18th Jan 2020 – 4-3-2-1 Owls!

An Owl Tour today. It was a beautiful, bright, sunny winter’s day, although there was a chill in the air and a rather fresh breeze blowing in the middle of the day.

We made our way down to the marshes first thing, to see if we could find a Barn Owl still out hunting. There was a lot of water on the fields after the recent rains, so much that the Environment Agency were pumping out one of the ditches to stop it from overflowing. Lots of birds were enjoying the water – a noisy mob of Black-headed Gulls were feeding round the edge of the pools and several Little Egrets were feeding on the wet edge of the field, along with a Grey Heron. The other side, the wet grass was full of Curlew, Lapwing and Starlings, busy feeding. A pair of Mute Swans flew in and landed on one of the pools.

The raptors were already circling up. A Kestrel flew across (maybe wondering where the Barn Owl was, so it could steal its catch!) and a couple of Marsh Harriers came up out of the reeds. One landed on a bare tree where we could get it in the scope. A Buzzard was on a bush behind us, before flying off to the wood beyond, and presumably the same one later circled above the trees. A Red Kite flew across in front of the wood, its red tail catching the morning light as it turned.

There was no sign of any Barn Owls – perhaps they had already gone in to roost, as the latter part of the night had probably been good for hunting, or perhaps they were avoiding the grazing marshes given all the water. We decided to move on and headed inland, parking on the edge of some fields before setting off down a footpath.

There were a few tits in the hedges as we walked down towards the wood, and a Jay flew across the track in front of us. A Pied Wagtail flew across and landed in the beet field next to us – just the one today. A little group of Chaffinches dropped down to feed on the weedy margin. Two Mistle Thrushes flew through the trees as we walked round the edge of the wood, before flying out again and dropping down in the middle of the field. There were a few Red-legged Partridges out in the field too and a Red Kite hung in the air over the hedge on the far side.

There were more tits in the trees above the path, including several Long-tailed Tits. We could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and a Nuthatch piping loudly. When we got to the far side of the wood, we looked back along the edge. The Tawny Owl was there, in its usual spot, in a big hole in one of the trees. We got it in the scope and had a great view. It was a little bit more active today (just to scotch any rumours it might be stuffed!), looking round and even picking at its feet with its bill at one point.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual hole

After watching the Tawny Owl for a while, we decided to head back. A flock of Goldfinches was feeding in the sunshine above the track now. Looking up, we could see they were feeding on buds on the branches.

We made our way further inland to look for Little Owls next. There was no sign of any at the first couple of places we looked, but at the next stop we spotted one hiding under the lip of the barn roof. We pulled up out of sight and walked back to where we could get it in the scope without disturbing it. It had chosen a sheltered spot, facing into the morning sun but out of the wind.

Little Owl

Little Owl – looking out from under the lip of the barn roof

Eventually the Little Owl was spooked by a passing farmworker and disappeared in under the roof. We walked back to the minibus. There were some more farm buildings across the field from here and we could see a small blob out on the roof in the sunshine. Through the scope, we could see that it was indeed a second Little Owl. There is a footpath which runs up the far end of the field, so we drove the short distance over there and started off up it.

There were several birds coming and going from the trees by the paddocks at the start of the footpath. As well as Starlings, we could see several Fieldfares so we got them in the scope when they landed in the top of one tree. A Redwing appeared in the top of another tree, before flying over to join the Fieldfares.

We had a quick walk up the footpath and stopped where we could see across to where the second Little Owl was perched on the roof. It was still there, out in full view, and through the scope we could see it was fluffed up, with its eyes closed, looking towards the morning sun, presumably enjoying the warmth of the rays.

Dropping back down to the coast, we made our way along to Holkham and parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out on the grazing marshes and lots of Pink-footed Geese loafing on the second field back, just beyond the line of reeds and brambles. As we walked up towards the trees, a family party of Brent Geese flew in and landed just beyond the fence.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – a family party landed right by Lady Anne’s Drive

We headed over to The Lookout Cafe to use the facilities quickly and some of the group, who had hurried on ahead, called back to say there was a Barn Owl. When we got there, it was perched on a post by the bank, but before we could get the scope on it, it was off again. We watched it hunting backwards and forwards over the reeds beyond the pool in front of The Lookout – although the building was in the way, so we had to dart round to the other side of it at one point! Then it stopped to hover and dropped down into the grass.

Some of the group, who had hurried inside, had not seen the Barn Owl, so when they came out we waited for it to reappear. A Stonechat kept flicking up and down from the brambles and posts on the bank. Presumably the Barn Owl had caught something, because it stayed down in the grass for some time, but finally it reappeared. Again, we had some stunning views of it flying round hunting, stopped to hover a couple of times.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – out hunting behind The Lookout

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – stunning views in the late morning sun

Barn Owls will hunt during the day, but only tend to do so if they are hungry. Perhaps the wet and windy weather yesterday evening meant that this one needed to hunt. It was already late morning now, and it seemed to be showing no signs of wanting to head in to roost. We watched the Barn Owl for a while, until it stopped to hover and then dropped down into the grass again.

We wanted to see if we could find a Short-eared Owl here today, so we walked out through the dunes. It had been very calm all morning, but when we got out past the lee of the pines there was a very brisk west wind now. We scanned all the places we had seen the Short-eared Owl hunting in recent days, but couldn’t see it. We had gone as far as we wanted and decided to have one last scan from the top of the dunes. As we looked round, it came up from the grass just behind us.

The Short-eared Owl flew off downwind, with its distinctive stiff-winged rowing action and notably long, slim wings. It went some way, before turning and coming back towards us over the dunes, into the wind. We were hoping it would come back past us, but it got caught by the wind and gained height, before turning and disappearing over the pines. We hoped it might reappear, but it had either gone into the trees to roost or perhaps might have gone over the other side to try to find some shelter.

Short-eared Owl 1

Short-eared Owl – flushed from the dunes

We made our way back, cutting through the pines and walking down the track the other side out of the wind. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marsh, along with a few carrot-billed Greylags and a pair of Egyptian Geese. At Salts Hole, there were several Little Grebes out on the water and a Weasel darted along the far bank.

We stopped for lunch back at The Lookout. There was no sign of the Barn Owl now, but the Stonechat was still just outside the window. As we made our way back to the minibus afterwards, a pair of Grey Partridges were busy preening in the grass just beyond the fence.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – a pair were right next to Lady Anne’s Drive

Having only had a short time with the Short-eared Owl in the dunes before it disappeared, we decided to make a quick dash over to Snettisham to see if we could see the ones there. We didn’t have much time once we got over there, so we headed straight round to where they roost. Scanning the brambles, we quickly found one Short-eared Owl perched in a little nook among the branches. We had a good look at it in the scope.

Short-eared Owl 2

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

A little further on, we found the second Short-eared Owl under its usual sparse bramble bush. It stood out more, with its sandy colouration, but was not moving and we were looking at it from the side so we couldn’t see its eyes today. On our way back round, there were a few ducks on the pits, including a smart drake Goldeneye which was diving constantly.

Back at the Wash, the tide was out now and most of the large flocks of waders were way out in the distance, on the water’s edge. There were a few birds closer to us on the mud – a Grey Plover and a couple of Redshank. A scattering of diminutive Dunlin were feeding on the mud just beyond the channel and a quick scan across with binoculars revealed an even smaller wader in with them. Through the scope, we could confirm it was the Little Stint which is wintering here.

Little Stint

Little Stint – out on the mud with the Dunlin again

Little Stints are very scarce winter visitors in the UK, being more common on passage, particularly in autumn on their way from their Arctic breeding grounds with most heading down to Africa for the winter. As we saw a Little Stint in almost exactly the same patch of mud regularly through last winter, we wonder whether this bird has come back for the second year in a row.

Back in the minibus, we made our way back across country, passing a couple of large flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the fields on our way. We stopped again at Wells and, as we disembarked, we didn’t know which way to look. A Barn Owl was hunting up and down the banks of the ditch in front of the layby, while the long-staying Rough-legged Buzzard was perched on its usual favoured bush beyond.

We watched the Barn Owl hunting, while we got the scope on the Rough-legged Buzzard. Eventually the Barn Owl flew off back across the field, and we turned our full attention to the Rough-legged Buzzard. We could see its very pale head, contrasting with its very dark, chocolate brown belly.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on its usual favoured bush

We decided to walk out along the track to the bank. The Rough-legged Buzzard had flown back and landed down in a ploughed field beyond, by the time we got out there, but shortly afterwards flew back in again. We had an even better view of it from here.

The first Barn Owl was now working its way up the edge of the paddocks across the road, but a second Barn Owl now appeared at the back of the field close to the buzzard and flew round the edge to hunt around the entrance to the car park. It was a paler bird, with whiter, unmarked flight feathers, presumably a male.

The Rough-legged Buzzard had another fly round, flashing its white tail with black terminal band, chasing a Common Buzzard off from the top of a bush by the old pitch & putt, taking over its perch. We had taken our eyes off them, but what was possibly the first Barn Owl again then started flying down along the bank towards us. It was getting closer when it stopped, turned, hovered, and dropped into the grass. It took some time to come up again, and when it did unfortunately flew back away from us – we were hoping it might come right past us.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – one of at least two at Wells this afternoon

The sun was going down now and we had one last port of call. As we walked back to the minibus, the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back in to its favoured bush again. We drove inland and parked in some trees at the top of a footpath.

The Barn Owl which we often come to see emerging from its box in the evening had not been around the last few times we had looked for it. The good news today was that it was back. We had missed it coming out, but it was busy hunting the grassy bank beyond the gate. We had got out into the open along the footpath just in time to see it disappearing into the trees, but after a while it came out again. It weaved in and out of the edge of the trees several times, before disappearing deeper in through the wood.

It was time for the Tawny Owls to start hooting now, and as we walked back into the trees we could hear one hooting distantly. We heard it a couple more times, before it went quiet. It was a clear, bright evening and the light took some time to fade. The other Tawny Owls were slow to get going tonight and time was getting on, but after a smorgasbord of owls today, we didn’t worry too much about calling time. 4 Barn Owls, 3 Short-eared Owls, 2 Little Owls & 1 Tawny Owl (plus another hooting!).

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