Barn Owl, tracking the ' Silent Assassin '

21st February 2013
For the last few weeks there has been a male Barn Owl hunting the local farmland, this is not at all common because most farmland in this area is used for grazing sheep. This means that most of the grass is cropped short and therefore there is no place for Voles and Mice to hide, so they don't live there, this in turn does not provide food for these most iconic birds.
I first noticed this particular bird hunting a rough pasture one evening a couple of weeks ago just as the light was dimming. Barn Owls are crepuscular in their habits so this is not good for the photographer, they always appear just as the light is fading and usually this means there is not enough light to maintain a high enough shutter speed to capture a sharp flight image. Some evenings he was hunting in reasonable light, for whatever reason they come out earlier some nights, although in the main they are 'light triggered'.
Something just tells them that a particular light is when they should start hunting.
I was hidden behind a small tree one evening and I could see him hunting in his usual place, gradually he came closer and finally I was able to get a flight shot. My experience in shooting Barn Owls in Norfolk has taught me that up to a point they are not that bothered about people as long as there is no noise and movement and they will happily glide past the lucky observer if these criteria are adhered to.
This birds are very predictable in their habits but that does not mean it is easy to photograph them, they hunt ditches and fence lines and are very good at disappearing despite their light colour. This was exemplified another night when i was watching him hunting, he flew behind a hedge and didn't reappear, I couldn't see him anywhere and as I looked around I couldn't believe it, he was heading straight at me, by the time I had focussed my lens he was upon me, now I know what a Vole feels like! I managed to fire off a couple of shots but his wings were cut off, nevertheless I still loved the shot of him so close.
As the days wore on I just couldn't get really close to him, he was so wary and alert and I felt he was just playing with me. I could see what a beautiful bird he was, his plumage was so 'Orangey' and his eyes so black, I just had to try and get near to him.
I watched him over a period of a week or so and I could see he was landing on a particular branch quite regularly, but because of all the flooding of late this area was very difficult to get to and I also had to cross a stream to get there. However, its no good giving up before you have tried and last night off I went with my portable hide.
I crossed the stream with great difficulty, soaking my trousers in the process and ploughed on through glutinous mud almost losing my wellingtons a couple of times.
I managed to find a small area of reasonably firm ground and got into my hide and set my gear up, almost immediately I heard a horrible sucking noise and I began to sink into the mud. I was just about to get out when my hide and tripod stopped sinking and settled down, both in about six inches of mud.
His favourite branch was about ten yards away and I thought, 'I'm here now so I'll stick it out', excuse the pun! It was four O'clock and I knew he didn't usually fly until about five. I waited in silence until quarter past five, adjusting my camera settings to the now rapidly failing light. I decided to wait until five thirty and then I would pack in because the light would be too bad then anyway, I was not hopeful!
Suddenly he glided past my hide and landed right on the branch in front of me. I obviously knew Barn Owls were silent but when you see a bird that big glide past you six feet away in absolute and total silence it is quite awe inspiring.
He turned around and looked straight at me and I fired five shots, immediately he heard the shutter he took off, he didn't like the noise and he melted away into the evening gloom.
Two hours of effort, soaking wet and covered in mud all for half a second with this absolutely magical bird, worth every second!!
Please see Latest Images, Brecon Barn Owl.