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Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Still Owling - Just !!! - March, 2015

It's been well over a month since I did a post to this blog featuring owls. The reasons are numerous, but I've just finished doing the wallpapering so thought that it was about time I set to it!

The Little Owls have been going through the bonding process, prior to breeding. Last year we had several pairs that looked as if they were sure-fire breeders but, for various reasons, lost them before breeding took place. To ensure that our visits to them in no way contribute to non-breeding, we've adopted a general policy of observation from a distance. There are a few exceptions to this policy,  particularly where the owls are in a relatively busy public place. However, we are still careful to guard against the owls having a feeling of being watched.

The result of the above is that, although its been a while since my last owl post, the photos are a bit thin on the ground. There have, however, been several occasions filled with joy and excitement!

An owling trip out with pal Titus on 5th March, when the weather was very dull and it was forecast for the wind to be increasing, didn't start with any great expectations. We were, therefore, delighted to find a Little Owl at my Site No.44. A solitary owl had been seen here in February after the pair disappeared in August, 2014. This was now confirmation that the site was now occupied again, although only one owl was seen. This is a very poor image, but it represents a lot to me!

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.44
A lone Little Owl was seen at Site No.41 (not enough light for sensible photography) and a pair of Little Owls was seen at Site No.43, although obscured by branches and at about 50 metres distance. This is a record shot from the car.

Little Owls (Athene noctua) - my Site No.43
Further on, a Little Owl was seen at Site No.42, but at a range of about 130 metres, so no sensible photography. We then continued towards Rutland Water where we intended to spend an hour or two. 

As we passed along one section of rural road we both, simultaneously, noticed a shape low-down in a tree about 50 metres from the road, and both had the immediate reaction of 'Buzzard' (expected in this area), instantly followed by 'No, it's a Barn Owl!'. Fortunately we were quickly able to find a gateway to stop in and got out to walk back and take a look. It was in the air as we got out of the car, but settled in some branches for a while before taking off again. This was only my second local Barn Owl sighting of the year, and the first of the year for which I actually managed any sort of image, so please excuse the following record shots.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba) - near Langham
We had an enjoyable time at Rutland Water (although the light was terrible), with highlights being Avocet (1), Smew (3) and Pintail (several), but this is an owl post so they'll have to wait!

After Rutland Water we set off homeward, hoping to pick up a few more owl sightings, although it was getting breezy by now. We found one of the Little Owls showing in the nest entrance at my Site No.34. I then noticed something flying low behind the hedge, just down from the LO nest tree - a Barn Owl! Sadly the light was awful, and I'm not sure I can even describe the only shot of any sort that I managed of it behind bushes as a record shot. It does, however, raise a question. Here's the image:-

Barn Owl (Tyto alba) - near my LO Site No.34
At first I thought that this might have been a freak double-exposure, but that second hedge really is a second hedge so, presumably, that second bird has to be a second bird - but is it a Barn Owl? I didn't actually notice the second bird at the time, but then I was entirely concentrating on the one bird. I strongly suspect that this was a second Barn Owl. Sadly it/they disappeared from view immediately after this, and couldn't be picked up again.

So we ended up the day seeing six Little Owls and two or three Barn Owls. I'm pretty sure that this is the only time I've ever seen Barn Owl at two different locations on the same day!

There was then a quite long break between owling sessions, due to me being away in North Yorkshire.

A walk on my 'local patch' on 18th March resulted in only two Little Owls seen - at my sites 02 and 30.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.02
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.30
The following day (19th March), Titus and I set off on one of our owling expeditions, convinced that we'd be lucky if we saw any owls at all, as it was extremely dull and quite misty.

However, we got off to an excellent start, spotting a Little Owl at my Site No.47 where we'd seen owls regularly until early August, 2014 and then they'd disappeared. Sticking to our policy of non-disturbance, we just drove past without stopping, so no photos.

Seven minutes later we had a Little Owl at my Site No.44, but again drove past without stopping as the nest tree is beside the road. Fourteen minutes after that, we had a pair of Little Owls in the nest tree at Site No.41, and another fourteen minutes later we were looking at another pair of Little Owls at Site No.23.

The remarkable thing about Site No.23 is that we only usually get around 3 or 4 sightings a year, always on that same bit of RSJ or on the stub of drain pipe below it, in spite of passing here twice virtually every week! We've never found the actual nest site, and we've only ever seen one bird here. We couldn't believe our eyes, therefore, when we found two birds on the RSJ this day!

Little Owls (Athene noctua) - my Site No.23
Further single sightings of Little Owl were had at Sites Nos.34 and 42, and we then continued to Rutland Water, where I didn't achieve any meaningful photography, mainly due to very low light levels.

On our return journey we joked about seeing so many owls when we hadn't expected to see any! Little did we know that there was a surprise in store for us. My Little Owl Site No.40 is another where we've never found the nest tree, although we've had suspicions. The site is on our regular owling route and I first spotted an owl here on a fence post after dark in April, 2013. There was one further sighting that year, and then three further sightings between March and June in 2014, with the last sighting resulting in our first 'record shots' from the site. After that sighting, the coppice in which we believed the bird to be nesting was heavily cut back by heavy and noisy machinery and we thought that this would probably mean the end of Site No.40. We never gave up looking, however. We were, therefore, delighted to see an owl in the tree on this occasion and, again, managed a record shot in spite of it being virtually dark by then. It was only a week or so later, when I came to edit my photos, that I had another surprise - there's a second bird visible to the left of the most obvious bird! Neither Titus nor I had spotted this at the time, and Titus had even missed it when processing his photos and putting an image up on his blog. We now carry white sticks with us!

Little Owls (Athene noctua) - my Site No.40
Thus it was that a day that we'd been convinced would be one of our least productive owling days ever, turned out to be one of those rare days when the owls showed in double figures - just!! Ten Little Owls seen over seven different sites!

A short trip out, by myself, on 24th March resulted in the sighting of a pair of sleepy Little Owls at Site No.03. These were taken from my car, parked at the roadside.

Little Owls (Athene noctua) - my Site No.03
In November, 2014 I'd found a potential new Little Owl site, and bestowed the number 49 on it in anticipation. Two subsequent visits had me wondering if I'd been a bit hasty as no owls were seen and a lot of people pass close-by on foot. I made another visit on 25th March and was briefly delighted to see a Little Owl there. Suddenly there was a commotion when a second LO had an altercation with a Jackdaw, which it rapidly retreated from. The first LO then had an mix up with another Jackdaw and also beat a hasty retreat. After about half an hour, one of the owls reappeared but in a non-photographable position. I only got a record shot of the first owl, but I'm concerned about the future of these birds as there must have been 40 or 50 Jackdaw in the immediate vicinity.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.49
The following day (26th March) another session with Titus resulted in only three owl sightings, primarily because it was quite windy - they don't like the wind!

We stopped at a safe distance from LO Site No.44 and took some photos through the car window of a LO in the nest opening, and then just managed a drive-by shot as we passed.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.44
In summary, March was not a good month for me for owl photography, and April might not be much better as I intend to continue my policy of keeping my distance.

However, it has been an extremely encouraging month in terms of what we are seeing in the field, but not without concerns about eviction by Jackdaws and predation by Buzzards, etc.

At this point in time it looks as if my next post will be on March Garden Birds, with the header image, current with this post, representing just one of the birds that delighted us during the month.

Thank you for dropping by.