THE SEASON OF THE SHORT-EARED OWL - by Simon Wantling
As summer passes into autumn, I wait in anticipation for the arrival of the majestic Short- eared Owl. Living in Central England, resident 'Shorties' are a rare occurrence and the best chance of catching up with one is to await the migrant visitors who make the annual flight over from Scandinavia and Russia. The timing of their arrival varies from season to season. As soon as sightings start to be reported, I eagerly plot their movement as they distribute themselves across the country.
Once I hear that they've made it to the Fens, I pack up my gear and head east to the Fenland, a beautiful area of open countryside favoured by Short-eared Owls for the rough grasslands. It's a perfect hunting ground for voles, their primary food source. The number of migratory visitors can largely depend on the scale of the resident vole population. In good years this can attract a number of birds in one location for quite a period of time. In recent years, UK Short-eared Owl migration has been positive, with large numbers being reported across the country.
As with most bird photography, capturing stunning images of these magnificent birds, requires some specialised equipment. Getting in as close as possible to the subject without causing disturbance and distress is always key. To achieve this I use a combination of long focal length lenses ( Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II ), teleconverters ( Canon EF 1.4x III and EF 2.0x III ) and either a Canon 7D Mark II or Canon 5D Mark III camera body, all mounted onto a sturdy Gitzo tripod and Gimbal system. If the need arises, I will also use a throw over hide to further blend into the surroundings.
Patience and wildlife photography go hand in hand, and Short-eared Owls are no exception to this rule. On a typical trip out I can spend two to three hours in the field waiting for that one special moment. Choosing where to position yourself is key as Shorties can fly over large areas of suitable habitat when they are out hunting and there is no guarantee that they will fly past your location. Monitoring local birds for their flight patterns and habits will help to gain the necessary knowledge and help maximise your chances of capturing that special image. Having invested the time researching the location, I set up my equipment invariably with the sun behind me and a beautiful landscape in front of me and wait. Timing your arrival is also critical, but it is usually a long waiting game. Shorties tend to be day fliers, but the best time to see them is late afternoon as the sun starts to set or in the hour just after dawn. Obtaining the correct exposure in what can often be difficult low light conditions takes some practise. A sharp crisp photo of a Shortie in flight requires a reasonable shutter speed and in the low light conditions, the need to push the camera’s ISO setting comes into play. I won’t hesitate in setting an ISO of 3200 and above in order to obtain the image I desire. Most sensor noise can then be recovered with some careful post production.The brave man that sets a high ISO to ensure a fast enough shutter speed, gets the image. I take a few test shots to set the exposure for the light conditions, have a coffee out of a flask and wait.
Suddenly, as if orchestrated, the Shorties are in the air. They rise out of the long grass where they have been hidden from view and start to sweep across the landscape, scouring the area for prey. They move effortlessly, gliding across the grass, their out stretched wings beating an irregular rhythm. As they quarter the ground their exceptional hearing and eye sight picks out signs of small mammals hidden in the grasses below them. Diving down, talons extended, they pounce on their prey and disappear once again into the grass cover.
Shorties can be tricky birds to photograph, as their feather colours are well camouflaged for their habitat, and the camera autofocus system can struggle to lock onto them in flight when against the similar coloured backgrounds. The trick I find is to pick the bird up at distance and track it as it flies towards you, giving the camera’s autofocus system a chance to settle and lock on. Then let the camera do its work.
Again, a Shortie is off the ground. This time it flies right past me, it's head turned towards me. It has bright yellow eyes, ringed by dark brown feathers, giving it a fearsome look. It settles on a nearby post and eyes me from a distance. Deciding that I'm not a threat, it's attention is drawn back to the grasses and once again it is off, this time gliding far off into a distant field. I start to breathe again.
I spot another Shortie in the neighbouring field. It's flying into the sun, it's body silhouetted against the sky. It lands in the centre of the field in a patch of short grass. It's an ideal opportunity to get an image of one on the ground, so I decide to move to get a better shot. I'm half way there when it rises off the ground, flying towards me, with its wings out stretched. It passes right next to me and I swing the lens around to capture the movement. I'm buzzing with the adrenaline of being so close to such a magnificent bird. These are magical moments that will stay with me forever.
Back home, I review the images captured and select images where the Shorties are shown in all their glory, a turned head looking straight at the camera, out stretched wings or wing shapes that convey movement. Images that show the story of the hunt, the scouring of the ground, the sudden dive into the grass are always high on the preferred list.
As the months fly by and the weather starts to warm, the Shorties start their voyage back and the chances of capturing their beauty falls rapidly. It's a sad time and I can't help wishing the year would pass quickly through to next winter when they may appear again, although nothing is guaranteed.
I am left with the memory of some wonderful and magical times spent photographing what has to be one of my favourite birds. They are truly magnificent creatures which I wish everyone could have the pleasure of seeing them in their natural environment. If not, then I hope the images I capture go some way in taking the viewer to that special moment on a cold winters day in the English countryside.