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Saturday 26 April 2014

Back In The Groove - mid-April, 2014

In my last post, I spoke of finding myself a little demotivated, and stuck in a rut, with a statement that I was taking positive steps to rectify this. I now feel that I'm back in the groove. It occurs to me that, taken literally, these two expressions are not too different in their meaning and, to a person who's first language is not English, the actual sentiments could be totally lost. How different their true meaning is!

Pretty much throughout my interest in owling I've been propped up by my Little Owl site on my local patch - my Site No.02. I pass by several times a week and am rarely let down by a lack of sighting. I know that it won't last forever, and I'm dreading the day that they depart. These were two images from 8th April.

Little Owl - my Site No.02
The real 'reposession of the groove' started on Sunday 13th April. It was a beautiful sunny evening and I offered to take my wife out for a country drive and a 'swift half' in a country pub. We had a very enjoyable evening and managed to find an owl at my LO Site No.03 (where sightings are somewhat more sporadic than those at 02) as the sun was going down. I'm not sure about this image. I did also take one with a lot longer exposure, but the effect of the bright sun on the owl's breast makes it look most odd - and this one, for me anyway, has more atmosphere.

Little Owl - my Site No.03
The following day I was out on my local patch and visited four Little Owl sites, but I only saw one owl (at Site No.02), and didn't take any photos of it. I did, however, come across a lone Wheatear. At first I thought it was a first-year male, but I now believe it to be a female.

Wheatear (female) - my local patch
Not wanting to lose the momentum, I was out again the next day. This time I was determined to have a proper photographic session, and set up my hide at my LO Site No.18. The last time I attempted this here it was a failure as one of the owls, unbeknown to me, was already out and observed me setting up - and refused to return in daylight. This time I was lucky and both were tucked up in the trunk of the apple tree when I arrived. Fortunately one of the owls popped out briefly when the light was still good.

Little Owl - my Site No.18
This brings me to Wednesday 16th. I was getting really fired up now and set off for an afternoon and evenings owling, taking my tea with me. My main objective was to try and do better at the barn where I'd seen Barn Owl, Tawny Owl and Kestrel.

As I passed LO Site No.46, both the owls were out, but only record shots were taken. However, I am increasingly seeing Red Kites in this area and this day was one of those occasions. This was a poor image but I'm posting it here as it's showing its prey. I'm pretty sure it's got a rat! A few weeks back, in the same general area, I took another shot of a Red Kite with prey, and couldn't make out what it was carrying - I now think that this was also a rat. I'm quite pleased by this as I was talking to a  sheep farmer here a couple of weeks ago who was expressing concerns about the Kites and whether they might take new-born lambs. I tried to put his mind at rest, but now I think I've evidence that might make him look at these wonderful birds in a more positive light!

Red Kite - by my LO Site No.46
Round the corner, at my LO Site No.41, I saw both of the owls for the first time in a few weeks. One of them kindly showed me its new home - and it wasn't the nest box that Titus and I had erected! The other remained outside and allowed me to take its photograph.

Little Owl - my Site No.41
At my LO Site No.42 I had a rare sighting of one of the owls there and now believe that I know where it's nesting - and it's not where I originally thought it was! Only record shots were obtained.

As I approached the location of my LO Sites No.s 34, 36 and 43 (they're all within a few hundred yards (metres)), I noticed an owl out at No.43. As I approached it flew down to the ground and then back up into the Hawthorn. This site is a bit of a mystery as I'm not sure if it's distinct from No.36, which is very close. 34 and 36 are even closer to each other, but definitely different sites.

Little Owl - my Site No.43
I then noticed that an owl was out on a post by Site No.36 and just a few yards (metres) further on a Little Owl flew across the road immediately in front of my car, just missing me! It crossed the field and along the hedge towards the nest tree of No.34 and then, almost immediately came back and settled on a post at the roadside. This is the first time I've seen an owl from No.34 away from the nest tree! I think that the low evening backlight has helped this image.

Little Owl - my Site No.34
I then noticed a second owl in the nest tree at No.36 - was this going to be my opportunity to prove that No.43 was a separate site? I raced back to 43, but no owl was seen, adding to the theory that 36 and 43 might be one and the same 'site'.

As it was getting near dusk it was time to go and set up near the barn in the hope of  some better images of a Tawny Owl or Barn Owl. To cut a long story short, nothing appeared until it was so dark that I believe it was a Kestrel that arrived but couldn't see clearly enough to be positive. It certainly wasn't  an owl!

Thursday was an Osprey Project duty day, and Titus and I got some owling in on the way to Rutland Water, I was now on my fifth consecutive day of seeing owls! However, I obviously didn't have my photographic head on that day as virtually everything I attempted turned out rubbish! 

On my way to Titus's place I stopped for a Little Owl out at my Site No.02

Little Owl - my Site No.02
One of the owls was out at my LO Site No.44, and flew down onto the road just in front of us after we'd stopped. Unfortunately for me it was on Titus's side (and he missed the shot!). This was taken after it'd returned to the nest tree.

Little Owl - my Site No.44
Only two other owls were seen that day!

Having had five owling days on the trot, I was prepared for a short break to catch up with some domestic and social duties, so I wasn't out owling again until Monday evening. Little Owls were seen at three different sites, but only one of the owls at Site No.02 provided me with an image that I want to post here - as it was one of those none-too-frequent occasions when it was in a tree rather than on the barn!

Little Owl - my Site No.02
In my previous post I noted that the Little Owls seemed to be going through the stage of strengthening their 'pair-bond'. I'm starting to get the impression that this has now progressed to the stage where the females are now sitting on eggs as I'm now tending to see only single birds, and they also seem to be a lot more active - probably hunting for two! If I'm correct, this means that hatching will probably be taking place around mid-May and the chicks will be fledging around late June/early July. Then things get really exciting - so fingers crossed!!

I'll keep you informed of progress. Thank you for stopping by.

Thursday 17 April 2014

Theraputic Thursdays - 10th April, 2014

Anyone who's main passion is owls can tell you that it tends to be a relatively lonely occupation. Much of the time the search is fruitless, and it often involves sitting quietly and on one's own for long periods, particularly as much of it takes place in the twilight hours. Sometimes, especially if no new discoveries are made for a long time, I find myself starting to get a little demotivated and little things like windy weather, the threat of rain, aches and pains, or just plain 'too much to do at home' mean that I don't get out as much as I should do. I seem to be going through one of these patches at the moment and have, this week, made a conscious effort to get myself out of the rut, and with partial success.

One thing that does help keep me on the straight and narrow is my regular Thursday afternoon/evening out with my pal Titus White.  - that's not his real name but an alias to protect the fact that he has Barn Owls nesting in his garden (think Latin name). I met Titus about three years ago when he was given my name as someone to ask about some pellets he was finding in his garden which he knew were not from his Barnies. Since then we've become really good friends and, unless the world is falling apart, we get together every Thursday afternoon and do a spot of owling together. These Thursdays are most enjoyable and quite productive, even though we do seem to stick to the same approximate route for our travels each time. A couple of years ago, Titus started accompanying me on my Osprey Watch duties at Rutland Water and in the summer months our Thursday evenings, once a fortnight, are spent there.

This post relates to the first of our non-Osprey afternoons after the transition from the winter month norm of taking a (late) picnic lunch out with us, to taking a picnic evening meal with us so that we can make the most of owling opportunities as darkness falls.

The afternoon started off  cloudy but bright, with little wind, and prospects were quite good. On my way to Titus's place, I pass my local patch. One of the Little Owls was out at my Site No.02. This was taken from my car.

Little Owl - my Site No.02
Having transferred to Titus's car, we headed out. Our first sighting was at my LO Site No.44, where both the owls were out and sitting cosily together. I'd been wondering if, because of the early mild weather, mating and incubation may have started early this year, but the indication from this day was that the renewal of the pair bond was probably still taking place. These two images were also taken from the car. Fortunately it was cloudy by now as, otherwise, these two images would have been into the sun and virtually impossible.

Little Owls - my Site No.44
Just up the road, at my LO Site No.46, one of the owls was out on a distant post. Sadly it was still cloudy, as sun would have helped immensely here.

Little Owl - my Site No.46
A short while later, the second owl here appeared in a cavity in the nest tree.

Passing by my LO Site No.41 no owl was seen, which was a little worrying as the owls are usually visible here, but nearby building works were being very noisy that day, which might have had a bearing on the matter.

We next parked by sites Nos. 34 and 36. At first we didn't see any owls, but then I noticed one on a log at No.36. A little later, a Little Owl flew into the nest tree of Site No.34 and, almost immediately, the second owl appeared in the nest cavity. We were now up to seven owls (or, in my case, eight).

No.36 was the location where I'd approached a couple of weeks earlier, shielded by a small herd of cows. There were no cows on this occasion, and it was my turn to try for the shot (Titus had had his turn the previous Thursday!). The owl let me walk past, and back again, without moving. I'd set my camera up before the approach, but the light conditions when I got there were totally different and I shot at much too low a speed so the images weren't that good.

Little Owl - my Site No.36
We next moved on to LO Site No.42. Sightings here are rather rare and only seem to take place in very good weather. We weren't to be lucky on this occasion and, after an hour or so, decided to give up and check out a few more sites, but still with no luck.

We returned to LO Site No.41 and had just spotted what we thought to be an owl when a group of three off-roaders came through extremely noisily. I took some photos of them, which wasn't the smartest thing to do as they looked as if they were going to give some trouble - until another car arrived. Amazingly, however, they didn't disturb the owl. It was starting to get dark by now and the owl was on the shady side of the tree. I only include this shot as I rather like the entanglement that this owl is often found in - although it doesn't make for easy photography!

Little Owl - my Site No.41
We could still hear the off-roaders ahead of us so decided to avoid trouble and turn back. We stopped at a place where, at various times over the past couple of years, I'd seen Barn Owl, Tawny Owl and Common Kestrel all perched in exactly the same place (and I mean within a couple of inches - although obviously not at the same time!). It was all but fully dark and only just possible to see anything (we were parked about 100 yards/metres away), when something appeared in an opening - a Tawny Owl. This is just a record shot, but this afternoon and evening out has now given me the incentive to try and do better with the Tawny Owl here (and the Barn Owl, for that matter!).

Tawny Owl - undisclosed site
We had no further sightings on our way home but we had had a nine-owl day (or, in my case, ten), which was not a bad haul.

Tomorrow (I'm writing this on Wednesday 16th April) it's back to Rutland Water, with three eggs in the Osprey nest, a relatively good weather forecast and the prospect of some good owling and other sightings along the way, and in good company! I'm looking forward to it!!!

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Osprey Duty at Rutland Water - on 3rd April, 20014

Some readers of this blog may know that I'm one of the large team of volunteers on the Rutland Osprey Project (link). Because it's about a 90 mile (145 km) round trip for me, all of which is cross-country, to keep travelling costs and time down I only do a turn of duty once a fortnight during the Osprey season. This will be my eighth year, and for the past two years I've been accompanied by my pal, Titus White. I like to do an evening shift, between 17:00 and 20:00, at Waderscrape Hide. This usually means that for the first part of the evening we have the company of visitors to Rutland Water, and part of our duties is to make the visitors welcome, and help with any questions about the Ospreys. It also means that, for the latter part of the evening, we are able to enjoy the tranquillity of this remarkable location.

The evening of Thursday 3rd April was the occasion of our first turn of duty for the year, and much of the UK was in the grip of the worst smog that's been seen for decades. The prospects for an interesting session were dubious - but more of that later.

Because we make the journey regularly, we've managed to find some owl sites en-route. Virtually all these have been Little Owl sites, but Tawny and Barn Owl are sometimes seen. I managed to see a Little Owl on my local patch, on my way to pick up Titus, but the photography was not good because of the smog.

Little Owl - my Site No.02
Six more Little Owls were seen over four sites on our way to Rutland Water. Amazingly, the owl seen at my Site No.41 was in exactly (and I do mean exactly) the same position and pose as when seen one week previously (see previous post)! Here's a few images from the journey.

Little Owl (A) - my Site No.44
Little Owl (B) - my Site No.44
Little Owl - my Site No.41
We arrived at Rutland Water with time in hand before starting our duty. A chat with Paul Stammers (Osprey Project Officer) confirmed that the Manton Bay male Osprey (5R) had not yet returned, but the unringed Manton Bay female was present. We joked that 5R was waiting for Titus and I to be present as he'd arrived 5 minutes after we'd started our first shift in 2013!

With time in hand we did what we usually do, and that is to visit Shallow Water Hide, a bit further on than Waderscrape. Two things struck me on our arrival. The first was that the water level was as high as I've ever seen it before, and the second was how poor the visibility was, due to the smog.

We only had  a few minutes to spare here, but that was enough to allow us the delight of watching courting Great Crested Grebes. It's easy to forget just how spectacular these common birds can be. Shame about the very dull conditions!

Great Crested Grebe (courting) - Rutland Water, Lyndon Reserve
A quick return to Waderscrape Hide revealed just how much things have changed in front of the hide. Whilst 'waderscrape' has, for many years, been a complete misnomer for this hide, just three years ago it had three good-sized water channels radiating from the front of the hide. Until the winter of 2012/13 these were good for sightings of Water Rail and Grass Snake. In the summer of 2013 these channels had become almost totally choked with vegetation, and the Water Rails and Grass Snakes had disappeared.

Waderscrape hide now has three very broad channels in front of it, and Water Rails are present again and, for the first time, Water Voles are being seen on a frequent basis. It's now also possible to see water between the channels in some places.

When we arrived, a Grey Heron was in the reeds in front of the hide. For my overseas readers, I will point out that the Grey Heron is a very common bird in UK, but it is also a very nervous bird, and so not the easiest to photograph at close quarters. From the hide we had good views - between the reeds, and only at a distance of about 30 metres. In the second image, you can see that it had spotted something (us!).

Grey Heron - Rutland Water, Lyndon Reserve
The smog really was quite bad, and many of my images in this post have had the colour intensity enhanced, and contrast increased, significantly! Here's one of the Osprey nest, which is at 250 metres distance, which has not been so enhanced - this is a very fair representation of what we were faced with!

Osprey (Manton Bay female) - Rutland Water, Lyndon Reserve
The Water Rails were heard, but not seen, and the Water Voles put in several very brief appearances, but I really struggled to get any images. At one point I was sure that I'd got it cracked with 7 frames shot off in rapid succession with a vole only about 10 metres away. Sadly, my camera decided to malfunction (I still don't know how, but suspect an electrical disconnect between lens and body) and I ended up with 7 jet black images! This was the nearest to a Water Vole image that I managed to get that evening - but I'm hoping for plenty more opportunities over the next five months!

Water Vole - Rutland Water, Lyndon Reserve
There is a webcam overlooking the Osprey nest in Manton Bay, and you can watch the action when there are birds on the nest by visiting the project's web site (see beginning of this post). I take my tablet with me these days, and I am able to view the camera output whilst I am in the hide (sorry, this facility is not available to the general public outside of the 09:00 to 17:00 time-slot, and then only on the project's tablet). This is a great aid to seeing what is going on when visibility conditions are poor (such as on this day). Sadly, the Manton Bay female only spent a few seconds on the nest during the whole three hours that we were there. Frustratingly she spent most of the time perched on the camera post (behind the camera!). I only managed to grab six frames during that time, a couple of which are shown below.

Osprey (Manton Bay female) - Rutland Water, Lyndon Reserve
I'm sorry to say that male Osprey 5R didn't return during our shift, and has still not returned as I write this, and his eventual return is now somewhat unlikely. However, all is not lost as the Manton Bay female also seems to have given up on 5R's return and has taken up with male Osprey 28 (fledged from Rutland Water in 2010 - she's found herself a toy-boy!), so it seems that there will be a breeding pair in Manton Bay anyway.

Another bit of news is that, whilst at Rutland Water the official line is that we don't like to anthropomorphise our birds by giving them names, but always refer to them by their ring (band) No., it has been found to be very cumbersome to keep referring to "the unringed Manton Bay Female" so, as from yesterday, it's been decided that, from now on she'll known as "Maya" (first two letters of Manton, and last two letters of Bay reversed). Phew - that's a relief!

When we left the hide it was too dark to see the Osprey and we had an uneventful journey home. It had been a very enjoyable evening in spite of the smog, but tinged with worry about 5R. However, with the current set up, and 28(10) now in attendance with Maya, we can look forward to a very enjoyable 2014 Osprey season. Please come along some time and see for yourself, and if I'm around be sure to come and say hello.