I always like to set myself targets at the beginning of each year to help push myself into achieving goals and no matter how big or small they may be, ticking them off is always a good feeling. This year, I wrote down several species of bird I would like to work with and without doubt Little Owl was high on that list. I’ve struggled time after time with them, so many ‘almost’ shots, fleeting glimpses, but nothing memorable. A brief encounter with one in the southern regions of Morocco in 2016 was as good as it ever got for me, I was happy with my images but they just weren’t the shots I was looking for. Fast forward to May 2018, to the month where I was photographing Tawny Owl chicks fledgling, I would often see a Little Owl sitting on a nearby fencepost in the morning. The post was on private land and there was no access - unfortunately resulting in no images and after that, I didn’t see the owl again. I soon forgot about Little Owls but as time went on I found myself scrolling endlessly through Facebook, when luckily, a Little Owl hide popped up on my timeline. I am somewhat reluctant to use hides for species I know that if I put the effort into I could photograph them by myself, but on this occasion l quickly enquired and in the same week I found myself hopping the boarder into Wales for a session in the hide. Gary Jones, the owner of the hide and now a good friend of mine, has done an amazing job and the hide allows for so many different images of Little Owl to be achieved. I did two sessions in the hide last year and I took thousands of images, some of which were of the chicks that were still hanging around towards late September. It really was a relief to finally have Little Owl images I was happy with! To say the least the hide was amazing and I knew that my best chance of photographing them again this year was to return to the hide and that’s exactly what I did!
Returning to the hide filled me with joy and I knew that I had to make the most of my time there and to try and shoot different images than what I did previously. All-in-all this year I have visited three times (so far) and I have left with incredible images and I was always smiling... To the left of the hide is a tree where the chicks fledged to last year and where the adults have been roosting and sitting when taking a break from feeding the young. During my second session in the hide the adult male perched in a few spots in the tree and because I couldn’t get the 600mm through the side window I had no choice but to use the 300mm and this is where my old-faithful lens came in handy. Looking through the viewfinder with the 300mm attached my images were incredibly wide and I knew it was important at the time to get everything right in camera, most importantly the composition and luckily I did. When editing I purposely didn’t crop these images and the wider view, including more of the tree, looked better then a big crop to try and fill the frame and I always remember reading photographer Arthur Morris’s blog where he said “add green whenever possible” and that stuck and worked perfectly for these images. These habitat styled images really show just how easy Little Owls can get lost and blend into their habitat which I find rather remarkable as their feathers are identical to the trees pattern - I also think because of their tiny size being in such a big tree appearing small in the frame makes then look rather cute and a little less angry than they usually do!
One of my favourite images I have created at the hide so far was this headshot. It is an image that I have had in mind as soon as I saw how tightly the owls were framed when using the 600mm lens. The only hindrance to making this image was the minimum focus distance on the lens as the owls really do land that close which is bewildering! When this male owl landed it was just far enough away for me to focus and I knew that this was my chance. As it grabbed a few worms and scoffed them down it looked up for a brief second, staring straight down the lens - I fired a few shots and fortunately one ended up being sharp! Shooting at F4 created a few problems as the depth-of-field was incredibly small and as you can see the beak isn’t in focus, although this doesn’t bother me too much. So long as the eyes are sharp and in this case the chest feathers were as well, I am happy with the photo! By shooting the image landscape to begin with it made the owl seem tall in the frame and then in LR cropping it into a 2x3 portrait ratio the crop naturally made a frame-filling image and I only had to crop the corners of the image marginally so that there was no background showing. Little Owls always are the grumpiest owls of them all and without doubt have an angry expression to their face and this is exactly what I wanted to show! It is incredible to be so close to wild Little Owls without causing any disturbance, even the sound of cameras does not bother them!
I take two lenses to the hide, my 600mm F4 VR and 300mm F4 as I’ve mentioned. I use both lenses extensively however you could easily get away with using at 70-200mm or 80/100-400mm as a zoom lens would be more practical, especially if you want to photograph them in flight. The 600mm does have it’s advantages and is perfect for frame-filling close-ups which is just my style and the reason I use it - regardless of how cumbersome it may be - is because of how razor sharp the images are that it produces. The detail for the close-ups is breathtaking and that’s exactly what I need. Surprisingly, even with the 600mm I can create shots of them in habitat as the hide is operated on a working dairy farm and the owls often land on the fences and posts that are around. These images are personal favourites of mine as they’re different to your normal owl on a post and aesthetically they look interesting! Because the hide is surrounded by a farm it is even possible to have a cows back-side as your background! Each time I have been the hide the action has been none-stop and once the adult female started leaving the nest you could not take a break from clicking your shutter. As one owl left, the other arrived and this continued for the whole duration of the sessions. It is amazing to see Little Owls like this and to see how hard they work to provide food for their young! The hide really is fantastic and I have always walked away with amazing images. Kudos to Gary for working hard to create something amazing, in one respect I am massively jealous!!