5th Jan 2020 – Return of the Owls

An Owl Tour today, our first one of the New Year. It had originally been forecast to be bright but by the time we got to the day, it was dull and overcast. There were some spots of very light drizzle on and off, which were not even in the latest forecasts, but at least they were just while we were driving and it thankfully remained dry while we were out and about.

We were a bit later than planned getting away this morning. With mild weather recently, the Barn Owls are not especially hungry at the moment and are not out hunting much during daylight hours, so we would need to be lucky to catch one. We drove down to the grazing marshes and stopped to scan from the bank. One of the group shouted as they spotted a Barn Owl ghost across a gap in the hedge, but only a couple of people were looking the right way. We hoped it would swing back round, hunting, but it didn’t reappear. It looked to be heading off to roost.

We walked out along the seawall. A Brown Hare ran across the grass. A flock of Curlews flew over, coming in from the coast and heading inland to feed on the flooded meadows. Two Grey Herons chased each other out of a ditch. The Marsh Harriers were starting to circle up now, coming out of the reeds where they had roosted. A Red Kite drifted in over the reeds, and landed in a dead tree where we got it in the scope. A rather pale Common Buzzard was perched in the trees behind.

Red Kite

Red Kite – flew in and landed on a dead tree as it got light

As we walked back, we could see a pair of Egyptian Geese in the trees at the back of the grazing meadows. They look like they are getting ready to nest. Egyptian Geese often attempt to breed in the middle of winter – perhaps their body clocks have never adapted to the fact they are not in Africa any more!

We drove inland and parked on the edge of a field, before walking down along a footpath to a small wood. As we got to the trees, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming and we could hear a Coal Tit singing. Despite the grey weather, it could almost have been early spring already.

Round on the other side, we looked along the edge to see a large hole in one of the trees. There, in the hole, a Tawny Owl was dozing. We got it in the scope and it almost looked like a cardboard cutout, until it blinked and then turned its head.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in a hole in a tree

Tawny Owl is the commonest owl in the UK, but is not often seen as they are strictly nocturnal. Most roost well hidden in ivy or evergreen trees, or hidden in holes, so it is always a special treat to see one in the daytime.

After admiring the Tawny Owl for a while, we walked back along the footpath. A Great Tit was singing now. A pair of Mistle Thrushes flew up from the field and disappeared back into the trees. A flock of Long-tailed Tits was making its way down the hedge.

It was time to look for Little Owls now, but the weather was not ideal. There was no sign of any on the first two groups of barns we stopped at, and it seemed like it might be a bit cold and grey. Then at our third stop, we spotted a small shape tucked under the edge of the roof, looking out. We parked out of sight, and walked round to where we could get it in the scope without disturbing it.

Little Owl

Little Owl – tucked in under the roof out of the weather

Eventually the Little Owl was disturbed by a passing tractor and disappeared in under the roof. As we drove back down to the coast, an untidy flock of Brent Geese was flying inland to feed. After a quick pit-stop in Wells, we drove west, over to the Wash coast at Snettisham. On our way, we passed several a couple of flocks of Pink-footed Geese feeding in the recently cut sugar beet fields.

From up on the seawall, there was still a huge expanse of exposed mud. The tide was coming in fast but it was not a big tide today, so the water would not push everything up towards the bank. As we made our way down, an enormous flock of Golden Plover several thousand strong flew up from out in the middle of the mud. The birds circled round before quickly dropping down again. As soon as they landed, they disappeared, remarkably well camouflaged against the mud.

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – the vast flock occasionally spooked and flew round

Carefully scanning the bushes as we walked along, we spotted a shape in the brambles. A Short-eared Owl roosting. It was very well camouflaged too, but once you knew where it was it was relatively easy to pick out. It was mostly asleep, but occasionally opened its eyes so you could see its yellow irises through the scope.

Short-eared Owl 1

Short-eared Owl – roosting in the brambles

We decided to push our luck, and tried scanning again a bit further up. There was a second Short-eared Owl, hiding under a rather sparse bramble bush, but it blended in well against the sandy, stony ground. A large flock of noisy Greylags flew over, honking and dropped down towards the pits.

Short-eared Owl 2

Short-eared Owl – a second bird, hiding under some brambles

We walked round to the causeway to scan the pits. There were several Goldeneye diving out on the water, including several smart drakes. Scattered round the edges and islands was a selection of Wigeon, Shoveler and a variety of conventional Mallard and domesticated Mallard intergrades. The pits here seem to attract different feral or escaped wildfowl, and in with the Greylags we found the rather odd looking Swan Goose hybrid. Several Little Grebes were on the water too.

Back on the seawall, a small flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over, coming in off the Wash. We stopped to scan the mud. A Grey Plover was on the edge of a small pool right down at the front, with a Bar-tailed Godwit and a Dunlin on the pools a little further back, just beyond the channel. Further back, the huge flock of Golden Plover looked like a darker smear on the mud until we got it in the scope and could see it was actually a mass of small golden lumps. There were lots of Lapwing too. The Knot were much further out, right over towards the waters edge. A huge black slick back towards the sailing club was a big roost of Oystercatchers.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover – feeding on the mud on the edge of the Wash

There were lots of Shelduck scattered out over the mud and some flocks of Mallard and Teal sleeping along the edge of the muddy channels. Further out, we found a small group of Pintail on the edge of the water. It was lunchtime now and, as it wasn’t cold, we stopped for lunch on the benches.

After lunch, with the days short at this time of year, time was getting on. We drove back east and stopped again on the outskirts of Wells. A quick scan and we picked up the Rough-legged Buzzard on a bush in the distance. It took off just after we got out of the minibus and flew across in front of the pines, stopping to hover a couple of times. Then it dropped down out of sight towards marshes beyond bank.

We decided to walk out along the track to the bank. A small flock of Skylarks flew up from the stubble and a little further on a group of Pied Wagtails was feeding in there too, close to the path. They were presumably starting to gather already, before heading off to roost somewhere.

We could see the Rough-legged Buzzard again, perched on a bush in the distance. We got it in the scope now and everyone had a chance to have a good look at it, its pale head contrasting with its dark, blackish-brown belly. There had been a Short-eared Owl hunting here the last couple of afternoons, but there was no sign of it today. Perhaps it was a bit cold and grey, and after good hunting conditions on the previous days perhaps it was not hungry too.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on a bush

There were lots of Lapwing and Curlew out on Quarles Marsh. Two pairs of Gadwall swimming on the pool were an addition to the day’s list. A Kestrel was hovering over the bank just behind us.

The last stop of the day was back inland. We were hoping to catch a Barn Owl coming out of the box in which it usually roosts. We were a little later than planned by the time we got there, but we got ourselves into position, overlooking the box.

Three Red Kites circled up over the trees behind us, calling noisily and chasing each other round in the breeze. A large flock of Pied Wagtails flew in and circled over the reeds. They kept flying up and dropping down again, obviously looking to go to roost together but still nervous. More were arriving and we counted at least 65 in the air together at one point.

It was getting dark now and there was still no sign of the Barn Owl tonight. Had we missed it and it had gone off to hunt elsewhere already? Had something happened and it had roosted elsewhere? Or was it just not hungry enough to come out before dark tonight? Time may tell.

We walked up the footpath into the trees. We hadn’t gone far when we heard a Tawny Owl hooting. We stood and listened to it, such an evocative song. It was deep in the trees, so we couldn’t see it from the path. It hooted several times, but the neighbouring male didn’t answer tonight so after a while it fell silent. It was a nice way to end, so we decided it was time to call it a night.

One response to “5th Jan 2020 – Return of the Owls

  1. Thanks Marcus, it was a wonderful trip. Your blog makes us recall the day with even more enjoyment. We will see you later in the year.
    David & Sallie

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