Tawny Owl
As I mentioned in my previous blog about mice going missing before first light on mornings I was trying to tempt and photograph buzzards I was intrigued as to who could be the culprit. I suspected Tawny Owls so I set about trying to establish whether that was indeed the case . Although I had been informed by the farmer that there were indeed Tawny Owls in the wood I needed to confirm that first hand as other than disappearing mice I had seen or heard no evidence. It was now October so breeding season was long over and I knew that they would soon be re establishing territories for the new breeding season so I purchased a wooden owl caller which when blew through gave an uncanny resemblance to a tawny owls hoot. I am pretty firmly against the use of callers of any kind particularly leading up to and during the breading season. To me it seems like cheating and can in my opinion if used regularly only cause the bird undue stress. Some 'wildlife' photographers are always looking for shortcuts to get that 'money' shot often at the expense of the wildlife they claim to be so passionate about. It is much more rewarding and realistic to use field craft in order to get close to your subject. Having said all that this was the one and only occasion that I have felt the need to use one so I tucked myself into the hide at dusk and blew intermittent hoots. My reason for not hooting out in the open is that tawny owls can attack anything or anyone they consider a threat or a rival particularly at a time they are establishing territories and during the breading season and you will not hear them coming! The response from my hooting was almost instant!, first in the distance there was the unmistakable sound of jays and blackbirds alarm calling as a nearby tawny must have disclosed his presence as he reacted to my call. Then a reply from the owl.........as I blew again it was clear the owl was coming closer to investigate this 'intruder'. I saw a silhouette of an owl fly between the trees and land on a branch not twenty yards from the hide. Then another call from a different owl, undoubtedly now this was a pair. Tawny owls have quite large territories and it is unlikely that you will find another pair of tawny owls nesting alongside each other in the same area of woodland. Then without warning the first owl swooped down from his perch and flew within a couple of metres of my hide along the clearing with about six jays and another half dozen blackbirds in tow attempting to mob him (I say him but it could equally be she as apart from a size difference between male and female there is no other way I am aware of of telling unless you can get up close and personal that is). It was exciting stuff and would have been so easy to continue calling and enjoying the spectacle but I had confirmed the presence of owls plus I still had to walk out of the hide through the woodland in the dark! so I let things quieten down before cautiously making my retreat.
I had on many previous occasions walked around the wood looking for suitable nest holes and found very few, it is quite a new wood in the grand scheme of things with no tree believed to be more than 150 years old so I enlisted some help to manufacture two tawny owl nest boxes based on the 'dutch' letterbox design from 'God's own Clay' website. A friend and I then erected these two boxes a few hundred yards apart in the hope that one might be taken up by our tawny pair. It appears that for this year at least however that they have found more suitable accommodation elsewhere and remain unoccupied but they were quite late going up (around the middle of November) but maybe next year.
I then purchased a new trail cam, one that I hoped would be more reliable than the one I had been using and started leaving mice out just before dark. Sure enough after just two nights I had video of a tawny owl taking mice. I needed to understand what time the owls came in and how the owl would take the mice as I wanted ultimately to be able to photograph them so needed to know if it would be a 'smash and grab' of the mice or whether it would be a more relaxed approach. In the end it was somewhere between the two with the owl landing on a perch, taking a few seconds to size up a mouse then take it in its mouth before turning and flying off.
Invariably the owl would first appear at the perch about an hour after sunset and then not reappear for another hour or so. My photography therefore would be limited to getting a shot at his first visit, no rapid machine gun fire of the camera's motor drive here, it would one shot, two at best and then call it a day. How to photograph them though?, the easy answer would have been to use off camera flash but at this time I didn't own any flash equipment plus there are conflicting opinions about the damage (all be it temporary) that flash can cause to night time hunters particularly owls. As I was still researching this issue, for now at least flash was not an option.
I had earlier that year switched to a full frame camera system the Nikon D800 so now seemed a perfect opportunity to test it's reputed high ISO capabilities.The first night then I positioned a mouse on the chosen perch, sat in the hide, focused on the mouse, switched to manual, set my ISO at 10000 (yes 10,000!) to give a shutter speed of 1/8 sec and waited. Right on cue the tawny silently came in, waited a couple of seconds, looked at me, grabbed the mouse and was gone, enough time for me to fire off one shot. I was amazed at the result, shooting in the dark at ISO that high had at least given me a usable image. However closer inspection of the image did reveal a lack of complete sharpness and quite a few artifacts. I needed to find a way of getting the ISO level down but how?. I decided to buy some of the solar powered rockery single LED lights you can readily buy to try and provide some supplementary lighting because not only did I need to get the ISO down but I also needed to be able to actually see the owl come in.
Tawny Owl by moonlight
I positioned around four of these lights on the ground directing their dim glow towards the perch and found it was enough to be able to lower the ISO to around 3200, still very high but at least I was getting somewhere. Over the next month or so I visited a couple of times a week and usually left with one image I could use. I still wasn't happy though, the owl was coming in later and later and staying at the perch for less time and would always infuriatingly pick up the mouse and turn away from me before flying off so I never got a chance of the iconic shot I so wanted with the owl looking at me with a mouse in it's mouth. It was around this time also that rats had discovered the free mice on offer, how it had took them so long I don't know but something needed to be done.
Rats can comfortably jump around three feet and climb almost anything so I raised the perch of the ground by means of smooth metal poles. I also decided to take the plunge and invest in some old Vivitar off camera flash guns which provided they are used off camera wouldn't fry the D800's electronics. I had decided that in using flash I would adopt the same principal as before.....one shot per night only and only once or twice a week at most. In addition I would position the flash guns around 30 to 40 feet from the perch and in such a way that the owl wouldn't be looking directly at the flash and never ever fire them as the owl was flying. If the owl came back after having flash fired then I would continue, if it didn't then I would stop.........simple as that.
So two flash guns were mounted on ball heads on top of fishing rod rest poles along with a Yongnuo receiver transmitter/receiver on each. The camera was located outside the hide this time facing the direction the owl always looked towards before flying off and I sat in the hide with a remote trigger in hand and waited.
That I'm afraid and rather abruptly is where this particular story is paused for now as over the next month the owl never made another visit whilst I was there. The mice were still being taken but they could have been by the Jays at first light the next day or even by the buzzards still.

I have many theories and unanswered questions as to why the Owls have stopped visiting, it certainly isn't the flash set up as it was never fired in anger but here are a few of my thoughts and if anybody has any of their own then please do get in touch................

1) Something has happened to the owls - imo unlikely and there was definitely a pair so for them both to have succumbed?

2) What I was witnessing was the male courting the female and taking easy mice to present to her?

3) Food was harder to come by in the Winter, now it's Spring and they don't need dead mice?

4) It wasn't the male that was coming in but the female and as it is now the breeding season she could be on eggs or have very young chicks to feed?

5) If they have chicks then do owls prefer to give them live food?

6) I never saw the owls again after I raised the perch off the ground, do they prefer to take prey on the ground?

7) Although the flash guns were never fired, they do emit a very faint high pitched noise when in standby, could that have put them off?

8) They saw me dismantling the flash equipment each night before I left and associated those flash guns with something to be wary of whenever I was in the hide?

So many questions and so few answers. Another amazing experience though at this wood which I have been privileged to study and photograph as it slowly reveals some of it's many hiden secrets but I think until early Summer I will concentrate on other photography projects after which time I will return for another attempt.

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