Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today, the last day, and the Owl Tour. For once, the weather was, as Goldilocks might have said it, just right. Hazy cloud to start, long periods of winter sunshine, crisp but cold, and just the right amount of wind. Perfect.
We headed for one of our favoured Little Owl haunts first. There is often a rather nervous bird perched up close to the road here, but there was no sign initially today, despite our very cautious approach. What we did have was a Barn Owl. It flew across the road as we drove up and seemed to drop down in the long grass. We pulled up where it had appeared to land and there it was, wings outspread, down on the ground, just a few metres away. Stunning. It tried to take off, but was clearly clinging onto something, and the grass with it! Eventually, it worked its way free and flew off into the trees carrying a vole.
As we stood looking for the Little Owls, the Barn Owl appeared again, hunting in and out of the trees. At one point, it perched up on the edge of the plantation and we got great views of it through the scope. There were other things to look at as well – a flock of Fieldfares, a couple of Brown Hares running around in the stubble (and even mating!), and a rather nice number of Skylarks singing. Eventually, we found the Little Owls as well, but they were tucked up under the lip of the roof, and rather distant. A good start to the day, with three owls already, but it felt like we might be able to do better.
We continued to meander our way westwards. We pulled up by some farm buildings and on the roof was another a Little Owl – close this time, rather too close. It looked at us, bobbing its head nervously, before turning and dropping inside. We just had enough time to get a look at it before it did so. Still, it was much better than our views of the first two.
Further west again, and we stopped by some grazing meadows. A big oak tree in the middle was full of shapes – lots of slightly smaller, black ones were Jackdaws, but there were also a couple of much larger ones. A closer look showed that they were two Red Kites sat up in the sunshine. We had a good look at them in the binoculars, but as we parked up and got out of the car they took off and circled away.
The more we looked, the more we saw. There were lots of Fieldfares out on the grass – really smart birds viewed up close – but when a small group flew up into the trees, we picked up a single Redwing as well, showing off its pale eyebrow. A Mistle Thrush appeared in the top of the oak tree where the kites had been earlier. A pair of Grey Partridge fed along the edge by the overgrown hedgerow. A Little Egret flew past along the stream. A male Kestrel was on one side and two other birds were fighting on the other – presumably the female of the pair, possibly trying to see off one of last year’s youngsters. It was starting to warm up and several Common Buzzards started to circle over the woods nearby. And we could hear Little Owls calling, though unfortunately, try as we might, we couldn’t find where they were hiding.
We drove on again, to another block of old, decaying red-brick barns. One side of them was perfectly oriented to catch the warming rays of the sun. It was very easy to miss the small, pale shape tucked up under the tiled roof, it looked so much like the ends of the rafters jutting out further along, but it was not. A lovely Little Owl was basking in the sun. It, too, was rather nervous. It looked at us for a while, as we looked at it, then it turned and dropped down inside the barns.
With the morning drawing on, we headed down to the coast. As we parked at Holkham, the Wigeon were already in the air, hundreds and hundreds of them whirling round. The Lapwings also took to the air, and even the Pink-footed Geese. There were several Marsh Harriers quartering the marshes, but surely those wouldn’t cause quite that commotion? As we scanned, the culprit appeared amongst them – a Peregrine. It made several passes, circling up before zooming through the throng each time, but it seemed disinterested in having a go at any of the ducks and eventually seemed to get bored and drift off west.
We decided to walk west by the pines. It didn’t take long before we came across a tit flock – lots of Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits, Blue Tits and Great Tits, plus Goldcrests and some lovely Treecreepers, hanging upside down as they fed out along the branches or walking up the trunks. They were moving fast through the trees, feeding as they went, but several stopped long enough to drop down into the puddles to bathe before chasing off to catch up again.
Salts Hole held lots of Wigeon, most asleep on the edge of the reeds, and the usual little scattering of Little Grebes diving out on the water. Amongst them, two single Goldeneye were also diving, barely staying up long enough for us to get focused on them. Out at Washington Hide, we stopped to look at several thousand Pink-footed Geese sleeping out on the grazing meadows and a couple of Marsh Harriers drifting lazily over the fields.
We headed back to the car for lunch. Pausing to admire the Redshanks on the wet pools by Lady Anne’s Drive, their reddy-orange legs glowing in the sun. A large flock of Fieldfares dropped down amongst them briefly.
From there, we headed west again and stopped to scan the grazing marshes from the edge of the road. It was not hard to pick out the White-fronted Geese, their white blazes catching the light. Several were bathing on one of the pools, but more were feeding out amongst the tussocky grass, at least 70 in total. There were lots of geese and ducks out on the pools. A couple of Red Kites were loafing around in the trees in front of us and an almost-white Common Buzzard was perched on a nearby bush.
Next stop was Burnham Overy. We walked out across the grazing marshes towards the seawall, stopping to watch a smart Barn Owl out early, our second of the day. From up on the seawall, we could already see two Short-eared Owls hunting over the grass. They quartered back and forth for some time. Suddenly one of them seemed to take offense to one of the local Kestrels, and took a swoop at it. The Kestrel circled up higher into the air, with the Short-eared Owl climbing after it. The second Short-eared Owl even joined in for a second, before losing interest and dropping back down to the marshes. Higher and higher they went, the Short-eared Owl taking the occasional swipe at the Kestrel. Eventually, they seemed to get fed up and soared off in opposite directions.
The owls disappeared for a few minutes after that, before eventually turning up again, as they were previously, quartering over the grass, as if nothing had happened. One landed out on the marsh and we got great views of it through the scope, its yellow irises glowing in the afternoon sun and its short ‘ears’ fluttering. You can never tire of watching Short-eared Owls!
Having enjoyed the spectacle of the owls – and even picked up yet another Barn Owl hunting distantly – there was still one target we were missing. The Rough-legged Buzzard at Burnham Overy has been almost ever-present for the last few months, but there was no immediate sign of it either on one of its favoured posts or out on the open grass this afternoon. Just when we were thinking that we might be out of luck, someone picked it up briefly just taking to the air, before landing back in the dense grass and rushes out below the dunes. We could just see a pale head, contrasting with a grey-brown back. Then it took flight again and landed on a post – normal service resumed! We saw its black-banded white tail as it flew and the big black belly patch contrasting with the pale head when it landed again.
With the key target birds in the bag, and more besides, we headed back to the car well satisfied. However, there was still time for one more stop. Heading back east and inland, we stopped at a patch of woodland as the sun dropped down and the light started to fade. It wasn’t long before a Tawny Owl started hooting. Then a Barn Owl appeared through the trees and turned to hunt along the verge next to the road, our fourth for the day but a more typical experience as it ghosted along in the dusk. Then more Tawny Owls started up, at least three males hooting. One of them seemed to be close by, so we walked back towards the car. It flew across through the trees and landed amongst the bare branches, though it was hard to see in the gathering gloom. As we walked back, it flew off and disappeared into the woods.
Not a bad owl day in the end – two Short-eared, 4 Barn, 4+ Little and several Tawny Owls the final tally.