19th Jan 2019 – Owls, Raptors & Otters

An Owl Tour today. It was a cold day, only just getting above 4C in the early afternoon after a frost overnight, but dry and bright with some sunny intervals in the morning. The sort of weather which is good for looking for owls, and lots more things besides!

With an early start, we were hoping to catch a Barn Owl out hunting first thing this morning, before they go in to roost. We made our way straight over to an area of grazing marshes where they can often be found and as we walked up over the bank, there was our first Barn Owl of the day.

It was quartering the meadow, flying round looking down and listening intently for any potential prey. It landed on a post in front of us, staring down into the grass below, but quickly resumed hunting again, flying over the bank back towards the road. We walked back over and watched the Barn Owl drop sharply down into the grass. It came up, but flew straight into the hedge, so we couldn’t see if it had actually caught anything.

The next thing we knew, we heard a commotion and looked across to see a Kestrel and the Barn Owl rolling around in the middle of the road. It seemed most likely that the Kestrel stole the Barn Owl’s breakfast, as it flew straight off into the trees and the Barn Owl headed off over the other side of the road, empty-taloned.

barn owl 1

Barn Owl – still out hunting when we arrived this morning

As we walked on down the path across the meadows, a Brown Hare ran off across the grass and we could see one or two Curlew out in the field beyond. We heard Bearded Tits pinging in the reeds the other side, but they were keeping well down today, out of the cold.

As it started to brighten up, raptor activity picked up. First a Marsh Harrier appeared, a rather dark juvenile. It perched in the top of a bush, where we could get it in the scope. Then a much paler, greyer adult male Marsh Harrier flew in along a line of reeds, hunting.

We noticed a shape on the top of a tree stump in the distant, which turned out to be a male Sparrowhawk. We had a nice look at it through the scope, and could see its pinkish breast stripes. A second Sparrowhawk flew low over the reeds, dropped down to skim over the grass. As it landed, it flushed a big flock of Meadow Pipits, presumably which it had been hoping to plunder. It flew up and landed in the trees beyond, with nothing to show for its efforts.

As we looked back over towards the pool in the reeds, we noticed a large bird flying towards us, a Bittern. Unfortunately it dropped down quickly into the reeds on the edge of the pool and disappeared, before everyone could get onto it.

We walked up a little further, to see if we could find it again, looking from a different angle. As we stood there scanning the edge of the reeds, two Otters ran back away from us across the grass in front, towards the pool. They disappeared from view, but a couple of minutes later one came back out onto the grass. We watched as it stood there in front of the reeds, crunching on something that it had just caught. A real treat to watch!

otters

Otters – ran across the grass and down into the reeds

Looking back across towards the road, the Barn Owl had reappeared again. We watched as it hunted from the posts at the back of the marshes, perching first on one, looking intently down into the grass below, then flying down along the fenceline a couple of posts and trying its luck there. It hopped along the fence like this several times, before having another fly round over the grass. Then it disappeared back over the bank again.

It was starting to brighten up now, so having had such a productive stop here already, we decided to head off and look for Little Owls. Particularly after a cold night, they like to perch out and warm up in the morning sun. It was a good morning for them, as the first place we checked, we found one sunning itself on the roof of an old barn.

little owl

Little Owl – enjoying the sunshine this morning

There were lots of other things to see here. A flock of Fieldfares came up out of the trees and flew off across the road, and we could hear Redwings calling nearby too. A group of Rooks flew down to feed in one of the fields nearby. Several Brown Hares ran back and forth across the concrete yard in front of us.

We checked a second barn and found another Little Owl, though it was mostly hidden from view under the roof, and we could just see the back of its head. Several Stock Doves were perched on the roof nearby. A flock of Brent Geese flew over, heading inland.

brown hare

Brown Hare – already starting to get more active now

Then disaster struck. Back at the car, we found we had a breakdown. It would take too long to get it fixed, so we had a quick rethink and a change of vehicles, and we were soon back on the road again. Thankfully, it didn’t lose us too much time either.

Once we were back on the road, we headed straight over to Snettisham. Up on the sea wall, the tide was out and the mud close to the bank was very dry, which meant a distinct lack of waders. All we could see were just a few Redshanks. Scanning out across the Wash, we could see a large flock of Teal, lots of Mallard, and a liberal scattering of Shelduck all over the mud.

We scanned the Pits on our way down, but could only see several Goldeneye and no sign of the Smew today. From the causeway, we had a good look at a drake Goldeneye which was busy diving a short distance away, and counted at least 8 drakes in total just on the pit to the north of us. A Kingfisher shot across low over the water and a few seconds later flew back the other way. When it flew back across a third time, it disappeared up and over the bank inland.

goldeneye

Goldeneye – we counted at least 8 drakes on one pit today

There were lots of other ducks on the pits – mostly Wigeon, plenty of Mallard, and a handful of Shoveler. As well as lots of Greylags and Canada Geese, a single Barnacle Goose was most likely a feral bird. We could see several Little Grebes out on the open water too.

Our main target here though was Short-eared Owl. There has been a regular roosting bird here, but when we got round to where we can normally see it, there was no sign of it. We scanned all around, but found nothing. It looked like we had drawn a blank today. A large flock of Golden Plover and Lapwing flew up from the fields inland, but quickly settled back down.

We decided to walk back for lunch, but on our way we glanced back and just decided to have one final scan from a slightly different angle. There was a Short-eared Owl, tucked down in a tussock of grass, hidden by a bramble bush from where we had just been. We could see it staring out with bright yellow eyes. Success at the last!

short-eared owl

Short-eared Owl – we eventually found one, hiding in some grass today

After lunch, we started to make our way back east. We happened to notice that a Rough-legged Buzzard had been reported at Choseley about half an hour earlier, so we figured we could swing round that way and try our luck. But when we got to Choseley, there had been no sign of it since the last report.

We had just managed to find a Common Buzzard perched in the top of a hedge when one of the group spotted another buzzard flying over the field behind us. It was the Rough-legged Buzzard – we could see its white head, black belly patch and, when it turned, its white tail with a black terminal band. It flew across the field and landed on the roadside verge behind us.

rough-legged buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – flew in behind us and landed on the verge

It didn’t stay there long though, just long enough to get a quick look through the scope. Then the Rough-legged Buzzard took off again and circled over the field, giving us some more great flight views, before flying back away into the distance.

Time was getting on and we had an appointment with more owls. As we headed back east along the coast road, we saw several large flocks of Pink-footed Geese flying across the road.

We arrived at our final destination a bit later than planned, after the distractions on the way. As we walked down along the path, there was no sign of the Barn Owl out hunting yet. Fortunately we got to the point from which we could see the owl box, just in time to watch as it climbed out onto the platform in front. It spent the next several minutes just dozing, with eyes half shut, giving us a great opportunity to get a really good look at it through the scope.

barn owl 2

Barn Owl – spent several minutes dozing on the front of the box

After a while, the Barn Owl started to shuffle and stretched its wings. Then it dropped down from the platform and started hunting. Very quickly, it dropped down into the long grass. We presumed it must have caught something, as it stayed down for quite some time.

Eventually, the Barn Owl flew up again and, after a quick break on a nearby post, it resumed hunting. Very quickly, it caught another vole, but this time rather than eating it on the ground, it took it over to another post. A Kestrel saw an opportunity and attacked, swooping down and trying to grab the vole from the owl’s talons. It looked like it failed, as the next we knew we could see what appeared to be the Barn Owl swallowing. Presumably it had quickly gulped its prey down so it couldn’t be stolen.

The Barn Owl switched posts a couple of times, then it was off hunting again. And again it dropped down into the grass very quickly and caught yet another vole. This time it seemed it had learnt its lesson, as it flew back to the owl box with the vole in its talons and disappeared inside.

barn owl 3

Barn Owl – great views as it hunted the meadows at dusk

Looking further down the meadow, another Barn Owl appeared, the male out hunting too. We walked down for a closer look, but it disappeared off ahead of us, down to the bottom of the meadow and around the trees out of view.

It was time to start looking for Tawny Owls now, so we headed back into the trees, found a spot overlooking some ivy-covered trees and waited. We heard our first Tawny Owl hooting in the distance. Then finally a hoot right in front of us, not from the usual tree where the Tawny Owl likes to roost. It hooted several times from deep in cover, before we spotted a second Tawny Owl flying across through the trees behind, presumably the female. Then the male dropped out from the tree where it had been roosting, with a whirr of its large, rounded wings, and it disappeared off through trees.

We walked a short distance on into the wood, to where the Tawny Owl often stops to hoot. We could hear the male calling, with the traditional hoot, and the female replying from deeper in the wood, with a shorter, more bubbling hoot. Unfortunately, the male had chosen the tree with the thickest ivy and was impossible to see. Then it flew back through the trees and disappeared.

As we walked back to the car, it was getting dark now, as another Tawny Owl started hooting from the other side of the wood.

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