15th Jan 2023 – Owling in the Wind

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An Owl Tour today. It was very windy again this morning, gusting up to 46mph, and very grey although mercifully the worst we had was a mercifully brief period when it started to spit with rain. Not ideal weather for owls! Thankfully the wind dropped and the sun came out in the afternoon and it all came good in the end.

It was an early start today, before dawn, in an attempt to catch the Barn Owls out hunting before they went in to roost. As we drove inland a Sparrowhawk came out of the hedge and flew low down the road ahead of us. We drove round by the fields where we would normally expect to find them at this time of the morning, but scanning from the minibus, we couldn’t find the first pair of Barn Owls from minibus. Not a good sign.

Further on, we stopped and got out to scan. No owls there either, just a couple of Marsh Harriers and a Kestrel out already. It was very windy and we were glad to get back in the minibus. We drove round to another site where two Barn Owls have been out very late in the mornings in the last week or so, and where there were some more sheltered spots for them to hunt, but there was no sign of those either. It was just too windy, and they had obviously given up and gone into roost. As we drove back round, two people in the back of the bus saw a shape through one of the hedges where we had looked earlier, so we turned down a side road to look but there was nothing there now. There Bullfinches flicked through the hedge ahead of us.

It was time for a change of tack. Fingers crossed, we would have another chance for Barn Owls later, particularly if the wind might drop. We moved on inland and went to look for a Tawny Owl instead. It was very blustery and spitting with rain as we walked round the edge of the field, before we got some shelter in the lee of the hedge. As we approached the edge of the wood, we stopped to scan the tree and could see a shape in the hole. Not the best view from here, but it was a Tawny Owl, so we all had a quick look in case it disappeared in.

From further up, we were looking straight on at the tree, from a safe distance. The Tawny Owl was side on at first, probably trying to shelter from the wind, dozing. Then it stirred and turned face on – a great view through the scope.

Tawny Owl – in its usual hole

One owl under our belts, we drove on to look for Little Owls. It was likely to be a struggle today, given the weather and that the barns at the most reliable site in recent years have been netted as an avian flu prevention measure. Unfortunately, the places where the Little Owls used to sit are now inaccessible for them. There were lots of people there when we arrived too, no chance. So we carried on to try another site where we have seen them recently. There were lots of geese in the fields as we drove – a flock of Brent Geese in winter wheat one side, and hundreds of Pink-footed Geese in the harvested sugar beet a little further up on the other side. Predictably, there was no sign of the Little Owl. It was time to take a break and we could resume our owling efforts later.

We drove down to Holkham and made our way up to The Lookout cafe for a welcome hot drink. There were lots of Pinkfeet and a few Greylag Geese on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive, plus big flocks of Wigeon, groups of Teal and one or two Shoveler. A couple of Black-tailed Godwits and Redshank were feeding on the wet grass in front of where we parked too. As we walked up to the top of the Drive, all the geese took to the air away to the west and we had a brief glimpse of the White-tailed Eagle briefly flying across, before it dropped down out of view. The little covey of six Grey Partridges were out on the grass close to the fence again.

Grey Partridge – by Lady Anne’s Drive

After we had warmed up in the cafe, we made our way out to the beach. As we walked east along the edge of the saltmarsh, there were lots of Shelduck and Brent Geese feeding on the saltmarsh, at least until they were flushed by two people walking right through the middle of the vegetation! Down at the cordon, the Shorelarks were feeding close to the fence, so we got them in the scope for a real close up. Smart birds!

There had been no sign of them when we arrived, but as we walked on to look for the Snow Buntings, they flew in and landed in the far end of cordon. We had just set off to walk up to that end when they flew again, right past us, the white in their wings flashing like snow. They landed on the path behind us, then flew out and dropped down in the cordon, where we got them in the scope.

Out at the beach, the tide was in and it was too windy to stop for any time. A Sanderling ran along the shoreline, before flying in past us. The Snow Buntings flew round behind us before landing on the shingle nearby. We were just watching them, when they were spooked by a dog and flew off towards Wells. We decided to walk back and on our way stopped for another look at the Shorelarks which were now even closer to the fence and completely unperturbed by everyone watching.

Shorelark – close to the fence

We were going to walk back through the pines, but the wind seemed to be dropping and we could see some brighter sky to the west now. Back at Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped for lunch in The Lookout and by the time we had finished the weather was much improved. We decided to go round to the other side of the grazing marshes to look for the White-tailed Eagle. At the first layby, we could see lots of White-fronted Geese so stopped for a closer look. A pair of Egyptian Geese were on the grass further up. There were plenty of raptors – several Common Buzzards, including one very pale one, a few Red Kites and Marsh Harriers, but no sign of the eagle from here.

There were a couple of cars in the next layby so we pulled up behind them. They were watching the White-tailed Eagle, which was perched on an ivy-covered stump out in the middle of the marshes. Before we could all get out of the minibus, it took off. Thankfully it just dropped down to the ground in front, where it proceeded to feed on an unidentified bit of carrion down on the grass. A Red Kite swooped low over it and then landed on the ground alongside – it looked tiny by comparison!

White-tailed Eagle – visiting from Isle of Wight

This young White-tailed Eagle is a released bird from the Isle of Wight reintroduction scheme, and fitted with a satellite tracker. We were lucky with our timing – it was not seen here the following day and by the day after had moved down to Essex! A Great White Egret was feeding out on the marshes behind some reeds and then one of the other people pointed out a Barn Owl which was perched on a tree on the edge of a distant copse. It flew out and round over the marshes hunting for a while, before eventually disappearing back into the trees.

It was a good start to break our Barn Owl duck, but we were hoping for closer views now. There were reports of a few Barn Owls out elsewhere already too – it was still early this afternoon, but they had probably struggled to feed over the last few days due to the weather and were making the most of the drop in the wind. We started to make our way back east and decided to swing round inland via some barns to see if the local Barn Owl was out.

We thought it might be perched in the low sunshine on the barns, but when we pulled up alongside it wasn’t there. Then we saw the Barn Owl fly out ahead of us from behind the farmhouse further up. We drove towards it, but it promptly flew round behind us, disappearing behind the house. A quick turn round, and there it was now, hunting along the verge the other side of the barns. It landed in a tree so we pulled up alongside. From the minibus, it was unconcerned by our presence, point black views.

Barn Owl – out early

When the Barn Owl flew, we followed in the minibus right alongside, watching it hunt. It kept landing in one of the trees, scanning the ground for anything below, then moving on to the next tree. After about twenty minutes of stunning views, it eventually flew across the road and doubled back along the other verge behind us. We turned again and followed, but it disappeared back through the barns and we lost sight of it. We decided to leave it in peace.

Barn Owl – stunning views

We hadn’t gone far when we noticed a raptor flying across a field next to the road – we pulled up and a quick look confirmed it was a ringtail Hen Harrier. A nice bonus to run into one by chance like this inland.

Working our way back the way we had come earlier, we stopped again to scan the Little Owl barn. There it was now, tucked in the gable end. As everyone got out, a Woodcock shot past. Unfortunately, just as we set up the scope, the Little Owl dropped to the ground then disappeared round the back. Back in the minibus, we stopped again a bit further up and tried looking from a different angle. It was back on its original perch, but again it disappeared by the time we had all got out – we were a long way away so we weren’t disturbing it, but presumably it was just more active now the wind had dropped. We scanned the barns and found it again perched on the far end of the roof. This time, before everyone could get a look, a Buzzard flew low right past and it disappeared round the back again. Despite looking round and trying again back where we had stopped first, we couldn’t find it again.

We carried on east, inland. Thousands of Pinkfeet flew over the road back where we had seen them earlier, an impressive sight, and dropped down into the fields further over. A flock of Fieldfares perched up in the top of a hedge by the road, before flying down into the nearby stubble. A bevy of nine Roe Deer out in the middle of another field was an unusually large number for round here.

As we drove in to the back of Cley, another Barn Owl was hunting a rough field by the road. We stopped in the layby and got out to watch it hunting from the gate. More great views, several times it passed by just a few metres in front of us. Eventually it flew over the road and further up to another field, where it circled round several times before disappearing behind a hedge.

Barn Owl – 1 of 8 this afternoon

We stopped again to scan the grazing marshes where we had tried this morning. It was very different weather now, the wind had fallen light and Cley Mill looked stunning in the late low winter sun. A very distant Barn Owl was hunting out over the marshes in the distance now – our fourth of the afternoon.

We made our way back inland again and walked down the footpath which runs along the valley. Yet another Barn Owl was out here, but flying away from us over the water meadows. We followed, stopping to admire a Grey Wagtail feeding on the edge of the river and flocks of Pied Wagtails flying in to roost in the reeds.

The Barn Owl was perched now on a post over the other side, so we got it in the scope. Another Barn Owl appeared from out of the hedge opposite, and perched on a branch, cleaning its bill. When one flew past, we assumed it was the first Barn Owl again, but we looked back and it was still on its perch. As it started to quarter over the meadows back behind us, a fourth Barn Owl appeared with it we could see them all simultaneously!

From zero Barn Owls this morning to eight this afternoon, the change in the weather had made all the difference. Amazing! As we walked back towards the minibus, we were surrounded by Barn Owls hunting. We were hoping to get a Tawny Owl hooting but they were late tonight – the sky was was still quite bright and the Pheasants were still very noisy in the trees. It had been a long day, and we had seen the Tawny Owl so well earlier this morning that we decided to call it a night.

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