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Monday 29 April 2013

Changes and Disappointments - on 27th April, 2013

For a number of reasons, I've not done as much owling lately as I would have liked, and the few excursions I have had have not yielded very exciting results. The birds seem to be keeping their heads down, so to speak. On Saturday I resolved to put in the hours to try and get some results. It was windy and dull, but the forecast was for brighter, less windy, weather later.

I had to go and get some bird seed from my supplier in the morning, and this gave me a chance to check on my Little Owl Site No. 15. On the way out there was nothing to be seen, but the hailstones were falling out of the sky and it was windy! On the way back, however, one of the owls was out, clinging precariously to a 'ledge' on the main trunk of the tree, in the lee of the wind. The field containing the nest tree is under cultivation so I can only view from the roadside, over 100 metres (yards) away.

Little Owl - my Site No.15
I  then had an early lunch, packed a picnic, and set off to do some owling. My intention was to visit some of my more recently found sites, from which I've had little or nothing in the way of photos. My route took me past Cossington Meadows and, as there'd been reports of a couple of Ring Ouzel there, I thought I'd make a quick stop. The birds were still there, but staying very distant and well-hidden, so only record shots were obtained.

Ring Ouzel (pair) - Cossington Meadows - honestly!

Ring Ouzel - Cossington Meadows
My next stop was at my LO Site No.29, but no owl was seen. I had better luck at my Site No.21, where one of the owls was out, sheltering from the wind.

Little Owl - my Site No.21
I next went to check up on a site where I'd seen a Barn Owl a couple of times but, on subsequent visits, had found the farmer and others working round the buildings. My pal Titus and I had checked out this place on Thursday and found a whole mass of Barn Owl pellets had appeared since I first checked it out with the farmer who was working in the building at the time. We'd gone back late on Thursday evening (at about 20:50), and I'd briefly noted a shadowy bird which flew back into the building as we stopped. I thought I knew what I'd seen but I wasn't sure enough! On this Saturday I didn't approach the building but checked that all was in order for a later visit as darkness drew in.

My next stop was at my LO site No.37, but nothing was seen and I'm not sure that I've correctly located the nest tree here.

A few hundred metres (yards) down the road is where I park to visit my LO Sites Nos.34 & 36. I'd planned to set up my hide by No.36 and get some photos, but I was dismayed to see that the field was now occupied by frisky cattle. Instead I sat in my car and watched both the nest trees whilst I had some of my picnic tea. I was a little worried when, ouyt of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a Jackdaw emerge from the nest hole of No.34, but it didn't happen again.

As photography was not going to be possible here I decided to have a look to see if anything was happening a little further on at LO Site No.38. No owl was seen and there was farm work going on nearby. However, just a few metres up the road I spotted a little bird on the fence. It flew down into the field as I stopped, and I did manage a distant shot of a super male Whinchat - my first of the year!

Whinchat (male)
I'd only gone another couple of hundred metres (yards) up the road when I noticed a line of birds on the fence that was going at a right-angle away from the road. It was not until this moment that I knew that Wheatear formed flocks! There were nine on the fence and another two (at least) in the field below the fence. Because of the intervening fence beside me I failed to get a photo before they were suddenly off.

I went to check out a potential owl site (no luck) before heading back. Where the Whinchat had been there were now five Wheatear and a Whinchat. Two of the Wheatear were on the fence beside the road, but they flew off into the field when I was still a long way off. I only got very distant views of all six birds, but here is the best I could manage of a Wheatear.

Wheatear (female)
I continued back to the parking place for LO Sites Nos.34 & 36. This time I had positive confirmation that my Site No.34 had been taken over by Jackdaws. I hope that the owls were just evicted by the Jackdaws, and not killed. There was further disappointment when I saw Jackdaws entering the tree at Site No.36. However, as this tree has several entrances, the takeover is not totally confirmed.

The light was starting to fail by now, so I set off back to the Barn Owl site, parking about 150 metres from the barn. I sat in my car, finishing off my picnic, and waited. Just after 20:00 a Brown Hare appeared, and started messing about in the field. Suddenly it started coming towards me and stopped only about 20 metres (yards) away from my car. I managed to open the left hand side window (I'd been watching for the owl through the right hand side window) and get in a few shots with the camera before it was off.

Brown Hare
I waited and I waited, and as it was getting dark I made up my mind to depart for home at 21:00. At 20.55 a bird appeared on the timbers of the barn in exactly the same place that I'd glimpsed it two days earlier - I was right, it was a Tawny Owl! I took loads of shots in the hope that one would at least be recognisable (I was shooting at a distance of about 150 metres, with the lens at 500 mm, and 1/13 second, ISO 3200, -1.7 step compensation, handheld!). Amazingly several of the images, although not good, were OK for conveying the scene! This is a heavy crop!

Tawny Owl - undisclosed site, Leicestershire
My concern now is for the Barn Owl. Is this change a case of another eviction? Knowing the fierce reputation of Tawny Owls, it's hard to believe that these two species are existing side-by-side.

This story had to end on a high note. Ten minutes later, on my way home, in my headlights I saw a Little Owl sitting on a fence. I stopped and it moved two fence posts further away, and out of range. I moved on again and it was gone from view. This is currently my provisional new LO Site No.40! I shall return to check it out soon!

I arrived home just after 22:00 at the end of an interesting day, tinged with more than a little disappointment.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Willow Warbler (?) help please - on 15th April, 2013

I'm relatively new to birdwatching, and not very good at identification when it comes to LBJs (little brown jobs). This is partly due to inexperience and the fact that I usually birdwatch alone so don't have the benefit of knowledgeable advice from experienced birders, but also partly due to my increasing age-related inability to carry much in my head for extended periods!!

So where's this going to?

Well, each year, usually between the beginning of August and early September, I get what I've always believed to be Willow Warbler (rather than Chiffchaff) briefly visiting our garden. This has mainly been based on strong yellow colouration underneath and pale legs. I've never heard one utter a sound.

This year I had what I also believe to be a Willow Warbler visit my garden on Monday. Whilst there was virtually no yellow showing on the underside (a normal situation for spring, I believe), the legs were again pale red-brown. Again no song, or utterance of any sort, was heard. The only other possibility, I think, is Chiffchaff, but I've sort of ruled that out.

The bird appeared at about 09:00, and spent a lot of time busily grubbing around in a bit of rough weed-filled garden that is awaiting me getting my head round a project that I have in store (well, I do have to make some excuse for all those weeds!). It was barely still for a second. It obviously stayed close as, in total, I probably watched it for about two hours during the course of the day, it last being seen at about 18:00. All the time it was picking insects, etc. out of the weeds, only flying up into the surrounding shrubs when it was disturbed, and then dropping back down to the ground within seconds. The next day it was gone. 

All you experts out there, or anyone else with an opinion, is my identification correct, please? It would also help me, for future reference, if you could give your reasoning behind your identification.

Willow Warbler (?) - our garden
Thank you for taking the time to look at this. Your comments would be much appreciated.

UPDATE on 20/04/2013: Although there's no way I can guarantee that it's the same bird, we had a return visit today - and this time it sang from the top of our nut tree! This bird was definitely a Willow Warbler!

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Barn Owls - on 11th and 13th April, 2013

At the end of my last post, which was about a fine male Redstart in our garden being the bird that caused us to break our annual garden record for bird species - less than a third of the way through the year, I promised that my next post would be about Barn Owls. I was tempted to break that promise as, just one day after writing that post, we added another garden first for the year in the form of a Willow Warbler. However, as that is just an LBJ, I've decided to keep my word!

On Thursday, my pal Titus (he who has Barn Owls nesting in his garden) and I did an evening shift on the Osprey Project at Rutland Water.  It was a very dull and murky evening, occasionally interrupted by rain. At times it was not too easy to see the Ospreys, but they were quite active for the first half of the shift. At that time, there was one egg in the nest. I expect that, by now, there are three!

Distractions were in the form of a Muntjac that was foraging round the hide, but all was quiet otherwise.

I'd been keeping a weather eye on the owl box which can be seen from Waderscrape hide. Three Barn Owl chicks had fledged from this box last year. However, no Barn Owl was seen to so much as poke its head out of the box. I was, therefore, quite surprised to see a Barn Owl appear to the left of the hide at 19:27. The light was, by now, really awful and the prospects of getting a decent flight shot were nil. These were the best that I could manage.

Barn Owl - Rutland Water, Manton Bay at 19.27
The owl was soon lost to sight, round the back of the hide, and Titus popped out to have a look. He was gone a few minutes, and then popped back to say that there were two owls hunting, well apart! I continued watching the Ospreys whilst Titus alternated between owls and Ospreys. When he told me that an owl had settled on a post, I couldn't resist popping out to take a few shots. Unfortunately it was a long way away! This was at 19:35 and 1/80 sec. handheld at ISO 3200.

Barn Owl - Rutland Water, Manton Bay at 19.35
At 19:52 I noticed that an owl was visible from the hide, and on a nearer post. This one was 1/30  sec. handheld at ISO 3200!

Barn Owl - Rutland Water, Manton Bay at 19.52
After this, one of the owls started circling the hide, and at 19:57 it settled on a distant post in front of the hide, by the water's edge. It was nearly fully dark by now and I wound down the exposure compensation in order to more accurately depict the light conditions at the time, and also to give me the best possible chance of getting any image at all!

Barn Owl - Rutland Water, Manton Bay at 19.57
We continued to watch the owls and the Osprey for a while but then shortly, at about 20:05 we decided that we'd better pack up and go home. We'd enjoyed well over half an hour with Barn Owls flying around. I'll never know whether I saw both of them as Titus was the only one who saw two owls at one time! I was pleased that I'd brought a torch with me - it was much needed as we packed everything away!

The following day I had a phone call from a good friend (you know who you are - thank you, you're a star!) who said he'd been talking to one of his customers who told him that he was seeing a Barn Owl every morning between 06:30 and 07:00 on a certain stretch of road. It was spending time hunting along the road,  but could also often be seen sitting on a freshly cut roadside hedge. My pal suggested that, as it wasn't too far from me, would I like to go and investigate? In reality it was about 15 miles (24km) from my home, but I've got some Little Owl sites in the vicinity and knew the area reasonably well. I went and spent that evening at the location to check it out, and hoping that the owl frequented this place in the evening too. Nothing was seen, however.

My alarm clock was set for 05:00 and, next morning, off I set. I arrived in the half-light at 06:20 to see a Barn Owl flying down the road towards me. I'd already sussed out the parking situation so was able to throw my Smart car into a gap and wait. It kept flying towards me and then, when it was only about 4 metres in front of me, it crossed over in front of my car! I know, from past experience, that there is absolutely no point in trying to take photos through the windscreen of the Smart. They just end up a blurry mess! Besides, it was far too dark for a flight shot.

The owl then set off back up the road, flew off into the nearest field where it settled for a while, and then came back to the hedgerow some distance away and headed back towards me. This one was taken at 06:29, 1/250 sec at ISO 2500 (the light was still very poor).

Barn Owl - undisclosed site, Leicestershire, at 06:29
It continued slowly towards me and then, to my delight, landed on top of the hedgerow in a position where I could take shots from inside my car. I stood a chance of some semi-respectable photos. This one was 1/250 sec. at ISO 800

Barn Owl - undisclosed site, Leicestershire, at 06:30
It stayed here for a short while and then it was off again, continuing up the road ahead of me and sometimes diverting into the fields on either side of the road. It seemed to me that it had no intention of coming back my way so I set off on foot to follow it, keeping as close to the hedge as possible to make myself less conspicuous, although I suspect that I was fooling no one!!

For virtually all the time, I was at a distance of  over 100 metres, and this only allowed 'habitat' shots. Frustratingly the light was improving all the time and the sun was shining, although still low on the horizon.

These next three  images were taken between 06:48 and 06:57 at ISO 500, 1/400, 1/250, 1/200 sec. respectively.

I was getting nowhere fast with the photography, and had followed the owl for over a mile when it suddenly turned and started flying back along the road towards me. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to wind the ISO up for a flight shot, and grabbed a number of frames, including the following two images, which I'm not too disappointed with, taken at 1/1000, ISO 1000 - what a difference to light a few short minutes can make!

Barn Owl - undisclosed site, Leicestershire, at 06:58
Immediately after this last shot was taken it flew up into a tree directly over the road from where I was standing - and settled behind a thick branch which almost totally obscured its position. Damn and Blast! I tried to move to a better spot but it was off again and then landed in the next tree along - again obscured by a branch, but this time only partially.

Barn Owl - undisclosed site, Leicestershire, at 06:59
It only stayed here a couple of seconds and then was off up the road again. It was now time for me to leave things alone until another day, and head home for some breakfast. 

This was a parting shot of the departing owl. I'd had 40 delightful minutes of its company, and was feeling very happy!

Barn Owl - undisclosed site, Leicestershire, at 06:59
On the way home I dropped onto a couple of my Little Owl sites, but only spotted two owls at one site. Little did I know that, a couple of hours later, I was to see a Redstart in my garden!

Sunday 14 April 2013

Record Broken - and How!!! - on 13th April, 2013

In my last post, I noted that I was already set to break the record for the annual tally of species in our garden. I was not expecting to pass the record quite so soon, and in quite such style!

What I was not expecting was to break it with a 'Garden Lifer', and what a bird it was!! A stunning male Redstart!!!

We don't see too many Redstarts in Leicestershire. Typically speaking there are around 4 reports for the county each spring. So to have one (briefly) land in my suburban garden was, as you will not be surprised to hear, somewhat exciting! Fortunately my camera was to hand and the light was not too bad, so I did get a few shots from a range of about 15 metres. These are heavily cropped images, the first taken from my study window and the second from our kitchen, where the light was from a better direction.

Redstart (male) - our garden !!!
There's a downside to this. My wife is saying that really there's no need for me to go out birding - I could just sit at home and watch the garden all day, and the birds would come to me. My response was 'bring on the Ptarmigan'!

I know that, in my previous post, I said that it would be back to owls for this post, but I'm sure you'll understand my digression! However, I suspect that it will only be a couple of days or so before my next post, which will feature Barn Owls - unless that Ptarmigan shows up meantime!!

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Set To Break The Record (no kidding!) - on 1st April, 2013

Last year I broke the record for my 'Garden Year List' by one species, coming in with a fairly healthy 32 different species setting foot in my garden (fly-overs don't count). This might not be too spectacular to those of you who live in the countryside, but for a suburban garden I don't think it's too shabby a number. By the end of March last year I'd seen 24 of these. 

This year, by the end of March, I've already seen 32 different species. OK, so the scope for picking up extra species for the garden year list is fairly small, but, on past records, it would not be unusual to pick up Carrion Crow, Willow Warbler and Willow Tit - and March brought two garden 'year ticks' and a garden 'lifer'! Who knows what else the year might bring - we're only a quarter of the way through it!

The star performers in March were the Siskins, Redpolls, and Bramblings.

The Siskins have been real stars, peaking at 10 birds at one sitting on 19th March. Numbers are dwindling a bit now, but they're still showing on a daily basis. These are some images from the last few days. This might well be my last opportunity this year to post images of Siskin, so please excuse me if I indulge myself! 

Siskin (male) - our garden

Siskin (female) - our garden
Sometimes photography goes wrong and things don't turn out quite as we had hoped for. This next image was taken in extremely contrasty conditions, but I quite like the atmosphere of the shot.

Siskin (female) - our garden
This next one went hopelessly wrong but, for some reason, I love the patterns of the motion!

Siskin (male) - our garden
That's it for Siskins - I promise!

The Redpolls are also still with us on a daily basis but, again, their numbers are thinning out a little now. We peaked at 8 birds on 20th February, but we still had five visiting on 1st April. I've taken very few photos of them lately as they now favour the far end of the garden so, unless I happen to be in my conservatory with my camera at the time, they're too far away. I still haven't sussed out which ones without pink on the breast are females, males in non-breeding plumage, or just immature birds. I'm sure I'd never spot a Common/Arctic Redpoll!    

Lesser Redpoll (female/non-breeding male/immature?) - our garden

Lesser Redpoll (male) - our garden
Bramblings had been seen on an almost daily basis, and peaked at 3 birds on 2nd March, but the last bird seen was a single male on 23rd March.

Brambling (female) - our garden
Brambling (male) - our garden
Reed Bunting, although not a rare bird, is a rare visitor to our garden. In March we had visits from female and male birds.

Reed Bunting (female) - our garden
Reed Bunting (male) - our garden

Just scraping in on 29th March, a 'year tick', and only seen once before in the garden in the last four years, was this Goldcrest. Sorry, but I didn't manage an image on a natural branch - I'm not keen on photos of birds on feeders, but this is here as 'one for the record'

Goldcrest - our garden
The 'garden lifer', arriving on 23rd March (in the snow), was a Rook. It's an absolutely lousy image, but any sort of an image of a garden lifer is better than none in my book!

Rook - our garden
Nuthatches aren't seen very often in our garden, so any appearance is worth an attempt at an image. This one visited on 12th March.

Nuthatch - our garden
Greenfinch used to be one of the most common birds in our garden. Then the UK population fell victim to a parasite, and the population plummeted. They seem to be making a bit of a comeback  now, but they still cause excitement if we see one in the garden. These two were taken on 30th March.

Greenfinch (male) - our garden
Greenfinch (female) - our garden
There are, of course, plenty of 'everyday birds' in our garden, but I'll still show some of these, primarily for my overseas readers, but I hope they'll also act as reminders of people more familiar with them, as to just how special some of these birds are.

Collared Dove - our garden
Blue Tit - our garden

Starling - our garden

Dunnock - our garden
Goldfinch - our garden
Finally: ......We are still getting visits from a Sparrowhawk - or, more accurately, at least two male Sparrowhawks. I can be certain of this because one of them is the bird with the aberrant circular white patches on the wing feathers that featured in an earlier post. Until recently I'd never seen one catch anything, but I'm pretty sure last week one managed to grab a Blue Tit and make off with it. This is a shot of one lurking in the Rowan tree outside my study window.

Sparrowhawk (male) - our garden
 Hopefully I'll be back to owls soon! Thanks for stopping by.