21st Feb 2023 – Last Orders for Owls

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An Owl Tour today, our last of 2023. It was a mostly cloudy day, but dry and mild with lighter winds than of late, though there was some unexpected sunshine later in the afternoon, just in time for the owls.

With the days drawing out already, it was just after dawn when we met today. The Barn Owls are often still out hunting into the morning at this time of year, but after a week of fine and dry weather, they have obviously been hunting well and are not so hungry at the moment. Despite seeing one still out as we drove down to the meeting point, by the time we got back in the minibus they had all gone in to roost. We drove round via a couple of regular spots to check, then stopped for a walk out across the marshes to try our luck there.

There were lots of Curlew and Lapwing out on the grass and one or two Brown Hares. A male Marsh Harrier was preening on a bush out in the reeds beyond and a darker female landed on a post a bit further over. A Grey Wagtail flew up from the river and off overhead calling. A distant skein of Pink-footed Geese over the sea in the distance were probably on their way north already, some of our winter visitors leaving us. But no owls.

Back in the minibus, we had a quick drive round via some other good sites. There has been a Barn Owl at Cley Coastguards later on in the morning at times this year, but there was no sign of it now. We did find a group of Meadow Pipits in the overflow car park and a Rock Pipit with them, which flew up and landed on a fence post. A group of Golden Plover scattered amongst the mole hills beyond were remarkably well camouflaged in the brown grass.

Rock Pipit – at the Eye Field

It was clear that the Barn Owls had gone in to roost early this morning, so we decided to try for Tawny Owl instead. As we walked down the footpath, various birds were singing – Greenfinch, Dunnock, Song Thrush. Spring is hopefully not far away now! A dead Rook was strung up, presumably shot by the farmer and now swinging from a post pushed into the earth in the middle of the field. It was clearly meant to scare off the rest of the Rooks, which were feeding oblivious next to it. Unreconstructed Victorian old wives’ tales still persist in some parts of the countryside!

As we came around the corner, we could just see some rufous feathers through all the branches of the trees in front – the Tawny Owl was perched in its regular hole. We took a couple of steps further, so we could get a clear view, but before we could even put the scope on it, it had dropped down into the tree out of view. Very frustrating – only a couple of the group glimpsed it before it disappeared. It probably wouldn’t come back out any time soon, so we would just have to come back later.

We turned to walk back. A Stock Dove was out in the middle of the field now, with a small group of Woodpigeons. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming and a Nuthatch was calling from somewhere in the trees by the footpath. A little further on, a Coal Tit was singing from the top of a small bare tree where we could get a look at it.

Time to try our luck with Little Owls instead. We drove further inland – a quick look at our formerly regular site drew a blank once again, as all their favoured spots to perch in the daytime have been covered with netting. As we continued on, there were Brown Hares and a Grey Partridge in the fields. At the next barns we tried, we could see a shape on the edge of the roof, so we found a convenient place to pull off the road and sure enough there were not one but two Little Owls. They were slightly hidden from this angle at first, but we got the scope on them and after a while one hopped up onto the side of the roof facing us where we could get a proper look at it. Owls at last!

Little Owl – one of the pair

Several Stock Doves flew in and out of the barns and one perched on the crossbeam of the gable end. A Yellowhammer was singing from the wires behind us and a small flock of Linnets were perched on a nearby hedge. A large flock of Pied Wagtails was feeding in a recently cultivated field the other side of the road. One of the group spotted a Common Buzzard in the weedy crop very close to where we were standing, but as we turned to look it quickly became apparent that it had a damaged wing – presumably it had been hit by a passing vehicle.

We continued on, round via some more barns but it was late morning now and there were no more owls in evidence. We would have another go for owls later. We cut back down to the coast and headed for the beach car park at Wells, where we walked out to the harbour to see if we could find some other birds to look at. Four Red-breasted Mergansers were diving in the harbour channel, and through the scope we admired their punk haircuts.

There were lots of waders here too – Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits and Redshanks, a few Sanderling and Turnstone, Grey Plovers and Ringed Plovers, Dunlin and Knot. A couple of couple of Red Kites hung in the air. We had just turned the scope on some Shelduck when they were spooked and we looked over to see a Peregrine fly across and disappeared into the trees on East Hills.

It was already midday, so we drove back east to Cley where we could use the picnic tables at the Visitor Centre. As we got out of the minibus, all the birds came up off the scrapes and we looked up to see another Peregrine flying in off the marshes towards us. As we ate lunch, we kept one eye on the scrapes in front. A pair of Marsh Harriers came in and out of the reeds the other side of the road. There were lots of Lapwings on the islands on Pat’s Pool and two or three Ruff were in with them. Several Avocets were feeding in the deeper water. A couple of Pintail were upending over in the far corner.

Marsh Harrier – the male

After lunch, we went for a walk along the East Bank. We stopped to admire a drake Gadwall on Don’s Pool and some smart Wigeon out on the grass opposite. There were more Lapwing here and we got one in the scope – as it turned in the sunshine, its upperparts shone green, purple and bronze. A flock of small finches flew in towards us, normally safe to assume they will be Linnets, but as they turned their bills caught the light and they were yellow. Twite! Probably the birds which have been out at Blakeney in recent weeks, they were reported earlier out by Sea Pool. They dropped down to drink on the end of the Serpentine but before we could get the scope set up for a closer look they were off again. We watched them disappear back out towards the beach.

There had been a Spoonbill around yesterday, but the only large white birds we could see out here at first were a couple of Mute Swans. When we looked back, another white bird had appeared on Pope’s Pool at the back – the Spoonbill. Through the scope, we watched it feeding, sweeping its bill back and forth in the shallow water. The Spoonbills are just starting to return now, for the breeding season, and hopefully they will breed here at Cley again this year.

Spoonbill – on Pope’s Pool

We stopped to scan Arnold’s Marsh, but there were no waders on there today which we hadn’t already seen. There were more Pintail on the Brackish Pools the other side of the path – they were standing in shallow water which meant we got a very good look at their long tails.

We had kept one eye out towards the old shingle ridge as we walked out, so see if we could see the Snow Buntings. There had been no sign, but now we picked them up flying in from the east. They circled round and dropped down on the slope to the north of Arnold’s, so we made our way quickly round there. They were remarkably well camouflaged against the shingle, and tucked down in a dip, but from the top of the ridge we could get them in the scope. We watched them for a while, before suddenly they were off, whirling round like snowflakes before disappearing off towards Sea Pool.

Snow Buntings – on the shingle

Scanning the sea, we managed to find a few Great Crested Grebes out on the water. There were lots of more distant Red-throated Divers, but eventually we located one a little bit closer in. As we walked back along the bank, we stopped to watch a couple of Lapwings having a disagreement, one swooping repeatedly down at the other, landing and bowing, showing off its orangey undertail. A Skylark fluttered up singing.

It was now time to resume the main agenda off the day and look for some owls again. We drove inland to look for Barn Owls and we had only just parked and got out of the minibus, when one of the group spotted over flying across the road behind us. We followed it quickly, watching it fly round through the trees, dropping down in to the grass at one point. It looped back round behind the trees and then across the road again, working its way up the edge of the field behind us. Then it flew away over the back of the field and disappeared.

Barn Owl – as we got out of the minibus

A good start, but the Barn Owls have been showing well here in the afternoons recently so we were still keen for more. As we walked up along the footpath, a second Barn Owl flew across in front of us, presumably having just dropped out from where it was roosting. It disappeared over the hedge the other side, so we hurried up to a small mound where we could look over to the field beyond, but there was no sign of the Barn Owl there now. We stood and waited and it was not too long before it flew back in from the direction we had just come. It flew straight towards us across the water meadows, a great view, then over the hedge again.

Barn Owl – flew right past us

The Barn Owl was going to hunt the field beyond now but almost immediately it turned sharply and dropped down to the ground behind the hedge. It stayed down for a while, it had obviously caught something, and when it came up again it had a vole in its talons. It flew back over the hedge in front of us and across to some thicker bushes behind, where it landed.Through the scope now, we watched it devouring its prey. The Kestrel on the wires, presumably didn’t see it, or would have tried to steal its vole. The Barn Owl finished eating in peace today, and was then in no hurry to resume hunting. Presumably it wasn’t especially hungry as it stayed perched on the edge of the bushes, dozing.

There was still one last mission for the day – so we made our way back to try again for the Tawny Owl. As we came round the corner, we could see it through the branches already perched up at the entrance to the hole, as we had done earlier. This time, we thought we would at least get it in the scope from here for a quick look, before moving out into the open, but once again it quickly dropped down into the hole, before more then one or two people could get a look at it. It was not being very helpful today!

We continued further on a little further, and found somewhere we could conceal ourselves a little in the edge of the trees and still get a fairly clear view of the hole from a discrete distance. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait too long before the Tawny Owl popped up into the entrance to the hold again. Now we had a great view of it in the scope. Finally!

Tawny Owl – finally perched up for us

It was still quite light and it was going to be some time before the Tawny Owl headed out for the night, so after watching it for a while, we eventually decided to head for home. Presumably because it was getting to its preferred time of day, the Tawny Owl was not so concerned by us now, and as we walked back out onto the path and up to where it had been spooked earlier, it stayed where it was. So we stopped for one last look – there were no branches at all in front of it now!

It was a great way to end – lots of owls at last! Mission accomplished.

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