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Friday 25 February 2011

Owling Marathon - on 24th February, 2011 + Owling Update

For most of this month, I have been busy with the complete refurbishment of our bedroom. The result is that I'd only seen Little Owl at three of my sites, and Barn Owl at one, during the month. However, the carpet went in on Wednesday, and good weather was forecast for Thursday, so I decided that I'd visit as many of my Little Owl sites as possible during the day. I'd got 16 LO sites, and so priority was given to those at which I'd not sighted a bird during February. Furthermore, I'd leave looking for new sites for another day - the name of the game was to get round as quickly as possible, but to be reasonably thorough when I got there

Before I start on this, however, I'll just include a few images of Owls seen earlier in the month.

On 8th February I went onto my local patch near Packington. The barn at my LO Site No.12, where the owls nest, has been full of hay during the winter. Now that it's starting to empty, the owls can often be seen up in the roof. On this day, one sat there whilst I took its picture. It's very dark in there, and it was a dull day, which didn't help. Fortunately my new camera works amazingly well at extremely high ISO values.

Little Owl - my Site No.12

A short walk away, the sole surviving LO at my Site No.02 was sunning herself in her favourite spot.

Little Owl - my Site No.02

On 12th February, I went to the farm near Snarestone where I have two LO sites. Nothing seen at Site No.05, but one of the owls (the very confiding one!) was out at Site No.06.

Little Owl - my Site No.06

Now to the 'marathon day' yesterday. My first stop was at my Site No.01. at Staunton Harold. I've only ever seen one owl here - and not since January, 2010. I spent a good twenty minutes checking out the surroundings, but nothing seen.

Next stop was just down the road and five minutes walk from the car, at Site No.08. I last saw a single bird here in August, 2010, and had not seen a pair since March. I thought that I was out of luck again, but whilst I was searching the locality for evidence, I found that the little blighters had moved home and taken up residence in a new hole in a tree about a hundred metres away. I managed a very distant safety shot of the bird that I'd found (see below), but it fled when I was about a fifty metres away. Feeling it was safe to go and check out this new tree, I missed seeing the second bird, which also took off but didn't go so far. I did manage some slightly closer shots of this bird without disturbing it further.

Little Owl (1st bird) - my Site No.08

Little Owl (2nd bird) - my Site No.08

Next stop was Site No.14 at Farm Town. I'd seen a juvenile here twice in August, 2010, but not since. It was, at that time, living under the corrugations of the roof of a barn, accessing it from the external guttering. I didn't have any expectations of it being a lasting home, due to the slope of the roof!. I was not, therefore, surprised at not locating it again.

Next on the list was Site No.07 at Whitwick. I've not seen a bird here since the nest was taken over by Jackdaws in March, 2010. I've not given up on the possibility that it might be re-occupied one day, but nothing seen on this day.

I fared no better at Site No.16 near Newton Burgoland, where I saw a bird in freezing fog in December, 2010. Locating the bird's home will probably be a project soon.

Site No.05, near Snarestone, where I've only ever seen one bird, and then not since October, also let me down.

Moving a bit further from base, and for the sake of completion without any real hope, I set off for Upton, and my Site No.03. I think that, when I found this site in January, 2010, it is possible that the nest tree had just suffered catastrophic damage, as much of it was on the ground. Although I saw a bird here in February and March, I suspect that it was revisiting its old home, but has now moved on to pastures new. It wasn't around on this day.

Feeling that the day was not going too well, I arrived just after mid-day at my Site No.09, near Sibson. Bingo! - a bird was well-hidden against the trunk of the nest tree (see first image below - click to magnify). The bird that I usually find here is extremely nervous - sometimes disappearing before I open the gate 200 metres away. I think that this was the bird, but I did get a bit closer this time. Once away from the nest, the bird gets more confiding - I guess it's just protecting the nest location. I hoped that the resident Barn Owl would be sunning itself in its favoured window frame, but it wasn't there.

Little Owl - my Site No.09

Feeling the pangs of hunger, I decided to head to a nearby farm, where the girlfriend of the young farmer at Site No.09 had said that she'd seen LO last year. I sat in my car and was eating my sandwiches when I heard a magic sound from the barn beside me! I couldn't resist calling back. We were having quite a conversation when a Little Owl emerged and landed on a discarded tractor tyre - but the calling was still coming from the barn! The bird did not stay long on the tyre, but soon after, the calling bird emerged and landed on the nearby roof - still calling. New Site No.17!!!

Little Owl (1st bird) - my new Site No.17

Little Owl (2nd bird) - my new Site No.17

From here I returned to my local patch. I did have four LO sites here at one time. My first call was at my Site No.10. I saw two LOs here briefly after dark in April, 2010. I have not managed to relocate them since, but the farmer deciding to use the area for a vast permanently smouldering bonfire does not help - no better luck this day but I wasn't expecting any as I probably pass this way three times a week!

Site No.11 on my local patch used to contain a nesting pair. I found the site soon after the farmer had done some drastic surgery on all the trees in the area, including using a chain saw to take off a thick branch immediately under the nest hole - i.e. within 15cm of the nest hole. The birds stayed for a month or so after I found them, but then disappeared. Subsequent investigation revealed that the hole had been taken over by nesting bees. I checked the hole this day - the bees are gone, and a spot of lime told me that something had been perching on the edge of the hole - maybe they will return. No LO was visible at my Site No.02 (not on the day's target list, but I have to park beside it to get to No.11!)

I now had a bit of a dilemma. It was 2.00 p.m. but my last remaining three sites were my most distant, with two being in one direction and the other being diametrically opposite. I decided on the nearest site (my No.15 near Croxall, Staffordshire), and would review visiting the other two when I'd finished there.

I arrived to find an owl sitting outside the nest hole. A stealthy approach resulted in some images, but then suddenly a second owl that I hadn't seen flew out of the tree and across the field to close to where I'd parked my car. I don't know where it came from as I'd spent at least ten minutes scanning the tree beforehand. I've only seen a single bird here before. I got some closer images of the remaining owl - a worryingly skinny-looking bird, complete with out-of-place feather, and then returned to my car, grabbing a distant shot of the second owl as it returned to the nest tree.

Little Owl (1st bird) - my Site No.15

Little Owl (2nd bird) - my Site No.15

By now it was just gone 3.00 p.m. My sat-nav told me it was going to take two hours to get to my Sites No.s 4 & 13, so I decided to go for it. I arrived at the location near Rothley at It was then a fifteen minute walk, past Site No.13 (quick scan - found nothing) to Site. No. 4. I spent some time here searching but no LO seen. On the way back to No.13, however, a Barn Owl came by and started quartering the meadow in the distance. I stayed in the hope that it would come closer but it soon caught something and took it off into a very distant tree. This long journey had been suddenly made worthwhile - it's always a privilege and a delight to see a Barnie!

Barn Owl

I had a more careful look at Site No.13, but nothing found, so decided to head home. For me it had been a really exciting day - Fifteen LO sites visited in nine hours, seven LOs seen, one new LO site, two new LO pairs - and a Barnie to end the day.

Full of joy I returned home to find that, yet again, I'd been upstaged by my mentor, and good friend, Paul Riddle, who'd found himself (and photographed) a Long-eared Owl out in the open, as well as seeing a couple of Barnies and a couple of LOs - Well done mate!!!

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Redpolls, Bramblings, & Siskins - Garden Update on 22nd February, 2011

This continues to be a great winter for birds in our garden.

The Lesser Redpoll first seen on 28th December last year has become a 'several times daily' occurrence, with up to six birds being seen. We have at least four juveniles (barely discernible red on the head), and at least four adults visiting us. This for us is very special as the only other time that we have seen Redpoll in our garden was in April, 2009 - naively identified as Common Redpoll by me at the time. I wonder how much longer they will hang around for? I find it difficult to nail a good image of these as they tend to fly straight in to the feeder, and then straight out again. Most of the time I just turn round from my desk and they are there!

Lesser Redpoll

A small test of your birding knowledge - in the monochrome image below, what species of bird do you see?

what species?

On 6th February, we had our first Siskin for almost two years. Since then, up to four have been seen, again on a 'several times a day' basis. I think that we have only had one female, but there have been at least two juvenile males, and one adult male. These are a real delight.

Siskin (juvenile male)

Siskin (male)

The Brambling sighting on 30th November, 2010, has also resulted in 'several times a day' sightings since, with up to four birds being seen. This, again, is really exciting for us as this is the first time we have seen Brambling for about twenty years. Currently, however, we are only seeing male birds. I find it interesting to observe the different levels of transition into breeding plumage, as shown in the images below.

23/02/2011 - Since publishing this yesterday, I'm beginning to wonder if I'm making a fool of myself on the male/female Brambling issue. One of my books led me to believe that the paler headed birds shown below are winter males (it shows and states females as having a very narrow orange bar on the shoulder, compared to the males). However, having just looked at the Collins guide, I'm beginning to think that these might be females. I still consider myself a birding beginner, and help and guidance on this matter (and any other glaring errors!) would be appreciated!

Brambling (male)

OK - so the answer to what species? Well, the clue was in the surrounding images. The bird on the left was a Lesser Redpoll, and the bird on the right a Siskin. It was not until I looked at the (rubbish) image below that it dawned on me just how similar, from the back view, a Redpoll and Siskin were in shape, size, and markings (if you ignore the colour).

Lesser Redpoll and Siskin

Another very welcome visitor, on 16th February, was this male Reed Bunting - a garden 'year tick'. Unfortunately the bird only made the one brief visit (to the best of my knowledge) - a shame, because Reed Bunting is also an extremely rare visitor to our garden, with the previous observation (before this winter) being about twenty years ago.

Reed Bunting (male)

With all the excitement generated by our 'rarities', it is easy to forget the more commonplace birds in our garden that give us delight. Below are a couple that I snapped last week.

Blue Tit


Tuesday 8 February 2011

The Frozen North! Pt.2 - The Scottish Half of The Holiday

The second half of our holiday was based at the superb Grant Arms hotel in Grantown on Spey. We stayed there last July and enjoyed it so much that we couldn't wait to get back.

Thursday 27th January

Most of the day was spent driving from Newcastle to Grantown. We arrived at the hotel at around 15.30 and, having unloaded the car, set off for Anagach Wood, just behind the hotel. The woods have a reputation for Crested Tit, Crossbill, and Capercaillie. However, the light was fading fast, and nothing much of interest was seen except Red Squirrels, so we returned to the hotel. Dinner that night (as on every night) was excellent and afterwards, having met up with two other genial couples (one from not so far away in Scotland and the other from Vancouver, Canada) we had a very enjoyable evening sampling the malt whiskies .

Friday 28th January

We'd originally intended to join the hotel's Bird Watching & Wildlife Club's guided walk in Anagach wood this day, and then go up to Cairngorm on the Saturday. However, the BWWC coordinator advised us to go to Cairngorm on the Friday as the place would be overcrowded with skiers on the Saturday, so this we did.

On the way we stopped in for a cup of tea at the Glen More Café. close to Loch Morlich.
Looking across Loch Morlich to Cairngorm

The café has a reputation for the Red Squirrels, Crested Tits, and even Pine Marten, which visit the feeders outside their windows. We'd just sat down with our cuppas when a Crested Tit arrived and perched on a branch in the sun - before I'd got my camera ready! It was only there for a couple of seconds and then was gone, possibly frightened off by a male Sparrowhawk that came through moments later. We sat there through a couple more cuppas, but the Crestie didn't return - however, the Sparrowhawk did, several times, and on the last occasion it was successful. I'm not sure what it took as it all happened so fast, but there had been a small flock of Long-tailed Tits round the feeders at the time. It took its prey off through the trees and devoured it, just within our sight, although quite a long way away.

Sparrowhawk (male)

The Squirrels were not over-happy with the Sparrowhawk's passes and tended to disappear when it arrived, but I did manage a few shots in the terrible light by the squirrel feeder.

Red Squirrel

Not wanting to miss the sunshine that was starting to prevail, we set off for Cairngorm. We had a couple of fruitless stops on the way up to the base station of the Cairngorm Railway, and arrived to find the car park virtually full. We had to queue to buy tickets and then queue for a 'train' which were running every twenty minutes. We got on the second one after we'd started queueing. At the top it was chaos, being overcrowded with skiers. We didn't stand a cat in hell's chance of seeing Ptarmigan, Mountain Hare, or Snow Bunting that we'd hoped to see, so we got the next train down again - no waiting this time as everyone else was still arriving at the top station.

Down at the bottom station, we had a quick look round for any sign of birds and were just about to depart when my wife suggested looking in the top car park. Almost instantly I noticed a Snow Bunting on a picnic table, just up a bank from the car park. I had started a circuitous route to try and get to within photographic distance when a youth charged up the bank to the picnic table in order to sit somewhere whilst he put on his skiing boots - scattering Snow Buntings as he did so! They seemed to fly a long way away and I'd already started to try and relocate them, when the youth left and a bunting returned to the picnic table. During a stealthy approach, others arrived, with a couple more on the picnic table, and others some way behind. I managed a half-decent shot of a male Snow Bunting on the corner of the table - but this was not the 'natural' environment that I wanted.

Snow Bunting (male)

I got quite close to this bird before it decided to join its fellow buntings on the snow on the ground - this gave me the opportunity that I wanted! I must have spent a good ten minutes shooting these birds before a para-skier flying overhead spooked them.

Snow Buntings (male and female)

Snow Bunting (female)

Snow Bunting (male)

When they were spooked, they all (nine of them) congregated on a fence in the distance for a short while. Then another flock came into view and they joined up with these and settled on the roof ridge of the main building - there were 26 of them!

Snow Buntings

Just after this magical session (Snow Bunting was a 'lifer' for me) before we left we spotted some movement on the hillside. It was a pair of Black Grouse, and I'd spotted the female and my wife had spotted the male. However, we both thought that we were looking at the same bird and couldn't understand the agreement on location, but disparity in what we were seeing until the birds flew at the same time - from two different locations of identical description. This was another 'lifer' for me, but in this case I only have an unrecognisable record shot of the female

Black Grouse (female) - can you spot it!

The weather had closed in by now, and dusk was approaching, so we got back in the car and did a bit of exploring by road. From the bridge at the northern end of Loch Insh we spotted some Whooper Swans - record shot shown below.

Whooper Swan

Saturday 29th January

The following day dawned very dull and grey, and stayed like it all day. My wife is a coast lover, and so we decided to head north, with Findhorn being our first destination. We stopped at the so-called nature reserve first. Here we found that there was no visible way of opening the 'windows' of the hide, which seemed firmly jammed in place with the damp. As there seemed to be a well-worn path beside the hide, I went round the front to see if I could see a way of freeing up the windows from the other side. I gave up when I noticed a guy with a zimmer frame walking his dog on the foreshore a good 100 metres in front of the hide!

All we could see from here were some very distant waders and ducks - which I could not identify through the bins - and a distant raptor (presumably a Buzzard) sitting on top of something dead (also unidentified) with a Herring Gull and corvids looking on in the hope of picking up the remnants.
unidentified raptor on unidentified prey

Arriving at Findhorn itself, we took a walk over the dunes (nothing exciting seen), and along the foreshore, where we could see Harbour Seals on a distant bar.

Harbour Seal - on bar

We then continued round into Findhorn Bay, stopping at the café by the marina for a cuppa and cake. A walk along the promenade gave us sightings of Goldeneye, Herring Gull, Oystercatcher, Hooded Crow, and Curlew.
Herring Gull

Hooded Crow



After Findhorn we set off for Burghead, stopping to take a look at the Nimrod plinthed at the entrance to RAF Kinloss.

RAF Nimrod - Kinloss

We parked in the car park above the town at Burghead, and took the path down to the north side of the harbour. As we approached we could see Eider in the harbour. There were also Eider outside the harbour walIs, and a cormorant.

Eider (female)

Eider (males) & Cormorant)

I'd not long been down on the harbour side when I noticed a couple of birds arrive outside the harbour entrance. They turned out to be another 'lifer' for me - Long-tailed Duck!

Long-tailed Duck (female & male)

I watched these for about half an hour, hoping they would come a bit closer - the male is just visible as a dot below the last letter of the boat's name ('Shearwater') if you click on the image below.

'Shearwater' & Long-tailed Duck

They didn't come closer, and the light got worse, so the images below are the best that I achieved (out of well over a hundred shots taken!). My apologies for me indulging myself with the number of images below, but I possibly won't see a Long-tailed Duck again.

Long-tailed Duck (male)

Long-tailed Duck (female)

Whilst I was watching the L-Ts, the Eiders came steaming out of the harbour.

Eider (male)

Eider (female + juvenile males)

After this, a visit to Lossiemouth gave distant views of Curlew plus another female Long-tailed Duck, after which we headed back to Grantown via the scenic route.

Sunday 30th January

When we visited the area last July, Lochindorb, to the north of Grantown, was one of our favourite locations, and had good bird interest. We were looking forward to seeing what, if anything, was around at this time. We were not expecting to see much as we were told that the loch was frozen. We arrived, however, to find that only half the loch was frozen over.

Lochindorb- north end

There was very little bird life seen round the loch - just a few crows. However, when we got past the south end, the heather held plenty of Red Grouse - and the sun came out!!

Red Grouse (male)

From Lochindorb we headed south to the Findhorn Valley (a long way from Findhorn of the previous day). This place is known locally as 'the Valley of the Raptors'. We had been told that, if we were very lucky, we might even spot a Golden Eagle at the top end of the valley. We were, therefore, somewhat surprised to find a Golden Eagle as we entered the bottom end of the valley road. In fact the identification of the bird threw me for quite some time. It was a juvenile, and I was not familiar with the almost black plumage of a juvenile Goldie, nor the white tail with broad dark band at the tip. However, I knew it was big by comparing it with the tiny crows that were mobbing it!!

As we drove along the road it appeared from low down on our left, some distance in front of us. It then soared up to some height and went over some trees (as shown in the first image below). We then continued past the trees and relocated it again. Unfortunately, it stayed at a great distance before eventually disappearing over the hill.

Golden Eagle (juvenile)

A little further up the road we had a distant view of Dipper (as shown below). This was the first of three sightings, the other two being birds in flight much higher up the valley.


Apart from a small flock of six Bullfinch (I'm not used to seeing Bullfinch in flocks), the only other bird remotely of interest (and the only other raptor) seen was a Common Buzzard, as shown below.

Common Buzzard

Monday 31st January

Sadly we had to say goodbye to the Grant Arms this day, and start the long trek home. We'd decided to break the journey with an overnight at Berwick Upon Tweed. This gave us some time in hand, and so we stopped at the nature reserve at Aberlady Bay, to the east of Edinburgh. The tide was well on the way out when we arrived, but there were Redshank and Curlew fairly close to the bridge which gives access to the reserve. This is said to be the first Local Nature Reserve to have been set up in UK.



Further into the reserve we found large numbers of Fieldfare. These were feeding on a virtual forest of Sea Buckthorn. I've never knowingly met this plant before, but I understand that it has amazing medicinal properties. I reckon that there were enough berries here to keep this flock of Fieldfare happy for the rest of the winter!


Sea Buckthorn

We eventually got to end of the dunes, and the sea. There was little seen on the way, and even less when we got to the sea. However, on the way back, we picked up Stonechat in a couple of places.

Stonechat (male)

Stonechat (female)

This was, effectively, the end of our holiday as we set off home on busy roads the following day. We had a superb time, and I take this opportunity to thank all the people at the Grant Arms in Grantown on Spey for making our stay so enjoyable - we look forward to returning soon.