19th Feb 2022 – Last Orders for Owls

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Another Owl Tour today, our last of 2022. After Storm Eunice blew through yesterday, it felt like we were lucky to be able to get out at all today. It was still rather windy all day, but the morning was bright and sunny before it clouded over and then the rain set in for the afternoon. We made the most of the best of the weather with an earlier than normal start.

The early start paid off again, and within a few minutes of setting off we were watching a Barn Owl out hunting. It was having to work hard, flying into the wind while scanning the grass below. When it turned, it was caught by the breeze and swept across, before turning back round to continue hunting. It gradually worked its way around the meadow in this way, covering different parts of the field.

Barn Owl – still out hunting

At times the Barn Owl came close, right over towards and round in front of the gate we were standing behind. It seemed to be so focused on hunting that it was unaware of us, or perhaps it just chose to ignore us.

Barn Owl – came right past us

We stood and watched the Barn Owl for a while. It kept disappearing behind a line of trees, over towards the hedge on the far side, before coming back out across the field. It put on a really great performance today. Presumably after a couple of nights disrupted by the stormy weather it is now hungry and trying to play catch-up.

Barn Owl – great views this morning

There were other things to distract us here at times. A selection of raptors started to circle up, enjoying the wind, Red Kite, Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards. A Sparrowhawk shot through the hedge beside us and low out over the fields. A Kestrel battled into the breeze. A Stock Dove landed on the wires in front of us briefly.

When the Barn Owl eventually disappeared over the hedge, we followed it up along the road, with a bit of a walk a welcome opportunity to warm us up. There were lots of House Sparrows chirruping from the bushes by the road and a selection of birds still singing despite the wind – Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Dunnock, Song Thrush. A Bullfinch piped quietly from deep in the hedge.

A Marsh Harrier circled overhead, with barely a flap of its wings, catching the morning sun as it twisted and turned. A Muntjac was lurking in the undergrowth and ran off as we passed.

Marsh Harrier – circling in the sunshine

We found the Barn Owl again, hunting the next field up. We watched it for a while here. It landed on a post over towards the back a couple of times, but didn’t rest too long and quickly returned to hunting. After a while, it flew back over the hedge and we followed it back to where we had left the minibus.

There was no sign of the Barn Owl catching anything this morning. Repeatedly it dropped down into the grass but rather half-heartedly, stopping for a quick breather, looking round nervously, before resuming hunting. Only once did it really look like it might be onto something – it stopped to hover over some longer grass, then turned and dropped sharply. But once again it came up very quickly.

Barn Owl – unsuccessful this morning

Eventually the Barn Owl disappeared behind the trees and didn’t re-emerge. It was last seen heading for the area of bushes where it had been roosting, so presumably it had gone in. We decided to move on.

Our next target for the morning was Tawny Owl. We parked by a footpath and as we got out of the minibus a family out jogging with a couple of dogs came out of the gate. Not an auspicious start, as the Tawny Owls have been very nervous this year and often disappeared in at the first sign of movement. Still, we set off to have a look.

There were six Brown Hares in a group over the back of the winter wheat field by the path and we stopped to watch. They were chasing each other round, but they didn’t seem to be totally in the mood today – a couple of punches were thrown, but they turned back to eating the green shoots.

Before we got too far up the footpath, we stopped to check the trees and there was a Tawny Owl asleep in the entrance to the hole. We set the scope up and had a look from here, just in case it should disappear back in, but it seemed fairly unconcerned today. It opened its eyes from time to time but didn’t even look over in our direction. We decided to try to get a better angle further up.

The Tawny Owl let us walk all the way up the path to where we get a clear view of the hole today. We were still a good distance away, across a field, but it was a great view through the scope from here. Such a treat to get one perched out in daytime, our commonest owl but seldom seen as it is much more nocturnal.

Tawny Owl – roosting at the hole entrance today

After everyone had great views of the Tawny Owl and many photos were taken, we decided to leave it in peace and set off back down the footpath to the minibus.

We set off inland to look for Little Owls next. Once again, we were in luck this morning. As we drove up to a set of barns where we have seen them most often recently, there were two small round shapes tucked under the lip of the roof, two Little Owls. We had a quick look from the shelter of the minibus, then drove a little further up and parked out of view where we wouldn’t disturb them.

We walked back and got the scope set up on the roof – one Little Owl was still out, but the other had disappeared in now. Everyone had just had enough time for a quick look when a tractor drove in and the driver got out right next to the barn where the Little Owl was perched. At first it stayed put, watching intently, but when the driver moved the tractor a little further and then got out again, the Little Owl shot in.

Brown Hares – chasing each other

There were more Brown Hares in the fields here, and we watched two chasing each other through the sugar beet now. They put on quite a display, racing round in circles, stopping to box, leaping in the air – fantastic to watch. Despite the weather, it almost felt like spring might be on its way!

The Little Owl reappeared on the roof and we were able to get a much longer look at it now. It stared out across the yard and was totally unconcerned by us watching it from here. Eventually it disappeared back in again and we decided to move on.

Little Owl – came back out

We had done really well for owls this morning and they had all put on a great performance. We got back in the minibus and dropped back down to the coast at Holkham for a welcome coffee break. It had clouded over now, and was still windy but dry. We stopped to scan the grazing marshes before heading up to The Lookout.

There were lots of ducks – Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler. We got the scope on three Pintail on the edge of one of the pools in the middle. Further back, three Pink-footed Geese were on the grass with some Greylags nearby for a convenient comparison. A few thousand Pink-footed Geese then came up from the fields beyond the bank at the back and circled round before dropping down again.

Shoveler – on the grazing marsh

There were waders too – Oystercatchers, Lapwings, Curlew and Redshank. A Great White Egret was lurking on the edge of the reeds at the back and the very pale Common Buzzard was perched on the top of a large hawthorn nearby.

Further up, we found two pairs of Grey Partridge out on the grass, doing a passing impression of molehills until we got the scope on them. Several Common Snipe nearby were even better camouflaged.

After a chance to warm up over coffee, we headed out again. It had started to drizzle now, a bit earlier than we had expected, but at least the heavier rain still wasn’t forecast to arrive for another hour or two, so we figured we should make the most of it. The female Stonechat was perched on the fence right by the fence directly outside the Lookout again.

Stonechat – outside The Lookout again

Cutting through the pines, as we dropped down off the boardwalk we could see a flock of Sanderlings feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh right by the path. We stopped to watch them, completely unperturbed by all the people passing close by. Always great birds to watch, their legs whirling as they raced around.

Sanderling – feeding on the saltmarsh

Conscious of the approaching weather, we turned and walked east today, along the edge of the saltmarsh and out towards the cordon. A large flock of Shelduck were out in the middle of the saltmarsh and three Brent Geese were with them. More Brent Geese kept flying in over the pines as we walked along and dropping down to join them.

Arriving at the cordon, it looked rather empty at first. As we walked down towards the end, we noticed some movement out on the beach beyond as a flock of twenty Snow Buntings flew up and dropped back down on the stones. Before we could get down there, they were flushed by a dog but thankfully flew over and landed in the far end of the cordoned off area, where we could now get them in the scope and have a proper look. They kept flying up and whirling round in the breeze in a flurry of white wings, before dropping down again, eventually flying back and landing below the dunes at the back.

We were hoping to find the Shorelarks here too today, but there was no sign of them now. They have been very mobile in recent days, moving between the cordon and the beach away to the west of the Gap. We decided to have a quick look out at the beach and then another scan of the cordon in case they might return.

Scanning the sea we picked up a small raft of Common Scoter bobbing on the waves offshore. Three Red-breasted Mergansers flew past just beyond the breakers. A Great Northern Diver a long way away to the west was very hard to pick out and was diving continually, but then we found a second Great Northern Diver much closer in, directly out from us, which was much easier to see.

Looking over the pines away to the west now, we could see more threatening clouds approaching. We decided to walk back. As we went back over the dunes, the Snow Buntings flew over calling and landed on the sand on the inland side.

Snow Bunting – in the dunes

There was still no sign of the Shorelarks in the cordon and unfortunately, with the approaching rain, it would be too wet to check the beach further west. As we walked back along the edge of the saltmarsh, several Meadow Pipits and Scandinavian Rock Pipits were feeding close to the path, giving us a good opportunity to see the differences with the two species alongside each other.

We managed to get back to The Lookout without getting too wet, and it was now time for lunch. While we ate, the forecast heavier rain arrived. Thankfully we had made the most of the dry weather.

It was already after 2pm by the time we finished lunch and set off again. It was clear we weren’t going to be able to do much walking this afternoon, so first we drove a bit further up to see if we could find the White-fronted Geese. They were in the field by the main road again, but right up the opposite end from the layby. We drove up and had a quick look from inside the minibus.

The Red-breasted Goose is still lingering with the Brent Goose flock at Cley and we have seen it regularly on recent Owl Tours, so we made our way back along the coast now to see if we could find it somewhere we didn’t have to walk to. Normally, we would try to combine it with looking for Barn Owls, but there was not much chance of more owls given the weather now.

There was no sign of the Red-breasted Goose with the small flock of Brents down along Beach Road, but at least the rain seemed to have stopped when we got out to check. We tried further down towards Salthouse and quickly spotted a larger flock of Brents on the winter wheat south of the main road. We found somewhere to park where we could get out without disturbing them and a quick scan confirmed the Red-breasted Goose was with them.

Red-breasted Goose – with the Brents

The Red-breasted Goose was hard to see well at first, as the flock was working its way away from us feeding with heads down, although you could see the distinctive white bars on its wings. Eventually the flock turned a little more and it was possible to see its red breast and cheek patch. We could even hear the Red-breasted Goose calling now, its squeaky call carrying to us even despite the wind.

We were lucky to have a brief respite from he rain, as it started up again now. It wasn’t scheduled to stop until late afternoon, which meant if we wanted to go anywhere else we would almost certainly end up having to walk in the wet. After the early start, we had already been out for eight hours now and we were fortunate that we had enjoyed such good views of both Barn Owl and Tawny Owl this morning, which we might otherwise have to try for this evening. We decided to end on a high and call it a day now.

Helped by the early start, the owls had really done us proud this morning, a great way to mark the final Owl Tour of 2022.

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