Mr Woo stares impassively from the fence post, a slightly startled look on his broad round face. Mr Woo is a great grey owl, and one of around a dozen birds of prey that falconer Simon Stacey has brought along to a raptor photography masterclass in the Sherwood Forest.
Great grey owl – Mr Woo/Credit: Mark Hillsdon
We’d arrived at the Sherwood Hideaway the night before, and discovered a perfect log cabin on the edge of a large clearing overlooking the forest. There was a well-equipped kitchen, bedroom complete with four poster bed and the lure of a bubbling hot tub on the veranda. Some cabins are even dog friendly.
The Hideaway sits within Thoresby Park, one of four ancient estates in Nottingham that form the Dukeries, and the surrounding area offers dozens of trails and paths that zig-zag through stunning mature woodlands.
The site is the proud holder of a gold David Bellamy Conservation Award, which recognises holiday parks that manage their land for wildlife, and alongside bat roosts, bee hives and bug hotels, the park also heats the lodges using its own biomass network.
But while the urge to kick back and relax was strong, I’d come to hone my photography skills and the next morning, when we gather at the park entrance, a host of new feathered guests had arrived, as well as award-winning wildlife photography Heather Burns.
Handler Simon with a Harris hawk ready to pose/Credit: Mark Hillsdon
We’re soon heading off into the forest, with two Harris hawks, Annabelle and Artie, leading the way. They are the perfect pair of avian poseurs, and obligingly land on bare branches, allowing us to check camera settings, get attuned to the light and zoom in on their dark brown plumage and chestnut shoulders. Unlike most birds of prey, Harris hawks often hunt as a pair, allowing them to bring down much bigger prey back on their native American continent.
Action shot/Credit: Mark Hillsdon
With a gentle call the hawks swoop down to Simon’s gloved hand, and we snap away, having, on Heather’s advice, ditched the safety blanket of auto mode and switched to aperture priority. This gives much greater control over depth of field, producing a blurred background while letting you to shot at a faster shutter speed and catch a much stronger image. Heather’s golden rule is to focus on the eye, get that crystal clear, she says, and you’re on to a winner.
After an hour tracking the hawks through the forest, we stop in a clearing to master a new skill, panning and the art of following a bird in flight.
We start with a gyrfalcon, a majestic grey and white bird that flies to a lure swung round by Simon. I switch to continuous shooting mode in an attempt to keep up with the spectral raptor, but my shots show a white blur against perfectly focussed pine trees. Heather says nice things but I know only practice will make perfect.
Matilda, a European eagle owl/Credit: Mark Hillsdon
Matilda, a European eagle owl, is far easier to shoot. She sits on a tree stump unperturbed by the clicking paparazzi, occasionally ruffling her feathers more for affect than annoyance, before fixing you hard with staring orange eyes. This is a bird with attitude.
Barn owl in flight/Credit: Mark Hillsdon
Next is the more familiar barn owl. The object here is to capture the bird in flight, from that first downward push of the wings, to the moment it hangs in mid-air as it comes into land. But it takes a leap of faith as I crouch in front of Simon’s gloved hand. He calls and the owl takes off from its perch, 20 feet away, and heads straight for me. Transfixed I forget to press the shutter as I feel the swoosh of wings above my head. We try again, with more success, and I catch the owl’s steely stare as it hones in on its morsel of food.
We finish with Mr Woo, who doesn’t seem particularly interested in flying. He just sits and stares, and after the excitement of being dived bombed by a barn owl, it’s a restorative end to the day, and a privilege to be able to take a portrait of this remarkable bird.
The photography experience lasts around five hours and costs £95 per person, with groups limited to no more than eight. The next two courses are on October 13 and November 10. To get the most from the day you do need a decent camera, preferable with a zoom lens.
This year Falconry Days are also available on October 6 and November 17, with the chance to learn how to fly and handle hawks, falcons, owls and eagles.
Lodges at The Sherwood Hideaway start from £578, based on up to four people staying in a two-bedroom Woodland Rustic cabin for three-nights.
To find out more visit: www.sherwoodhideaway.com