For thousands of years, owls have held a special place in numerous cultures, ancient and modern, around the world. As symbols of wisdom, prophecy and mystery, they’ve been revered – even worshipped – and afforded iconic status in the art of many civilisations.
The little owl is a prime example. Its Latin name, Athene noctua, provides the clue to its status in ancient Greece, where it was considered to be the guide and messenger to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom.
As its name suggests, the little owl is small. Mature specimens are just 20 centimetres tall, weigh only 180 grams and have a wingspan of around 55 centimetres. Their diminutive dimensions, speckled and streaked white and brown plumage, and a habit for perching almost motionless in well-leafed forests can make them difficult to spot.
However, there are several reasons why little owls are a favourite subject with wildlife photographers and birdwatchers. First, they are diurnal, meaning that they’re active by day and night. While still more adventurous after dark, little owls are frequent hunters during daylight hours, so there’s a much better chance for photographers to make sharply focused and well-exposed images in natural light without having to crank up the ISO rating or resort to flash.
Another reason for their favoured status is their adaptability and range. While broadleaf woodland is a preferred habitat, little owls also frequent farmland, suburban parks, temperate grasslands, urban environments and even deserts. This diverse range of habitats is reflected in their vast global range, which stretches across the warmer parts of Europe to the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East, and south to the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Unsurprisingly, the birds’ nesting locations also reflect the diversity of their habitat, with nests found in tree holes, riverbanks and cliffs, as well as nest boxes and cavities in walls and abandoned buildings. Little owls are also very tolerant of human activity and once accustomed to a built-up environment, will remain perched on a tree branch, signpost, or telegraph pole in broad daylight, often in full view while humans are milling around.
This adaptability to human settlement, combined with their vast range, means that little owls rank as one of the world’s most populous owl species. Their global distribution has also been assisted by introductions to the South Island of New Zealand in the early part of the 20th century, and also to the UK, where it was first introduced during the 1840s. Now found across England and Wales and into southern Scotland, estimates from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) suggest that there are between 5,000 and 6,000 breeding pairs of little owls in the UK.
When perched, little owls can remain still for long periods of time, looking out for prey. They have a varied diet of insects and amphibians, small mammals and birds. Perches tend to be used repeatedly, so locating one in use during daylight is the first step for the photographer seeking to capture a portfolio of pictures portraying the life and behaviour of these little hunters.
When airborne, little owls have rapid wing beats and fly with a slight undulation that is often likened by birdwatchers to the bounding flight of a woodpecker. When alarmed, they
will bob their head up and down, a sign to photographers that their presence is causing stress to the bird. In such encounters, you should keep still and silent before moving to a more distant position. For this reason, long telephoto and zoom lenses are needed to get frame-filling photographs.
When viewed up close, it’s easy to see why these birds have such broad appeal: both sexes are alike; a tawny brown head surrounds bright-yellow eyes with deep-black pupils and white ‘eyebrows’ to produce a startling, almost fierce expression.
Once looking down the barrel of your lens, the reflex response is to press the shutter button. The problem is to know when to stop, because little owls will remain perched for long periods.
For this reason, once they’ve discovered a favoured perch or nesting area, most photographers tend to keep the knowledge to themselves. They know that the bird’s tolerance of human activity makes them one of the easiest birds to document, especially as little owls can be seen all year round.
DECLINE AND PROTECTION
Although the little owl spread quickly after its introduction into the UK during the 19th century, the RSPB says that its numbers have declined by almost a quarter in the past 20 years. Because it’s a non-native species, it doesn’t receive the same level of protection as other British birds.
That said, it is afforded protection under Section 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, which means that it can’t be disturbed at or near its nest without a licence. Obviously, photography near a nest can constitute a disturbance and the maximum penalty in place is a £5,000 fine and/or six months imprisonment.
Although diurnal, little owls are most active during the hours around dawn or at dusk, when they prefer to hunt. Light levels are likely to be variable, depending on the time of year and the weather conditions.
Photographers therefore need to work at the right ISO, shutter speed and aperture combination to find the optimum exposure for overall image sharpness. A prime telephoto lens or zoom with a focal length equivalent to 400 millimetres or longer on a full-frame (35-millimetre format) image sensor is the ideal optic to choose.
Best practice entails shooting at the maximum lens aperture and setting an ISO rating that will allow you to maintain a minimum shutter speed of at least 1/250 of a second, preferably faster. One of the great improvements to digital camera technology in recent years has been the significant reduction in noise at higher ISO settings. Many modern digital SLR cameras are now capable of producing beautifully detailed images in low light at ISO 2,000 or greater, something unheard of only a few years ago.
During September and the other autumnal months in the Northern Hemisphere, the daylight hours will lessen and the arc of the sun’s path assumes a lower trajectory. The longer you stay out, the more you’re likely to need to increase your camera’s ISO rating in order to maintain a fast enough shutter speed for a sharp result.
Because of the better performance obtainable from high ISO values on modern SLR cameras, it’s advisable to start with a mid-range aperture, say f/5.6 to f/8 and then open up to the wider values as the light deteriorates. The reduction in depth of field from say f/8 to f/4 will be minimal with a long focal length and its importance to the overall image not as great as the need to keep the shutter speed fast and your little owl sharply in focus.
Even when working with higher ISO values, supporting the camera and lens on a stable surface is crucial to the end result, so don’t handhold the camera. Even a beanbag to cushion your lens on a fence or car windowsill, provides the sort of stability that is worth two or three extra stops over handholding the camera.
Vibration reduction (VR) systems are a feature of many telephoto lenses now, but they aren’t a perfect substitute for a tripod or beanbag. If you’re working from a hide, focusing on a perch, it’s best to have your camera and lens mounted on a tripod and switch-off the VR.
Some photographers believe that these systems produce an internal vibration that can cause a slight blur on the image. If you’re fortunate to have spotted a perch in regular use by a little owl, it makes sense to set up, pre-focus on this point and wait. Chances are, you’ll have a very good chance of capturing your little hunter in flight, returning with a field mouse or other small prey to consume.
If so, make sure that you have the autofocus and drive modes set to continuous. The continuous AF performance on modern cameras and lenses is more than capable of following the owl’s path and any change of pace and angle in its flight.
Focus on the eyes. Of all owl species, the little owl gives you the best chance to make close-up portraits because they remain still for so long. Those big yellow eyes are mesmerising!
Keep your distance. Little owls may be well habituated to people and urban environments, but move too close too quickly, or make too much noise and they will vanish
Select higher ISO ratings when the light drops to help maintain faster shutter speeds. These owls may be diurnal, but dusk and dawn are still the preferred times for activity, so light levels will vary, especially during autumn
Go out without the tripod. It’s your best chance to keep the camera and lens absolutely still and free of vibrations in autumn’s low light. If a tripod isn’t convenient, use
a monopod, or even a beanbag on a fence, to support the lens
Use flash. Not only will it disturb the owl, but on-camera flash is likely to be too far away to illuminate your subject. Instead, make the most of your camera’s high ISO capability
Photograph a little owl at or near its nest. Little owls may be an introduced species to the UK but like all wild birds, they’re protected under Section 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981
Little Owls: Living on the Edge by Andy Rouse, Electric Squirrel Publishing, hb, £20
The Little Owl: Conservation, Ecology and Behaviour of Athene noctua by Dries Van Nieuwenhuyse et al, Cambridge University Press, pb, £31.99
Owls by Chris Mead, Whittet Books, hb, £12.99
Accessory option: Travel tripod
How compact can a tripod be when folded up? On the evidence of the Velbon UT Series (£150) – very. This clever device comes with six-section legs, meaning that the length of each leg is shorter when folded and can be folded by reversing 180°. The tripod can be extended to eye-level height, and is normally used with a ball head, although a three-way pan-and-tilt head version is also available.
Camera option: Full frame SLR
Since the first EOS 5D took the world by storm, Canon has been very careful to maintain the quality and fulfill the public’s expectations with each new upgrade. The 5D Mk III (£2,300 body only) doesn’t disappoint, with a newly designed 22.3-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor, a wide range of ISO settings and a next-generation DIGIC 5+ image processor for enhanced noise reduction.
Lens option: Fast telephoto zoom
Wildlife photographers want the fastest telephoto lenses they can afford, but affordable telephoto zooms with a fast constant maximum aperture through their zooming range are rare beasts. However, the Sigma 120–300mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM lens (£1,500) is worthy of attention. This widely compatible, high-quality lens features a built-in optical-stabiliser system to counter lens movement and a hypersonic motor for silent autofocus operation.
This story was published in the September 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine