20th Jan 2019 – More Owls & More

Another Owl Tour today. It was very frosty this morning, and a cold start to the day, -4C at 8am. But when the sun finally got up above the line of cloud on the horizon, it was a lovely bright and sunny winter’s day with light winds. Good owling weather!

It was slightly slow getting away this morning, so we were later than planned when we got to the grazing marshes. The grass was white with frost and there was no sign of the regular Barn Owl. Presumably it had gone in to roost already, possibly in response to difficult hunting.

The diurnal birds were slow to get going too. Eventually, the Marsh Harriers started to appear, first a juvenile over the reeds out in the middle, then a paler, greyer male flying past. Despite it being so cold, we spotted one Marsh Harrier high in the sky which started to display, swooping and twisting, through perhaps a bit half-heartedly. A few small flocks of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling, heading inland to look for fields where the sugar beet has just been harvested.

pink-footed geese 1

Pink-footed Geese – flying inland to feed, first thing this morning

We could hear Bearded Tits pinging from behind us, but the tops of the reeds were still frozen, and they were keeping tucked down despite it being fairly still today. We did get a quick glimpse of a couple as they flew over the reeds, but they quickly dropped back in out of view. A Great Spotted Woodpecker started drumming in the trees away on one side, and a second answered off in the other direction. It didn’t feel like spring was on its way anytime soon this morning, but hopefully the woodpeckers know something we don’t.

Then a Barn Owl appeared. It was not the usual male, which hunts here most mornings, this one was a much darker, more heavily patterned individual. It flew across over the reeds behind us, coming in from the direction of the village, and then dropped over the bank out of view. We saw it again briefly, as it flew up and along the bank, landing on a post for a second, then it disappeared behind the bank once more.

We walked up to where we could just see round the bank, but there was no sign of the Barn Owl at first. Then it appeared again over the reeds beyond, and circled round, hunting. A Marsh Harrier drifted over and circled above. The Barn Owl looked nervous, and flew across the road the other side of the bank and landed in a thick tree in a garden in the village. We got it in the scope, as it perched there for minute or so, then it disappeared off into the gardens.

It was still very cold, but the sun was finally starting to show itself. We decided to head back to the car to warm up, and then make our way inland to look for Little Owls. We figured it could be a good morning for them. After a cold night, they often like to warm up in the morning sunshine.

It was nice and bright now, and we could start to feel some warmth in the sun’s rays. At our first stop, we found a Little Owl, perched on the sheltered side of some farm buildings in the sunshine. It was rather distant, but we got a good look at it through the scope, puffed up like a ball of fluff. A good start.

Activity was picking up now that the air was warming up, and there were lots of other birds to see. Several Yellowhammers flew back and forth overhead, and three perched in the tops of some small trees in front of us. There were also Rooks in the fields, Stock Doves on the roofs of the barns,  and Common Gulls patrolling around the winter wheat.

While we were watching the first Little Owl, we could hear a second one calling, away to our right, behind the trees. The first answered. It was some distance away, but it was remarkable the delay between seeing it’s beak move and hearing the calls, the sound carrying well on the still crisp air.

We moved on to some more farm buildings, and found another Little Owl perched up, enjoying the sun, although we were looking into the light here, so it was not the best view. We scanned around the roofs again and spotted a third that had just appeared on some more barns across the fields on the other side of the road. It had just come out to warm up.

A footpath runs over that way, so we walked up for a closer look. The Little Owl was perched in the sunshine on the edge of the roof, preening. It looked round at us, but seemed fairly unconcerned as it turned back to face the sun.

little owl

Little Owl – enjoying the morning sunshine

A couple of small flocks of Fieldfares flew up out of the trees beyond and over overhead tchacking. A Green Woodpecker flew across and disappeared behind the trees and we watched several small flocks of Brent Geese flying in from the direction of the coast before disappearing off inland.

As we made our way west, we checked out a couple more sets of barns. There was no sign of any more owls out, but it was already mid-morning now. It was also sad to see many former Little Owl nest sites now being redeveloped for holiday cottages. At the rate things are going, it won’t be long before perhaps there are none left?

When we arrived at the Wash, and got up onto the seawall, the tide was out, and there were not many waders close enough to the bank to see. There was a small flock of perhaps several hundred Golden Plover out on the dry mud. They were catching the sun today, and stood out against the brown mud, looking distinctly golden. There were also a few Redshanks out on the Wash, as well as a liberal scattering of Shelduck and a couple of flocks of Mallard and Teal.

golden plover

Golden Plover – out on the Wash, catching the sunshine

As we made our way down along the seawall, we had a good look at the Pits. There was no sign of the Smew again today, where it has mostly been seen. But we did see several Goldeneye, including some smart drakes, their green heads shining in the sunshine.  There were lots of Wigeon on the Pits, and one or two Teal and Tufted Ducks.

On the causeway, we stopped to look at a pair of sleeping Gadwall through the scope. They are not the gaudiest of ducks, but the intricate patterns of their plumage are stunning in close-up. A Turnstone was picking at the stones on one of the shingle islands, running in and out amongst the Greylags.

We headed round to look for Short-eared Owls. There was no sign of the regular one again today, no clue as to why it has suddenly become more erratic in its habits. We couldn’t find the one we had seen yesterday either, where it had been. Again, it was starting to look like we might draw a blank. After a careful scan around the bushes, we finally spotted a Short-eared Owl hunkered down in the grass, a different bird, much darker. We had a nice view of it through the scope, and could see its yellow eyes.

short-eared owl

Short-eared Owl – hiding in the grass

Scanning along a bit further, we then found a second Short-eared Owl. This one was impossible to see without a scope, even when you knew where it was, and pretty difficult to see with it. It was tucked deep in a thicket of brambles, and you could just see its outline or an eye when it blinked.

It was lunchtime, so we stopped to eat on the benches overlooking the Wash. There were still very few birds on the mud close in, but we noticed a couple of small waders in front of Rotary Hide. Dunlin would be a new bird for the day’s list, so we looked over and could see that only one of them was actually a Dunlin. The other bird was noticeably smaller, with a short, fine, black bill. It was a Little Stint, a big surprise. They are very rare in winter here, typically occurring just as a migrant in spring and particularly in autumn. We had a good comparison of the two birds together.

little stint

Little Stint – a big surprise to find one in winter here

As made our way out, we glanced across and spotted the Smew on one of the other Pits. It was preening at first, but swam back away from us when it noticed us stop to watch it. It came to the attention of a drake Goldeneye just behind, which started to adopt a threat posture, head outstretched, low to the water.

The Goldeneye then swam after the Smew. The Smew dived, followed by Goldeneye. The Goldeneye resurfaced first, alert, looking round. When it spotted the Smew resurface some distance away, it set off after it again. Again and again the Smew dived and tried to get away, but each time the Goldeneye set off after it, chasing it off down the Pit, back in the direction we had just come.

smew

Smew – reappeared on one of the other Pits as we were leaving

A Barn Owl appeared, hunting over the rough grass around the Pits. It was still early afternoon, but presumably it was hungry after a tough night hunting in the frost last night.

As we headed back east, we decided to cut the corner off inland, round via Choseley to see if we could find the Rough-legged Buzzard again. As we were driving past, we noticed a buzzard in a tree across the other side of a field. We stopped to check just in case and at that moment it dropped from the branch it was on, flashing a bright white tail with a black terminal band. It was the Rough-legged Buzzard!

It flew across and landed on the top of a hedge running across the middle of the field. We stopped and got the scope on it. It flew a couple more times, moving further along the hedge each time, until it stopped up on the top of a ridge. We got a great view of it here.

rough-legged buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on a hedge in the middle of a field

After we turned round in a layby, as we came back along the road, the Rough-legged Buzzard suddenly landed in the top of a tree on the verge in front of us. Unfortunately, before we could stop it flew again, down the road ahead of us, flashing its white tail. Then it turned and headed back out to the hedge in the middle.

Continuing on east, we called in at Holkham on our way to use the facilities and get a welcome hot drink in ‘The Lookout’ café. As we walked to the top of Lady Anne’s Drive, there were lots of Brent Geese in the field right by the fence. We stopped to look and one of the Black Brant hybrids was with them. It was very close, just a few feet beyond the fence, given us a great look at it. A smart bird, a bit darker than the others with a more contrasting flank patch and a bolder white collar.

black brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – with the Brent Geese, by Lady Anne’s Drive

Scanning from ‘The Lookout’, we could see another Barn Owl out hunting, way off in the distance towards Wells town. Several Grey Partridges were feeding down in the grass, much closer, and a Common Snipe flew across.

There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes east of the Drive. As we walked back to the car, something spooked them and they all took off. It was quite a sight – and sound – as several thousand geese took to the air in a cacophony of yelping calls.

pink-footed geese 2

Pink-footed Geese – something spooked all the geese on the grazing marshes

Back on the road, another Barn Owl was hunting the rough grass verge as we passed. The coast road is very busy and we couldn’t stop, but hopefully we were on our way to get better views of one elsewhere.

When we got to our final destination, we were worried that the Barn Owl might have come out early today. But just as we walked down along the path, we noticed it appear on the platform on the front of the owl box. It was still very sleepy, and stood their dozing, with its eyes half closed. We got a really good look at it through the scope.

barn owl 2

Barn Owl – came out of the box just as we arrived

Eventually, the Barn Owl stretched its wings and started to wake up. Then it dropped off platform and started hunting. The low lying meadows here were still frozen, having probably not caught the sun all day, so the Barn Owl started off hunting the grassy slope beyond today. It kept disappearing behind a hedge, to hunt a rough grassy strip, but then returning and quartering the slope above us, which was illuminated by the last of the setting sun’s rays.

The Barn Owl didn’t appear to be having any luck today. Several times it dropped down into the grass, but quickly came back up again and we could see it hadn’t caught anything. Periodically it would land on a post, or a couple of times in tree, where we got it in the scope again.

barn owl 3

Barn Owl – out hunting in the last of the setting sun’s rays

While watching the Barn Owl, the surprise of the afternoon were two Peregrines which flew in over trees. We could hear them calling first. They looked to be an adult and a juvenile, and they appeared to be having a disagreement. They chased each other off across the fields, then a little later, one flew in again and disappeared back over trees.

Finally, as the sun disappeared over the horizon, the Barn Owl flew down and started to work the water meadow. It didn’t seem to have much luck here either this evening, so headed off through the trees.

We decided to have a quick walk to warm up, in through the trees and down to the lake. A Grey Wagtail called from somewhere ahead of us. The lake was still frozen solid. Four juvenile Mute Swans had swum through the ice towards the near bank, but the water had then frozen again behind them. They now found themselves in a small pool wondering what to do. Eventually they realised they could break back through the ice the way they had come with a bit of effort. There was a small area of unfrozen water under the trees on the edge of the lake – it was full of ducks, and at least 15 Little Grebes.

It was time now to head back into the trees to listen for Tawny Owls. We positioned ourselves where we could see a favoured roosting tree, covered in ivy. After a few minutes, we heard a hoot, which was repeated several times. Then the Tawny Owl silently dropped out of the ivy and flew across through the trees. It landed again in the top of another ivy-covered tree where we couldn’t see it. Then it dropped again and flew off – we watched the big dark shape with broad rounded wings trees disappear off through the trees.

We walked on a short distance up the path. We stopped and the male Tawny Owl started hooting again, and we could hear the female answering. A couple of times we got one of them in the scope briefly, but they never stayed put long enough for everyone to see. We all saw it flying around between trees though, before it eventually moved deeper in.

The light was going fast now and it was getting dark. It was starting to get much colder again too, it was clearly going to be another frosty night. We decided to head for the warm.

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