Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Loder Valley NR

Standard "Kingfisher on stick" shot
A couple of days off work; a rare luxury in the life of a mortgage slave. Tuesday sees me at a SWT-run Wildlife and Farming day... so I figured an extra-long weekend would give me a chance to pursue a bird I've never quite managed a decent image of - the Kingfisher.

My timing, unfortunately, was off. Speaking to a fellow glutton-for-punishment in the hide (who kept me company for five long, cold hours) it seems the birds were quite active at the end of last week, when she had managed to shoot the male and female together. As things transpired, all I had to show for the day were 11 very similar images, bursted in the space of a few seconds. One measly showing as the pair swapped shifts at the nest indicated that the female has laid since Friday, and they are now rotating shifts on their coming brood. I left at 4pm without another glimpse since the sole sighting at around midday. They'll incubate the eggs for three weeks or so, then the action should pick up again as both parents scramble to keep the young fed. I'll pay another visit at the end of April when there should be more frequent showings. It's not ideal - I'd prefer a subject in a more natural setting and doing something other than sitting on a twig. But it's a start, and will give me a chance to get to know the bird until I can locate one of the little blighters that I attempted to track down last year (and found nothing but the occasional flash of azure zooming past me) - without worrying about stumbling on territory around the nest and falling foul of the law.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Nothing to Declare

For anyone interested in the Barn Owl situation - No sightings since the weekend that it was first seen. I have been regularly checking in, and I'd really expect to see some activity by now if there was any chance of a nesting pair. So my gut feeling is she's either moved on, or is a solitary bird who has no need for hunting in daylight hours at the moment. If she has gone elsewhere, of course you start to wonder why... Are there simply too many dog walkers and joggers around the farm? Have the fields been over-grazed by the cows and sheep that were employed as biological lawn-mowers (I'm not particularly up on this subject, but the grass still seems rather short to support a population of field voles to me... and there was little in the way of verge left by the hay cutting last July)? Has the seemingly never-ending building work at the house caused too much disturbance? Unless anyone speaks Owl, all we can do is speculate. However I do feel that there is room for improvement in the management of the site; at the moment it seems little more than a communal dog toilet. Still, the optimist in me hopes she is still there, and a mate will arrive in the coming days. We may just have a longer wait for the young to emerge compared to last year.

Away from Horsham - I've heard of two reports of Barn Owl deaths in the Arun Valley this week. One predated, the other possibly starved. Even the birds that made it through the winter are likely to be poor condition and struggling to condition themselves for breeding. This will have a knock-on effect with small broods and females who may abandon nests in need of food; it doesn't bode well for the future. We need a dry summer and a kind following winter to allow the population to begin to recover.

My focus has switched to the area around Warnham for now - there have been sightings of Barn Owls in the area encircled by the A29, A281 and A24. No luck yet, but then I'm still waiting on the extra hour of light from next weekend to give me more time. Tracking down subjects for wildlife photography and working full-time are not compatible - I guess that's why I encounter few like-minded people of similar age to myself. But I have no intention of waiting 30 years+ to retire so I suppose I'll have to make do - and hope for a lottery win! That £120m Euromillions jackpot next Friday would keep me going for a while...

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Barn Owl News!!!


spot_the_owl, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.
I had all but given hope it would happen - but this evening I decided to stop off at the farm on the way home for a quick check. I looked around the field, saw nothing and thought I might as well leave. But something told me to hang on... And a few minutes later I thought I could see a white shape moving near the box, which was obscured by a large branch. Having been fooled by a collared dove at Woods Mill, I figured this was probably the same - or one of the many discarded plastic bags those wonderful, considerate dog walkers leave everywhere. I had the D90 with me and a 150mm Macro lens, so I pointed it at the box and fired off a few shots. It was barely distinguishable, but zooming in convinced me it was worthy of closer inspection, so I walked around to the river path. As I pulled myself up the incline and peered through the branches, I saw what I'd desperately been hoping it would be - A Barn Owl!

It took flight, and disappeared over the hedge. I couldn't be sure but my initial impression was that it was a new bird - not the regular male. I headed over to the one field that presently has enough tussocky grass to support any number of voles, and sure enough there it was. Unsurprisingly, a dog walker soon moved it on and it came closer to my position - not close enough for a definite ID... but in my opinion a 75% chance it is a young female from the pronounced wing and nape markings, and a lack of imperfections to her flight feathers. She post hunted for a few minutes, then dashed and whirled over the grass. It was quite an unusual sight; not the graceful hovering I've observed before with other Barn Owls, but a crazed swooping and acrobatic display. She may have yet to perfect the art of vole catching, but she has chosen her territory wisely - there's no shortage of prey here.

And just maybe our wily ol' male is lurking nearby. I certainly hope so, It wouldn't be the same without him. In any case, I quickly left her to go about her business in the fading light. I will pop back in the next few days in the hope of confirming whether my observations are accurate, and hopefully spotting him. If we do have a new girl, I certainly do not want to disturb her as she settles in, so I'll be treading carefully...