2020 07 20 - Peak District Little Owls

I was informed an interesting fact the other day:  Owls can't move their eyes.  Not at all!  They aren't eye balls, but tubes held in place by bones.  As the kids say, it blew my mind!  This explains why owls have developed such a range of movement in their necks.  

Anyway, now that that is out of the way, on with the blog.  I have been visiting a family of Little Owls in the Peak District of a number of years now.  I was tipped off to their location by a good friend Francis Taylor.  As always, I don't plan on revealing the location of the site so as not to add undue stress to the owls or put them at risk.  

The owls have been occupying for at least 4 years, the parents using the nest site from early April.  Little owls typically have a clutch size of 3 to 4 eggs and this pair seem to be around that on average.  Last year there were two chicks, this year I think there may have been 3 chicks. 

Adult little owls form monogamous relationships often staying as a breeding pair until one of them eventually dies.  This strong bond is essential in allowing them to successfully raise each clutch.

The owlets begin to emerge from the nest in July.  At this point they are able to fly a little and are still very fluffy.  You will hear the adults calling to the owlets to encourage them out onto perches.  At this point the parents are very busy hunting to provide enough food for themselves and their chicks.  This is a great time to photograph the Little Owls as they remain very local to the nest site, and the owlets, if you see them, are incredible to photograph.

Photographing Little Owls

First and foremost, let me say, I am no expert in this.  The tips that I give below are based on my experience from this site, and so may not even be possible at other nest sites.  

You are going to be shooting either at Dawn until mid morning or in the late afternoon/early evening and on into dusk.  In the afternoons the adult Little Owls emerge from their nest site a couple of hours before sunset.  Initially they sit and observe their territory before setting off hunting.


These owls are little by name and little by nature, often only 20cm tall.  They are also very secretive and shy, so are highly unlikely to be perched close to you.  You will need a DSLR or Mirrorless System with a lens reach of at least 300mm, ideally 500mm and beyond if you can.  Due to the low light you will need a fast lens, f2.8 or f4 where possible.  You are also likely to need extenders, so it is even more important to have a fast lens to mount too.  My photographs were shot on my Sony A7rII or Sony A9 with my Sigma 500mm F4 and the 1.4x teleconverter.  Your camera will also be able to handle low light well, so a full frame or standard crop is recommended.  If you use a micro four thirds camera system you will likely have the lens reach but may struggle with the low light conditions.  If this is the case then you should consider shooting at Dawn and into the morning as it gets lighter, or being patient from early afternoon and hoping they emerge early.

The Sony cameras offer different advantages for my photography of the Little Owls.  The Sony A7rII has incredible dynamic range and noise handling, so that I can shoot in low light.  It's high resolution also provides great details and the ability to crop.  The Sony A9's autofocus is incredibly accurate, rarely misses and has Artificial Intelligence that allows it to focus on the Little Owls eyes.  

Both cameras also allow me shoot in both full frame and in crop mode, allowing me to shoot at 500mm x 1.4 (teleconverter reduces aperture to f5.6) x 1.5 (in camera crop that does not affect lens aperture), effectively giving me an 1050mm f5.6 telephoto lens.

The Hide

As I have mentioned, the Little Owls are shy birds and will simply fly away if they see you.  You will need a hide of some sort.  For this site I am fortunate that I can photography the Little Owls from my car window.  They are more than happy to sit within 5 metres of the car, sometimes even less, with me photographing out of the window.  I have had them fly and perch near to the parked car and also tolerate me driving near to them.

Photography Tips

You should look to set your aperture wide open in order to give those beautiful out of focus backgrounds.  Shooting at f4 or f5.6 is more than adequate to ensure the entire bird is in focus front to back.  When the bird is perched they tend to be very still, so you are able to reduce you shutter speed.  Reduce it to the a speed that matches the length of the lens, so if you are using a 500mm lens, don't go below 1/500th of a second unless you are able to support the lens on a tripod or bean bag or you camera has very good image stabilisation (Sony!).  This slow shutter speed allows you to maximise the available light, reduce your ISO and so reduce noise, giving you clean, sharp images. 

The best photographs are where the Little Owl is perched on a natural feature, with a clean background behind it.  This really helps to isolate the subject, the background separation exaggerates the owl, revealing all of those juicy details.  This Peak District site offers loads of dry stone walls and fence posts.  It is the walls that look more natural so I tend to prefer those as perches.  

If the bird is well lit, shoot towards a darker background.  If the birds is shaded, a brighter background will work well.

The Little Owls are very hard to photograph in flight.  In fact, I have only a handful of flight images, none of which I feel are good enough to show.  The reason behind this is the way the owls fly.  They drop from their perch and fly low to the ground, raising and falling over obstacles.  They also give very little warning of flight.  One moment they a very still, the next they are gone.  This particular family of owls are surrounded by perches, so predicting their flight and perching is very difficult.

The Little Owls

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