Updated: Dec 23, 2020
As a rule of thumb I rarely take pictures of captive animals, instead preferring to photograph wildlife in the natural environment. Recently though I spent a long weekend in the Suffolk countryside and I took a trip to the counties Owl Sanctuary.
This charitable organisation, based in the village of Stoneham Aspal, is home to a number of owls and other birds of prey. However, far from being simply a display of captive animals, this centre is concerned primarily with the care and rehabilitation of birds within the local area, whilst also promoting conservation throughout the United Kingdom.
The sanctuary has a fairly new 'raptor hospital' where sick or injured birds of prey from the county are treated before, hopefully, being re-released into the wild. Some birds that pass through the hospital require surgery or long bouts of rehabilitation before being returned to their natural habitat but the hard working team, including a number of volunteers, offer some of the best care available. For example, on Sunday night the centre received a call about an unfortunate barn owl that found itself stuck in a local pond. Waterlogged and too heavy to fly out by itself, the team from the centre were able to recover it before returning it to the sanctuary where it is currently receiving treatment and regaining its strength.
The centre is also home to a number of non-native birds that have been either abandoned as unwanted pets or as chicks, from collections throughout the UK, that have been disowned by their parents and require hand-rearing.
One of the most unique birds that I witnessed was Pungu, a bateleur eagle who joined the centre as a youngster. Native to Africa, this eagle feeds predominantly on small reptiles or mammals as well as other birds such as doves or pigeons in the wild. I managed to capture a bold portrait image of Pungu which showed off her excellent black plumage, with ruffled head crest, alongside her distinct red facial features and yellow coloured beak.
My best image from the day however was a striking portrait shot of one of the resident Harris' hawks. These birds are native to Central and South America but you may have seen them in the news recently as wild populations are being reportedly found in the United Kingdom. These birds are extremely popular with falconers, due to their social nature and easiness to train, but it is believed that a number of captive escapees have led to an establishment of these birds in the wild. Harris' hawks operate in social groups, usually between 2-7 individuals, often hunting together which is a trait not seen in many hawk species. Trained groups have been used in the United Kingdom to maintain the unwanted pigeon populations in London's Trafalgar Square and from tennis courts at Wimbledon.
I photographed one of the resident Harris' hawks as it was sat on its perch following a flying exercise session. The dark background, and a manual lowering of the exposure in the cameras settings, allowed for this portrait shot which I feel captures the hawks intense stare and personality, in an almost studio-esque style. The lack of light meant that I was working at a high iso but the absence of bold colour means that the level of noise in the image is fairly unnoticeable.
Whilst I still prefer working with animals in their natural habitat it was great to see, first-hand, some of the excellent work being performed at the Suffolk Owl Sanctuary whilst also photographing some new species and experimenting with some image styles that I had not previously utilised.
If you would like to learn more about, or potentially plan a visit to, the Suffolk Owl Sanctuary then please follow the links below for more information.