Shedding Light on the Life of Owls

by Joris van Alphen | July 13, 2012

© Joris van Alphen“Photographs really are experience captured,” wrote Susan Sontag in her famous essay On Photography. Photography can be a witness to the events in our lives, immortalizing our own experiences. But, to me, its biggest virtue is that it can also open new worlds to our eyes. Some animals live lives so foreign to us that the only way we can experience their way of living is through photography. Last year I embarked on a personal project to shed light on the life of owls.

We can monitor where owls nest, when they call and where they hunt. We can quantify how many eggs they lay and how fast their chicks grow, or sift through hundreds of pellets to unravel their diets. Using genetic studies, we can even uncover how often they cheat on their partners. All things that give us fascinating insights into the lives of these shy animals. But what does it really look like when an owl is out and about at night?

Barn owl with vole © Joris van Alphen

Owls live in a world that normally remains unseen to us, hidden behind the veil of darkness. With their elusive character, they have fascinated humanity for centuries. Some cultures saw the birds as omens of disease and death; others viewed them as creator beings and helping spirits instead. The oldest known references to owls stretch back into prehistory. Some 30,000 years ago, a rock artist drew an unmistakable long-eared owl in the wall of a cave in what is now France. And today still owls hold great symbolic value in our society—think about the wise old owls from Winnie the Pooh and Bambi. We may owe this to the ancient Greeks, whose goddess of wisdom Athena was always accompanied by a little owl. Surely, an animal that can see through the shadows with its large eyes must be infinitely wise.

Male barn owl © Joris van Alphen

I can relate to this mythological status all too well. On the old French farm where I spent my summers as a child lived a breeding pair of barn owls. To this day, it fascinates me how an entire family could conduct their lives so quietly and unobtrusively that, if you weren’t looking for them, you would barely notice they were there at all. Most of the year the only hint of their existence was the smell of their poop! I would sit by the window at night, peering at the black hole of the hayloft for hours, until finally, as white as a ghost and more quiet than a mouse, a figure appeared. For a moment it would sit there and look back at me, before disappearing with a jump into the night. No, with a creature in the yard equipped with stealth flight, night vision, and hearing so flawless it could grab a vole in complete darkness, I didn’t need dragons or mermaids to fill my imagination. What would it be like to sail over the meadows as a barn owl under the full moon? What goes on behind that black hole of the hayloft? Photography can literally bring that to light, and in ways we can’t experience in person.

Owl portrait © Joris van Alphen

About the Author

Joris van Alphen is a young photographer, filmmaker and marine biologist from the Netherlands. Joris specializes in conservation and science reporting. His work has been commissioned by organisations including National Geographic, Science and Nature. National Geographic named him Emerging Nature Photographer 2012. He is currently working on a documentary feature film about the Oostvaardersplassen, and whenever he can he travels to France to check on 'his' owls.

To see more of Joris' work, please visit his website at jorisvanalphen.com, or follow him on facebook or twitter.

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