Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Kingfishers Re-visited

Kingfisher in flight, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.

On Monday I made the return trip I had promised myself to Ardingly and the Loder Vally NR. My timing was good this time around - the brood has obviously hatched as both adult Kingfishers were busily popping in and out of the nest every 20 minutes or so - quite a contrast to the miserly couple of sightings of three weeks ago! I ended up with 4 or 5 shots out of 100+ plus that I was reasonably happy with, although still wishing I had a longer lens! This shot was taken with the usual 300 + 1.7tc combo. Although I've done well enough to capture the bird in flight, the cropping (around 65%) needed means it's not as detailed as I would like. Of course for every image you're happy with, there's a bundle that get deleted there and then and I must have got rid of a couple of hundred "duffers". The bird was too small in the viewfinder for AF to track reliably, so I had to use manual focus, aim where I though it would fly and hope that the shutter speed was quck enough (1/3200) and wide aperture wouldn't render the depth of field too shallow. It just about came off on this occasion.

On the Owl front, still nothing. There were a couple of long, streaky droppings on fence posts this evening and evidence of some vole activity on one of the fields. I do think that the lack of voles is still a factor though - a quick grass check revealed that 3 of the 5 fields surveyed will not support a healthy field vole population at present, for reasons previously discussed. I hope the council instruct whoever does the cutting more carefully this year. I shall be contacting them in the early summer to ensure they are at least aware of the consequences of cutting the grass so short - I'm amazed at the lack of thought that went into it last year. There's still time, but it looks a feint hope now.

To end on a positive note, a Kestrel was hunting this evening on the (presumed lost) Barn Owl's favourite bit of turf, and the "eep" of a Kingfisher was heard as it whizzed along the Arun behind me. What marvellous little birds they are!

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Red Kite near West Grinstead

Red Kite over Sussex, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.
I went for a walk this morning along the banks of the western branch of the Adur, starting at the Parish Church at West Grinstead and heading towards Partridge Green along public footpaths. I hadn't been walking long when I flushed a large raptor from a tree. Initially, it was so close it barely fit into the frame! Of course, it was facing entirely the wrong way for me so most of my shots were of a very dark bird - when I reviewed the images on the LCD, my first thought was that it was a Golden Eagle! I hadn't realised that Kites were that large, but apparently they can grow to 185cm wing span.

My reason for being there was - you guessed it - Barn Owls. The long, tussocky grass that line the river banks and surrounding land looked ideal. But there was no sign... however I'm convinced that the habitat would support at least one pair, so will return in a few weeks. Barn Owl activity should pick up mid May as the first owlets start to hatch.

While we're on the subject, I paid a fleeting visit to the Farm this morning to check for activity. While there, I inspected the grass; there is nothing in the way of a litter layer underneath the new growth. I put this down to the length of the cutting, and a combination of a late cut and excessive grazing in 2010 - which prevented further significant growth before winter. This resulted in no "grass fall", where the old grass collapses and provides the necessary habitat for field voles the following year. You can tell there are far fewer voles simply by visiting at night and listening - last year you could hear them squeaking away constantly. In comparison, those noises are now fewer and further between all over the Farm.

This combination of factors has degraded the habitat from a Barn Owl's perspective. It may also have been contributory to the male's failure to last the winter (though I understand he was getting on a bit in Barn Owl terms). So you have to question the management of the land - Why cut so short? Could a couple of the fields be left uncut for a year, or cut in rotation? Why do animals need to graze constantly through summer and autumn months? Hopefully, with the formation of the friends group (which I have belatedly added my name to, having been away for the meeting last week), we'll be able to find out. If the land is being managed by people with agricultural experience rather than conservation, this needs to be changed - maybe the Sussex Wildlife Trust can get involved; they have few interests at present in the north of the county. I understand the hay is cut and taken away without payment either way, so there is no financial necessity to maintain it in that way. Are the council able to obtain compensation under the Stewardship schemes? I'd be delighted to be involved if volunteers are required - as long as they buck the trend that most conservation groups seem to adhere to, of organising tasks during the working week. Useless unless you're retired or so wealthy that you don't need to work!

Friday, 8 April 2011

Fruitless Barn Owl Searching

Just a quick update on the Owl situation... I've still not managed another sighting since that first one, which seems a long time ago now! I think she is there; I heard a distant screech a few nights ago at around 11pm. I've taken to late night sessions after several luckless early morning and dusk visits. I figured that if there is a pair, the female will be begging for food regularly and I'd be more likely to hear than see them. On the flip side, if there isn't a pair the lone individual should be out and about trying to find a partner, again with a fair bit of noisy screeching involved. I suspect this more likely at the moment - but this may mean that the bird is going further afield and using a number of roosting sites, rather than staying at the box.

Of course, it should all become clearer in the next few weeks...