Alarm calls

It’s funny what wakes one up. I’ve been struggling with a throat infection, so after an early morning interview with the Bishop on Monday I was on my way back home for a kip – until I received a text about a tawny owl ‘in full view’ in Grimley. It was from Brian Stretch, who runs a local bird news service as well as The Birder’s Store. When there’s a tawny owl to see in the daytime, kipping can wait.

I’ve discovered that terms like ‘in full view’ or ‘showing well’ are ambiguous. They seem to imply that the bird is prominent and easy to spot – but this might be true only if you have high magnification optics and can thus identify the bird on the other side of a large lake. I was about to discover another meaning.

Tawny Owl at Grimley, photographed by Brian Stretch.

Tawny Owl at Grimley, photographed by Brian Stretch.

Three birders happened to arrive at the spot at the right time (luckily for me as I’d have struggled to find it otherwise). Brian was still there: this was fortunate for all of us as he had found the only sight-line through an array of leaves and branches to an ivy tree, through which one could peer carefully to spot a well-camouflaged owl nestling up against the tree trunk. ‘Showing well’? – considering that tawny owls are almost never seen in the daytime, and I’ve only ever seen them at night, then yes… It says something about Brian’s expertise that he had managed to spot it at all.

Lesser whitethroat at Castlemorton Common.

Lesser whitethroat at Castlemorton Common.

On Monday last week I decided to go on a dawn walk on Castlemorton Common. It’s said to be a regular spot for grasshopper warblers, which I’d never seen before. At 5:30am I arrived, parked the car, and set off across the common. Before too long I heard the grasshopper-like churring, deep within a bush. After a while, it appeared fleetingly, before flying off. As I meandered around, I heard several others, and spotted one – again as it flew off. It’s an elusive bird at the best of times (unless you are Jaybee who’s on a roll with gropper images at the moment), so it maintained its reputation – but it was very satisfying to hear and spot it.

Meanwhile, the lesser whitethroats – which I’ve rarely seen before – were prominent and showy, so much so that I could even grab some decent images…

Lesser whitethroat at Castlemorton Common

Lesser whitethroat at Castlemorton Common

On my way back, I chanced upon this stunning view of the Malvern Hills, so I stopped for a few snaps.

Malvern Hills from near Welland

Malvern Hills from near Welland (click to enlarge)

Stop press: So I was telling my neighbours Tony & Helen about my amazing birding exploits this week, when Tony says, ‘I saw an owl sitting on a fence post near Ockeridge Lake just recently. It was brown with white flecks. Do you know what type it was?’ At this point my face acquires a shade of green… ‘You’re telling me you’ve seen a tawny owl in the daytime! On a fence post!…’

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!

Avocets

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

Owls

On Friday morning I had a most amazing wildlife experience. I’d seen on a local bird forum that there are short-eared owls at a pond near Seaham, so as my brain was fried after a hard week’s work and the weather forecast was good, I headed out there. The first person I met was Jaybee, along with three other local birders.

For the first hour there was no sign of the owls. (The short-eareds generally hunt in the daytime, unlike most others, such as the tawny and barn owls.) Indeed several of us wandered off to a nearby pond (where we proceeded to mis-identify a pair of swans). We kept an eye on what Jaybee was doing; we knew that while he was leaning back against his car, we were not missing anything. After about a quarter of an hour, he disappeared: something was happening! As we trekked back across the field, an owl flew straight across our path. The others followed it; I pressed on towards Jaybee; as soon as I approached he said, “there are four owls up!”

We watched as they flew around the fields across the road from where we were parked: turning, wheeling, flying fast along hegerows, skimming low over the ground, interacting with each other, shrieking, chasing off other birds: it was an absolutely stunning display. For about twenty minutes we watched as one bird after another came close to view, so that it was quite hard to know which one to focus on; then after a while they drifted off – still active and visible, but further away. I then had to return to lunch and an impending assignment!

Short-eared owl quartering the ground: photo by Jaybee taken on Friday

This weekend my German friend Thomas came to stay: it was great to be able to catch up, and to hear about his recent marriage to Carmen. (I first met them when I was camping in Pembrokeshire after my first selection conference; I was not in a good place, but they looked after me one evening – it’s the kind of thing that makes an impression.) We had a look round the cathedral, then wandered up to Hadrian’s Wall: which is even more impressive west of Housesteads Fort than it is to the east.

Thomas at Hadrian’s Wall, west of Housesteads Fort

Two more weeks in Durham this year: the final one of term, and then another week to try to complete a couple of essays due for the beginning of next term. Then back to Cheltenham to connect up with folks. All good!