typical of this species. But the North Sea didn’t play ball. It was very rough and they were concealed most of the time by the waves. In my concentration I forgot about the waves and all of a sudden my wellington’s were filled with ice cold sea water. Not very pleasant I can tell you! My dad however, in typical fashion, came prepared with spare socks and bags which I slipped my feet into and then back into the wellies. Arh, warm and dry again. On the Sunday however a kind of estuary occurred between the sea and main beach which the seals seemed to be enjoying. It was like a mill pond. I set up the camera on the tripod and just sat there while cows and bulls swam close by, sometimes so close they filled the frame too much. I looked behind me to see my dad with two pups that had come up to him. Looking back I wish I’d taken a photo of that moment but was too focused on the job in hand. How many others were there to share this? Three at the most. Colleagues tell me it’s a very different matter these days. Donna Nook is a ‘must’ for nature photographers fuelling their need to photograph these animals and for pro’s to further saturate the market with identical looking images. On Alamy alone there are 2746 images if you type in the location and my own agent has 186 images and I’m sure they have a lot more taken here which the author has omitted from the caption. Many thousands now go there and every year there seems to be stories about irresponsible behaviour by photographers, getting too close and stressing the animals.
I don’t think there were many photographers that knew of that site at the time as within months of me submitting the images to my then agent Planet Earth Pictures they were were being used in newspapers, calendars and magazines and even Getty took a few. Certainly images of them were few and far between and unlike others I didn’t immediately start doing workshops there to make a few quid, one of the main reasons I believe for the surge, even before internet forums. I’m personally very reluctant to give away subject locations these days of those areas that may attract large numbers of photographers and indeed only do so to a few like-minded friends and colleagues. This isn’t because I’m worried that they may take similar or better images and put them in the market place in competition with me but that ultimately the subject may become stressed by the sheer number of others in that vicinity. And anyway, surely by doing your own homework you will benefit from producing your own set of fresh images and the personal satisfaction that comes from doing so.
Last year I worked on a site for several weeks photographing a short-eared owl from my car. Using a hide wasn’t an option as it hunted in a field adjacent to a road. I would sit there patiently most afternoons observing and photographing until one afternoon I turned up and there were at least 8 photographers semi-blocking the road with their cars, standing next to the field, cameras on tripods, noisily chatting to one another. The owl did appear but of course headed for the far end of the field and eventually crossed to another some distance away. A perfect example of inconsiderate behaviour by those that were acting as though they were on an outing, comparing lenses and tripods than actually taking into account the well-being of the bird and observing from a discreet distance, inside their vehicles.
I have to say that I’m reluctant to go back to the same seal colony as I fear it will tarnish the perfect memory of spending two whole days with the seals and my dad on an almost empty beach. Instead, I’m looking for a fresh venue and I think I may have just found one.
About Robert Canis
Robert Canis is a professional photographer specialising in the natural world.
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