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Friday, 15 March 2013

A Great Afternoon Owling - on 5th March, 2013

It was bright sunshine when I packed myself up a picnic on Tuesday 5th, and set off to try and find some owls after lunch. I was only a couple of miles (3km) from home when I ran into thick fog.  Should I turn back? I kept going, however, with my first objective being my Little Owl Site No.18, where I've not seen an owl since last August. I arrived within a mile to find that the road to this site was closed. Two miles (3km) further on the next access road was also closed - it was time to have a change of plan!

My revised plan took me past my Little Owl Site No.29, where I'd had three sightings of a single owl last August, and nothing since, in spite of several visits. I'd come to the conclusion that this owl had departed as the nest tree didn't look to be in very good condition. I was, therefore, surprised to see two owls sitting in the nest tree as I drove past! Brilliant! Unfortunately this is a single-carriage road with few passing places, and anyway the birds were at the back of the tree, so I parked up, and walked back. I didn't manage to get decent shots of the pair together without intervening branches - but at least it was a pair!



Little Owls - my Site No.29
Just up the road from here is my LO Site No.21. I'd only had sparse sightings of a single owl here since I found a dead one close to the nest tree in 2011, and then I'd only seen one on a distant barn, not in the nest tree. You can imagine my delight when I found one this day sitting at the entrance to the nest hole. It was only much later in the day that I noticed that I'd managed to knock the image stabilisation on my lens into "stage 2" stabilisation. This is the only reason I can think of (considering how brightly sunny it was) for all my photos up until that realisation point (including the ones above) being blurred. However, I have managed to salvage a few with a bit of sharpening and not too much cropping.


Little Owl - my Site No.21
Next place on the list to visit was a Barn Owl site where I'd set up a 'photographic prop' close to where I'd seen a barn owl on two occasions. I was disappointed to see, as I arrived, a farm vehicle parked right outside the two buildings which I thought were unused and derelict. I'd never investigated the buildings before as I'd not wanted to risk disturbing nesting owls. I'd also not manage to work out who owned the land, so I went up to talk to the person by the buildings. In the one building he had several tons of fertiliser in bags which he was taking out to the tractors which were spreading the stuff on the fields, and then he was stowing the empty bags in the second building.

This guy was the landowner, and I expressed my concerns about the Barn Owls. They say that most farmers are quite switched on about their wildlife, but not so this guy. He asked me where and how owls build their nests! Given that any damage had already been done, I looked into both buildings. Whilst the floor was covered in bags so I couldn't check for poo and pellets, I was relieved to see that there was nowhere that could be used by 'nesting' Barn Owls. The fact that I'd seen a BO here on my previous two visits now indicated to me that it was most likely that a male bird was using this as a roost.

It was beginning to look like a day that would be filled with 'ups and downs'. Next place on the list to visit was my LO Site No.34, first discovered in January, and with no decent images as yet. As I arrived I saw that one owl was out of the nest hole, and I grabbed a few safety shots from the car window. I'd still not discovered the problem with the lens switch.


Little Owl - my Site No.34
As soon as I got out of my car, a good 100 metres away, the owl popped back into the nest hole, so I started to set up my hide about 20 metres from the nest tree, and was still doing so when a couple of farm vehicles stopped on the road opposite me. Thinking this was the landowner, I went over to talk to them, but it wasn't their land. Suddenly all sorts of vehicles started appearing on this lane which usually only sees the occasional farm vehicle. Suddenly the penny dropped - I'd got caught up with the hunt. With about 20 vehicles parked on the road behind me I thought 'what the heck' and settled into my hide - now I discovered the lens set-up problem as I mounted the camera to the tripod and went to switch off the IS. 

I'd been there about 20 minutes, with the sound of the hunt all round me, when I heard a jangling of bells beside my hide (no side windows were open). I peeked out and there was a guy with a hawk on his wrist. He was the hunt's falconer. We had a chat through the walls of the hide (him speaking in a loud voice and totally blowing my cover), whilst he checked me out. He told me that he'd seen six different Barn Owls in one evening in this area of the county. He then departed, saying that he'd tell the boss that I was 'OK'.

Unsurprisingly it was another couple of hours before an owl showed, and by then the light was off the shot that I'd set up for.

Little Owl - my Site No.34
I waited another half hour and then, as it was starting to get dark, I decided to pack up and go to the Barn Owl site to have my tea whilst sitting in the car (too dark to bother setting up for photos). Whilst in my hide at Site No.34, I'd heard a Little Owl calling off to my right and also, a little more distantly, off to my left. I'd been a little worried that I might be keeping an owl from returning to its home. However, as I got back to the car with my kit I heard the call again, looked back, and spotted a pair of of owls in a tree only about a couple of hundred metres from the tree I'd been watching.  Although this was very close for a new territory, I had little doubt that it was, as at least one of Site 34's owls was in the nest cavity and (to the best of my knowledge) LOs are not know for 'menages a trois' - new Site No.36!!

Little Owls - my new Site No.36
Feeling thoroughly elated, I set off up the road, stopping just a minute or so later by an interesting-looking tree. As I slowed up a Little Owl flew up into the tree. Flippin' Heck!! another new LO site in less than 10 minutes!

Little Owl - my new Site No.37
Now thoroughly chuffed I headed for the Barn Owl, but arrived to find three vehicles outside the buildings with their headlights on - I told you it was a day of 'ups and downs'! Another revised plan had me heading back to my LO Site No.21, where I'd seen a bird outside the nest hole earlier in the day. When I arrived, there was still enough light that I could just make him out in the same place.

Little Owl - my Site No.21
 I sat eating my sandwiches, and then he called and flew up to a higher branch.

Little Owl - my Site No.21
 ....... it was then that I saw that there were two of them! This was utterly brilliant as it was the first time I'd seen more than one owl here for nearly two years.

Little Owls - my Site No.21
He then flew up to join the female. 

Little Owls - my Site No.21
I now realised that the 'he' had been a 'she'. Copulation followed shortly after, but the one on the left moved over onto the partially hidden one on the right, so their blushes were spared from my camera!
 
So ended a very satisfying day, even if the photography had not been brilliant - 10 Little Owls over 6 different sites (I'd seen one whilst out shopping in the morning).
 
There is a follow-up story, based round my afternoon out with my pal Titus yesterday afternoon, and this was every bit as remarkable - giving a total of four new LO sites for the month, with the month not quite half gone! I just hope the photos turn out a bit better than the above ones!

10 comments:

  1. The bloke at the BO barn/roosting spot sounds bit of a plum, bit worried he was so interested in the nests too!

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    1. I don't think I have a problem with the owner of the BO roost site Doug. I'm sure that there was nothing sinister - just a lack of knowledge. He was friendly enough, and said I was welcome to come onto his land to observe and photograph the owls.

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  2. I'm glad you can't see me as I'm typing this because I'm about 12 shades of green! LOL Seriously, Richard, these are fantastic. You really hit the jackpot with these sweet little owls.

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    1. Thank you, Gail, for your very kind words.

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  3. Some nice images again Richard, congrats on yet more new sites. With reference to 3 owls at one site, Emily (Hawk & Owl Trust) once had two hens and a cock bird all living, co-habiting and breeding together in the one box, a very rare occurrence though!

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    1. Thank you Paul. Very interested to hear of Emily's experience with the three owls. However, on Thursday we managed to positively identify the nest cavity for this new site - we watched it being well used!

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  4. Wonderful sightings of these cute little guys and some great pics!
    What job to visit these places but oh so rewarding when they are occupied by pairs!
    hopefully more and more farmers will become aware of the importance of caring for them...
    Cheers Richard!

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    1. Thank you Noushka. I guess more than 80% of my birdwatching time is spent on the owls! I try and involve the farmers if they're receptive.

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  5. Wonderful post! They are so charming and I think your photos are just fine (I'd be thrilled to get an owl picture half as good). Thank you for sharing the results of your patience and persistence! The owls are wonderful. I hope the farmer that you talked to remembers to keep his land bird-friendly now.

    I didn't know people still did that falcon hunt thing, goodness!

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    1. Thank you Sallie.

      Since fox hunting with hounds and horses (you've probably seen pictures of hunting in England with the riders all dressed in red - 'hunting pink' they call it!) was banned over here the hunting scene is kept alive, complete with dogs and 'tally ho' horns, by other means. This particular hunt, it seems, has a resident falconer. I'm not keen on hunting with falcons but it doesn't happen that much here, as far as I'm aware. A couple of years ago I met a guy that was hunting for rabbits with a ferret and a falcon. He was sending the ferret down the rabbit burrow to flush the rabbits out, and then the falcon would swoop into kill them as they fled the burrow.

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