2nd Feb 2019 – Looking for Owls & More

An Owl Tour today. There was a very hard frost overnight and it was cold all day today in a biting north wind. But we successfully managed to dodge the wintry showers and enjoyed a great day looking for owls and a lot more besides.

It was a slightly late start, by the time we had got everyone together, and a wintry shower passed over just as we were loading up, so we assumed any self-respecting Barn Owl would probably be into roost already. However, when we got down to the marshes, we were surprised to see a Barn Owl still out. It was a long way off though and we quickly lost sight of it behind the reeds.

Then a second Barn Owl appeared from behind the trees, a paler bird, the resident male. Rather than heading in to the box to roost, it too flew out to the far side of the marshes, hunting. We could still see it from time to time as it appeared up over the reeds. We walked up to position ourselves, with a good view of the box, hoping it would come back over to our side.

There were several Marsh Harriers up over the reeds now. A small flock of Brent Geese flew past, and a lone Pink-footed Goose came high overhead calling. We could hear the whistling of their wings as a pair of Mute Swans flew over too. Several Curlews came up from the grass and a Brown Hare ran across.

The male Barn Owl perched on a post out in the middle at one point, where we could get it in the scope, but it was still rather distant. Then eventually it turned to come back. It flew very differently now, purposefully, higher over the reeds, no longer hunting. We thought it might head for the box where it had been roosting earlier in the winter, but it flew straight over it, and made a beeline for the trees. It disappeared in, presumably heading for a different roosting spot.

We could see dark clouds approaching – perhaps the Barn Owl had seen them too – so we made our way back to the van.  As we drove inland to look for Little Owls, the shower passed away behind us and the skies brightened up a little. At the first barns we stopped at, we couldn’t see any owls today. Perhaps it was just too cold and windy? At the second place we checked, we also drew a blank. Then at our third stop, we were more lucky. In the distance, we could just make out two round shapes on the roof of a barn. Through the scope, we could see they were Little Owls. A long way off, but a good start.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – flew right past us as we were looking at a couple of Little Owls

Everyone was just taking it in turns to look at the Little Owls through the scope, when we noticed a Barn Owl flying towards us along the verge beside the road. It turned and worked its way round the tall grass on the edge of the concrete pad where we had stopped, pausing to hover for a second before continuing round and disappearing off down the road the other side. Seemingly oblivious to us standing there enjoying great views of it.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – hunting the grass verge by the road

A couple of Brown Hares in the neighbouring field looked like they might be about to box, but thought better of it and one ran off alone. The Little Owls were still on the roof, so we thought we would try to get a bit closer, walking up along the path which leads towards the barns.

A flock of Fieldfares was hopping around in a grassy field beside the track, in amongst the molehills, along with several Lapwings. A Kestrel flew across and landed on a telegraph post, finding a sheltered spot out of the wind behind the transformer.

Fieldfare

Fieldfares – a flock was feeding in the short grass

The Barn Owl suddenly reappeared ahead of us, coming up from the long grass the other side of the track, and flew round behind us and disappeared away over the road. We flushed a small flock of Yellowhammers too, which flew off calling.

Half way up the track, we stopped for a better view of the Little Owls. The two were perched together on the roof, in the lee of the cowl where they would be out of the wind, enjoying the view. When we got up to the far end of the path, one of the Little Owls had already gone back in already. The second turned to look at us, but seemed unconcerned by our presence, as we were still some way off. It resumed staring off into the distance, but then a gas gun bird scarer went off in the field next door and it was off, disappearing in under the cowl further along.

Little Owls

Little Owls – sheltering from the wind, on the roof

A couple of Red-legged Partridges were on the roof too, sheltering in the lee of the ridge. It was certainly cold out in the wind, so having enjoyed great views of the Little Owls we decided to head back to the warmth of the van. It was nice to spend a bit of time driving to warm up, as we made our way further inland.

A Tawny Owl has been roosting in a tree and perching up in the morning sun, but we weren’t sure whether it would be out in the cold today. As we walked in to the trees, we could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker calling and we looked over to see it flying across. A Nuthatch was working its way up the trunk of a tree in front of us. A Coal Tit was singing – even though it didn’t feel particularly like spring today.

Looking up into the tree where the Tawny Owl likes to roost, we could see it was there this morning, despite the wind which we could see ruffling its feathers. It seemed particularly unconcerned, perched there with its eyes closed in the mouth of the hole in the trunk. We had a great close up view of it through the scope.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – perched up in the hole opening, despite the cold windy weather

We stood and watched the Tawny Owl for a while and then, with threatening dark clouds away to the west, we headed back to the van. We avoided the snow falling, but it was lying thick on the road as we made our way west. The main road was closed at one point for an accident, so we had to make a short diversion.

Eventually, we made it up to the Wash. There were several Goldeneye and Tufted Ducks on the first pit, as we made our way in. Three Little Grebes were swimming together.

Up on the sea wall, the tide was out. Still, there were quite a few waders closer in today. We stopped to look at them, several Ringed Plover, Grey Plover and Redshank, with little flocks of Dunlin whirling round. A Bar-tailed Godwit flew past. There were a lot more waders way off in the distance, over towards the water’s edge. A line of Teal was roosting on the mud on the bank of one of the channels, and Shelduck were scattered liberally all over.

There were more Dunlin on the mud in front of Rotary Hide, and when we stopped to look we noticed a much smaller wader with them. It was a Little Stint, the same bird we had found exactly here just over a week ago. It was good to compare it side by side with the Dunlin, the Little Stint having a noticeably shorter bill as well as being smaller.

Little Stint and Dunlin

Little Stint – feeding with the Dunlin in front of Rotary Hide

As we made our way over the causeway, we stopped to admire a small group of Wigeon on one of the shingle islands on the pits. There were several Greylag Geese here too, showing off their orange carrot bills. We stopped to admire a small group of Gadwall too, through they were too far off to really appreciate the finer detail of their feather patterns. A drake Goldeneye was diving out in middle, the green gloss to its head shining in the sunshine.

What we were really here to look for was a Short-eared Owl. Thankfully, it didn’t take us long to find one, hiding under a bramble bush. It was mostly asleep but looked round at one point, showing us its yellow eyes. A little further on, a second Short-eared Owl was better hidden in the brambles but we could just make out its outline.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – one of two in the brambles again today

Mission accomplished, we headed back to the van to warm up. On our way out, we noticed a Guillemot on the crossbank.  It flapped and clambered away from us over the grass. This is not where you would expect a Guillemot to be – it should be out on the sea – which suggested that it might not be well. Thankfully, we bumped into a member of RSPB staff on our way, so mentioned it to them.

Guillemot

Guillemot – on the bank above the Pits

There were more dark clouds to the north as we got back to the main road, and we made our way through a heavy wintry shower, sleet first then snow, as we drove round to Titchwell. Thankfully the snow cleared quickly through before we got there, and we were able to enjoy a late lunch and a welcome hot drink at the Visitor Centre. While we were eating, we kept an eye on the feeders, where a succession of finches and tits came in and out.

A Barn Owl was hunting the field just beyond, which we could see through the trees. After lunch, we thought we would check if it was in the paddocks. While the group were using the facilities back in the car park, we found the Woodcock under the sallows nearby. Unfortunately by the time everyone was back, it had disappeared again.

We left it in peace for a few minutes while we had a quick look at paddocks, with no sign of the owl, and by the time we came back the Woodcock was out again. We watched it walking round between the moss covered trunks probing its long bill into the leaf litter looking for worms.

Woodcock

Woodcock – eventually showed well in the leaves under the sallows

We walked back down past the Visitor Centre to the main path, but there was no sign of the Barn Owl now on Thornham grazing marshes either. We did get great views of a bonus Water Rail, feeding in one of the ditches. It kept hiding under some logs which had been places across the water as a bridge, but eventually came out and showed itself very well to us.

Water Rail

Water Rail – great views in the ditch by the main path

As we made our way back east along the coast road, we were surprised once again that there were no Barn Owls out hunting in any of their regular sites. It was prime time for them now too. Perhaps they are still not hungry enough, finding too much food during the night that they do not need to come out in daylight at the moment.

As we drove past one of the churches, we noticed a shape perched high up on a ledge on the tower. We found somewhere convenient to stop and got out for a closer look. It was the Peregrine back again. The feathers of its underparts looked damp and matted and it was busy preening, tidying itself up. It has been very erratic in the last few months and this is the first time we have seen it here this year, so another bonus to catch it today. It was a great close up view through the scope.

Peregrine

Peregrine – on the church tower again, busy preening

Having stopped for the Peregrine, we were a bit later than planned arriving at our last destination for the day. We drove round via the far end of the water meadows and scanned from the van as we passed, but there was no sign of any Barn Owls here. We parked up at the top end and walked down to scan, but there was no sign of the regular female Barn Owl from here either. Had it gone off to hunt further afield already or had it gone back into the box, out of the wind?

The meadows the other side of the trees would be more sheltered from the wind we figured so we turned to head off to check there. As we did so, the Barn Owl flew in up the meadow behind us. Thankfully, we turned round just in time to catch it, but it flew straight into the box.

We stood and waited, to see if it would reappear. Two Common Buzzards circled over the trees on the hillside behind us. A Green Woodpecker flew across the meadow and we heard a Cetti’s Warbler calling from the rushes.

Several skeins of Greylag Geese came over in noisy flocks, heading off towards the coast to roost. As one flock came towards us, we noticed ten smaller geese with them. As they turned, we could see they were Russian White-fronted Geese, an unexpected surprise to see them here. They had possibly been displaced from somewhere by the recent cold weather.

Suddenly the Barn Owl reappeared, climbing out onto the platform on the front of the box. We watched through the scope as it perched there, dozing, seemingly working up the energy to head off hunting again. It heard something in the grass below and instantly woke up, staring down at the ground, before going back to dozing.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – eventually reappeared on the front of the box

Finally, the Barn Owl stretched and then dropped off the platform. We watched it hunting, flying round over the meadow, occasionally hovering or dropping down into the grass. We didn’t see it catch anything this evening, before it disappeared away behind the trees.

While we were watching the Barn Owl, we heard a Tawny Owl hoot in the trees behind us. It was getting time for it to emerge from its roost, so we made our way in and positioned ourselves overlooking its favoured ivy-covered tree. It hooted again, and then dropped from the tree.

Unfortunately there was a bit of disturbance in the woods today, and it shot straight out and away into the wood before everyone could get a look at it. Not to worry, we had enjoyed such good views of one earlier and it was suitably evocative to just hear it hooting in the woods at dusk. It was getting dark now and the temperature was dropping again, so we headed for home.

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