For weeks I had resisted the temptation to jump in the car and speed down to Southampton for some Owl action, A couple of Short-eared Owls had taken up winter residence in a small field on the edge of a residential street which bordered on to an industrial park, prime real estate it would seem for Hampshire’s wintering Shorties, surrounded on 2 sides by footpaths, I had been seeing plenty of good shots posted online. Although I am always keen to get a few more SEO photographs the main reason I didn’t want to zip down the M3 was the light, I’ve taken plenty in crap light, and longed for some sunshine on these charismatic hunters. And mainly because Sundays my only free time during the winter for the past couple of months had been a mixture of cold, grey & wet days. I say wet, the weather had ranged from mildly damp to torrentially moist every time I considered getting the camera out.
It was 2 to go weekends until Christmas, and whilst most people were out doing there festive shopping, my weekends job entailed weeding the flower bed in the front garden. By 10.30am I was all done, plastered in mud and with plenty of sweat beads running down my forehead (sorry not a pretty picture) but the sun was out. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen it on a Sunday. I toyed with what I could do, the distance and time it would take me to get there and what I might see when I did get there, and then I thought Owls. They were showing yesterday so why not today, the skies were clear and there was barely any cloud. I raced indoors and grabbed my gear, 25 mins later I was pulling into a quiet side street on the outskirts of Southampton, 25 minutes is no exaggeration either, I literally flew down the A34 and M3. The sky, much to my annoyance got grayer and grayer the closer I got to the coast, to the point that I was almost considering turning around and going home as a few spots of rain hit the windscreen.
You always know you’re in the right place when you see the first guy in camo loitering around a hole in a hedge, I’m sure to many passer-by’s, this is a pretty strange sight, and it does baffle me also, you’re in the middle of a housing estate not the jungle what’s the need for Camo. After a brief chat he was quick to inform me the birds had been out earlier on this particular morning and there had been no sign of them since about half 9. It was now approaching 11.15am. I didn’t hurry to setup my gear but made sure I found myself a good vantage point along the roadside edge of this 10 acre or so area of wasteland that was probably a thriving meadow once upon a time.
Without any owls showing for the next half hour I honed my watching skills by amusing myself at the looks received from local residents and passers-by. Several stopping to make conversation and share their expert birding knowledge on me. I think one woman was pretty convinced the Short-eared Owls had nested their this year, raising about a dozen chicks, I’m not normally so directly skeptical to the uninitiated. But she came across as a pretentious know it all, so I felt I had to put her straight.
It had gone midday and I was just giving heading home some thought when a couple of Magpies glided over tempting up an owl from a midst the grass. Now I was alert, finger poised resting on the shutter willing the bird to come a little closer. The light was poor, but I’d worked with worse, the one great thing about Short-eared Owls is they come ridiculously close if you have enough patience and keep still. It took a while but eventually this gorgeous bird was hunting just 5 or 6 meters away. Coming so close at times to my 600mm that I couldn’t fit it all in frame.
A second Owl much darker in colour joined it minutes later and they both zoomed across the tops of the grassland, dropping down to hunt regularly. It is an amazing thing to see such awesome wildlife in such an unlikely place, an area nothing better than wasteland bordered by train tracks, industrial estate, the Motorway and a residential street. With people walking around it at all times of day and dog walkers letting their mutts roam wild across it. And even though the light was rubbish and the weather depressing it was totally worth the drive!
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