Ghostly Hunters: An Icon of the British Countryside, the Barn Owl Demands a Great Deal of Patience, Research and Technical Skill from Photographers Looking to Capture Its Ghostly Visage and Distinctive Plumage

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Of the six species of owl resident in the British Isles, the barn owl is easily the best known. Its broad, snowy-white, heart-shaped face and wide-set eyes make this silent hunter one of our most recognisable birds.

Although it is the most widely distributed of the world's owls, in Britain, barn owls have been in steady decline for decades. According to the Barn Owl Conservation Network, the number of breeding pairs fell from 12,000 to 4,000--a 70 per cent decline--between the 1930s and 1980s.

That low point stirred many conservation and environmental groups into action, determined to arrest the decline. Nearly 30 years later, it remains a matter of debate among conservationists as to whether the drop in barn owl numbers has slowed or stopped altogether, but they remain clear about the main threats to these birds: loss of nesting sites and loss of habitat supporting their prey.

An intense program of nest-box distribution in recent years has proven highly successful in providing barn owls with replacement sites for the barns that have either been demolished or converted into homes. In this respect, barn owls have proven remarkably adaptable, and conservationists now believe that up to three quarters of all British barn owls live in manmade nest boxes. However, for a bird at the top of the food chain, this remains a disturbing point: it demonstrates how an icon of rural Britain was first threatened by human impact on the environment, only then to become dependant upon our intervention for its survival.

Habitat loss

Barn owls aren't woodland birds; unlike other owls, they prefer open country, and thrived in the British countryside for centuries up to the Second World War. Back then, farming was less intensive, landholdings were smaller and many more fields were left uncut, thereby providing the perfect habitat for the barn owl's favourite food--voles.

After decades of mechanised farming, the British countryside is now virtually devoid of the unmown, ungrazed fields where voles and field mice thrive. Instead of emerging from the rafters of a farmer's barn at dusk to hunt over hectares of rough pasture, barn owls have been forced to hunt these rodents in the overgrown grasses of riverbanks and roadside verges. A barn owl swooping along the edge of a country road may be a spectacular sight, but all too often, these magnificent birds are ending their days as roadkill.

Another threat to the barn owl population is the weather. Severe winters with heavy snow have a major impact on the abundance of voles, lowering their breeding success and resulting in a diminished food source for the owls.

When long grass is covered by heavy snow, hunting becomes more difficult and the owls will hover above, listening for the tiny prey and watching for any sign of movement in the snow that will give away its position. The head of a barn owl is beautifully evolved for this purpose: its eyes are set well apart on its broad, flat face for a wide field of view, and the ears are set forward (but hidden by the white facial plumage) to make hearing more acute.

Sightings and distribution

Ironically, a hard winter improves the chance of seeing barn owls as the birds need to fly more often and farther to search for prey. Also, dusk and dawn are the peak times for hunting, and during winter, these coincide with the times when more people are out and about.

So where do you need to be to see a barn owl in the wild? According to conservation groups, most public sightings are by car drivers, startled by the flash of white and tawny plumage. Barn owls also shriek and hiss (they don't hoot), which adds to the drama of their ghostly appearance. A sighting may be brief, but such is the distinctive physical form and colouring of a barn owl that it can't be easily mistaken for any other bird of prey.

Eastern England, from Yorkshire down to Lincolnshire and the fens of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, is regarded as the best region in which to see barn owls. …