On the Prowl for the Barn Owl
A frustrating few weeks led to one of my best wildlife experiences
Barn owls have always been one of my favourite birds. Some say they’re evil omens; some say their face looks like an apple cut in half. I only agree with one of these groups.
Whether demonic spirit or fruit impersonator, their ghostly silhouette gliding low over the grass at dusk was a familiar sight during my childhood — we even had a regular visitor to the field opposite our house for a few years.
Over time, sightings became less frequent. I lived in cities for most of my twenties, and it wasn’t until I took up wildlife photography that I started seeking them out again.
Naturally, once I actively started looking for owls, they disappeared. Countless evening walks were unsuccessful, and I’d almost given up photographing one of my bucket list birds.
Fast forward to several weeks ago, and a road trip with my girlfriend, visiting from Sydney. We explored Bath and Bristol, headed to the Wales/England border, and then up to North Wales.
So much unspoiled countryside. So many voles to snack on (for the owls — not me). It seemed like destiny that I’d finally find my quarry.
I lugged my lens with me almost everywhere, hoping ‘Barney’ would make an appearance, but to no avail. Even Anglesey, an apparent barn owl hotspot, yielded nothing.
We were dejected. Me, because I hadn’t seen any barn owls. And my girlfriend, because I hadn’t seen any barn owls and wouldn’t shut up about it.
So we made our way back east, to the North Norfolk coast — our last Airbnb, and perhaps one final chance to snap this sneaky strigiform.
I scoped out the surrounding countryside. It looked promising, with plenty of marshes and long grass, hedgerows, and fencepost perches for the discerning raptor.
Barn owls are mostly seen at dawn and dusk, though they do sometimes fly during the day. My fondness for lie-ins meant dusk was my best chance.
The first week or so passed without much luck. The weather wasn’t terrible, but it was a bit overcast and drizzled most days.
This wasn’t ideal for barn owls — in an odd evolutionary quirk, their feathers aren’t waterproof. These feathers have adaptations that aid slow, silent flight, but only if they don’t become waterlogged.
That might be a fair trade-off in many of the barn owl’s habitats — it’s widely distributed worldwide — but here in the UK, dealing with dampness is part of life.
That might be one of the reasons why 70% of British barn owls don’t make it past their first birthday. Cold, wet winters are a large cause of starvation, and unlike many migrant birds that cross continents when the temperature drops, barn owls tough it out.
I feel sorry for any owls that have the misfortune to be born here, rather than lording it up on a rodent-infested island in the sun. But I was hoping that one of these rugged survivors would come out when the sun eventually returned.
And it did.
The day is seared in my memory. (It was only two days ago.)
I’d been walking around for an hour, and there was only about 20 minutes of light left. I decided to check a spot I’d earmarked as one of the most likely owl habitats.
It had it all. A small area of forest at the back, with a field of rough grassland in front and several fenceposts just crying out for a barn owl to rest its weary talons on.
The dark trees would make a nice contrast with the pale bird, while a low hedge gave me a bit of cover while still letting me see (and hopefully shoot) over the top.
I’d waited there briefly three or four times, but it had always seemed on the verge of raining. This time it was a nice, dry evening.
I didn’t have long to wait— in fact, I saw the owl long before I reached the field. Its distinctive silhouette and slow, low flight were unmistakable even from a couple of hundred metres away. With nothing but flat fields in front of me, I had a tense couple of minutes as I walked as fast as I could and prayed it would wait for me.
Of course, before I’d got within 100 metres the owl had flown over the field, across a road, and out of sight.
I wandered down the road, scanning the surroundings, but Barney was nowhere to be seen. I returned to where I’d first seen it and spotted it again, doing laps of the field.
It was almost sunset by now, so I didn’t have any time to lose. I walked up behind the hedge and waited for the owl to pass again. It obliged, gliding lazily past several times. I didn’t have time to check my camera so I hoped it wasn’t too dark to get a few nice pictures.
At one point, it flew right towards me, letting me fill the frame nicely with its magnificent wings outstretched, backlit in the last of the evening sun.
After a couple of minutes, it perched on the other side of the field. I got a few distant shots, and then it disappeared. I could have called it a day — I’d checked my camera by now and was pretty pleased — but I wanted a better shot of it perched.
I walked closer to the fence posts where I’d last seen the owl, found a spot with a nice background, sat down and waited.
It only took a few minutes for the barn owl to return and it posed perfectly — this time only briefly — before flying off out of sight again.
The light was almost totally gone by now, and I didn’t think I could improve on the shots I’d got, so I called it a day.
My spirits were only slightly dampened when I got back to the Airbnb and found the door locked, with my girlfriend in a meeting and deaf to — or maybe just ignoring — my knocks.
At least it wasn’t raining, because I’m about as waterproof as a barn owl.