The Owling Hour
Updated: Jan 14
A two-hour drive across the fenlands of Norfolk leads to a barn along a quiet lane deep in the Lincolnshire countryside. The air is thick with harvest and it has been hot, the giant combines that drone in the fields are engulfed by dust and barely visible.
I have been tempted by the prospect of photographing young barn owls on the cusp of fledging, just before they take the plunge into the big wide (owl) world for the first time. The rendezvous outside the village pub, the pass by of Tom Robinson’s 4 x 4, a quick thumbs up and the dash to the site are all part of the fun.
The hide is perched atop builders’ scaffold next to a narrow country lane near the barn that is the owl’s abode. It is positioned high up and level with the partially boarded opening of the owl’s home, and is one of a number of unique seasonal hides set up by Tom’s company, Wildlife Photography Hides.
It’s a squeeze to get all the gear in and set up, there’s just enough room for two but all is soon settled and Tom retreats to the comfort of his car. My hide companion is a little anxious and continually fusses over the focus settings of his lens, in contrast I feel relaxed and keep a close watch in anticipation. The night seeps in, cloaking all in darkness. The low powered LED lights on the front of the hide are just enough to illuminate the barn.
After a short while there is a faint wheezing and hissing from within the barn and it’s clear that the young owls are hungry.
Through my camera and lens there is a limited view, but in the corner of the frame a bird form appears out of the gloom. Moth-like, flickering and pale, it is as if I’m birdwatching through a zoetrope and it quickly disappears from my field of vision back into the night.
It isn’t long before the first of the owlets begin to wander closer to the hatch and they are just visible though the bars of the timber window, like inmates in an avian prison.
They take their time, but eventually they all impatiently crowd the entrance, craning their necks and inquisitive to the slightest movement or sound. I sit watching, fascinated by their curiosity and comical wing stretching where they almost knock each other off the perch. The exercise helps to build flight muscles and gives an opportunity to view their beautiful and pristine feather markings, subtle steel grey and auburn with dusky black dabs.
An adult owl flutters back into view and I soon learn that their arrival is preceded by a curious wheezing and spitting sound. It is feeding time and the lucky chick gets a nice juicy vole, which only seems to satisfy its hunger for a short while before it is back to hissing impatiently.
It seems no time at all before the engine of Tom’s 4 x 4 splutters into life to signal the end of the session. It is one o’clock in the morning, it turns out that he’d nodded off and had intended to fetch us at midnight. We have been in the hide for five hours, but I’m not complaining, it has been a joy from start to finish and I come away feeling I have witnessed something special.
Now it is time to leave these young night owls to explore their brave new world in peace.
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