Happy hunting


BARN OWL - Credit: Archant

Wildlife photographer Kevin Sawford has some words of wisdom about capturing images of a favourite winter species, owls


SHORT EARED OWL - Credit: Archant

Winter can be a very good of time of the year to see several species of owl out during the day time. The county becomes home to over wintering short-eared and, possibly, long-eared owls as well as resident barn and little owls.

The most common owl you will probably see throughout the county is the barn owl. Suffolk has a good breeding population of this species and they can be seen throughout the year across the whole county. Many land owners and conservation groups have helped the barn owl by putting up nesting boxes and creating barn owl friendly habitats. These usually include rough grassland, a good environment for mice, shrews and voles, the owl’s usual prey.

Although mostly nocturnal barn owls can be seen out hunting during the day and it is during the winter that you will often see them in daylight. All owls endeavour not to get wet and don’t like to hunt in strong wind as they rely on their hearing to find their prey. The greater the wind the harder this becomes. So a prolonged wet and windy spell of weather will force owls out to hunt at any time of the day when the conditions are right.

As a wildlife photographer, knowing the behaviour of any particular species enhances my chances of seeing and photographing them. With barn owls, if it has rained throughout the night and into the following morning I know once it has stopped the owls will be hungry and out looking for food. They often hunt along roadside verges and can be seen using roadside fence posts as vantage points. This image of a barn owl was taken from my car as it hunted along a road during the last light of the day.

Short-eared owls are predominately winter visitors to this region. They breed on moorland in the northern parts of the UK and come to East Anglia to over-winter from places such as Scandinavia and Russia. They have the same diet as the barn owl and it’s not unusual to see both species hunting in the same location. They can be seen all over the county, but especially in fens and on coastal marshland and grassland.

‘Shorties’ can often be approached reasonable closely. The bird in this image was obliging enough to allow me to within about 20 feet as it hunted on an area of grassland near Orford last winter.

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To survive the winter, owls need a constant source of food and decent weather – East Anglia seems to be the ideal place for them.

January highlights

Although it seems as though we’re in the depths of mid-winter, January is actually a month that some wildlife species are preparing for their offspring yet to arrive.

In our gardens the male birds of several species proclaim their territories. Robins, blackbirds, blue and great tits especially will be heard singing their hearts out. In our woodlands the great spotted woodpecker will be heard ‘drumming’ on a tree trunk, tawny owls will be heard hooting and rooks and herons will be seen renovating their nests for the coming year.

January is usually when foxes mate and when you can hear the ear piercing scream of an individual animal as it proclaims its territory – a sound often used at tense moments in a night scene in a movie or TV drama.

Surprisingly you might even see frogs starting to gather to mate and produce spawn in garden ponds.

All these events are very much weather dependent. Over the last couple of years we have had mild winters so by breeding early some species might have been able to produce a second brood later in the year. However, if we get a prolonged cold spell fledglings and tadpoles might not survive.

The UK’s changing climate is forcing wildlife to take risks with the timing of reproduction. The uncertainty of the weather means individual species will either succeed or fail with their decisions.