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Monday, 31 March 2014

Short But Sweet - on 27th March, 2014

On Thursday my pal Titus and I had one of our weekly afternoons out, checking up on the owls. The afternoon started off bright and sunny, but the forecast was not good, so our hopes were not overly high.

At my Little Owl Site No.44 we clocked both the owls sitting out after a hail/sleet shower. Brief attempts at photography came to nothing worthwhile.

Further on, at my LO Site No.46, it had brightened up a bit and both owls appeared shortly after we stopped. I was pleased to see that the cattle were still not in the field, but we only observed distantly from the road.

It was not much further on to LO Site No.41, where we'd erected an owl box. The birds spent all winter on the far side of the field, but lately they seem to have abandoned that side and returned to the side with their original nest tree. As the ground was now dry enough to park on the roadside, we decided to make this our lunch break spot so that we could observe and try and see where the owls were spending their time. We parked about 80 metres from the old nest tree, so that we could keep an eye on all their usual haunts. We'd only been there about ten minutes when an owl flew up from behind the hedge and landed high up in the old nest tree, disappearing from sight almost immediately. It must have been another 20 minutes, or so, before I spotted it again, well-camouflaged by the multitudinous twigs that surround the tree. You can see what I mean by the image below.

Little Owl - my Site No.41
We sat there for quite a long time, waiting for the owl to make a move - which it didn't! - so decided to move on to the next destination. A slow cruise past the tree gave us a better photo opportunity. The car makes quite a good hide in these circumstances!

Little Owl - my Site No.41
Our next stop was at LO Site No.34, which featured in my last post. I was glad to have got that session in my hide under my belt as we arrived to find that there were now cattle in the field. Both owls were sitting in the nest cavity, and we sat and watched for a while. I then noticed that there was an owl in the hedgerow at LO Site No.36 which, amazingly, is only about 150 metres from Site No.34, and in the same field! As neither Titus nor I had any photos of No.36 from closer than around 150 metres, I invited Titus to try a stealthy approach on foot, but Titus declined so off I set.

The owls at No.34 stayed put when I got out of the car, but disappeared back into their nest hole as I approached the gate into the field. I'd decided that mixing with the cattle might help me approach No.36 without disturbing the owl. This was my view when I'd gone about 50 metres.

Little Owl - my Site No.36
Using this technique, and only approaching the owl obliquely, I got to within about 15 metres of the owl. I'm rather pleased with the results, especially the colours of the diffused background.

Little Owl - my Site No.36
To cut a long story short, no further owls were seen and torrential rain curtailed our activities and sent us homeward. It was still throwing it down when, an hour and a half later, I arrived back home more than two hours earlier than intended. It had been a short afternoon, but the image from No.36 was the sweetener for me!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Getting Closer! - on 23rd March, 2014

There are very few of my Little Owl sites that I can observe (rather than quickly view) at close-quarters without disturbing the owls. Therefore, most of my close photography is achieved by a stealthy approach, looking nonchalant and avoiding eye contact for as long as possible, before banging off a few shots and then retreating - hopefully leaving the owls in situ.

Once in a while I take my Stealth Gear Chair Hide and set it up near to a nest site, in order to be able to observe and photograph the owls for an hour or so without disturbing them.

I have two Little Owl sites which are on private land and too distant from the road to be able to photograph the birds in any detail. There are plenty of others with the same problem, but both these two sites are in fields which, as soon as the land dries out sufficiently, will be filled with cattle. I'm too vulnerable to accidents in my chair hide in a field full of cattle! Time was, therefore, running out.

My LO Site No.34 was discovered early in 2013, and I had great plans for photography sessions, but then Jackdaws took over the nest and evicted the owls. Now that the owls are back it was time to try again.

The other site was my most recently found site (No.46), and a preparatory session in my hide here featured in my last post.

It was quite bright and sunny when I left home on Sunday late morning, but rather windy. The weather forecast had the wind dropping a little as the afternoon progressed. My intention was to have a session at No.34, and then move on to No.46. Little Owls are not fond of wind, but the prevailing wind direction meant that there was a good chance that the owls might be seen in their sheltered nest openings.

I arrived at No.34 to find, to my delight, that there was no sign of either owl. I quickly set up my hide, unobserved, halving the distance between my usual observation point and the nest tree. I immediately started to doubt my wisdom as the wind was howling against the hide, and the protruding camera lens was juddering, in spite of being on a heavy tripod. I then sat and started to eat my lunch whilst I waited.

It was only about half an hour before one of the owls showed. It had me spotted immediately.

Hello! - what's that?
It very quickly relaxed, taking only the occasional look at my hide, but observing its surroundings.

That looks interesting!
For me, one of the wonderful things about Little Owls is that they seem to be full of character. It's often not easy to appreciate this with a quick and distant sighting, but sitting close to them for a time soon reveals how special they are. I took over 250 shots during this session, and I've retained 43 of them - a much greater percentage than I usually do, but they all show the owl looking different !

No, I'm not going to show you all 43 as, unless you're as passionate as me about them you'd probably be bored silly, but you will get a selection.

The owl was relaxed enough to have a preening session.

I need to get to that itch!
A particularly windy period caused the owl to pop back into his nest cavity. I took the opportunity to answer the call of nature and then move my hide closer, halving the distance yet again. I was now about 15 metres away.

The owl was back again after a few minutes, and clearly saw that the hide had moved, but still didn't exhibit any discomfort.

I'm sure that's moved!
The wind, rather than abating, was getting stronger still, and the light levels were changing dramatically, from bright sunshine to heavy cloud, and then back again. The owl still managed to catch forty winks!

After its nap, it was alert again.

What IS that down there??
It still took the occasional look at my hide.

Did someone cough?
In the end, the wind really got very strong, I was getting rather cold (although the temperature was 9 deg. C, the wind-chill factor was great), and the owl decided that it'd had enough.

Time to go!
I packed up the hide and headed off towards Site No.46, arriving to find that the owls weren't showing, but the wind had veered round so that it was blowing directly at the main nest opening. I sat there debating whether it was worthwhile setting up, particularly as I'd got rather chilled. My mind was made up when a weather front suddenly arrived with the mother and father of all hail storms, and the temperature dropped in seconds from 9 deg. C to 0 deg.!! It was time to go.

I'm now waiting for a suitable day to return. Monday was windy and today has been wet.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Positives and Negatives - Mid-March, 2014

In spite of relatively good weather, I've not managed to find much time to go out owling over the past couple of weeks. Those times I have been out have left me with a mixture of concerns and encouragement!

But first a disappointment. My Little Owl Site No.29, where I've not seen an owl for seven months is officially 'no more'. The nest tree has now been sawn off less than half a metre from the ground.

My most recently found site, No.46, is now giving concerns. The following image was taken from beside the road on 7th March.

Little Owls - my Site No.46
OK, so no concerns visible here, with both owls present, one of which is sitting in what I've come to think of as the 'bum hole' (I hope this doesn't offend my readers!). However, there was a Kestrel in the tree several hours earlier when we passed (neither owl showing), and Kestrels and Little Owls don't always get on well together!

In my last post, I said that obtaining a closer image at No.46 was going to be difficult. However, on 10th March I was granted limited permission by the farmer to enter the field and set up my hide. Fortunately neither owl was out when I arrived and I managed to set up unseen. Not knowing how these owls would react to my hide, I still kept to a safe distance of approximately 30 metres, and I also sat to one side - partly to only make the hide visible to one aperture, and partly to reduce the 'bum hole' effect. Within a few minutes of me being set up an owl appeared in the hole. I needn't have worried about the effect on the owl of my being there - it was curious at first and then for the next hour or so, ignored my position for most of the time, even taking a nap for a while. It then disappeared back into the bole of the tree. There was not much action going on, so I took the opportunity to depart unseen. This session was not an easy one as the light levels were up and down like a yo-yo. However, the worst problem was the strong wind which was vibrating my hide and my camera (even though it was on a heavy tripod). Here are some images from this location - sorry there's not much variety, but they may be my last from here as I will explain later!

Little Owl - my Site No.46
On my way back to my car there were three Red Kites flying around. I'm not sure whether Red Kites are a threat to Little Owls but they are being increasingly seen in this immediate area, which also hosts at least two other active Little Owl sites.

However, of greater concern is that, since that session on 10th March, it appears that the nest tree on this site has been taken over by a pair of Kestrels. On 13th March the Kestrels were going into the tree, and only one owl was seen - staying by the hedgerow on the opposite side of the field. I passed that way again on 14th March and there was no sign of the owls, but the Kestrels were still there.

After the session on 10th March I popped round the corner to my LO Site No.41. This is where the nest site had been destroyed in a gale and we'd erected an owl box. The box wasn't being used, and the owls were staying out in all weathers on the far side of the field. However, with the advent of better weather we'd not been seeing them so much there, but they've being showing up in the original nest tree. We're hoping that they will now occupy the box for breeding. It's a little frustrating as they are now being seen very close to the road, but we don't want to risk frightening them off by being intrusive. This is one that I managed to grab that day as I passed by.

Little Owl - my Site No.41
I was out owling with my pal Titus on 13th March. The afternoon started off a bit misty, but it was warm and sunny, and the mist eventually cleared for a few hours. Seeing a couple of owls on my way to pick up Titus, I ended up having a ten owl day - rather less than I expected, given the weather conditions.

At my LO Site No.34, both owls were visible.

Little Owls - my Site No.34
This site was found in January last year, and by March the owls had been evicted by Jackdaws. I'd only once seen the owls out of their nest hole. It was really exciting for us, in November, to find that the nest was re-occupied by owls. Because the entrance to the nest hole allows both owls to sit there, sheltered from the wind and rain, it seems they find little need to leave the nest except for feeding. In numerous sightings since November, I'd only once seen an owl out of the nest hole. We were, therefore, delighted when the hindmost owl pushed past the other and sat out. All these images were taken from the roadside at about 50 metres distance. I've got permission to put my hide in the field, so hope for some closer images one day

Little Owls - my Site No.34
Not too far from No.34 is my LO Site No. 42. I'd only seen an owl here once, although Titus has seen one here on three different occasions. It seems that the owls here are very fussy about weather conditions and only sit out when it's warm and sunny, with no wind. On 13th March, an owl was out and in a tree beside the public footpath. I grabbed a few shots from the roadside at about 100 metres distance.

Little Owl - my Site No.42
I thought that I'd try and see how tolerant the owl was of human intrusion and opened the gate to the start of the footpath. I soon got my answer as the owl departed immediately!

So, a mixed couple of weeks although, overall, things still look encouraging for a good breeding season.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Getting Ready For The Mating Season - February/March, 2014

No, not me, but the Little Owls! It's at about this time of year that the Little Owls start showing themselves as pairs more often than is usual. I guess it's a sort of bonding thing, just before the mating season starts. Those that are not paired-up become more vocal as they seek a mate. This is a great time to see LOs as the leaves are not on the trees. Later, whilst the females are brooding the eggs, the males will be busy foraging for food, but then things get a little more difficult as the leaves tend to hide them from view. The next really good opportunities (hopefully!) come when the young owls start to fledge.

Sadly, I've not been able to make the most of the past month, for various reasons, not the least of which was a major glitch on my PC's file management system which resulted in my Nikon software crashing every time I tried to work on raw files that had been newly loaded onto my PC. Previously worked-on raw files were no problem! In the end the problem was solved by running a file system repair tool.

Anyway, I have been able to get out owling a few times, and even found a new Little Owl site. I've also managed to locate the actual nest cavity of the previous site that I'd found.

One of my most recent LO sites (No.44) is pretty much a sure-fire bet for spotting one or more of the owls. The nest tree is close to the road, where it is possible to park without causing significant disruption to the sparse traffic. The only problem is that the light is always virtually directly behind the owls when I visit. I'm hoping that an early start in a few weeks time might just give me an opportunity with a little more favourable lighting. Here's a few from No.44.

Little Owls - my Site No.44
Site No.41, where the nest tree was destroyed in a gale last year, also continues to give reliable sightings, although at a great distance. The birds have tended to keep to the opposite side of the field to the original nest tree in which we put up an owl box. However, we've had reports of them spending more time near the original nest tree, although I've not seen it for a long while. Here's one of them in their favourite tree for roosting in when there's a west wind blowing.

Little Owls - my Site No.41
Another recent site (No.43) where, for a while, only one bird was showing, turned up trumps in mid-February when two birds were seen together. Remarkably this location is only approximately 200 metres from my Site No.34, which also has two birds present.

Little Owls - my Site No.43
My new LO Site, No.46, was found on 20th February, and re-confirmed on 27th. Unfortunately the nest tree is approximately 70 metres from the road, and access for closer photography looks as if it is going to be difficult, if not impossible.

Little Owls - my new Site No.46
My first ever Little Owl site (No.01) was found in 2009, and went 'sterile' after only three sightings. However, my LO Site No.02, also found in 2009, has remained a source of great pleasure to me over the years, although I'm sure that one of the birds is not of the original pair. I'll ask you to forgive me for, once again, using an image from this site as my header, and publishing another one below, both taken on 26th February.

Little Owl - my Site No.02
Hopefully the other issues in my life will settle down this month and I'll get in a bit more owling. Until the next time - have a great time in the great outdoors, and don't forget to connect with nature!