Quartering over farmland, hovering with moth like silence, flying effortlessly on the wing in the half-light at dawn or dusk is the supreme hunter, the Barn Owl. A bird that has always created a sense of great excitement and fascination for me. In British folklore, a screeching Barn Owl is believed to predict that a storm or cold weather was imminent. During a storm, if a Barn Owl was heard, it indicated that the storm was nearly over.
The custom of nailing a Barn Owl to a barn door to warn off evil persisted into the 19th century, something you just wouldn’t believe people would do but back then strange things went on and happened to these amazing owls.
The Barn Owl had a sinister reputation, a bird of darkness, where people associated it with death. The Ancient Greeks and Romans saw owls as a symbol of wisdom. Athena the goddess of wisdom is often depicted in art with an owl perched on her shoulder. Sometimes owls were also viewed as messengers from the gods, full of wisdom and helpfulness.
Over the last several weeks I have been watching a family of Barn Owls live out their lives in an old disused building overlooking some beautiful countryside . In some of the most testing weather since records begin two adult owls have raised three healthy chicks that now are almost ready to take their places among our countryside. With the wettest June on record it’s been hard work watching the parent birds put their own lives on the line by hunting in this wet weather.
A lot of the time though the weather has broken and this has allowed the owls to hunt and build up their larders of food which is a key behaviour among Barn Owls. This stored food then helps during the long periods of wet weather.
With no sign of improvement it’s hard to believe its summertime in the UK. I like to study air pressures and weather fronts as it really helps within my work. The reasons for this wet weather are simple when you take a look at the weather charts, the jet stream.
During most summers the jet stream lies to the north of the UK, so rain-bearing weather fronts and depressions miss us and hit Scandinavia instead. This year however this jet stream has shifted southwards and is lying over France and southern Europe, this has left the UK wide open to these depressions and all this wet weather.
One possibility to what maybe moving this jet stream is warming temperatures between the Arctic and the tropics and the shrinkage of the north polar ice cap. These changing weather conditions and patterns may be around a lot more than we think in the future where alongside wildlife we’ll have to learn to live and change alongside this ever present climate change that are here to stay for sure.
My hide is some distance away, completely hidden from view and well camouflaged. The image above is the view I have from my hide and one of the perches they are using now, exercising their wings and doing their tester flights just before sunset each evening. I move my hide to a different place under the cover of darkness as not to disturb them and also once the dawn light comes up the wildlife will see the hide and accept it as part of the landscape. Again cutting down on any stress, and disturbance to the wildlife and in this case the Barn Owls.
With a mixture of different focal lengths, tele-convertors, crop modes in camera and time I’ve been able to photograph this family and capture them going about their lives at this location. Wild Barn Owls are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and so should never be disturbed in any way. I am using really high ISO’s on my camera in order to get some shutter speed, as they aren’t coming out until around 9-9.30pm. I never use any sort of flash with wildlife as I feel any form of bright light suddenly hitting an animals retina disturbs the subject.
When you work somewhere new like this site, you gradually build a picture of movements, favourite natural perches, flight patterns etc. This is a skill you have to learn in order to try and second guess where and when your images will come from. This takes time and is very time consuming but for me its the very essence of real wildlife photography. At the same time you learn so much about the subject, and the habitat in which they live. The image above is of the paler male Barn Owl perched on a stone lintel, he is so stunningly beautiful.
The Barn Owls use the main barn as well as some smaller buildings which often both the adult and young perch on. Hours pass by, with nothing, not a sound, then a white flash passes by my hide, a corus of loud hissing noises can be heard as the adult owls come in with prey. This image below is the male Barn Owl who likes to perch on the pitch of this old roof here and on this evening my hide was close and by pure luck he landed, stopped and looked straight through me.
I was too close really, so I went for a close up of his amazing and beautiful, heart-shaped face. I managed to take just one photo on silent mode before he flew off and carried on hunting, and this is that amazing moment captured here. The male has much lighter plumage around the breast and face and has a completely white chest nothing else, the female on the other hand is slightly bigger and has black spots on her chest.
The ability to see things that are hidden and hunt completely undetected are key to a Barn Owls life and survival. Often without warning they arrive and vanish before you have any chance to capture this. I always like to capture wildlife as seen on the ground, going about their lives with no disturbance by my presence at all, I like to compose my subjects on whatever they land on.
They are venturing out more and more now and it won’t be long before they completely leave the comfort of this building and start to live and roost among the many trees littering the surrounding landscape. When I leave the site in almost total darkness I often see one or both of the parent birds flying over the farmland with one of the younger ones in tow, their white bodies giving an almost floating appearance as they fly and dive.
Maybe they are having hunting lessons, learning their craft, who knows but it’s very enduring to see and both adult owls have been brilliant parents that have managed to feed and bring up their brood in some of the wettest weather since records begin.
I hope to continue to follow the progress of this Barn owl family over the next several months, where any day now the young will fully fledge and leave the place that’s been their home now for several months. Its been a special and privileged time for me to witness these amazing owls live their lives around me. Often I’ve just sat and marveled at their antiques, and behaviours, with each youngster having their own personality. They is one that’s just slightly smaller than the others and seems to need more attention from his parents which is so enduring to see and watch.
I will be releasing a few more Barn Owl limited edition prints soon which will be available framed or unframed and in canvas format to go along one of my favourite ones that can be seen and purchased here if you scroll down to the bottom of the page. Where 50% of the profits from each sale go to this trust I support with my work, because I love Barn owls and want to help them.
The Barn Owl Conservation Handbook is a comprehensive guide for ecologists, surveyors, land managers and ornithologists written by the Barn Owl Trust. I help this trust in any way I can in order to help this amazing owl keep safe and it’s survival. After the launch of this guide last week I received this from the Barn Owl trust, which was wonderful and I’m so glad my Barn Owl images can help.
I am very pleased to say that the Barn Owl Conservation Handbook we started writing in January 2010 has finally arrived and the first copies are being mailed out today. This publication represents a major milestone in the Trusts history.
On behalf of my co-authors and all the books future beneficiaries I would like to thank you for your unique contribution in providing your wonderful photograph of a Barn Owl hunting in flight during daylight that appears in colour on the back cover alongside Mike Toms testimonial.
Without your photos, the Handbook would not be as good as it is. Thank you very much indeed.
David J Ramsden MBE
Click here to be taken to their website and to purchase this guide. Also this as many charities in today’s times is run on donations so if you can help them to carry on their wonderful work then please do so and visit their website by clicking here many thanks.