16th Feb 2019 – Last Orders for Owls

An Owl Tour today, the last one we have planned for this owling season. It was cloudy and cool first thing, but while it remained stubbornly grey for most of the day it was mild and dry with light winds. A very pleasant day to be out again.

After several dry nights with no frost – good hunting weather for owls – we worried that the Barn Owls might not be as hungry now and might have reverted to going to roost really early in the morning. When we arrived down at the marshes, we couldn’t see any Barn Owls out at first.

A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming in the wood behind us and one or two Skylarks started singing, making it feel almost like spring again. The first Marsh Harriers circled up over the reeds and a large flock of Curlew came up off the nearest meadow calling.

We walked out along the path, to check if anything might still be on the front of the owl box, but it was all quiet there. Then we spotted a Barn Owl flying across, out in the middle of the marshes behind the reeds. It seemed to be making a beeline for the meadow in the top corner, so we hurried up to intercept it.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – still out hunting over the grazing marshes

The Barn Owl was rather distant at first, hunting over the back of the grass, but we watched it patrolling with slow wingbeats, looking down for any potential prey, occasionally stopping to hover and dropping down once or twice, seemingly without success. It was doing circuits around the field and a couple of times it did a flypast round the front where we could get a good look at it.

Then we noticed a second Barn Owl had appeared a little further back, a paler bird. We watched the two of them hunting over the same field for a while. Then the second Barn Owl flew round to the front of the field, straight past us, and away along the line of reeds below the bank. We had a great view of it as it passed by. It was flying very purposefully, heading back towards the road, possibly on its way to roost.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – flew right past us as it headed in to roost

We turned our attention back to the first Barn Owl, which was still flying round over the same field. It eventually worked its way back and disappeared behind some reeds. Two Barn Owls out hunting – a great start!

There were a few Canada Geese feeding down in the grass. As we turned to go, a couple of Greylag Geese flew over, honking noisily. Just behind them, we noticed a little group of smaller geese following behind. Head on, we could see a distinctive band of white around the base of their bills and, as they turned to head past us, black barring on their bellies. They were Russian White-fronted Geese, ten of them. We watched them fly off west.

White-fronted Goose

Russian White-fronted Geese – four of the ten which flew over us this morning

We decided to head inland to try our luck with Little Owls next. At our first stop, overlooking some farm buildings, we couldn’t see any owls but we did flush a Green Sandpiper from a muddy puddle by the road as we pulled up. As it flew up, we could see its white tail contrasting with dark slate coloured wings and back. The second place we checked didn’t produce any Little Owls either. There was no sunshine this morning for them to sit out in and there was a slight freshness to the light breeze still, before the day had had a chance to warm up.

Our third stop was a little more successful. As we pulled up we could see a distant Little Owl perched on the edge of a barn roof, but by the time we had all got out of the van it had flown off and looked to have disappeared in. We got the scope on the barn and realised we could still just see it, half hidden under the cowl on the top of the roof, just visible as a silhouetted dome of a head. It was a long way off, so we walked up the track towards the end of the farm buildings for a closer look.

From half way up the track, we got a much better look at the Little Owl. It was looking straight at us, and we could see its eyes, then it turned back to face the other way and we could see the false eye pattern on the back of its head. We walked up to the end of the track and realised we couldn’t see it from this angle, and when we walked back again it had gone in.

Little Owl

Little Owl – hiding under the roof

As we made our way back to the van, we stopped to look at a rough grass meadow which was full of Starlings and Fieldfares feeding amongst the molehills. Then we noticed a pale shape on one of the fence posts at the back of the field – another Barn Owl. We got it in the scope and had a look at it, as it looked round and scanned the ground below the post. Then it took off and flew away over the farm buildings beyond.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – perched on a fence post on our way back to the van

From here, we made our way further inland to see if the Tawny Owl was showing on the front of its tree hole again this morning. As we walked in through the gates, there were more birds singing here. Song Thrush, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Robin and Dunnock could all be heard in the trees around us.

Looking up into the top of a large ash tree, there was the Tawny Owl in its usual spot. We had a quick look from where we were and then made our way over a bit closer and found an angle where we could minimise the branches across in front of it. The Tawny Owl is very high in the tree and obviously used to people moving around below. It was a bit more awake than usual today, perched more on the edge of the hole and with its eyes half open. We had a fantastic view of it through the scope.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – in its usual hole high in the tree

Everyone agreed it was well worth the diversion to come here to see the Tawny Owl. It has been one of the highlights of our searches for owls in recent weeks and due thanks must go to the finder, who was kind enough to let us know about it and thus allow people to come and see it.

Moving on, we made our way across to the Wash. There were not many ducks again on the pits at Snettisham as we made our way in, but we did see a redhead Goosander which flew off over the pools as we arrived. The tide was just on its way in when we got to the seawall, and it was not due to be a big high tide today anyway, so there was a vast expanse of exposed mud still. The waders were all very distant and there was quite a bit of misty haze out over the Wash, which meant even the Lincolnshire coast was well hidden.

There were a few waders on the mud in front of Rotary Hide. A couple of close Grey Plover and a few Redshanks in the small pools. Just across the channel, we could see a scattering of Dunlin.

Our main target here was Short-eared Owl. Someone else had just seen one, in a slightly different place to where we normally find them, so we stopped to look at that one first. It was roosting in a fairly open patch of grass, with just a few strands of bramble in front. When we first got the scope on it, it was more awake and we could see its bright yellow eyes. Then it went back to sleep.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – the first of two here today

We continued on a little further, to where we normally find one or two Short-eared Owls. There was no sign of the most regular one in its favoured spot – it has been increasingly erratic here in recent weeks. We did find a second Short-eared Owl though, in another regular spot, very well hidden in some deep brambles. It was hard to see even through the scope until you got your eye in, or until it moved, a much more sensible roosting spot!

It was a bit later than we are here normally now, but rather than stop to eat at Snettisham, the draw of the facilities at Titchwell was too great and the prospect of a hot drink. As we made our way out, a Ringed Plover was displaying over the beach, flying round and round with stiff bat-like wing beats.

We were even further delayed on the way. As we drove through Old Hunstanton, we noticed a shape perched on a road sign right next to the busy A149 coast road. It was a Barn Owl! It was perched on the top, seemingly completely unfazed by the traffic thundering past within a couple of metres.

Barn Owl 4

Barn Owl – perched on a road sign right by the busy A149

We pulled up opposite the Barn Owl, both to have a look ourselves and to try to alert the cars to its presence. If it took off, it could quite easily fly straight into a passing vehicle. It still stayed there, looking round, for a minute or two. Eventually, it flew off over the hedge and then as we pulled away it came back round across the road again.

So it was a late lunch by the time we finally got to Titchwell. There were a few birds coming and going from the feeders as usual – a selection of finches and tits. After a quick bite to eat, we set out to see if the Barn Owls were out here again. Earlier in the week they were out every afternoon, at just this time, but we couldn’t find any sign of them today. Perhaps they were less hungry now and there was not such a pressing need to hunt through the day. A Water Rail was in the ditch next to the main path, so we stopped for a good look at that instead.

Water Rail

Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path again

There was not much activity around the reedbed today – a couple of distant Marsh Harriers out over Brancaster marsh beyond and no ducks at all today on the reedbed pool.

The Freshmarsh is full of water at the moment, so there are not many places for waders to roost or feed. The Avocets are starting to return already and there were at least 40 there today. They looked slightly out of place, with many of them bobbing up and down as they swam in the deep water – not exactly a typical resting place for a wader! A few lucky ones had found the top of one of the sunken islands which they could reach to stand on.

Avocet

Avocets – some of the 40+ on the Freshmarsh

Otherwise, there were just a few ducks and geese on the Freshmarsh today. A flock of Brent Geese had dropped in to bathe and preen, and flew off past us, heading back to the winter wheat field back by the entrance road. There wasn’t enough time to explore the whole reserve today, but we thought we could swing round via Patsy’s Reedbed on our way back to see if there was any sign of a Barn Owl round that side.

On the way along Meadow Trail, we stopped to look at the Woodcock which was still in exactly the same place it has been for the last few days. It was very hard to see if you didn’t know exactly where it was, down under a tangle of branches and trunks deep in the sallows, but it was slightly easier to get the scope on it today. It was head on and you could see its long bill, large eyes and the black bars on the top of its head.

Woodcock

Woodcock – roosting in its usual place again today

There was no sign of any Barn Owls out at Patsy’s Reedbed either, but there was a bit more Marsh Harrier activity now, with three chasing each other low over the reeds. Several Common Snipe were asleep in the cut reeds at the front, in with the Teal and Mallard.

As we drove back east along the coast road, we were alerted to the presence of another Barn Owl in one of the usual spots by a photographer with a large lens resting it on a gate. The owl was perched on a post over towards the back of the meadow. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to stop here so we decided to continue on.

We thought we would try our luck with the Little Owls again, despite the fact that it was still rather grey this afternoon and the afternoon light was already starting to fade. It was unseasonably mild though – reaching over 12C this afternoon, not a typical February temperature! We diverted inland and round by several of the same spots we had tried this morning. The warm temperature was not enough to tempt the owls though and there was no sign of any.

By the time we got to our last stop of the day, it was already dusk. There was no sign of the Barn Owl here again, which we had seen so many times this year. It was impossible to tell this evening whether it has started to venture further afield to hunt now, whether it has already been out and had gone back into the box, or whether it is no longer roosting here. Not to worry today, as we had enjoyed great views of several Barn Owls already today, but one for further investigation when we have a bit more time. We walked down through the trees to the lake, but there was no sign of it over the meadows the other side either.

We had really come here to end the day listening to the Tawny Owls and as we walked back into the trees one started hooting. As we made our way over to where it was calling, we could hear it hooting repeatedly. It was further back in the trees and we couldn’t see it in the tangle of branches in the gloom, although we had one brief glimpse as it flew further back.

We stood and listened to the Tawny Owl for a while. It switched from the full three-part hoot to a single hoot and the female responded. Then we could just hear the male giving a low bubbling call, a courtship call when the female is close by and just audible to us on the edge of the wood. It is that time of the year and the pair will hopefully be getting ready for the breeding season now.

Another male Tawny Owl then started hooting back behind us. It was late getting going again tonight, and it was already getting dark. We heard it hooting several times as we made our way back to the van to head for home, a good way to end the day.

 

One response to “16th Feb 2019 – Last Orders for Owls

  1. I was on today’s tour and I have to say it was amazing thank you Marcus for making it so memorable. Can’t wait to do it all again
    Julia Brooks Clark

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