Wildlife: Long-eared owls

Long-eared owls

Long-eared owls - Credit: Archant

In the first of two articles Paul Hobson recalls the trials and tribulations of his first foray into taking photographs of long-eared owls in Derbyshire

Long-eared owls

Long-eared owls - Credit: Archant

Over the last 20 years I have photographed all the breeding owls in Derbyshire. Some have been easy to work with, but others have proved challenging. One project quickly springs to mind – working with a pair of long-eared owls early in my photographic career. When I started bird photography most photographers worked with birds at the nest. This was a long time before the digital revolution and affordable big lenses. Initially I worked with common species which nested low down in hedges or on the ground, but as I became more experienced I became more adventurous. I have always been fascinated with owls but the major problem with photographing them at the nest is that some of them, such as long-eared owls, are almost totally nocturnal and nest in trees.

The first problem was getting my hands on a set of metal scaffolding, which I eventually did after scanning through the local newspapers ‘for sale’ columns. The next problem was trying to work out how I would see in the dark so that I could focus the camera. I had visions of wearing night goggles like you see in spy films but they were ridiculously expensive so were a non-starter. After a bit of research I found out that owls don’t react to red light so I made a unit out of a car rear light from a scrapyard and ran it from an old car battery. It was a bit heavy but then again I was young and full of beans in those days!

Once I was happy with all my gear I set out one evening in February to survey a number of small, very isolated, coniferous woods on the moors of the Peak. I had to visit quite a few before I found a pair of courting long-eared owls. Once I was sure they were going to breed in the wood I left them for a few weeks before returning during daylight to search the wood very quietly for their nest. Long-eared owls use the old nests of other birds such as crows or sparrowhawks so it is fairly easy to spot any nests which show up against the sky. After a few hours searching I found white down clinging to the rim of one nest and the tell-tale feathers of an owl sticking its tail over the edge. All was now set, though it was a lengthy walk to the wood.

Over the next week, each night after work, I carried one piece of scaffolding to the wood – that lengthy walk now seemed like a major hike! In the evening when the female owl left the nest to hunt I started to erect the scaffolding tower, one layer each night so she would get accustomed to it. After ten nights the scaffolding was at the correct height for me to fasten it to the nearby trees so that it wouldn’t fall over. The hide was put up slowly over the next few nights and all seemed well, with the owl being comfortable with the hide. On the next calm night (I definitely didn’t fancy sitting 30 feet up on rickety scaffolding in the middle of an isolated wood in a strong wind), I set off for a full night’s photography. Carrying all my gear, a friend and I walked to the wood on a lovely May evening. Once we had got the red light, car battery, a stool and my camera and tripod into the hide there wasn’t much room left, and it was a bit cramped. My friend walked away after we agreed that he would return just before dawn the next morning, and I settled down for the night.

A soft breeze pushed the tops of the pine trees gently around and I soon realised that as they swayed so did the scaffolding, which was a bit unnerving at first but I soon became used to it. My attention was firmly focused on the nest where four hungry chicks were preening the white fluff out of their growing feathers and jostling each other. After what seemed an eternity (but was actually only 20 minutes), the female owl flew into the nest with a vole in her talons. I had no intention of taking a picture on her first visit because I wanted to watch how she reacted to the hide and red light. She glanced at the hide at intervals but was very relaxed as she gave the vole to the largest chick. On her next visit – I never had any warning of her arrival as she flew so silently – I took my first shot. The camera’s click made her glance up but didn’t cause her to react in a negative way so I knew I was in for a good night’s photography.

I must admit I was never at ease in the hide. The constant swaying was unsettling and every now and then a sheep would walk past. The sound of footsteps 30 feet down when you can’t see anything in the murk of the dark wood certainly caused my mind to venture into all sorts of places I didn’t know it knew! I imagined all sorts of things – a witches’ coven, or poachers after the few pheasants that roosted in some of the pines.

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However, as the night darkened and the clock moved beyond midnight I fell into a half doze. The female owl was on the nest keeping her chicks warm and feeding visits had stopped when I again heard footsteps. This time I was really worried because I could see a torch bobbing through the trees – definitely not a sheep! I switched off the red light and hoped they (whoever they were) would go away, but the torch kept getting closer. The owl flew off the nest as I heard a deep voice asking what I thought I was doing. I don’t think I have ever been so nervous!

I used my torch to see who it was and saw a policeman glaring back at me. It turned out someone had seen the red light glowing in the tree tops and, perhpas thinking aliens had invaded Derbyshire, had phoned the police. The annoying thing was I had spoken to the police weeks before to let them know what I was doing but the message had not got through to the local bobbies. Even more annoying, because the red light was visible from a local road, I had to scrap the project. All that work for literally one night’s photography!

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