A Classic Encounter with a Barn Owl.

14th February 2016
The Barn Owl is without doubt an iconic British farmland bird. There are not many more rewarding sights for a bird watcher on an evening walk than a Barn Owl sitting out with its beautiful plumage and heart shaped face standing out against the fading light.

These birds inspire me, they epitomise our countryside and having seen one in the above circumstances gives me a sense of satisfaction. Then after this lovely experience to stroll to a country pub and sit outside with a pint of real ale is my perfect end to a day!
This winter there has been a Barn Owl roosting near Llangors Lake in the Brecon Beacons. I have been watching its habits for a week trying to see if I could form some sort of pattern to its behaviour in order to find a way to photograph this beautiful bird. The recent inclement weather has not been kind to this Owl and it has been battered by wind and rain, as I mentioned in my previous blog post. I have seen the Owl struggle with the elements as it tries to find food to survive the winter. The time of day it appears from its ‘Day Roost’ varies greatly and that in itself is a big challenge because one day you could have a four hour wait and another day you are too late and the bird is out and gone. Add to this the bird’s super eyesight and hearing and unpredictable perching regime and you have some idea of the problems involved in obtaining a photograph.
However, after extensive observation and planning I felt I was ready to try and get close up. Because of the horrendous mud in the area I could not carry my normal portable hide to where I wanted to be, so I rigged up a temporary hide made from some old wood from packaging - I never throw wood away. I fixed a foot of Bamboo bean stick to the bottom of each piece of wood so that the hide frame could be pushed into the soft ground. I then covered the wood with Camo netting, this was very lightweight and portable allowing me to get through the mud.
My first attempt at photographing this bird went much better than I expected, I had set my little 3’ cubed frame up in a gap in a hedge near to where I had seen the Owl perching during my previous observations. I had been waiting for three hours and I was getting quite cold when suddenly I spotted the Owl flying in the distance across the meadows, I hadn’t realised that it was already out from roost! This was a bit worrying because it may have seen me setting up my hide and therefore avoid coming near. I nevertheless decided to sit tight and I could now see it making its way across the meadow towards me. The low sun was shining very brightly from the west directly on where I was hoping the Owl would perch. These moments are really adrenalin fuelled and I could feel my heart beating faster. Even after all these years the thought of 'capturing' a beautiful bird such as this is still very exciting.
I had to use an aperture of around f10 to reduce the exposure because of the bright sunlight. It’s ironic that after all the gloom we have been experiencing over the previous months here I was on the one day I didn’t need bright sun!! I always shoot in RAW format, some people won’t do this because of the processing involved and the media space large RAW files take up. However, RAW allows me to deliberately and consistently under-expose by up to one stop. This, in addition to a small aperture is my main tool to combat excessive light. The images look dark on first inspection but all the data is still there, unlike Jpeg images! and they fully recover in Photoshop. Always better to under rather than over expose!! Another invaluable feature I use is the silent shooting mode on the Canon 7Dii camera. This really dampens down the noise from the shutter but it reduces the frames per second down to about four. Hopefully when a bird is perched frames per second won’t matter but shutter noise will. These Owls are hyper aware of any little unfamiliar noise.
Suddenly across the meadow the Owl flew inexorably towards me, quartering to and fro as it came until it was just a matter of yards away. I thought it was going to fly past when suddenly it veered left and perched right where I had hoped.

I very carefully moved the lens to focus on it, praying it wouldn’t fly off - these are very tense moments indeed. The shutter fired and the Owl didn’t react at all - the silent shooting mode was working. I was able to take shot after shot in various poses as the Owl seemed oblivious to me. I now believe the Owl didn’t know I was there. This is the perfect scenario for taking a photograph without disturbing the bird. Then it casually flew off and I didn’t see it again that day. I packed up and left feeling very contented indeed!!
When I got home and viewed the images they were beyond all my expectations - the bright sunlight had actually done me a favour highlighting this wonderful bird to a new level. To say I was pleased is an understatement.
The following two days were blighted with wind and rain again, however, after this bad weather had blown through I decided to try once more because the light was different - more diffused. I trudged through the mud to set up in the same place and I had been waiting for three and a half hours when I could hear what I thought was a Water Rail squeaking - but it was quite loud. What happened next totally threw me. As I slowly looked to my left the Owl was sitting about six feet away on a post - just looking at me. I really thought the game was up, but it just stayed there looking around and I began to believe it hadn’t seen me. This was incredible, to be looking at a wild Barn Owl six feet away was unreal! Then again it just casually flew away to the fields behind me. I waited another hour, at the time still not sure whether or not it had seen me. I turned around to look behind me to see what was going on. To my total surprise the Owl was heading towards me. I thought it would fly over me and hopefully perch nearby - but what happened next was just unbelievable - it landed on the same post again!! I was frozen to the spot, afraid to make a sound. I could see the Owl reflected in my camera screen. It appeared totally unaware of me. The Owl looked around the area and then just flew off to hunt the field in front of me.
I was in shock after this encounter but I had to quickly compose myself because I could now see the Owl flying towards me again. What an experience this was turning out to be! Closer and closer it flew, a feeling of déjà vu swept over me - would the Owl land on the perch? This question was quickly answered as yet again it perched perfectly,

and once again I photographed it in many poses.
These moments should be treasured because they may not happen again in a lifetime. Then after a minute the Owl flew off the perch into the roost and that was the end of another wonderful day. I hardly noticed the mud on my way back, I must have been floating!!
After processing I had another set of lovely images and an experience I will never forget - what a bird!!
For more images please see Latest Images Barn Owl.