Athena by night

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I’m not one for latin names*, but in the case of the Little Owl, or Athene Noctua to give the species its  correct scientific name, there’s something so wonderfully poetic about it I’m prepared to make an exception.**

Literally translated it means ‘Athene by night’, highlighting the classical mythological significance of the Little Owl in ancient Greece as a symbol of  Athena, goddess of wisdom. Not sure where the ‘by night comes from’ as they are, at least partially, diurnal.

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When photographing Mark Hancox’s Kingfishers last year it was a real privilage to  observe the neighbouring farm’s  resident pair of Little Owls hunting at dusk at the end of each day. So when Mark invited me up to photograph them, I jumped at the chance.

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They’re terrific characters. Their bright yellow eyes and broad white eyebrows giving the impression that they have a permanent, intensely cross disposition.

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This was the first shot I took, taken from two separate sessions last November. He made for a somewhat comical site as he  foraged around the trunk of the tree  the pair have made their home, hunting for worms and invertebrates.

The  light in the early part of this winter was typically warm and soft (can we have it back please?). The position of the sun at the time the owls would appear each day rendering them nicely side-lit; showing off the texture and detail in their feathers beautifully.

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I really like the next picture which shows one of the pair clutching an invertebrate in its talons. As Mark Cocker writes in the rather wonderful ‘Birds Britannica’, because of their undoubted hunting prowess, Little Owls were persecuted by game keepers in the early part of the 20th century, being regarded as an unwelcome ‘foreign’ scourge of pheasants and partridges. Such was the outcry against them that the newly formed British Trust for  Ornithology (BTO) commissioned a major enquiry in 1935.  Analysis of pellets from recent scientific studies has shown that the majority of their diet is made up of such prey items as earwigs and crane fly eggs.

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Today, Little Owls are a much more acceptable part of the British countryside and more generally held in great affection. Although, like many British species, they are suffering as a result of habitat loss, with insect-rich grassy hedge borders and rough grass fast disappearing.  Unfortunately because of their non-native status they are  not regarded as much as being a conservation priority. Which is a real shame as they are cracking little birds and its given me a lot of pleasure to observe and photograph them. Sometimes I feel us photographers are so pre-occupied with  the image and how it is obtained that its all too easy to forget the wildlife itself, which for me is where the focus firmly ought to be.

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I wish I’d been able to spend more time to enjoy this species’ endearingly quirky habits and behaviour. Unfortunately this is currently being taken up continuing to work on  my own personal project, for the second half of the winter, Barn Owls. The dreary, inclement weather we have had since the start of the year has meant I’m further behind with this particular project than I’d hoped at this stage. This has had the knock on effect of meaning  I haven’t been back yet this year to see the Little Owls. More’s the pity. They are though, like the other British Owl species I am working on a work in progress. What started as a winter project has quickly turned into a much longer term project. I’m really looking forward to catching up with them again later in the year therefore.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this, my favourite image so far, which tells you everything you need to know about these plucky characters. This one’s for Mark, many thanks as always  for the opportunity, my friend.

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Next time, some exciting news….

*Too many Monty Pythonesque memories of  school I’d rather forget-  ‘conjugate the verb!’

** Happier memories of my English studies at Uni

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