30th Jan 2023 – Owls & More

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A private group Owl Tour today. It was a lovely sunny day, but with a very blustery wind gusting up to 38mph in the morning which dropped steadily through the day to no more than a light breeze by late afternoon.

The sun was already almost poking over the horizon by the time we got away and given the gusty wind it was perhaps no surprise that the first Barn Owls we looked for had already gone in to roost – these two have rarely been seen out beyond dawn. We tried a second location, getting out of the minibus this time to scan the grazing marshes. There were several Brown Hares on the grass and a large flock of Curlew feeding. A Kestrel was perched on top of a dead tree and then hovering over the marshes and a Marsh Harrier drifted low over the bank in the distance. Back in the minibus, a couple of more sheltered spots where we have seen Barn Owls out later recently similarly drew a blank. Not to worry, the wind was forecast to drop through the day so we would have another go later.

We decided to have a look for Tawny Owl next. As we walked down the footpath, a male Greenfinch was wheezing away in the hedge and a little further up, a male Chaffinch was perched up singing too and a Song Thrush was singing in the trees beyond. Signs that spring is not too far away now, hopefully. From the corner, four Roe Deer were lurking along the far side of the field, so we stopped to watch them. A large flock of Redwing was feeding in the field too, and looking through we found several Mistle Thrushes and a single Fieldfare with them. Then on round the next corner, we looked back across to the wood opposite and found an empty hole in the tree – the Tawny Owl was not there! We were not having much luck with owls this morning, something else we would have to revisit later, so not all was lost.

The good news was that, while we were failing to find any of our more regular owls, we received a message to say that the Long-eared Owl which has been putting in very erratic appearances in the garden of the Cley Spy shop in Glandford (North Norfolk’s premier optics retailer!) was present again this morning. We were at least guaranteed one owl! The shop doesn’t open until 10am, which was under an hour off now, so we needed to work our way gradually over in that direction. We had a quick look at what was formerly our most reliable Little Owl site, but with the sheds all netted and their favourite perches all closed off they have become very unreliable now and it was no great surprise that our luck was out here too.

We took a short break from owls and headed down to Blakeney. As we walked across to the harbour, a Kingfisher was perched on the mooring rope of one of the boats in the channel. We got it in the scope and had some great views. Not an owl, but still a lovely bird to get such prolonged views of!

Kingfisher – on a mooring rope

There were a few Brent Geese out in the harbour, and one stood out in the low winter sunshine – much paler-flanked, it was a Pale-bellied Brent Goose, a regular returning bird here and paired with one of our more expected Dark-bellied Brent Geese. A smart male Stonechat kept flicking up and down from a post on the edge of the saltmarsh opposite. A little group of Teal on the muddy bank further up were catching the low sunlight and a Little Grebe was diving in the channel. There were several Redshank and Curlew along the channel too, which we got in the scope for a closer look.

It was time to break our owl duck. It was only a couple of minutes after 10am when we arrived at the Cley Spy shop, but there was already a small crowd gathered on the viewing terrace (they had apparently been queued up at the door before they opened!!). We found a space and set up the scope. The Long-eared Owl was showing fantastically well in the sunshine on its original branch out in the open today (it had been further back and behind branches yesterday). Ironically, normally the hardest of our regular owls to see and the first we had managed to catch up with today. Stunning.

Long-eared Owl – enjoying the sun

After enjoying fabulous views of the Long-eared Owl, we eventually had to tear ourselves away and move on. We drove west, to try to see if our luck was in now with Little Owls. And the next barns we tried, we could just see two Little Owls under the edge of the roof, out of the wind on the gable end and sunning themselves. By the time everyone got out of the minibus, one had gone back in and we could only see a single face looking out. But then the second appeared again, the two of them slightly squashed in under the roof. They were distant, but it was a good start.

We would go back to owling later, but what to do during the middle of the day, Bittern or Shorelarks? There had been a very showy Bittern over the last few days right by the main path at Titchwell, so the vote was to go to try for that. As we were heading further west anyway, we continued across inland via some more sites where we had seen Little Owls in the past, but not in recent years. Mostly, unsurprisingly, there was nothing to see – they have disappeared from so many places now. But we drove slowly past one set of barns where we haven’t seen them for several years and there was a Little Owl looking back out at us from under the end of the roof. There was no way we could get out, as we were so close to it, but we had a great view from the minibus before eventually it decided we were not going to drive straight by and it disappeared back in under the roof.

Little Owl – under the roof

It was almost lunchtime when we arrived at Titchwell. We were just walking out to look for the Bittern quickly, when one of the locals who was just leaving told us it hadn’t been seen all morning. We walked out anyway, onto the main path past the Visitor Centre, and there was no sign of the regular Water Rail in the ditch either now too. There were still lots of people looking for the Bittern and we quickly checked out all the places we have seen it in the last few days, but nothing. Time for plan B? If we went back to have lunch now, we would then still have time to have a go for Shorelarks before resuming our owl hunt.

We had just turned to walk back when someone we knew came up to say the Bittern had just been seen, back where it was a couple of days ago. We walked quickly over but by the time we got there it had already disappeared back into the reeds. We waited for a few minutes but there was no further sign of it. Everyone was hungry, so we walked back to the minibus for a break. We had only just finished eating and were packing up when we were told the Bittern had reappeared again. Time for another go?

We walked back out just in time to see the Bittern disappear back into the reeds – it was feeling like this was not going to be our day! Again, we stood and scanned for a few minutes and it seemed like we were going to be out of luck once more. Then we had another glimpse of it deep in the reeds, and it seemed to be walking back across towards the front edge. It took an age to appear, but finally it snaked out from the reeds into the lower bulrushes in front and stood there looking at us. Wow – what a bird! We watched the Bittern for a while, before it eventually turned and snaked back into the reeds again.

Bittern – eventually came out

Choices, choices. Three Shorelarks had just been seen on Holme beach, and that was a bird on the wanted list, but if we went to try for those that would not give us enough time to get all the way back to our regular Barn Owls, before we had to look for the Tawny Owl. Again, the vote was to have a look for the Shorelarks, and we could just try to catch a Barn Owl (normally the easiest to see of the owls here) on our way back east.

As we walked out onto the beach, there was no sign of the Shorelarks where they have been for the last week or so. We bumped into the couple who had just seen them and they told us they were out along the high tide line a short way to the east today. Unfortunately, as we turned to look where they were pointing we could see someone walking through the very area and when we got out onto the beach the Shorelarks had disappeared. If we had more time, we could have walked east along the beach to see if they had been pushed further along, but we had already pushed our time too far and needed to start heading back now.

Barn Owl – out hunting as we drove back

As we drove back east, we checked several regular spots for Barn Owls as we passed but couldn’t see any out at first. We cut inland to some barns where one often likes to perch in the sunshine before it heads out hunting, but there was no sign of it anywhere too. It was beginning to feel like we were going to be out of luck again. Then just a bit further on, a Barn Owl flew across the road in front of us. It flew up and over the old railway line and then back across the road the other side. We drove on, and could just see it in the grass on the bank, before it took off again and doubled back behind us. Thankfully there was a convenient layby, so we pulled in and climbed up the verge and there was the Barn Owl on a post. It sat looking round for a minute and then flew up and dropped down into the railway cutting out of view.

We still had the Tawny Owl to look for again. We got back just as the sun was setting and walked in along the footpath round the edge of the fields. Two of the Roe Deer were still here, feeding out in the field. We got up to the point where we could just see the hole in the tree and there was the Tawny Owl perched at the entrance. We got the scope on it and everyone had a quick look in case it disappeared back in. Then we continued on up to the corner and we were looking straight at it, staring straight back at us. A lovely view of what is our commonest but one of our least seen owls.

We stood and watched the Tawny Owl through the scope as the sun dropped and the light gradually faded. Eventually it moved, and climbed higher up into the hole. It was time for us to go now, and we had just picked the scope up when we looked back up to see it had gone – presumably heading out to hunt. A fitting end to a great day of owls – and lots more besides.

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