Floating on the air

Barn owl in a field on the route from Shipston

Barn owl in a field on the route from Shipston

Some of the greatest wildlife thrills are those that come unexpectedly. This afternoon, as I was driving back from Shipston-on-Stour – where I’d had a great day with Will & Anne Neale – I noticed, floating along the hedgerow by the side of the road, an unmistakable owl.

By the time I’d parked and got my camera out, it had flown further off, but remained just within range of binoculars and camera. For a few minutes I was able to watch and photograph it, before it lifted off and sailed over to a field further away.

Barn owl flying along the edge of a field on the route from Shipston

Barn owl flying along the edge of a field on the route from Shipston

Last week I went again to Upton Warren to photograph the courtship rituals of the great crested grebes. As luck would have it, they decided to do so on the far side of a reedbed, so I felt frustrated peering between bullrushes before they drifted out of view. When I downloaded the images, I suddenly realised that the bullrushes, far from being in the way, provided both context and that elusive quality, ‘atmosphere’.

An intimate moment: great crested grebes at Upton Warren

An intimate moment: great crested grebes at Upton Warren (click to enlarge)

Catching a barn owl…

Being stared at by a barn owl is a strange experience: you just know you are guilty.

I don’t normally do a midweek blog article, but I wanted to share some of the wildlife images that I took last weekend – and I think you’ll agree that they’re better than some of the rather patchy ones I’ve posted before!

When I returned to Durham, I read on the local bird forum that there’s a pair of barn owls which are readily visible at Coatham Stob, a woodland west of Stockton. I went to look on the Saturday evening and, sure enough, about an hour before sunset, this pale white form drifted effortlessly and silently into view, visited the nest box briefly, and ghosted out with surprisingly slow, heavy wingbeats, onto its regular circuit. Twenty minutes later it came back with prey: a shrew, according to a photograph by local birding expert, Ian Forrest.

Barn owl landing with prey: a vole, probably.

A week later I went back, armed with my own camera. I thought that the owl was big enough to be photographed, and that I could also get close enough. I had also discovered an extra function on my camera: burst mode, in which a series of still photos are taken continuously while I hold the shutter down. Thus, I managed to catch the owl just as it was landing on its perch. There’s a large slice of luck in this: I doubt whether I could repeat the trick in a dozen attempts!


Earlier in the day I’d visited Greenabella Marsh, which now has more than 20 avocets: these, for me, are ‘wow’ birds, like goosanders. Later on, before venturing to Coatham Stob, I was wandering around the back of a lake and chanced upon a great-crested grebe nest – another ‘wow’ bird. For me there’s an uncomfortable juxtaposition between the solidity of heavy industry and and the fragile beauty of wildlife.

I’ve uploaded the best 9 pictures from the day to the flickr photo gallery site. If you’d like to see them, click here.

Meanwhile… an update on the Great White Egret from Loïc Marion of CNRS in Rennes. Since leaving Gloucestershire it went back to Cardiff for a few days, and was seen yesterday at the Catcott reserve in Somerset. Any more updates I’ll add to the egret story here.

Wildlife and industry