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Monday 23 December 2013

Owling Incidentals & Christmas Wishes - late 2013

Whilst probably around 80-90% of my birdwatching time is spent purely focused on owls, there are, of course, times when I feel inspired to take photos of other birds or even non-avian subjects. Sometimes this happens when I'm specifically owling!

One of the sites that occasionally turns up interest is my Little Owl Site No.21. Since I've been monitoring this site, I've had a few good sightings here, including Red Kite, and recently a Great Grey Shrike which I saw at relatively close quarters, but failed to get my camera on before it departed - something that will haunt me for ages to come! Worryingly, the Little Owls haven't been seen for a few months now, although they bred this year.

Sunset Sky - from my LO Site No.41
Common Buzzard - at my LO Site No.21
This last image from No.21 was taken on a wet and windy December afternoon and yes, I did see Little Owls that afternoon, but not here!

Common Kestrel (female) - in the nest tree at my LO Site No.21
Sometimes, when out owling with my pal Titus, we pop over to Rutland Water. On one mid-November day nothing astounding turned up, but we were seeing lots of Redwing and Fieldfare. It's a long while since I got a decent image of either of these - and this isn't one of them!

Redwing - Rutland Lyndon Reserve
The Cormorant Tree - Rutland Lyndon Reserve
The Moon - from Rutland Lyndon Reserve
My first attempts at that last shot were pretty hopeless, but I got much better ones about ten minutes later when I'd walked a bit closer! A pity that the gull couldn't have obliged by getting in the same focal plane!

My local patch has turned up some good sightings in the past, including Redstart, but usually in the summer. Not wanting to ignore the local patch in this post, the best I have to offer (other than owls, of course) is this Kestrel.

Common Kestrel (male) - by my LO Site No.02
I know that Squirrels are not popular with many birders, but I have no real objection to them. On one farm I visit from time to time where, until recently, there were breeding Barn Owls, there is a tree where I'm told Little Owls used to nest. During a visit at the end of November a squirrel was seen on the edge of this old nest hole. As I approached it dropped into the hole, but then soon poked its head up to see if I was still around.

Squirrel - undisclosed site
Another of my Little Owl sites (No.18) also yields interesting sightings from time to time. I've photographed Mandarin, Tree Pipit, and Wheatear here in the past. On a dull and windy day I got my first ever image of a Sparrowhawk in flight. The image is rubbish, but it's a milestone for me, and I will publish it here to prompt me to try to do better!

Sparrowhawk - at my LO Site No.18
On a finer day here, I found a Little Egret in a tree in an adjacent field. Whilst I was looking around for the owls (they've not been seen for a few months) the egret decided to fly past me, calling loudly as it did so. I swear that, in the last image, it turned to look at me.

Little Egret - at my LO Site No.18
It's also been several months since I've seen an owl at my LO Site No.03. The nest tree, which is shown in the next image (taken on the same day as the egret images, above), has deteriorated somewhat this year, and I suspect that they've moved on. I shall be trying to track them down.

Sunset - at my LO Site No.03
It just remains for me to wish my friends and followers out there a Very Happy Christmas, and a Healthy and Prosperous New Year. Thank you for your much-appreciated support and encouragement! - Richard

Sunday 15 December 2013

Calke Park - on 1st December, 2013

I've just realised that it's a week and a half since my last post on this blog, and I've virtually neglected my blog friends and their posts too. I blame it on the Christmas rush, and barely being near my computer. Today I shall try and put it right!

It had been some time since I'd been to Calke because the area that I usually visit had been off limits due to major works to create a huge permanent car park. These were, thankfully, all but finished at the end of November, and it was possible to visit again.

I arrived to find the park's land manager just leaving the hide. He'd spent an hour in the hide hoping to see the two Brambling that someone had reported seeing the previous day (this was news to me!), but had had no luck. He also told me that the two Little Owl sites that I'd been monitoring since the back end of 2012 had now been abandoned, although he'd heard a Little Owl for the first time in a few months, just a few days previously.

Having scanned around for a Little Owl, unsurprisingly with no luck, I went into the hide. There was only one other person in there. He'd been there for an hour, but could only report seeing a woodpecker three times.

Most of the usual suspects were around, but nothing too exciting in the way of birds. This used to be a good place for Marsh Tits, but I understand that they've not been seen for quite a long time.

First to be photographed was a Jackdaw.

Jackdaw - Calke Park
Before I knew what, a Brambling had arrived! I tried to point it out to  the other guy who was keen to get a shot of it, but I don't think he even managed to find it!

Brambling (female) - Calke Park
The bird didn't stay long, so I settled down to try and get some images, mainly concentrating (with not too much success!) on the remarkably large numbers of Greenfinch here. Most of my Greenfinch images to date seem to have been of brightly coloured males, so I was trying to focus on the females on this occasion. I failed again!

Greenfinch (male) - Calke Park
Greenfinch (juvenile female?) - Calke Park
The woodpeckers had obviously already had plenty to eat and didn't return in the hour that I was there. The Nuthatches were, unusually, very thin on the ground, and I managed very few usable shots.

Nuthatch - Calke Park
The Goldfinches were also there in profusion, and I was pleased to be able to get images under varying light conditions. It's good to see the iridescent red on the head in bright sunshine, but I rather like the effect of the subdued lighting in the third image.

Goldfinch - Calke Park
The three common tit species were also there. I didn't bother with them much and didn't even try for a Great Tit image, but I did take a couple of shots of Coal Tit and Blue Tit.

Coal Tit - Calke Park
Blue Tit - Calke Park
Once in a while it's great to go to a place like this, even if there aren't any rarities around. With so many birds to go at, it provides a great way to brush up on one's photographic techniques.

I was there again five days later, but it was a rather dull day, weatherwise, and so my efforts were less successful, although I did manage a reasonable female Greenfinch!

Wednesday 4 December 2013

barn owl (no, not Barn Owl!) - on 30th November, 2013

Sorry, couldn't resist that one! My Little Owl Site No.02 continues to give delight. This day it was one of those rare occasions when an owl was visible inside the barn when I walked past. It's only happened twice before in the past four years, and last time it really was a Barn Owl!

This time I managed a half-decent shot, but had great difficulty in seeing the owl in my viewfinder as the contrast in light between inside and out was so great. This one taken at 1/100 sec., ISO 1,000.

Little Owl - my Site No.02
Owling and posts are probably going to be a little thin this month as I've got a lot of commitments before Christmas. I do, however, have a post 'stacked up', featuring a visit to Calke Park.

Friday 29 November 2013

And Better Still !! - late November, 2013

In my last post I said that things were looking up on the Little Owl front, with some encouraging news. Within two hours of publishing that post I'd seen three LOs at three different sites, two of which I'd been concerned about.

I started out at my LO Site No.02. This is 'old faithful' - my oldest site that is still active (found in December, 2009). I was pleased to find one of the owls out in a tree, rather than in one of its usual places on the roof of its home. I took some photos but, however, I was to get some better ones later.

I then walked to my LO Site No.30, pausing to investigate an area where I'd heard a Tawny Owl call at mid-day a week or so earlier. I didn't find the Tawny's location this time either, but I have my suspicions! I'd been worried about Site No.30 as on a couple of previous visits I'd found the nest tree full of Jackdaws and there was no sign of the owl, which I hadn't seen since June. As I approached this day, the Jackdaws were, again, in residence but flew off as I approached - and there was the owl sitting in its tree (I believe that this is currently a lone bird - probably one that fledged from Site No.02)! I didn't manage a photo as it dropped into the nest cavity when I was about 100 metres away.

Another ten minutes had me approaching Site No.11. The pair of owls at this site had disappeared in May, 2010 when a swarm of bees had occupied the nest cavity. However, I spotted that it had been re-occupied in January 2013 - again, probably by a bird that fledged from Site No.02. It was seen again in February and April, but I'd had no sightings since. From a couple of hundred metres away I could see an owl sitting at the entrance to the nest cavity - brilliant! Due to the twigs round the entrance I couldn't get a decent image, but the owl let me approach reasonably close.

Little Owl - my Site No.11
I left the owl where I'd found it, and set off back to my car, which was parked by Site No.02. The owl was still in the tree by Site No.02, exactly where I'd left it, so this time I took a little more time taking photos (I don't get too many shots of the owls here in a tree - they're usually on the roof). Unfortunately there was a strong contrast between light and shade, and I've managed to burn out detail on the legs.

Little Owl - my Site No.02
I'm delighted to report that the owl was still there when I left. It all goes to show that you can never tell what a safe distance is - two owls approached quite closely and left in situ and one owl disturbed when I was at a distance that I could only just identify it through my binoculars!

Four days later, I was back at Site No.02 and one of the owls was on the roof, and stayed put for me. It was a very dull day, so no burn-out this time. I managed to get some feet in this one - just for Doug and Noushka! This session is also featured in the new header image. 

Little Owl - my Site No.02
Later on I visited my LO Site No.17. One of the owls was out but flew off as I arrived, about 100 metres away. I managed to re-locate it, but it was in a very inaccessible position, and didn't allow for any reasonable photography. I'll let you see the following images, however, as the owl had obviously been in the holly, practising dressing up as Santa Claus ready for Christmas, but hadn't yet removed his beard.

Santa Claus - my LO Site No.17
Another couple of days later I was out for my usual session with my pal Titus, but did my own thing for an hour and a half before we met up. During that time I saw LOs at Sites Nos. 02 and 17 again, but no photos were taken.

Since the nest cavity was destroyed, it's been the norm for us to stop for our picnic lunch by LO Site No.41. Unfortunately, the further east we travelled, the lower the cloud descended, and it was rather misty by the time we got there, to the extent that it wasn't that easy to see the owls in the distance. They were both there and (by some extremely heavy post-processing, involving massive increase in contrast and colour boosting ) I've managed to lift the images from being a rather flat grey. At that distance, however, there was never going to be any detail showing!

Little Owls - my Site No.41
It was great to see that the owls are still hanging on there, although there's still no indication that they've been in the nest box we erected. I just hope that they are established somewhere sheltered and dry before winter really sets in. We will continue to observe from a distance. 

Friday 22 November 2013

Looking Up!! - on 19th and 21st November, 2013

By 18th November I'd already passed my abysmal record of owl sightings for October. On Tuesday 19th November the weather was beautiful, if a bit cold and breezy, and an owling session was indicated. In the morning I visited a few old sites, but nothing was seen, and I'm dubious that there are currently any owls in residence at any of them.

I decided to have my picnic lunch by Little Owl Site No.41, where the nest cavity was destroyed in a gale and pal Titus and I erected a nest box in October. We knew that the owls were still around, but it was even more encouraging this day as I first found one of the owls in the nest tree above the box, and then spotted the second owl in a nearby hawthorn bush. I sat watching them for over an hour in the hope that one would move - hopefully towards the nest box, but they both barely twitched a muscle during that time.

Until these owls are well and truly settled I will not risk disturbing them by attempting close-up photography. This next shot, of the owl in the nest tree, was taken from my car during  my lunch stop, at about 60 metres range.

Little Owl (No.1) - my Site No.41
To continue my journey I had to pass the nest tree, so attempted a drive-by shot of the owl. Unfortunately my lens had wound back to 400mm, so I didn't get as intimate a shot as I'd hoped for.

Little Owl (No.1) - my Site No.41
About 25 metres further on I had to stop to open a gate (gated road), and was abreast of the hawthorn bush with the second owl, which showed much better from this angle, and I was only about 20 metres away. Sadly my lens had, by now, crept back to 380mm, so the quickly grabbed photo (remember, I was determined not to disturb this owl) was not as good as it might have been.

Little Owl (No.2) - my Site No.41
Feeling extremely encouraged by these sightings, I continued on my way, drawing a blank at the next few sites I visited. Way back in mid-September, I'd been given a tip-off as to where Little Owls had been seen. Several visits had been made to the locality, but nothing was seen and I was far from certain that I was looking in the right area. However, on this day, I was to be rewarded. An owl was spotted as I approached in my car. This is now my new LO Site No.42 - my first since July (I've been telling you that it's not been a good year!). As public access is rather distant (50 metres at its closest), I now have to find the land owner to see if they'll let me approach a little closer.

Little Owl - my new Site No.42
Two days later I was out with my pal Titus on our regular Thursday adventure together. We lunched at LO Site No.41, where one of the two owls was seen. We almost missed it because there was a bitterly cold wind blowing and it was well tucked in, over on the far side of the field.

Back in January I'd found a new Little Owl site (No.34) and was quite excited about it as it showed a lot of potential. This excitement was enhanced by finding, in just a few weeks, a further three sites within half a mile (800 metres) - all of them, except one, having pairs of birds resident. Hopes were dashed, however, when two of the sites (including No.34) had the birds evicted by Jackdaws. A third site was disturbed by a new barn build. The sighting of the single bird at the fourth site was never repeated.

I've never given up on these sites (the Jackdaws didn't hang around for long), and only a few weeks previously Titus and I had been saying that No.34 really was a wonderful place for an owl. You can, therefore, probably imagine our excitement when, as we approached No.34 in the car, we saw a Little Owl sheltering from the wind in the cavity of the nest tree. It absolutely made our day. These next two were taken at a distance, from the road.

Little Owl - my Site No.34
OK, so this might not be a high volume of sightings, but they are some of the most heart-warming I've had for a long while. Let's hope that this continues.

Sunday 17 November 2013

Return To Cannock Chase - on 31st October, 2013

Cannock Chase, and particularly the informal feeding station there, is a favourite place to go when the spirits are a bit low. There are several aspects to the attraction of this place. (1.) The bird activity is relatively intense. (2.) The virtually non-stop action gives excellent practice in improving one's camera skills, in varied light conditions. (3.) Whilst the birds there are relatively commonplace, occasionally some gems do turn up. I'll never forget the Hawfinch that was only about 3 metres away from my car window whilst I was eating a picnic lunch one Christmas day(!), and I've also seen Waxwing there. (4.) A session here gives one a sharp reminder as to just how beautiful some of our 'everyday' birds are!

On the last day of October, my pal Titus and I made Cannock Chase our destination for our regular Thursday get-together. The weather was bright- if a bit breezy, but the birds performed well. Titus had the side of the car with the most action, but I suspect that I had the side with the better light.

The first bird to be captured in my lens was a female Bullfinch. We had several sightings of a female but, unusually, no sightings of a male.

Bullfinch (female) - Cannock Chase
The most common birds here are Coal Tit and Great Tit. They are not, however, the easiest to photograph as they rush in, take the food, and are gone again. I think of them as 'smash & grab' artists.

Coal Tit - Cannock Chase
I always find that Great Tit is particularly difficult - it's trying to get detail in the black without burning out the white. I tend to try and under-expose, and then correct in the post-processing stage. This first Great Tit was, I think, the scruffiest I've ever seen!

Great Tit - Cannock Chase
For me, the stars of the day were the Redpolls. There was some suggestion from another birder here that one of the Redpolls was an 'Arctic', rather than a 'Lesser', but I'm not convinced.

Lesser Redpoll - Cannock Chase
The Nuthatches here can be relied on to put on a good show - but you have to be quick! One seemed to be intent on burying peanuts.

Nuthatch - Cannock Chase
We had a brief appearance from a Long-tailed Tit - usually more of these are seen.

Long-tailed Tit - Cannock Chase
The same birder who reckoned on the Arctic Redpoll also said he'd got a one-legged Chaffinch. I suspect that it was this one which, on occasion, seemed to be reluctant to put its right foot down!

Chaffinch (male) - Cannock Chase
A strong contender for the most beautiful of 'commonplace' British birds has to be the Blue Tit. They also seem to have such cheerful characters too!

Blue Tit - Cannock Chase
We were about to depart, as it was starting to get dark, when this Greenfinch arrived.

Greenfinch (female) - Cannock Chase
Thus ended a very enjoyable afternoon at Cannock Chase. I suspect that we'll go back before too long!