For the past two years I've wanted some decent images of Short Eared Owls in the winter. Despite seven visits to the now well known Worlaby Carrs, I still had nothing to show for it. I did have some owl sightings, but never came close to getting anything with the camera. Now, finally, I have managed to put a big tick next to this species! With a heavy frost forecast a few days ago, I decided to take a chance. I knew that the area was prone to fog; in fact, on a previous visit I had travelled around fifty miles in glorious sunshine, only for the last ten to turn into a pea-souper of a fog. This time however was different. There was plenty of fog around but enough visibility. I also knew that there was likely to be a hoar frost, and as I arrived at Worlaby, I was greeted by the most wonderful thick hoar frost - everything coated in pure white.. stunning conditions for photography.
My aim was to capture images that would show the owls hunting in this harsh environment. I love this style of wildlife photography. They are well known to hunt in the day here, but usually later in the afternoon. However, with such harsh overnight conditions they were out by around 11.00am, treating a number of photographers to some really close up views.
For a while the light was wonderful. A bit of weak sun that lifted the shutter speeds whilst providing quality lighting. To get an accurate exposure I first used aperture priority - setting the exposure one whole stop above the camera's reading. Later I used manual in the same way. In these conditions I could get a fast shutter speed using my 300mm and 1.4 extender - up to 1/2000 second. When the light dropped I had to increase ISO - going up to 1000 at the most. There's always a trade off here with quality, but the light frost and clear backgrounds meant any camera noise would barely show up. The owls are actually pretty tough to photograph in flight. They are incredibly agile - and that's what makes them a challenge. They can float slowly one minute, then suddenly change direction the next, giving the autofocus a pretty hard time. It's with subjects like this, often in low light, that a good quality lens can really make a difference.
I started off by grabbing what I could (I had missed out on these birds so many times!!) and in fact captured one of the best images at my first attempt. From then on I was treated to plenty of fly-bys, some closer than others. The owls would fly low over the marsh, towards the cars, and sometimes across the road over to the open fields. They are such a joy to watch. I'm not sure how many there were, but I was aware of four at one time hunting fairly close together. There were even spats between birds, causing them to become quiet vocal which I think is pretty unusual. At one point I watched two having a right go at one another, talons out and everything. Another amazing sighting to add to the day..
The lighting conditions were at times - near perfect. Subtle light helped in stopping the action and also reduced contrast. The backgrounds were beautiful too - the distant tree-lines and dissipating fog that created a nice clear backdrop to set the birds against. When an owl approached, I did my best to follow it, sometimes using my beanbag, sometimes hand-holding. Straight line flights are always good, but probably my favourite opportunities came when an owl would hover above the frost covered grasses.
I stayed until 3.00pm when things seemed to quieten down - and the light was becoming poor. I really hope to get back to photograph these beauties. They are such magical birds and I absolutely love them..!