Monday, 16 July 2012

Owls, Owlets And Otmoor

Followers of this blog will I'm sure be aware of how often I watch the local little owls, and at this time of year it's more entertaining than usual, as the chicks are out. For a few days before this last weekend, I had been deliberately taking a detour to pass by their tree, to see if anything was going on, listening out for the tell-tale screech, of a chick pestering to be fed.

During the week, I spotted an owlet hiding at the bottom of the tree, but only at dusk, so it wasn't really good for photos, but it gave me something to do at the weekend, and as it happened, I managed to get down there at Friday lunchtime for an early viewing. With the almost constant rain we have suffered lately, the verges beside the lane are boggy to say the least, and I was very glad of having the Yeti with its 4-wheel drive, to get me out of the mud, where I am sure my old Fabia would have got stuck.

Normally upon arrival, it's a challenge to locate the owls, but this time, one was sat out in the open on arrival. As is often the case with youngsters, they're not scared of humans; more curious, and after bobbing its head around a few times, it hopped on to a branch nearer to me, for a better look at me!

I had to roll the camera over to fit the little furball into the frame. Ignoring the shutter, it then proceeded to preen and clean for several minutes.

Only the return of one of the adult birds sent it back to hiding, and it vanished behind the trunk for a while. The afternoon was fantastic for viewing the parents as they were flying between the trees frequently, though they seemed to arrive back when you least expected it, and often when I wasn't looking, and I'd turn to see one sat nearby, glaring down at me.

Which is sort of what happened shortly after, when an adult returned with an earthworm, and passed it to a chick which appeared from nowhere, on the side of the main trunk. I saw it, but there was no way I could get the lens lined up in time, and all I saw was a rather pleased owlet licking its beak after scoffing down the worm. That would have been a superb shot, and as usual, I saw it, but failed to capture it.

Still, the owlet looked adorable sat there, and I took a few more shots.

Several more feeding moments occurred, but all below the hedge, out of sight. I'd just hear the screeching intensify, then silence, with the adult flying up to the branches to preen for a while. Mucky business getting worms on a wet day.

I managed a few more photos of one of the chicks (pretty sure there are only two of them) as again it perched very close, and with all the action, I thought it would be nice to share it with some friends. For once I thought the owls would be a dead cert for showing, and inviting friends over, from a few miles away, wouldn't be a waste of their time. We all agreed to aim for Sunday, as the forecast was for something called "sunshine".

So Saturday morning, I was keen to check on the owl family again, and expected to be treated to the same show as before. Hmm, I should have known better, as wildlife can never be guaranteed to perform, and for the hour I sat there, I saw only fleeting glimpses of the owls, adults or otherwise. I started to wonder if the plan for Sunday was a wise move after all. I did manage to get a few shots of a juvenile great spotted woodpecker, as it pecked and probed around the dead parts of the old oak tree.

Seemed to be well skilled in hanging on already.

Failing to see the bad omens on the owls, I then took the M40 down to RSPB Otmoor, on yet another attempt to see a turtle dove. I've been loads of times and the best I've ever managed is to hear one. The day continued where I'd left off from the owls. I saw masses of dragonflies as I wandered down the path. Using the 500mm isn't easy for such things, as you have to stand about 5 metres from the insect to get a focus (I need some extension tubes). So I got out the 100-400mm, turned around and it was like someone had hidden all the insects. Nothing. Not even when I poked the tripod leg into the shrubs. Put the camera away, and they appeared again.

I took a shot with the 500mm anyway. I think it's a female common darter, but I'm no expert. With all the dragonflies, there must be hobbies, right? Yes, but either perched half a mile away in the middle of the RSPB's conservation area, or even further away, high over my head. The Otmoor Blog had reported a few waders from the hide, so I walked down towards it, seeing and missing blackcaps, whitethroats and even a grasshopper warbler. They'd either fly off when I lined the camera up, or there would be something in the way of the shot. The only thing I did see for a second or two was a male linnet, singing from an overhead line.

Out of the hide window I could see.... a swan. Oh, and a grey heron on the far side of the field. Awesome. It was late, I was fed up and I left, once again dipping on turtle doves. No partridges or pear trees either, before anyone comments. There was a lone kestrel on the road out of Beckley, but it was raining by then, so nothing special.

Sunday, and a text from Ian meant I had to get up. I wasn't as fresh as I should have been, but Scotch whisky is rather nice, from time to time. As was the ale I'd had before it. Shortly after, Kate (WildlifeKate to viewers of Springwatch, Gardener's World, Midlands Today) confirmed she was also on her way, and we were soon parked up (all in the Yeti) beside the tree. The forecasters were right, it was actually sunny, which made the light quite tricky for photos.

No owls initially, but eventually one of the chicks put in an appearance, hopping round to the front of the trunk, and allowing both Ian and Kate to get some shots. Being the kind soul I am, I was sat on the other side of the car, so could only get the occasional shot, though I have a few already! Just as I was explaining the habits of the owls and that the adults often preferred to sit in other trees, Kate followed my pointing finger and spotted one of them sat in another tree! A great spot, and with her smaller 100-400mm lens, she was able to lean out the window and get some pics of it.

Sadly, unlike the Friday, the birds didn't put on that much of a show, with the owlet returning to the same perch each time. The light improved and Kate borrowed my lens for some closer shots. She wasn't too impressed with the weight of it though!

With only a couple of hours to spare, Kate had to reluctantly leave, and I spun the car round so I could view, with Ian still lurking in the back. One of the adults flew in, and sat on a dead branch which made for a superb perch. We again managed to miss a fab shot, when it flew off the side of the tree, hovered for a split second whilst trying to grab a flying insect, before returning once more. Was good to watch mind you.

Both of the chicks were now out in the tree, and we tried to get shots of them, setting the cameras up for darker images, with them hiding amongst the leaves. As usual, the adult timed it to perfection to return with a huge worm, and one owlet made the dash over to collect it. Both Ian and I blasted a dozen or so shots off, only then to realise we'd under-exposed the shots. Thankfully, not by too much, and the resulting images were actually pretty decent.

The adult actually puts the worm into the beak of the chick, then stands back on guard, whilst the youngster battles to eat the worm and not fall off its perch. Amusing to watch and made for a great set of shots.

The adult caught another worm later, and with the other chick screeching to be fed, ate the worm itself! Rather mean of it, and perhaps why these owls look so grumpy as they get older?

Summer weather soon returned, clouding over and the light became horrid. Ian and I opted to relocate to a nearby pub for a pint and a ham roll. He'd taken over 500 shots, most of them being keepers. Though he'll probably only process about 3 of them, knowing what he's like. A great morning, not just with the owls but also catching up with good friends. Had to get the car cleaned after though - was caked with mud!


Rid said...

Great post Pete, some cracking images too!

Jason K said...

Fantastic set of Little Owl photos Pete and a really interesting post. I don't blame you one bit for taking the time to watch these local birds raising there youngsters!