Night of the owls: An extraordinary wildlife experience in South Cambridgeshire
Paul Brackley enjoys an extraordinary wildlife experience in South Cambridgeshire.
It’s approaching 10pm and the last vestige of daylight is clinging to the sky, delicate and blue, filling the gaps between the leaves of the trees in front of us. We sit quietly, cameras at the ready, waiting with anticipation. And it’s not a long wait.
Silently, majestically, it flies in and lands on a branch.
I’ve heard tawny owls many times before, and seen one at a distance – in misty conditions – roosting in a tree. Once, I got a fleeting glimpse – possibly – of one swooping past, too quick to be sure.
But never have I seen one like this.
The owl sits, content, in a tree not 10 metres in front of us, affording a stunning view.
I focus on it and rattle off a series of photographs, desperate to capture the moment before it passes.
I needn’t have worried.
Over the course of the next two hours, the female tawny flies back in repeatedly – perhaps 15 or 20 times. It lands on every perch in front of us – some of them so close it’s hard to believe, and stares right at us in our pop-up hides.
It’s an experience like no other, a rare privilege, offering a window into a secret nighttime world that few ever witness.
But thanks to Kevin Robson, you have the opportunity to do just that.
Kevin has established a wildlife hide experience, which operates from about mid-May until late August/early September, on private land in Fen Drayton owned by his in-laws, a short drive from his own home.
He tells me: “I used to film badgers there with trail cameras. I would leave them there and see what came through. We got deer, the odd stoat and foxes, but badgers were quite regular. One evening, the trail camera was filming the badger but up in a tree behind you could see a pair of eyes, which had to be an owl at that time of night.
“I mentioned it to a friend of mine who is very keen on owls and wildlife conservation and he offered to make a nest box that could be put up in the area. With his help we got the box up and within a week to 10 days I was getting a lot more footage of the owls, so they were obviously fascinated by what was there.”
Kevin began to build on the experience, adding perches and subtle lighting panels, casting a delicate clean white light into the trees.
“There are natural perches – trees and stumps. I’ve added to that environment for photographers, with some nice perches. I can’t go for a walk now without wondering what a piece of wood would look like with an owl on top!” he says.
“The lights are only on when we have visitors so they can see what is going on. I didn’t know at the beginning whether the owls would tolerate them. You have to be careful as they are nocturnal animals, but these are very low-voltage LEDs and they just give enough light for photos and video and to make it quite ambient.
“They came in the first time I had the lights on and they are accustomed to them. They don’t seem bothered at all.”
Tawny owls may be Britain’s most common owl, but being nocturnal means they are notoriously hard to see. Not here.
Anyone booking a place who is unfortunate enough not to see a tawny gets their money back. But this is the third season that Kevin has operated his hides – and only one occasion has he not seen one.
“They didn’t breed in the first year. The nest was unsuccessful. Anything could go wrong with a nest. They may have been young birds or stood on the eggs, but last year they raised three owlets. This year, there are owlets too,” says Kevin.
On the night we visit, we can hear the newly-fledged owlets in the trees behind us. The tawny takes the pieces of food that Kevin has left out back to them.
“I put some food out for the owls all through the year to keep them interested, but I’m very keen that it’s only a supplement. They are not reliant on me. They are wild birds and I never want to change that relationship,” he explains.
“At the moment the female owl comes in at about 10pm. Last night, we stayed until midnight and she made about 25 visits to the area, which is quite spectacular. She’ll fly in and go from perch to perch. She’ll take food back to the youngsters and return, so it’s a lovely evening.
“The man that came last night was there primarily for the tawny owls but said he would be almost as excited if we saw a badger. He had only seen one in the wild once, and otherwise he had only ever seen them dead on the road. We had two badgers in, which was fantastic.”
And sure enough, on the night we visit, two badgers visit the area. One comes very close and affords incredible views.
As it does so, the tawny flies back and lands on a perch.
An extraordinary dilemma befalls us. Which do we photograph? The badger snuffling around in front of us feeding? Or the tawny, perching, almost as if it’s posing for us?
There’s time, in fact, for both, as the badger visits a couple of times, and stays at one point for about 15 minutes.
“Last night, the poor badger got kicked in the face by the muntjac!” recalls Kevin. “It was completely accidental. The badger was sneaking along behind the muntjac and she stepped backwards and stepped on his face. He was fine – but he looked a bit perplexed!”
Generally, Kevin will set up individual pop-up hides for one or two visitors, alongside his own. Each is open at the front.
“In some wildlife hides you’re in a shed or peeking out of a tiny hole in the netting,” he says. “This is a much nicer experience. You have a wide view and the wildlife isn’t scared of you.”
The tawny’s incredible eyes appear to stare right in at us. It’s an unforgettable sight.
“Normally when you photograph wildlife it tends not to like you… if you point a camera at something in your back garden, it very often will fly away. But they have become accustomed here,” notes Kevin, who sold his legal business about 20 years ago and is now self-employed, working part-time as a gardener and on cleaning jobs.
“This has become a third string to my bow,” he explains. “I’ve been interested in wildlife photography for at least 15 years. I’ve been to some other hides and when this came about, I thought I might try and set something up.
“I didn’t have any intention of turning it into a business but some friends came over and said you’ve got to open this up. It’s a wonderful experience.”
They were spot on.
A lot of Kevin’s visitors are keen wildlife photographers, but the experience is open to all.
“Many people who come are good photographers, but anyone is welcome and I will always help with settings and try and give advice to get the best from the equipment they’ve got.
“I’ve had some people come who are not photographers. They perhaps have never seen a tawny owl in the wild.”
As midnight approaches, it’s time to call it a night and leave the family of owls to their hunting and feeding. We carefully pack up, Kevin switches off the lights and we drive back down the narrow track, full of memories – and our memory cards full of pictures.
The hide experience costs £70 per person, or £120 for two. Book at khrimages.co.uk. You can contact Kevin on 07860 111477, and view his pictures and updates at twitter.com/KHRimages and flickr.com/photos/khrimages/.