• Nick Bartrum

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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There was a time when I thought of summer as a quiet time for wildlife photography, and in many ways it is. It’s too hot to get out with the camera, the harsh sunlight is far from ideal, birds are less active after a long breeding season (and are looking a little shabby too), and many fields are still full of crops to be harvested, all these factors making it tricky to spot mammals.

However, there are more opportunities out there than I thought, and here are a few recommendations to keep you busy with your camera during the long summer days.

Book a session at an osprey photography hide. I did this at Horn Mill in Rutland in early July, and it was good fun. To get the most out of it I would recommend booking several sessions together to give yourself the best chance of capturing that illusive special moment. The season runs until the end of August, after which the birds will begin migrating back to Africa for the winter. If you’re lucky enough to be in Scotland, then Rothiemurcus is the ultimate osprey experience. It’s somewhere I intend to go to next year.

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Osprey 28 struggling to become airborne once more.

You could also have a go in the pond hide run by Tom Robinson at Wildlife Photography Hides, Bourne, Lincolnshire. An overnight stay might produce otter, heron or tawny owls. This can also be followed by staying on to photograph the very reliable and friendly kingfisher! It is tough going staying up all night, but it’s a unique experience that can produce special images.

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A pair of moorhens visited in the early hours, this is the moment just before they mated

My favourite bird, the barn owl, is busy feeding youngsters at the moment, and they have big appetites. Explore your local nature reserves, rough pastures, field margins and meadows from early afternoon onwards. It is your best chance of seeing these beautiful birds in daylight, and if you’re really quiet, they are so intent on finding a juicy vole that they will fly very close.

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Barn owl, photographed at a local wildlife sanctuary. Another option for an enjoyable day of photography

In fact, there are lots of young birds around at the moment, including young buzzards. These can be heard mewing persistently begging to be fed. Follow the sound and you will find the bird. In fact, I can hear one from my window as I write my blog post.

If you love moths, then these warm summer nights are perfect. Put out your moth trap and check it early the next morning, and if you’re careful then you can place them amongst pleasing foliage to photograph them. They can in fact be placed in special containers and kept in the fridge for a short while, which doesn’t harm them but does temper their activity just enough for them to be carefully placed in a favourable photographic situation. However, please set them free deep in cover to protect them from marauding robins.

Hide photography can be prohibitively expensive and out of reach for many without a car or access to decent public transport. Therefore, the best resource most of us have is much closer to home, our gardens.

Any garden with wildlife friendly plants, no matter how big or small, will attract bees, bugs and butterflies. I often spend an hour or so wandering through my tiny Norfolk garden searching for inspiration, and it rarely disappoints. For example, I recently discovered a pure white ghost spider ominously perched on a flower head waiting for its next victim. I prefer to go in the garden in the late afternoon or early evening when the sun is getting low and the light is much softer, and I’ll often try to experiment with backlighting to give a more dramatic effect.

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Pink campion, photographed just as the sun was setting.

I still prefer spring, autumn and winter photography, but there are opportunities out there in summer, and I hope that my suggestions will provide a few ideas and inspire you to make the most of the time you have with your camera.

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White tailed eagle, taken from a photography hide in Hortobagy, Hungary.

Wildlife photography hides can be brilliant fun. The best ones get the photographer up close to shy, illusive or rare animals and birds and they often provide unique perspectives on rarely witnessed behaviour. For those of us for whom time is limited, they provide an exciting and relatively easy way to fulfil our desire of attaining the perfect shot.

The hard work has already been done which often means months of fieldwork and observation, learning habits and behaviour patterns, planning for the best lighting conditions and most favourable backdrops. Most operators of photography hides also provide a level of luxury unknown not so long ago.

In April, I’m off to the Cairngorms on a week-long workshop with Andy Howard, and one of the species we’ll be photographing is black grouse. The only way to properly experience a black grouse lek is from a specially placed hide. In fact, I know that we have to be in place before sunrise, which makes it a daunting early start, but I know the experience will be well worth it. This type of situation cannot be done in any other way. They are a sensitive species that wouldn’t respond well to disturbance. Therefore, a carefully managed hide-based approach is essential.

Black grouse, photographed on a previous trip to Scotland from the back seat of a 4x4, which had two other photographers squeezed in! Far from ideal.

Most wildlife species are sensitive to human disturbance, but some more so than others. For example, a barn owl can be watched by anyone on a Sunday afternoon stroll around my local patch, Redgrave and Lopham Fen. They are often so intently focussed on hunting that they ignore the casual observer. However, noise and sudden movement will soon send them in the opposite direction. I have had owls fly so close over my head that I could have reached out and touched them, and this is because of taking a different approach. I like to find a quiet spot away from the main paths, I wear muted clothing, sit quietly, sometimes using a throw over cover, and I wait and watch. You can follow this link to read more of my experiences with the fenland owls.

Barn owl, photographed at Redgrave and Lopham Fen.

I’ve also photographed (well, attempted to…) Ospreys from a pool hide in Rutland. Exhilarating, but something that needs a lot of practise and repeated visits to achieve good results, which can be expensive.

Osprey, photographed from a hide at River Gwash Trout Farm.

The most unusual hide I have ever used was one I wrote about in a previous blog post, Let Sleeping Hawks Lie. A fantastic scaffold tree hide set up adjacent to a sparrowhawk’s nest, run by Tom Robinson at Wildlife Photography Hides. He also runs a tantalising array of pond hides with a host of opportunities for learning flash photography. Something I intend to investigate further.

Juvenile sparrowhawk, photographed from a tower hide, somewhere in a Lincolnshire woodland.

Of course, these all cost money, but it depends on your outlook of what constitutes good value. I would argue that in the majority of these cases the experience and results have more than compensated for the expense.

There is one major drawback from using paid for hides, and that is the fact that you are just one of many photographers taking shots that have the potential to be very similar. If you are after a unique shot, then the chances are you are better off exploring the creative possibilities of your photography well away from rented photography hides. A day in a rented hide is rarely a substitute for creativity and imagination.

Here are some of my recommendations for professionally run photography hides:

Wildlife Photography Hides

Andy Howard, Nature Photography

Horn Hill Osprey Hide

Pete Walkden Photography

RSPB MInsmere, Island Mere hide. If you want to photograph bitterns, this is the place to go. Take your wellies! And, apart from the cost to enter the reserve, it's free of charge!

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#photography #hides #wildlife #blackgrouse #ospreys #andyhoward #barnowls #sparrowhawks