Wednesday 31 December 2014

Shorties And A Water Rail Surprise To End The Year

Another year is almost over and what a fabulous one it has been for wildlife, strengthening friendships and attempting to get some photos along the way. Not to mention adding a few miles to the clock of the car; it's taken me to Scotland and back three times!

After returning from the Highlands, I was pleased to read reports from a remote part of the Cotswolds (Gloucs) where some short-eared owls have been seen, so I didn't need much persuasion to head down there for a look. The reports were indeed correct, with as many as six in the area.

Unlike those enjoyed in Northants some years ago, these seem to be less predictable, and as yet haven't adopted any sort of pattern to either the time they appear at or the areas of the fields they prefer to hunt.

If you're after a quiet afternoon, then these aren't for you, as shorties are crowd-pullers. Normally I steer clear of crowds, but when there's little to do when the owls aren't out, it has been pleasant to catch up with friends and make new ones, as we all stand expectant of some feathery entertainment.

I have been to the area before and was fortunate with some shots of a barn owl, and indeed there are still some around. And, with the general hilliness of the area, there are other interesting species nearby; golden plover being one that I have taken the time to observe.

Along with a decent flock of lapwings, these nervous birds tend to feed on the far side of one of the fields, but with some patience and luck, closer views can be had. Unless something spooks them all, in which case, you have to aim for the skies and hope they pass overhead.

Scanning the crop fields and some of the chocolate-box villages can yield some great views of red-legged partridges too. In such a spot, I noticed some heading from one field to another, hurdling a dry stone wall in the process. Using the car as a hide, and trying to guess where they'd appear, I managed to get some images as they paused on the wall, before dropping down below.

On my first visits to the area, the short-eared owls were content to quarter the fields, catching prey and occasionally perching up on the walls or posts.

Then, over the next few trips, they seemed to be getting more aggressive with each other, and spending more and more time sparring or fighting one another in mid-air. Great fun to watch and attempt to photo.

Circling round and around, after each other, calling out, coming together, talons flared. Super entertainment.

Of course when they fail to appear while the light is decent, the new 7D Mk2 has allowed me to up the ISO and still get reasonable shots. Including some more atmospheric ones against a coloured sky, as the sun was setting. I'm pretty sure the mk1 would have yielded something grainy and unusable.

Then, to top it all off, after the light had gone completely one afternoon, I chose to go have a look at the barn owl which was hunting in the distance, just to watch it really. They're fascinating to observe, even if I couldn't get a shot. Or so I thought. As I approached the area, I spotted a short-eared owl sat on a post, and not too far off for a high ISO shot.

Then, as I took my face from the camera, I spotted the barn owl land, a couple of posts along.

Given how dark it was (and I've brightened these shots up considerably), I was both amazed that the camera focused on the owls, and also that I was able to clean up the images to get a good end result.

The barn owl seemed most curious of the shortie. The latter was more interested in scanning the fields nearby for movement.

The two soon flew off, but left me with images and a memory to treasure.

With the owls only making an appearance late each afternoon, I have tried to fill the mornings with other targets, and trees laden with berries have been a magnet to winter thrushes. While the light wasn't great one day, I still managed to grab a few close shots of redwings, blackbirds and even some bullfinches as they feasted on the rowan tree's berries.

Annoyingly, the next day, with clear skies and great light, I returned to find the tree had been stripped bare by the greedy birds, so I had to make do with a nearby cotoneaster tree instead. Which was what the redwings had also decided to do, and I added some more shots of them amongst the red berries, to my collection.

So, on the very last day of the year, did I head down to see the owls again? No. My Flickr stream was becoming a bit of an owl-fest, so I wanted something different. I chose to swap the beautiful rolling hills of the Cotswolds for a marsh near Birmingham Airport (Marsh Lane NR), where I bumped into Max.

Always good, amusing company we had a good chat about things, including the 7D Mk2 and Max's attire, and grabbed a few shots of the common snipe nearby. After he left, I scanned the area hoping for something special to turn up. A merlin has been seen in the area, so I was hoping for that. I started to get the feeling though that it wouldn't be my day. Each time I put the camera down, to have a coffee, something would fly past and I'd miss it. It was cold and I thought perhaps I should head home for the day.

Very glad I didn't. Because after I'd missed a water rail scamper across the ice in the marsh, it appeared minutes later, battling with something it had caught in its beak.

Unbelievably, for such a small bird, it had caught a vole (a field vole I am told), by its hind leg.

Quick as a flash, it scurried across the ice allowing me just enough time to burst off some shots.

Then, among the reeds at the edge of the pool, it proceeded to dunk, peck at and drown the poor vole, before carrying its sodden body off into the vegetation, to consume.

I have seen them take small fish before, but never something like this. Nature has a habit of throwing up surprises and I was very pleased I was able to photograph this one!

So that brings me right up to date for 2014. All that's left to say is Happy New Year everyone, and I hope you all have a wonderful, wildlife-filled 2015. Cheers!