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Tips for finding and photographing Barn Owls

Updated: Jan 13, 2022

I've been photographing Barn Owls for about 18 months now and I just thought with my images being seen and encouraging people to go out and find and photograph these beautiful birds, I'd be doing an injustice if I didn't share my tips and advice in order for the safety of any owl to be the number one priority. Barn Owl behaviour is well documented but the following information is a guide to safely observing and photographing Barn Owls with the minimal amount of impact.

This is not directed at the professional photographer but just the person who would like to take up photography and want to start with Barn Owls. They are an exceptionally easy Owl to photograph, but it is all about looking in the right spot at the right time of day.

Timings

I know as well as anyone that I can drive through owl habitat for years and not see one. Barn owls hunt all year round. The best time of year to observe Barn Owls is March through to June. They are out hunting as early as 3pm of an afternoon, depending on all sorts of factors, including the number of young they're feeding at the time. I have also seen Barn Owls out as late as 10am in the morning in all weathers and again there are many factors that would cause this. For the rest of the year out of the breeding season, they are occasionally seen during the day but is very rare.


Locations

So half the battle is finding a location. It might sound corny but I always think like a Barn Owl and go through a checklist of essentials. Firstly is there a place nearby to keep dry? Is there the right kind of land cover that will supply it with a regular food? Is it a quiet location with little disturbance? If so, then you're on the right track.

As for the locations in the Ribble Valley and Forest of Bowland, I'm not going to give away some of mine as they are on private land and it's up to the landowner as to who can and can't visit. I have built trust with that landowner and respect their and the owls privacy.


Weather

The best time to visit a site where you think a Barn Owl patrols is a dry day after a spell of rain. They do not usually fly in the rain so they can get hungry waiting for the weather to get better. Saying that I've seen them hunting with snow falling and a thick blanket of snow on the ground.


What to do

So you've found an area where Barn Owls hunt? My number one tip is to stay put!! If you have seen one, it is very tempting to follow it, but I have lost count of the number of times the Barn Owl has flown by where I was just parked after I've followed it.

If you can use a tree, hedge, stonewall or if you are really lucky your car as cover. They will fly by but its about being patient and waiting. I have had them fly as close as few metres away from me and I couldn't even focus the camera they were that close.

If they spot you, they will change direction and head further away from you and 9 times out of 10 they will not come back to that area. They have amazing hearing so try and avoid making any noises. If you have a DSLR, if it has a quiet mode then use it. Mirrorless cameras are ideal but not essential. Start taking photos at the last minute. Watch them first and you'll notice more. I have noticed that once they have detected prey and dived down and missed, they definitely come back and fly over the same area, after all it makes sense!! Watch for this as you can get ready for the second fly by and have the camera ready.


Camera setup

Now before I go into any camera settings, there are a lot of different camera systems out there and I only have experience with the Nikon D500 with the Sigma 150-600 C so I'll try and keep this general and not go too far into detail.

Settings I've had success with are as follows:

  • Autofocus on continuous

  • White balance on Auto

  • Metering on Matrix (a nikon thing but make sure its covering the whole area)

  • Shutter speeds above 1/500th of a second

  • Aperture Priority (so the aperture is as low as it goes, taking in as much light as possible) so f6.3 for the Sigma lens.

  • Animal tracking on (if you have that setting) 3D for Nikon and have a function button set to Group.

  • Some form of resting point for your elbows as you want as little as possible camera shake. Alternatively vibration reduction switched on.

  • A good bit of luck with where the sun is, ultimately behind you!!


Notes

It is important to note here that Barn Owls are a schedule 1 species and you are not allowed to be within at least 500m of the barn or location where they have young still in the nest. Personally I avoid going anywhere near their nest sites, its just not fair on the birds.


I hope you have found this informative, I wish I had this information before I went looking for Barn Owls. Enjoy and drop me a message and let me know what you think or even if this was helpful.

Mark































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