A few weeks ago, I saw on Facebook pictures of a Long-eared owl (Asio otus) taken in Vestre Kirkegård, a large cemetery in Copenhagen. It’s not far from where I live, so I decided I would take a look one day, when I have time and the weather is sunny. By asking the people who had posted online, I gathered information on how to find the bird without troubling it too much. Long-eared owls are nocturnal birds (not all owls are!), therefore they can be sensitive to day disturbance (there was a debate about that in the Danish birding Facebook group). I was kindly provided the precise location of a sighting (I was asked not to share it, so I won’t), so I was ready to grasp any opportunity to visit this cemetery.
These last days had been quite gloomy, but when I woke up this morning, the sun was shining. Incredulous, I checked the weather forecast, where I discovered it was going to be sunny all day long. OK, let’s do it!
So first, a warning: when dmi.dk shows the picture of a sun without any cloud, that actually means “sun with many clouds in the sky”. Not that it was unpleasant compared to the beginning of the week, but it was not really what I expected…
Half an hour of biking, and I was on site. The owl was supposed to be roosting in fir trees lining a small path, but could be visible from a larger path nearby. I scanned the trees from said path with the binoculars, but nothing unveiled. The trees were slender, with branches pointing down; ivy climbed the trunks, adding a visibility-altering layer. I decided to move to the smaller path, between the trees, hoping I would not disturb the bird too much. I was wondering whether Long-eared owls rest in the same tree every night. It could be that they use a different one all the time, in which case my odds to find one were quite limited (there are A LOT of trees in the area). After some more glances up, I remembered that I was advised to look for droppings, on the ground or in the trees. And down the very first tree, there were white traces. Excited, I went quietly under the tree, looked up… and there it was! Looking at me, maybe four or five meters above the ground, a Long-eared owl. Oh the shock, oh the awe!
I took a step back, and I think I had a large smile on my face. I was ecstatic: an OWL! For sure, I had seen Little owls (Athene noctua) several times in the past (I’ve even had a nesting box in the garden, at home, for ten years, though it has never been occupied), but these are birds active in day time (a bit, right after dawn and before dusk, depending on the weather). This Long-eared owl, it looked like a mystical creature. Not really rational, I know, but well…
I returned under the tree, and stayed longer this time. The bird didn’t seem bothered by my presence: it looked at me for a few minutes, then cleaned a bit its plumage, and went back to a sleepy state, barely moved by the biting squalls. I decided to take some pictures, but I was worried by the branches on the way. Not only they masked the subject, but they also “stole” the focus. Sometimes, when you use the autofocus on your camera, it doesn’t aim at the right spot: this happens a lot when shooting in the woods, with branches between you and your target. I faced this problem at Lac Luitel this summer, for instance. In this case, manual focus can come handy, but if the subject is small, your eye will not be acute enough to achieve a sharp image.
I decided to try a new technique, one that I read about at Digital Photography School. I switched the display to the screen (instead of looking through the camera) and went to manual focus mode. What’s particularly interesting is that you can zoom on the snapshot shown by the screen (just like you would zoom on pictures you’ve already taken), to have a better precision in your focus. It was hard: the wind was blowing hard, and I had to hold the camera at arm’s length or almost (and a telelens is heavy, trust me). It would be really interesting with a tripod, I guess.
Given that the owl was basically sleeping, the pictures are not outstandingly interesting. Still, I saw an owl :p
Back on the small path, I realized that I could see it through a hole in the foliage. That was a better place for pictures, and where all those you can see in this article were taken.
After these breathtaking moments, I left. Watching a bird sleep, even if it’s an owl, gets boring pretty fast. I saw perch birds (tits, chaffinches, blackbirds, goldcrests…), and many squirrels. If you are in Copenhagen and want to see these cute balls of fur, Vestre Kirkegård is probably the place to go.
At the exit, while I was getting ready to bike back home, a Common magpie (Pica pica) explored some tombstones on display. It had something bizarre around the eyes. Usually, magpies fly away when they see me, but this one didn’t. Strange, but a good opportunity for picture!
What a day. An owl!