How to Photograph Short-eared Owls
One of my highlights every winter is to track down and photograph the elusive short-eared owls. It took me years to see my first, but now, with added experience, I know just where to look. Their movements can be largely unpredictable, which makes a decent shot of one all the better to get!
Owls are famous for their nocturnal behaviour, but short-eared owls turn this stereotype on its head and are often seen out and about in the middle of the day – a wildlife photographer’s dream. The wintering owls I see usually prefer to hunt their small mammal prey in the evening and early morning. Indeed, I saw my first short-eared owl one late afternoon at a location in Kent, a place where I visit almost annually to get my owl fix. Since then, I’ve also seen them in Somerset and even (during the summer) on Skomer Island in Wales, and in Argyll, Scotland. In truth, they can turn up in rough grassland almost anywhere, especially in winter.
What’s the best time to find short-eared owls?
In winter, which is the best time to find them, short-eared owls frequent coastal marshes and wetlands bordered by rough grassland. At this time, UK numbers can swell to 50,000 birds with additions arriving in from Scandinavia, and communal roosts have been seen containing a whopping 25 individuals.
In the summer, many owls migrate back to Scandinavia, but some stay in our moorlands to breed. Once you have a site in mind, check the birding community for that area on Twitter and Flickr. There may be some people who put up sightings of owls on there and may be willing to help you if you message them and ask nicely.
Once you know where you’re going, try to plan to visit on a day following a few days of persistent rain. Owls can’t feed in the rain, so they’ll be eager to compensate for missed meals and be more active.
On arrival at your site, boost your chances by ensuring that you’re there a couple of hours before sunset. Ideally, you’ll be there all day, but this time is your best bet. March is the ideal time of year to find wintering owls, as many are hunting more frequently to build their strength up for their upcoming North Sea migration. March also maximises the amount of light available to you later in the evening, so any owls that hunt later will be more visible than earlier in the season.
Read more: How to Photograph Birds in Flight
How to photograph short-eared owls
Once you’re at the right time, and the right place, the fun begins. There are multiple techniques you can employ, depending on the location and on the owls’ temperaments.
Firstly, simply stand still and stay under cover. Most owls can be surprisingly tolerant of your presence. Therefore, you can simply stand still with your tripod, ensuring your outline is being broken up by the foliage behind you. If you’re careful and are slow with panning movements of your lens, owls can often fly very close to you as they hunt. I often choose my location to be right next to a post amongst a patch of rough grassland. The owl will most likely come through the area, close to me, and may even choose to perch on the post to enable me to shoot some portraits.
If your local short-eared owls are simply too nervous, or you want to get even closer to them, consider setting up a hide. Obviously, this option depends on who owns the land you want to photograph the owls on. We have a good tutorial on building your own hide should you go down this route, or you can use a portable tent hide.
A slightly more unusual approach I often take is to use my car as a mobile hide. Certain areas around the country, including marshy scrub in Suffolk, Kent and Somerset, are carved up by small country lanes. You can slowly patrol the roads, looking for owls over a much larger area from the warmth and comfort of a car.
On seeing an owl flying, I’ll try to anticipate where it may fly that’s near the road. Then, I’ll pull over and turn off the engine. I’ll rest my lens on a beanbag draped over the open window and wait. However, remember that you’re not invisible in the car, so try and move as slowly as possible inside and the owl will feel more comfortable for a closer approach. Also, it’s important to mention to put your own safety first, as it’s very easy to lose track of the other traffic when looking for owls; so ensure that you don’t stop on blind hills or bends in the road.
Owls usually search for their prey whilst in flight, so they spend an awful lot of their time… flying! Therefore, I have my ‘birds in flight’ settings on by default whilst searching for owls. Short-eared owls fly relatively slowly, but getting as fast a shutter speed as possible is still paramount – anything slower than 1/1000th second and you might start noticing a bit of blur.
With owls usually emerging in the evening as the light is failing, this can be a difficult speed to aim for. You may have to compromise elements of your photo to achieve these speeds. For example, widening your aperture as much as possible (so potentially missing the focus due to the reduced depth of field), cranking up your ISO to incur some noise in your photographs, or underexposing your shot to get a silhouette of the bird if it’s against an evening sky.
However, if the light is very dim, I often embrace a slow shutter speed and try to pan with the flying owl. Although, perhaps just one in 20 shots can come out well! When using a tripod in these situations, I always have my Wimberley gimbal head in use. This allows for smooth camera movement so I can pan as the bird flies past.
I hope this has helped you with your future short-eared owl photography excursions. They can be an extremely rewarding subject to photograph, and always go down a hit online.