5th Feb 2019 – A Great Day for Owls

Another Owl Tour today. After a sharp frost overnight it was a lovely, bright sunny morning with light winds. Perfect weather for owling. It did cloud over in the afternoon, and a cooler breeze picked up a bit late on, but the forecast rain thankfully didn’t arrive until just after we had packed up to go home. Great timing!

We started the day down on the grazing marshes. The grass was white, covered in frost, but when we got out of the van we immediately spotted a Barn Owl hunting the fields right by the road. We watched it flying round and round, doing several circuits out over the grass and back across the reeds to the field the other side. It crossed the road and flew along the bank, landing on a fence post for a few seconds. Then back across the road and it landed on a road sign. It was lovely crisp morning light and a great way to start the day.

Eventually the Barn Owl flew across the road again and we watched as it cut across over the reeds and headed out over the grazing marshes. We followed it, down along the path but lost sight of it.

There were other things to see out here. A couple of Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds or perched in the bushes. A small line of Brent Geese flew past and we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling in the distance too. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming somewhere beyond the village. A flock of Curlew flew past, presumably looking for a field which was not quite so frozen in which to feed. Two Grey Herons flew low across over the grass.

A white spot on the owl box caught our attention and we were surprised to see a Barn Owl perched on the platform on the front. It was different to the one we had just been watching, a darker, browner bird. It was hunched up, with its eyes half-closed, facing into the sun, presumably warming itself. We looked away and when we next turned back it had gone, presumably inside the box to roost because there was no sign of it still out hunting.

Eventually, we spotted the first Barn Owl again, way off in the distance. It was perched right on the top of a tall telegraph post, an unusually high spot for a Barn Owl to use but perhaps it was trying to warm up in the sun. It worked its way back along the line of posts, perching in turn on several of them, much as a Barn Owl might often do along a fence line, but just at much greater height. Then it dropped down and started hunting again. It was coming back towards us, but we lost sight of it behind the reeds.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – our first of the day, heading back in to roost

The Barn Owl reappeared on a fence post just below the bank a bit further on, where we could get it in the scope. It perched there for a couple of minutes, looking round, before setting off again. It cut across, back towards the road, over the reeds in front of us, giving us a lovely close fly past. It seemed pretty determined now, presumably heading in to roost.

When it was almost at the road, we heard a Kestrel call and looked over to see it making a beeline for the Barn Owl. It dived at it and the two of them flew up and locked talons. The Barn Owl dropped, did a quick circle to take it away from the Kestrel, and then headed straight over the bank towards its current favoured roost spot.

By the time we had walked over, there was no further sign. Presumably it had gone in to roost. The Kestrel was perched on one of the bushes where the Barn Owl roosts. One of the Grey Herons we had seen flying this way earlier was standing on the edge of a ditch in the sunshine.

Grey Heron

Grey Heron – standing on the edge of the ditch in the sunshine

It was a lovely bright morning and, despite the cold frost, we thought we could detect some warmth in the sun’s rays. We headed inland to look for Little Owls. Our first stop immediately bore fruit, although it was a very distant one, perched on the roof of some farm buildings across a couple of fields. Still it was good to get a Little Owl in the bag, and we all had a look at it through the scope.

At the second place we tried, there was no sign of any Little Owls and it looked initially like we would draw a blank at our third stop too. There wasn’t one perched up on the barns nearer the road, but scanning around we spotted one more distantly in the yard beyond, perched on the top of a pile of wooden pallets.

As we walked up the track to get a bit closer, several Fieldfares flew up from a grassy field, tchacking loudly. Before we could get closer to where it was perched, the Little Owl took off. Helpfully, it flew across and landed on the roof of the barn closest to path. We had a great look at it now, through the scope, perched on the edge of the roof, facing in to the morning sunshine.

Little Owl

Little Owl – perched on a barn roof, in the morning sunshine

Then we noticed another Barn Owl, perched on a post along the edge of the field the other side of the track. We didn’t know where to look! The Barn Owl flew across and disappeared behind the barn where the Little Owl was perched. A Yellowhammer flew up from the long grass and perched in the top of a small tree behind us, and a covey of Grey Partridges flew across the field just beyond, calling loudly.

Eventually the Little Owl flew again, across to the next barn over where it disappeared in under the roof. At which point, we turned round to see the Barn Owl flying back across just behind us, really close now. It had been trying to sneak past without us noticing!  A great view.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – flew back across right behind us

We watched as the Barn Owl worked its way over the rough grass away from us, hunting along the verge of the track, back towards the road. It landed in the top of a small tree, right beside where the van was parked, but unfortunately we were still some way off, although we still stopped to have a good look at it through the scope. We thought it would have flown off before we got back, particularly when it was flushed by a passing car, but it dropped down into the long grass just across the road.

As we walked back, a Green Woodpecker dropped down onto the verge, but saw us and quickly flew off. A Sparrowhawk zoomed in across the road towards us, dropping low to the ground and heading straight across the grassy field beside the track, scattering the Fieldfares we had seen on the walk out, plus a flock of Starlings and several Lapwings too.

As we got back to the van, the Barn Owl flew up from the grass and landed in another small tree on the verge just across the road. It perched there, staring at the grass below, swaying slightly as it tried to get its balance on the small twigs. We were much closer to it now and we had a great view of it through the scope. We could see the small grey eye-like spots over the top of its head and down its back.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – perched slightly unsteadily in a small tree as we got back to the van

It flew again and landed on another sapling a little further back, again surveying the ground below for a couple of minutes. It did this several times, gradually working its way back away from us. We had certainly been spoilt with the views of Barn Owl this morning!

There is a Tawny Owl which sometimes perches up in the mouth of a hole in the trunk of a tree further inland from here, so we thought we would try our luck and see if it was out this morning. There were several Jackdaws in the top of the tree when we arrived, and we thought they might have disturbed it, but when we got round to where we could see the mouth of the whole, there was the Tawny Owl.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – perched in the hole in the top of the tree again

The Tawny Owl was dozing, its eyes shut, seemingly unaware it was being admired from down below. We had a great look at it through the scope. There were more birds singing here in the sunshine. A Dunnock as we walked in, then Chaffinch, Coal Tit and Song Thrush. Is spring on its way? It felt like it this morning. Two Nuthatches climbed up and down on a tree trunk. Having admired the Tawny Owl, we decided to move on.

Our next destination was Snettisham, up on the Wash. As we made our way in, there didn’t seem to be as many ducks on the pits today. There were still a few Goldeneye but seemingly fewer Tufted Ducks and not so many Wigeon.

Goldeneye

Goldeneye – there were still a few on the pits today

The tide was out and from up on the seawall we were greeted by a vast expanse of mud. It had clouded over a bit here, and it was a bit misty further out. Most of the waders were out of range, but we managed to find a few Dunlin, a Grey Plover, several Redshank and one or two Curlew. Shelduck were scattered liberally all over the mud and a flock of Teal was roosting on the bank of one of the channels.

Our target here today was to find a Short-eared Owl, so we made our way round to look for them. It didn’t find us long to find the first, roosting under a bramble bush in its regular favoured spot. We had a look at it through the scope – it was dozing, but looked round at one point to flash its yellow eyes. Scanning across, we quickly found a second Short-eared Owl in the brambles a bit further over, though this one was much better hidden.

Short-eared Owl

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

It was getting on for lunchtime now, so we made our way back to the van and round to Titchwell where we could make good use of the facilities and get ourselves a hot drink. We had lunch on the picnic tables overlooking the feeders. There were lots of birds coming and going, a good variety of finches but just Great Tits while we were there. Two Bramblings flew in at one point, making a brief visit to the feeders before something spooked all the birds and they flew off into the trees.

Brambling

Brambling – one of two coming to the feeders over lunch

Once we had finished, we were told that a Barn Owl had just been seen on the Thornham grazing marsh, so we walked over for a look. It was perched on a post, quite close to the path. We watched as it dropped down into the grass, then flew back up to another post.

Barn Owl 4

Barn Owl – on the posts on the edge of the Thornham grazing meadow

When the Barn Owl eventually flew, it dropped quickly down into the reeds just beyond the fence. We didn’t see it come up again, because we were distracted by a Water Rail feeding in the ditch just below us, flicking the wet leaves over and probing in the mud beneath.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding in the ditch below the path

We had a quick look for the Woodcock, which had been seen earlier along Fen Trail, but it had disappeared into the thick tangle of branches and there was no sign of it now. Then it was time to start making our way back east.

As we were passing Holkham, we noticed a tall white bird out on the grazing marshes, so we stopped for a quick look. As we suspected, it was a Great White Egret. There had been a report of a Short-eared Owl this morning by the road west of Wells, so we drove round that way to see if it might still be out hunting. There was no sign of it, but we did stop to look at a large flock of Brent Geese feeding on the old pitch & putt.

When we eventually arrived at our final destination for the day, there was no sign of the regular Barn Owl hunting the water meadows. It was rather overcast now and the temperature had dropped as the wind had picked up. We didn’t know whether the Barn Owl had gone off elsewhere to hunt, or had possibly gone back into the box for a rest, particularly if it had been out hunting earlier during the day.

We walked through the trees to have a look at the meadows the other side. It was quiet there too, no sign of the Barn Owl. A large flock of Greylag Geese were on the grass in the trees on the other side of the lake.

When we got back to the water meadow, the Barn Owl had appeared. Presumably it had been in the box, as it was now perched in the hedge just below it. We got the scope on it and stood watching it for a while. It seemed to be showing no inclination to head out hunting, and was mostly dozing, with its eyes half shut. Perhaps it had been out hunting already today and had been successful.

Barn Owl 5

There was a hoot from trees, so we walked in and positioned ourselves overlooking the ivy-covered tree where the Tawny Owl roosts. It dropped out silently though tonight and disappeared straight back into the trees, before anyone could get onto it. At least we had enjoyed fantastic views of the one earlier.

There was no further sign of any Tawny Owls at first, and it seemed like it might be a quiet night. Then finally the male gave its familiar hoot from deep in the trees and the female answered with a more bubbling version. We stood and listened, as the male hooted several more times. A second male then started up, hooting away the other side of us. It was getting dark now, but it was a nice way to finish the day – listening to the Tawny Owls hooting in the trees at dusk.

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