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Thursday 29 September 2011

Tawny Owls - on 23rd September, 2011

I've been filling in my garden pond, collecting rubble from a house about a quarter of a mile (400 metres) from my home. The house has its own large area of mature woodland and in chatting to the owner, she told me that she had been hearing owls very regularly and very vocally at close quarters, but never sees them. On Friday night I went down there and I'd only been there about fifteen minutes before the first Tawny Owl was heard - then another - and another. In the end we suspected that we were hearing five, but we saw three. I'd taken my Rhod Gilbert (a "million candlepower" torch - yes, that's what it says on the side!) with me and we used this a few times to pick out the owls so that she and two of her sons could see them. However, my attempts at photography were a complete failure apart from one rather poor image of a distant bird.

Tawny Owl - near Ashby de la Zouch
 My thanks to the family for a very entertaining interlude. 

Monday 26 September 2011

An Amazing Day with The Owlmeister! - on 22nd September, 2011

On Thursday I had a day out with my good friend, and Leicestershire Owl guru, Paul Riddle. Paul very kindly invited me to accompany him to one of his Little Owl sites, where he has four confiding juvenile owls. I offered to drive but Paul said that we need the Landrover, so we set off in that. Paul's Landrover has been set up as a mobile hide, with camouflage netting all round the window glass. On arrival at the gateway into the site, Paul very generously offered me his camera support - a Manfrotto gimbal head on a custom-made door clamp, and a superb bit of kit.

We then headed off into the field. As we approached the nest tree, we could see three owls on a log behind a wire fence. I was amazed as Paul drove to within 25 feet (8 metres) of them, and they didn't bat an eyelid! It was a charming sight, and would have made a very nice image if it hadn't been for the fence (as you can see below)!

Little Owl - juveniles 1, 2, and 3
From this position we could see a fourth juvenile a little further along the hedgerow. Having taken a few safety shots from where we were, Paul started up the Landrover (birds didn't even notice!) and moved to a closer position to this fourth bird. This time there was no wire fence in the way.

Little Owl - juvenile 4
Paul then said he'd reverse up to a position closer to the three birds behind the fence so that we could see them over the fence. This time we were really close - probably only 12 feet (4 metres) away!

Little Owl - juvenile 3
It might not be common knowledge that most creatures, humans included, have adjustable irises in their eyes (to cater for varying light conditions) and these work together - i.e. both irises open to the same degree Unusually (uniquely?) the irises in an owl's eyes are capable of working independently so, for example, if one side of the face is in bright light and the other in shade the irises will open to different degrees. The next image, although not a brilliant image, clearly shows this.

Little Owl - juvenile 3 - showing differential iris apertures

The next image was of bird No.4 taken from the over-fence position before it departed, not to be seen again in this session.

Little Owl - juvenile 4

I took a few more shots of the birds behind the fence, and you can probably get an impression of how close we were by the sense of looking down on these birds in the following images. The first of the following three images illustrates an owl's ability to turn its head through 180 degrees. The third image suddenly struck me as rather strange when I noticed it looked like the left wing had been stuck on to the bird backwards on the right hand side! It took a while to realise that the only explanation is that it has the ability to stretch its wing right over its back!

Juveniles 1 and 2

Juvenile 3

Juvenile 2
All the while we were there, the owls just went about their business, totally ignoring us even when the Landrover was started up from just beside them. We even had to make noises or movements to get them to look in our direction!

Eventually birds 2 & 3 moved up to the perch vacated by bird 4, and bird 1 moved to an unseen location behind us. The first two images below, taken only two minutes apart of the same bird, are not there for the quality of the image, but because they show how an owl can dramatically change its appearance!

Juvenile 2 - showing its morphing capabilities!
Juvenile 3

Paul then spotted that bird No.1 was sitting on the fence behind us, and so reversed up quickly to a point amazingly close - too close as the following is the only usable image I got (by attracting
the birds attention - and zooming in to 200mm), the others being all looking down onto the top of the bird's head!

Juvenile 1
Eventually bird No.1 flew up to a more natural looking perch and was joined by No.2.

Juveniles 1 and 2
When bird No.2 yawned, the fairly complex inside structure of its mouth became visible.

Juvenile 2

The owls continued to perform, and Paul gave me some opportunities for real close-up work, although I have found that I don't get such good results when near the inner limit of focus of my lens. 

Juvenile 1

Juvenile 3
The weather was starting to turn dull, and a bit breezy, so we took the Landrover back to Paul's place and set off in my car for Croft. I've never been here before, but I certainly want to return.

First we climbed the hill to get some images of the confiding Kestrel that is resident in these parts. The light was not easy, and most of my shots that I took in the short time the bird was around were fluffed. Shame because with good light and better camera work this next shot could have been a half-decent image!

Kestrel - Croft Hill

In spite of the obvious potential of this area, the dull weather and stiff breeze seemed to be keeping the birds out of sight. When we got to the bottom of the hill, by the River Soar, we found a rather tatty male Southern Hawker dragonfly. It was in a shady place so photography was difficult.

Southern Hawker (male)
This pretty much rounded off our day. The close encounters with Paul's Little Owls will probably never be equalled by me, and is a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Thank you Paul

Monday 19 September 2011

Very Late Newborn Owl Chicks - on 18th September, 2011

Went out for an evening's owling last night. My first call was at my LO Site No.09. I heard a bird calling soon after I arrived, but couldn't work out where the sound was coming from. A walk around the field resulted in the bird seeing me before I saw it, and scarpering. No point in hanging around as my time was limited, so I went off to my LO Site No.03 where I had recently rediscovered a bird.

As I parked at the roadside, the bright sun was immediately behind the nest tree and so it took a  few seconds to spot the bird, which was bravely sitting out in a chill breeze. I did a +2 exposure compensation for into the sun and grabbed a safety shot. You can probably imagine that it was not that easy to see this bird with the naked eye when all looked as if in silhouette.

Little Owl - my Site No.03
I'd previously been requested to ask before entering the garden each time, so this I did. On this occasion I was kindly given permission to just help myself in future. I used the same nonchalant stroll past as last time, turning to take a photo only when I was between the sun and the owl. Unfortunately the owl was only just peeping above the broken trunk of the tree.

As the owl did not seem over concerned at my presence, I walked back past the tree, fetched my hide from the car and returned past the tree to the sunny side again. The owl stayed in place the whole time!

My hope was that, if I sat quietly in my hide, the bird might get curious and come round to the sunny side itself into a more exposed position. After an hour, there was no movement to be seen and, at 19.10 it was starting to get dark and I had an appointment down the road at 19.30. I left the hide and took a peek round the corner to find the owl still sitting in much the same place. I had already wound the ISO on my camera up to 1600 because of the lack of light, but the following image was taken at 125th (500mm) with -0.3 exposure compensation.

Little Owl - my Site No.03

It seems to me that, from the above two images, that the owl is slightly cross-eyed! I've just looked at the images that I took here on 1st of this month (see my post of September 5th), and get the same impression!

My appointment was just 2 miles (3 km) down the road at a farm where the farmer has erected a Barn Owl box with a camera in it. I'd had a call in August to invite me to come and see the owls that had taken up residence. I visited on August 15th and the television was switched over to reveal no Barn Owl, but six eggs, scattered in the box. This was slightly worrying on two counts: eggs scattered with no owl in attendance, and very late in the year to start trying to breed.

Barn Owl Eggs - 15th August, 2011
My worries on the first count were allayed when the female owl suddenly appeared outside the nest box, and then entered, rearranged the eggs, and resumed incubation. I left still concerned at the future prospects for these six eggs. I was, therefore, delighted to get a phone call on Monday last week to say that there were now six chicks in the nest, and an invitation to come and see them.

I arrived last night to be greeted with the news that he thought that they were now down to five chicks. I sat down to watch the female adult, who was covering the chicks to the extent that it was difficult to make much out at first. However, she started preening herself and so we got some glimpses of the chicks. One was much much larger than all the others (in the foreground of the two images below), and two were tiny with virtually no body weight or feathering (one poking out just to the left of 'the bruiser'). We could still not decide how many chicks there were.

Having had a good preening session, the female suddenly departed with down flying everywhere and a great cacophony (yes, the camera also has sound!). At first we thought that there was a bit of a ding dong going on outside, but when we switched to the outside camera there was nothing there. It was then we realised that it was the chicks (one in particular - the second largest) that were being so noisy.

The chicks stayed huddled together whilst mum was away, and she'd still not returned by the time I departed. However, we are pretty sure that we managed to count six chicks and not five! I'm still worried about the future for these birds. There was no food in the nest, the male bird had not been seen for three days (although the camera has not been closely monitored during that time), and it seems that the female is now finding it necessary to go hunting.

Barn Owl Chicks - 18th September, 2011

There was a successful breeding in this box last year, but no birds were seen this year until recently. My theory is that one of the birds probably succumbed to the harsh winter, and the remaining bird probably only found a replacement mate recently. Let's hope that, against all odds, they succeed in raising a family this year, even if only two or three make it to fledging. I hope to be able to keep you informed of progress over the next couple of months.

The nest cam is one of the best, and the images on the large television screen are good, but trying to take good images of the television screen with a long lens on an SLR is something that I haven't a clue about. Any tips would be gratefully received!

Saturday 17 September 2011

Dozy Old Git Finds a Soulmate - on 15th September, 2011

I've been rather busy over the past week or so, filling in the huge hole that was, until recently, my koi pond. I've already broken up, collected, brought back home, and barrowed into the hole about 5 tons of rubble. At my age, this is tiring work so, even if I've had the time, I've felt too knackered to go out owling. However, by Wednesday afternoon I was suffering withdrawal symptoms and decided to do something about it. The awful wet and windy weather had abated, and so I decided to go to my LO site No.18 near Oaks in Charnwood. No owls were in sight when I arrived, and so I set up my hide facing one of the three entrances to the nest cavity in the nest tree, and sat and waited. After three hours nothing had been seen - which is not surprising really as it was nice and warm and comfortable in my hide, and I kept dozing off!!! The result was that I went home still not having seen any owls!

Clearly something had to be done about this, so on Thursday I started by a quick visit to my local patch. Here I did at least find two Little Owls (an adult and a juvenile) at my Site No.02.

Little Owl (juvenile) - my Site No.02
A visit to nearby Site No.12 didn't yield any owls, but I offer a couple of images from a visit a week previously when I was fruit-picking here.

Great Spotted Woodpecker (male) - by my LO Site No.12
I'd planned a few visits after my local patch, the next of which was at my LO Site No.17, near Twycross. On arrival I missed seeing a Little Owl that was in a dense shrub, until it flew from beside me when I was only 10 feet (3 metres) away. I'm not used to seeing Little Owls in places where they'd struggle to find a perch amongst the tangle of branches, so hadn't even given this bush a second glance.

I set up my hide in front of the nest barn and waited. The situation was not ideal as the sun is only on this aspect early in the morning, and at this time of the afternoon the sun is only about 40 degrees from dead ahead, so the results on a relatively colourless barn are, themselves, rather colourless.  It was only about half an hour before an owl appeared. I didn't see it arrive as I'd taken my eyes off the barn for a few seconds to survey the posts to the right of the hide. I'm not sure, therefore, whether it emerged from the barn or had arrived from outside although, by its position I suspect the latter.

Little Owl - my Site No.17

It had me spotted immediately, but after a few glances it completely ignored me, spending most of its time peering at the ground and acting as if it would drop to the ground in front of me at any time.

Little Owl - my Site No.17
I sat patiently, hoping for some shots of the bird in a different location, but taking the odd shot as it adopted different poses in the same location. Eventually, however, it started to nod off.

I'd just made my mind up that it was time to move on to another location, when the owl woke up again and started to look more active. Perhaps this was going to be my opportunity!

After I'd been about three hours in my hide, the owl eventually decided that it wanted another kip and retreated into the roof space a little to a more comfortable position.

I was pleased to realise that I'm not the only dozy one around, and took my opportunity to emerge from my hide unseen, and pack it away.

My plans to stay out until dark were thwarted by a call to say that a landscape gardener was coming to see me at home at 18.30. I'd not yet had my picnic tea and it was time to be headed towards home. I decided to eat my sandwiches sitting in the car opposite my LO Site No.16 where I'd recently rediscovered the owls. Whilst I was there one emerged onto a roof about 100 yards (100 metres) away, so only a distant heavily cropped image obtained.

Little Owl - my Site No.16
OK, so not the greatest variety of images obtained in the afternoon, but at least I satisfied my need to see an owl or two!

Monday 5 September 2011

Re-discovered Owls - on 1st September, 2011

Due to other pressing matters, I've only had a couple of brief owling excursions in the last few days. But how they've paid off !!!

On Wednesday I had to make a visit to the farmer on my local patch, and whilst there I had a quick look round. On top of some huge cylindrical bales of straw there was the familiar dark shape of the top of an owl's head, with its eyes just about peeking over the top of a bale - amazingly, this was the first time that I've ever seen a Little Owl on a bale! As soon as it saw that I'd seen 'him' it disappeared.

I continued my amble, thinking the owl was long gone, and about ten minutes later, when I rounded the pile of bales, there was a Little Owl lurking on a lower bale behind the tallest of the pile.

Little Owl - my Site No.12
I'm not sure who was most surprised - the owl or me, but it didn't hang around for long, doing that stretching thing before it departed.

I took a circuitous route back to the viewpoint from where I'd first seen the owl - and it was back on top of the bales again, in exactly the same place, but this time with its head sticking up rather more. The following image is a terrible 'portrait' of an owl, but for some reason that I can't explain, I like the composition. I guess you really need to see it blown up to about A3 size to fully appreciate it!

Little Owl - my Site No.12

The following day (Thursday) I took a break from the chores in the evening, as the weather was glorious. I left it a bit late to depart, calling first at at a farm where the farmer has a Barn Owl box with a camera in it, and where the owls only returned about a month ago, laying six eggs over the next couple of weeks. If the eggs are viable, they should be hatching any day now, and it then remains to be seen whether they will successfully rear any young so late in the year! It was great to watch (and listen to!) the female in the box. 

On the off chance, I called at my nearby LO Site No.03 where, in mid-August, I had re-discovered an owl which I had not seen since March 2010. Bingo! It was there again in exactly the same place. Unfortunately the bright sun was getting very low by now, and was almost directly behind the owl from my roadside viewpoint. The garden that the nest tree is in is very narrow and so, in order to get the sun behind me I had to actually walk under the tree, about 15 ft (5 metres) from the owl. Now here's a good tip! Little Owls aren't nearly so nervous if they don't think that you've seen them! I slowly and nonchalantly strolled past, looking dead-ahead and slightly towards the ground. When I got to a safe distance again, I then gently turned round with my camera already raised. As my eyes were hidden by the camera in front of my face, it didn't seem threatened even then. It was only when I lowered the camera that it decided to depart. I managed several shots before then, but not with any variety in them

Little Owl - my Site No.03
It was too late to think in terms of setting up my hide and awaiting its return as it was going to be dark in half an hour. I don't know what made me decide to visit my LO Site No.16. The only time that I had seen an owl here was in freezing fog as it was getting dark on 21st December, 2010. Subsequent visits revealed nothing, and the farmer was unusually uncooperative when I requested permission to explore more thoroughly. I had pretty well decided that this was a chance sighting of a non-resident bird. 

On this day, I arrived and parked my car on the opposite side of the road and sat and waited as it got dark. Suddenly an owl appeared exactly at the spot I'd seen one in December! It's a poor image as what little light there was, was in the wrong direction.

Little Owl (A) - my Site No.16
Having banged off a few shots, I suddenly noticed that a second owl had appeared at the other end of the roof apex. 

Little Owl (B) my Site No.16
It was not long before they were concerned by my presence and departed, but I heard them calling for quite a long while until it had got quite dark and I departed - as I did so, I noticed an owl on the ridge of a distant barn. Thus ended a magical evening of re-discovery.

Saturday 3 September 2011

Hawk & Hawker - w/e 4th September, 2011

Things are quite quiet in my garden at the moment, with less birds (apart from the Sparrows!) than is usual. We have, however, had two not-so-common (for our garden!) visitors. The first one I have mixed feelings about - a juvenile female Sparrowhawk. It's always a thrill to see these birds, but when it takes my sparrows I am torn between rushing for my camera or rushing out to protect the Sparrows. Usually the photographic interest wins. They are only doing what comes naturally, after all!

Sparrowhawk (juvenile female) - our garden

This bird swooped up from behind the fence, landed on the fence, and then peered down into the rhododendron where the Sparrows had all hidden, and went in after them. It was at this point that I went to try and save the Sparrows.

The second visitor was one that I was delighted to see. Not long ago a Migrant Hawker dragonfly was a 'garden first' for us. That time I think it was a female (blue markings were rather pale) . On Thursday we had a male of the species (somewhat deeper blue markings) which stayed for much of the morning.

Migrant Hawker (male) - our garden
This will probably be the last time we find dragonflies in our garden. Tomorrow someone is coming to collect the last of my koi, and then the pond will be shut down, filled in, and converted to a 'growing area'. We will install a very small pond to give the birds something to drink from (maybe even heating it to keep the ice off in the winter), but there are some birds that will almost certainly not feature on my annual garden list again, such as Grey Heron and Grey Wagtail.