Category Archives: Owls

Rainham shorties

This is the last post from my trip to Rainham Marshes, and as I promised in the last one, here are a selection of the best short eared owl shots from that day. The shorties are winter visitors to the UK from Scandinavia so the east coast is a good place to look for them, and it was a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours, as numerous owls were flying past at very close range, making it pretty easy to get some good pictures as they quartered the reedbeds and the beach:

These are my favourite images from that trip to the marshes of estuary Essex and it was a tremendous way to spend a day, all rounded off with the best display of owls owls I’ve ever seen. Hope you like them too! And as this is my first post of 2017, a belated happy new year to you all too

More Rainham wildlife

The terrain at Rainham Marshes is fairly varied with beach, river, lakes, reedbeds, scrub and grassland amidst the industrial conurbation of the Thames Estuary.  And with varied terrain comes varied birdlife including wader, ducks, birds of prey and passerines:

A lone black tailed godwit (Limosa limosa, Dansk: stor kobber-sneppe) amongst a group of teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand) at the lakeside with reedbeds in the background

As well as godwit a small flock of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) would occasionally lift of the ground as an alarm was raised over some perceived threat, circle around for a minute or two before returning to where they were flushed from. I’ve seen that kind of behaviour before in response to the sighting of a predator such as a peregrine falcon, but I didn’t see any predators of that ilk so maybe an unseen ground predator such as a fox was in the vicinity.

And across another section of reedbed was the raised Eurostar train track and a transport depot full of trucks just beyond

And I love this image of another stonechat craning from the top of a bulrush to keep a wary eye on what we were up to:


We had heard a report that at the far end of the reserve toward the landfill hill there were short eared owls in the area, and later on in the afternoon we decided to wander down that way to see if we could find them. And it didn’t take long…

Short eared owl (Asio flammeus, Dansk: mosehornugle) patrolling the reedbeds

And that heralded the start of probably the best display of owl activity of any species that I’ve ever seen. And I’ll post some more shorty pictures next time. But isn’t this guy a beauty?!

Tyto alba

A few posts ago in ‘The Owl and the Woodpecker‘ I mentioned that a pair of robins may have started getting fruity in my garden as early as the begining of January. And then last Friday I saw another robin feeding a fledgling on the grass outside work, so it looks as though the avian breeding cycle may have been able to start early this year. I hope it has, and that it allows other species to recover some of their numbers too.

Also in that post, I talked about our local barn owls, of which we had two breeding pairs in and around the village last year. And one gloriously sunny evening in July myself and my daughter, Sophie, set off across the fields with a portable hide, binoculars and a camera to try to see the owls and take some photographs. I know where the owls nest so we tried to get in position to see them heading to and from the nest site via a circuitous route to avoid disturbing them.

A barn owl, Tyto alba, heading out on a hunting mission

We eventually found a spot at the top of a drainage ditch between two fields around 150m from the shed where the owls had built the nest, and we didn’t have to wait long for them to appear. Truth be told I’ve always had a thing about all owls, but especially barn owls. I think they’re beautiful and iconic creatures, and very reminiscent of warm summers evenings in the English countryside. It’s always an exciting moment when I catch sight of one.

And the other thing that struck me as we sat and watched these was how they are incredibly efficient predators:

…and heading back again clutching the booty

We sat and watched them coming and going for about an hour and in that time they arrived 6 times with prey. So on average every 10 minutes one of the parents returned with a meal for a youngster, this one was carrying a rodent in its talons which it delivered to the nest, spent a couple of minutes with the youngsters, then departed on the next foray.

And another meal being delivered

And they carried on hunting into the dusk at which point we upped sticks and headed for home. I don’t know how long the owls carried on hunting but the parents seemed to be so successful that they may not have needed to carry on for much longer, after which they would have spent the night at a roost site separate from the nest with the youngsters in.

It was a glorious evening and Sophie was beside herself as one of the owls flew right overhead and looked straight at her, as barn owls are wont to do, as she looked straight at it. A memory that will stay with me, and her I hope, for a very long time!

The owl and the woodpecker

As I started to write this post there was some interesting robin behaviour going on in the garden. Robins (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals) are fiercely territorial and will kill each other to defend their patch and I often see them chasing off not just other robins but any bird smaller than a blackbird (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort)! But just now there was a pair being relatively nice to each other and even sharing the same feeder. So I’m wondering if these two were a pair beginning to contemplate the imminent breeding season, as early as January the 12th. The weather has been much warmer than the previous three winters so maybe they are already thinking of making up for lost time.

But I began with a digression, so now to get back on message. I’ve been dithering about writing this post for a few days but I was finally inspired to start when I saw some recent posts on the blog of a good blogging friend, Gary, from ‘Krikitarts‘ (if you haven’t seen Krikarts yet make sure you check it out, it’s very, very, good!). Gary’s posts included pictures of skies and rainbows which were digitally reproduced form the original slides. And seeing these spectacular images spurred me on to get this post written to show you some evening skies from Cambridgshire in summertime.

But before I get on to the sky, on this particular evening from July 2013, green woodpeckers, which breed successfully close by, had their most recent brood of fledglings and were out and about learning how to dig up termites:

A pair of green woodpeckers flying away from me, they’re skittish creatures (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte )

Whilst many bird species have been on the decline, the green woodpecker seems to be thriving, at least in my part of the world. I see them around the village, in the trees and on the ground around work, and on the way to work too, and I’ve heard they are generally doing OK. They’re handsone, colourful, creatures and it’s good to see them coping well with all the insults humans throw at them.

A greenie keeping an eye on me and the dog

This particular evening was a very warm and sunny one and as I meandered across the fields the sun got lower and lower, and bigger and bigger, in the sky:


And as the sun got lower and plunged us into the crepuscular phase twixt day and night, a barn owl (Tyto alba, Dansk: slørugle) was quartering the fields looking for rodents. Barn owls were hit really hard by the previous three bitterly cold winters and then by the brutal wet and cold weather last spring. But we had at least two breeding pairs in Histon and this individual was half of one of those pairs. Bearing in mind the precipitous decline in barn owl numbers in the UK and beyond, I think that makes Histon an important place for them. I don’t know how many chicks were fledged but I’m hoping some survive the cold weather holds off this year and we get more breeding pairs in 2014.

Barn owls are great to watch. I know the routes they take in the fields local to here and when I see them coming I can crouch down and often, but not always, they fly slowly right over my head, around 10-15 feet up, and sometimes we eyeball each other and I wonder what they’re thnking. Of which more in another post in the near future.

And as I meandered home from watching the owl, the sun disappeared below the horizon leaving these magnificent colours hanging in the sky which slowly turned into dark blue-grey and then the black of night

Not a bad way to spend an evening!

When the sun stood still

The plane through the centre of the earth and the sun is called the ‘ecliptic‘ and it describes the apparent path of the sun around the earth. And the plane through the centre of the earth – on the earth’s equator – is called the ‘celestial equator‘. There is an angle between these two planes of 23.4o and this angle is known as the ‘obliquity of the ecliptic‘.

It is the obliquity of the ecliptic which gives rise to our seasons, because as the earth moves around the sun a point on the surface will be closer to the sun in summer and further away in winter. The mid winter and mid summer solstices are the midpoints of those two seasons and at the  midsummer solstice the perceived height of the sun in the sky is at its maximum ‘declination‘ – the angle between the ecliptic and the orbital plane. So whereas the solstices occur when the angle is at its maximum  23.4o, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes occur when the angle between the two planes is at its minimum, i.e. 0o, or when the celestial equator intersects with the ecliptic.

The summer solstice occurs in the northern hemisphere on June 21st and on this years solstice I found myself walking in the countryside late into the evening. It was a proper midusmmer day; sunny, warm and sultry, and the fields were full of wild flowers.

Field poppy – papaver rhoeas -my all time favourite wild flower. There’s nothing quite so spectacular as a field full of red poppies!

The field poppy is also known as the ‘Flanders poppy’ from the battle fields of WW1 – which seems wholely appropriate as I’m writing this on Remembrance Sunday. I find it difficult to photograph poppies and get the colours just right, but I really like these flowers against the green background. They were snapped in the field below, which was a riot of floral colour throughout the summer:

Looking along the drainage ditch which divides two arable fields

The old oak tree in this picture was home to a barn owl nest this year and I spent several evenings sitting in the undergrowth watching the toing and froing of the adults bringing prey to the nest. I didn’t get to see the fledglings but I’m hoping they were successful and return next year. And it was along this stretch of ditch where I photographed the yellowhammer, linnet and whitethroat I posted recently.

Not quite sunset, but the colours were breathtaking

And of course at that time of year, late in the day when the sun is getting low in the sky, the skyscapes can be magnificent .

Another flower which was sprouting in the hedgerows was woody nightshade, Solanum dulcamara, which is closely related to deadly nightshade, and the potato which is rather less toxic than it’s relatives – unless the potatos are green when they contain the same toxin. So don’t eat the green ones (or nightshade berries)!

Woody nightshade flowers with a dog rose in the background

Toward the end of my stroll it was getting darker and in the midst of a line of imposing horse chestnut trees is this dead one silhouetted against the crepuscular blueness of the western sky after sunset.


On another dead tree stump adjacent to this one was a kestrel eating its prey and it let me stand close by and watch it for several minutes which was remarkable in itself, but to give you an idea of how close I was I could actually hear it tearing the flesh off the bone! He must have been very hungry.

The moon emerging from behind a horse chestnut tree

And right at the end of the walk it was night time proper, and on midsummers day this year there was also a full moon.

The word ‘solstice‘ is derived from the Latin for ‘the sun stands still’ because the sun has stopped rising in the sky and begins it’s journey back across the ecliptic to bring summer to the southern hemisphere, leaving winter for us in the north. But I wasn’t thinking about that as I soaked up the summer warmth on midsummers day.

Serendipity I – The Short Eared Owl

Serendipity struck on Sunday a couple of weeks ago. I’d fixed up to go for a stroll with an old friend who I hadn’t seen for a few years to Wicken Fen. That was on the 20th May, but he got his Sundays confused and we ended up going on the 13th.

It was serendipitous because the weather had been grim leading up to that weekend but on the evening of the 13th it was perfect: sunny, warm, calm and we couldn’t have wished for better conditions. And on top of that there was wildlife in abundance. As we got out the car the air was full of swifts screeching overhead – lots and lots of them – along with swallows and house martins. Various species of geese and ducks and great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) were on the lakes, and we were serenaded by cettis warbler (Cettia cetti, Dansk: cettisanger), grasshopper warbler (Locustella naevia, Dansk: græshoppesanger) and other songbirds in the undergrowth, and a snipe drummed in the reed bed. Snipe (Gallinago gallinago, Dansk: dobbeltbekkasin) make this sound by spreading their tail feathers and the wind generates the piping sound by making them vibrate.

Wicken fen is a really good place to see birds of prey too: marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg), hobby (Falco subbuteo, Dansk: lærkefalk), kestrel (Falco tinunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk), sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) and assorted owls can all be seen there. We had been commenting how the birds of prey were conspicuous by their absence and a few minutes later we spotted a hobby perched on a fence post. As we wallowed in our good fortune I spotted an owl behind a tree which emerged right in front of us and it turned out to be a short eared owl:


Short eared owl, Asio flammeus (Dansk: mosehornugle)

I thought our short eared owls were winter visitors, migrating to the relative warmth of the UK from the frozen icefields of Scandinavia and returning in the Spring. But it transpires they are also resident breeders in the east and north of England and the east of Scotland so can be seen here all year round.

This one treated us to several minutes worth of hunting, flying to and fro and diving down into the reeds in search of rodents.

I last saw short eared owls at Burwell Fen, east of Cambridge, several months ago when there was a large number of Scandinavian visitors in residence. While we were there we chatted to a BBC camerman who was there to film them for a TV nature series. I think he would have got some good footage on that day but I’m sure he would have been pleased to get this close to one!

Like all owls, it’s a hunter which is supremely evolved for its particular function.

And then on the journey home, continuing the owl theme, there was a barn owl taking the lazy approach to rodent hunting:

Barn owl numbers have been on the decline for a long time and the exceptionally cold winters of 2009 and 2010 badly affected them. We didn’t see one at Wicken which surprised me because I usually see at least one when I’m there at that time of the evening, so it was good to find this one perched on an advertising hoarding alongside the road home.

I’m a firm believer in serendipity playing her part in human endeavour and she adequately rewarded us on this excursion!

Barn owls bounce back

Every now and again there is a piece of good news regarding the survival of a particular species. Yesterday on the BBC news website was just such a story. It concerned the resurgence of barn owls (Tyto alba, Dansk: slørugle) in the Trossachs around Loch Lomond in Scotland.

Watching barn owls silently quartering fields on a warm summers evening is a rare treat and getting rarer, so it was good to hear that in this area the numbers of field voles (Microtus agrestis) have rocketed by up to ten fold, which has led to a concommitant increase in the breeding success of the local barn owls.

A barn owl quartering a wheat field

Paradoxically, the reason the vole population exploded was the long freezing winters we had last year and the year before, in which large numbers of barn owls perished, but the voles were able to avoid the worst of the cold and move around by tunnelling under the snow and thereby avoid detection by airborn predators.

It was also interesting to read that the owls were maximising the benefit of the vole surplus by storing slaughtered prey in owl boxes, with up to 15 dead rodents in a single box.

Hopefully vole numbers will continue to remain high and barn owl numbers can recover even further. If anyone has heard similar reports about barn owl numbers in other parts of the country please let me know.

All those flocking waders

The Cambridgeshire Fens can be a bleak and windswept part of the world as the winter months descend, and today it was very bleak and very windswept, but it’s a great location for getting out and seeing some exciting and scarce wildlife.


A small flock of lapwing and golden plover over Burwell Fen

For those of you who don’t know the Fens they’re characterised by wide open flatness and big skies. They were originally under water but were drained by Dutch engineers in the 17th and 18th centuries to leave high quality arable land. The soil is extremely rich in organic material which gives the soil the rich black colour evident in the picture above.

I set off there on Saturday with my friend David because there had been a report on the Cambridge Bird Club website of short eared owls (Asio flammeus, Dansk: mosehornugle) in the vicinity. After wending our way through Swaffham Prior and Reach we rocked up at Tubney Fen where we sat in a new National Trust hide overlooking a new pond with new reed beds which had four coots (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: blishøne) and a pair of mute swans (Cygnus olor, Dansk: knopsvane) paddling on it. And no other signs of life whatsoever.

As we watched, the mute swans took off and looped round low right in front of us and landed back on the water. At least one of them landed on the water in the spectacular and graceful way that mute swans do. The other one crash landed on the ground just short of the water and after regaining its equilibrium stood looking highly indignant but managed to retain it’s dignity in a way that only a mute swan could in those circumstances. We hoped it wasn’t injured but it looked to be suffering from little more than damaged pride.

After another five minutes sat in the hide the lack of further activity and the low temperature caused us to move on, and on the way back to the car we spotted eight whooper swans in a field several hundred meters away. The whooper (Cygnus cygnus, Dansk: sangsvane) is a winter migrant to the UK and a very scarce breeder, usually less than ten pairs a year will breed here. It’s a similar size to the mute swan but it’s neck is straighter and the beak is straight with a black tip and pale yellow base. Their breeding territory is in the high Arctic and they migrate south as far as Africa for the winter.


A family unit of eight whooper swans – two adults with white plumage and the charateristic yellow beak and six cygnets with pale grey/white plumage and without the yellow beak

We decided to move on to Burwell Fen from Tubney Fen and on the way we were considerably closer to the swans so we stopped for another look. And as we looked David noticed that a pale brown stripe in an adjacent field was in fact a flock of golden plovers (Pluvialis apricaria, Dansk: hjejle) and lapwings (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk:  vibe). When I was a kid I spent a fair amount of time out and about exploring the countryside and huge flocks of lapwing consisting of hundreds and possibly thousands of birds were a fairly common sight. But their numbers have been dwindling for decades and these days I’m pleased if I see more than twenty. A carrion crow was getting agitated in the tree beyond the plovers because a buzzard (Buteo buteo, Dansk: musvåge) was perched there too, but the crow wouldn’t get too close and the buzzard just sat tight and ignored it. There turned out to be 243 lapwing in this flock and for me that alone justified the trip.


Around 10% of the lapwing in our flock of 243

There were also several hundred golden plover. As we watched another even bigger flock joined them and when they were flushed into the air we could see another flock as big again in the middle distance and beyond that another that was enormous. So we estimated that between these flocks there were several thousand birds. It was a amazing sight.

The flocks of waders eventually settled so we made off further into the Fen, pausing to gaze at a group of roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) relaxing in a field:


These very well camouflaged roe deer didn’t seem at all perturbed by our presence

As we watched the deer, a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) quartered the field and then a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus, Dansk: vandrefalk) swooped past car, travelling with the customary haste that species is renowned for.

Arriving eventually at a car park, we continued on foot over a bridge where several kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) were quartering all the fields around and almost immediately spotted a short eared owl. It was perched on a fence post in the middle of the adjacent field and I initially mistook it for a little owl because I was looking at it from front-on and I could only see the top half, but when we saw it through David’s spotting scope we could clearly see it was of the short eared variety.

Short eared owl hunting rodents the easy way, not wasting any energy

As a result of the inclement weather, low light and strong wind, and only having a 300mm lens I couldn’t get any good photographs, but it’s unmistakeably a short eared owl, so I’m happy.

We saw various small songbirds such as chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs,  Dansk: bogfinke) and goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits), five bird of prey species, whooper swans, and countless thousands of golden plover and lapwing. So despite the cold it was fine way to spend a Saturday morning.