Hi and welcome to my Blog, my name is Paul Riddle and I live in south Leicestershire, UK. Back in August 2008 my quest began to locate as many local Little Owl territories as possible. The driving force was a reported decline in the uk numbers so I thought I would do my bit and conduct a study in my area. After 7 years and countless hours out in the field I have detected over 200 different sites. With a thirst for a greater understanding of the owls a more comprehensive monitoring and nest box programme then commenced. This also now includes monitoring the local and very sparse population of Barn Owls, please pop back occasionally and catch up with the life and times of my owls and any other wildlife that I come across. I hope you enjoy your visit!!!

Monday, 27 April 2015

Spain, trip report 2015

Hi all!

I've just arrived back from a 6 day break in southern Spain where I was in the good company of one of my good birding buddies, Jonah. We flew into Malaga airport early Monday morning and then once we'd picked up our hire car we made the 60 mile drive north to our accommodation in the town of Algarinejo. The drive should of comfortably taken a couple of hours but because we were "birding" as soon as we left the airport it took us considerably longer!

We finally arrived at our destination some four hours later, the main reason for the delay was we opted to go across country rather than take the motorway. Our theory was it was going to be a far more relaxing drive and better for birding (we could stop and start at our leisure).  It wasn't too bad a decision either as en-route we ticked off 29 different species mostly of which were common stuff. There was a few goodies seen also which included Hoopoe, Bee-eater, Crested Lark, Red rumped Swallow, Nightingale, Sardinian Warbler, Zitting Cisticola, Cetti's Warbler (heard only), Woodchat Shrike and Lesser Kestrel.  But the one "special" that was ticked off that was high on our wanted list was Golden Eagle. A single bird was seen circling around a high peak that we stopped off at, we did try to take some pictures but the resultant images were terrible!!

Our host for the week was John, or rather Juan (the Spanish version). He is an expat and relocated with his wife some 12 years ago. Sadly Juan's wife passed away a couple of years ago but because he has such a close knit network of friends they helped him through those tough times. Because his house is quite remote (7 KM down dirt tracks from the town) and difficult to find for the first time it was decided we'd meet Juan at one of his regularly frequented bars in the town square. Once all the introductions and formalities were out of the way (and a few pints had been downed) we followed Juan back to his place. His house is set at the base of the mountains among the beautiful surroundings of olive groves, streams and pastures, a birding heaven and a perfect location for our base!

Once we'd settled in Juan took us for a guided walk around the local area, Hoopoe and Nightingales were everywhere and another special was also seen in the form of a pair of Haw-finches taking our modest tally to 29. But the holiday's No 1 target bird for both Jonah and I was to come later in the evening whilst we sat out on the balcony having a few beers. We'd been informed by Juan that they were present and could be heard calling most evenings. It is a bird that I have never heard or even seen before so as the darkness drew in we sat quietly and listened with anticipation. The silence was deafening, only to be occasionally disturbed by the distant song of a Nightingale or the hiss of another can of beer being opened! Then it happened, we heard it, there was no mistaking the repeated short, deep whistling "tyuh, tyuh of the Scops Owl, get in there!!!

For the trip we initially set ourselves a target of spotting 120 different species, so the running tally of 30 on our first day was a pretty good start.

Notable Species

Day 1 = 30 new species including;
Hoopoe, Bee-eater, Crested Lark, Red rumped Swallow, Nightingale, Sardinian Warbler, Zitting Cisticola, Cetti's Warbler (heard only), Woodchat Shrike, Golden Eagle, Hawfinch and Scops Owl.

Day 2 = 29 new species including;  
Bonelli's Eagle, Lesser Kestrel, Little Owl, Black Eared Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Dartford Warbler, Melodious Warbler, Bonelli's Warbler, Firecrest, Pied Flycatcher, Crested Tit, Chough, Raven, Golden Oriel and Cirl Bunting.

Day 3 = 56 new species including; 
Cattle Egret, Greater Flamingo, Griffon Vulture, Short Toed Eagle, Montagu's Harrier, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Wood Sandpiper, Gulled Billed Tern, Pin Tailed Sand Grouse, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Woodlark and Great Reed Warbler.

Day 4 = 5 new species including; 
Black Redstart, Black Wheatear, Orphean Warbler and Subalpine Warbler.
Day 5 = 8 new species including; 
Squacco Heron, Quail, Woodcock, Short Toed Lark and Whinchat.


Day 6 = 4 new species including; 
Goshawk, Great White Egret, Monk Parakeet and Osprey.


As you can see we smashed our original target of 120 out of sight and achieved a whopping 132 different species!! Sadly of the 132 species we saw only a small percentage were photographed, we didn't bother trying to attain images of the more common stuff that we can get back home and some of the "good" birds we'd like to have got images of were either too flighty, not conductive for photography or just too far away, even for my new 500mm lens!!

Each evening (after the pub!) I'd review the images taken on that particular day and get rid of the rubbish so as to keep as much memory free for the next day, even so I still had over 700 saved images of "reasonable" quality when I got home. I am still trawling my way through the 700 but have now at least edited enough of them to try and give a feel for what we saw, they are in no particular order, please enjoy! 


Orphean Warbler
We had two encounters with an Orphean Warbler, a lifer for me! Both sightings were made in the mountains at high altitude, due to the nature of the scrubby area they favour viewing was very difficult. However, my luck was in when this bird showed for a few fleeting seconds and the image was captured out of the car window. Certainly one of my favorite birds from the trip.

Bee-eater
We encountered Bee-eaters on numerous occasions, on all but the one time they were on the wing feeding. On this particular occasion we were driving slowly around a small farming community and chanced upon four birds sitting on a fence. Again shot from the car and at quite a distance but who could decline the chance to capture an image of these wonderfully coloured birds.

Black Eared Wheatear (black throated variant)
The Black Eared Wheatear was another lifer for me, we only saw them at locations that were over 1,400 metres which limited viewing to alpine meadows and mountainous areas. We also saw the clear throated variant but no usable images were obtained. 

Nightingale
Day or night Nightingales were heard singing everywhere, but when it came to seeing them and capturing an images now that was quite a different matter! They always seemed to be deep in the undergrowth but at one location we invested a bit more time and eventually a bird did show albeit not as out in the open as we would have liked.

Black Wheatear (male)
Black Wheatear (female)
At one location high up in the mountains we found ourselves walking around the ruins of an old castle, it was  here that we stumbled upon a Black Wheatear nesting site. Initially Jonah spotted the male bird with food in its bill, it then disappeared over a wall and then returned a few moments later, it must have chicks? From distance we watched this sequence repeated over and over again, then when the opportunity arose we moved nearer and hunkered down in the wall ruins and waited.  Our initial observation skills and patience were then aptly rewarded with some great views of both the male and female as they went back and forth to the nest site.   

Firecrest

Firecrest
On several occasions we had encounters with Firecrests when at the fir tree line in the alpine meadows, such a difficult bird to see let alone photograph. The dam things don't stay still for more than a second and when they did it was difficult to focus on them because of their diminutive nature. Not the best of images but they will have to do!

Yellow Wagtail (Iberiae race)
Whilst waiting for the Bee eaters to land this Yellow Wagtail landed on the fence in front of the car, I'd never seen a blue headed individual at such close quarters before so an image had to be bagged. The lighting was difficult which resulted in a less then desired image quality but good to see never the less.

Blue Rock Thrush
The Blue Rock Thrush is a bird I encountered for the first time during last years visit to Spain, and now just like then getting near to them was a dam nightmare. So I've had to be satisfied with this massively cropped record shot. 

Whinchat
Another bird that kept its distance was the Whinchat, so I had to be satisfied with this distant shot of one in a bush.

Stonechat (male)

Stonechat (female)
Along the mountain passes Stonechats were everywhere, most of the time they were just that little bit too far away for good viewing but one the one occasion this pair came reasonably close as we sat in the car.

Turtle Dove
Another bird we saw plenty of was the Turtle Dove, we didn't bother to try and get any images of them until we chanced upon a pair sitting in a field right next to the road, needless to say we duly obliged and grabbed a few frame filling images.
Bonelli's Warbler

Bonelli's Warbler

Bonelli's Warbler
At one location we drove up a windy road to a monastery that was located at the very top of a mountain, our target species was Griffon Vulture. Whilst there we heard the calls of a Bonelli's, it didn't take long for us to find him and some excellent views were had.

Little Stint
On three occasions we made visits to a wader filled water scrape at first light, this meant getting up early as it was 80km's away. Each time we were rewarded with some excellent views of a variety of species, the Little Stint being one of them.

Curlew Sandpiper


A few of the Curlew Sandpipers were sporting their full summer plumage, gorgeous birds!

Dunlin
Although the Curlew Sandpipers were the dominant species, there were other species present, such as this summer plumage Dunlin.

Wood Sandpiper

Wood Sandpiper
A dozen or so Wood Sandpipers were around too, my favorite wader, it was a shame that they mostly kept their distance.

Ruff
In addition to all the aforementioned wader species present, a couple of Ruff were seen feeding along the fringes of the scrape too.

Woodchat Shrike
We saw two different species of Shrike on our trip, the Southern Grey and Woodchat, the latter being the only one we nailed any images of. This one landed in a bush beside the car when we were waiting for the Blue Rock Thrush to come closer.

Dartford Warbler
This is my first ever image of a Dartford Warbler, the views weren't great but the new 500mm lens did the job in picking out some fine details.

Corn Bunting
Both Jonah and I got fed up with Corn Buntings! Initially they were very welcome because they are very showy and approachable. But they were everywhere and because of their bulky stature they are easily seen from distance and were mistaken for more exotic species on more than one occasion.

I mentioned earlier that we made three early morning visits to a wader scrape 80km's away, the viewing was only really any good at first light because of the sun direction. Because of the abundance of birds and their continued movements I decided to have a go at some B.I.F (birds in flight) shots. This was a very hit and miss affair especially with the weighty new lens, but I persisted and eventually found a technique that worked, occasionally!!!

Below are just a few of my efforts that have been edited so far.....

Curlew Sandpiper

Black Winged Stilt

Black Tern
The Black Terns were great birds to watch, but for some reason they seemed to stay on one particular pool which was behind us, this meant shooting into the sun resulting in a distinct lack of quality and detail.

Curlew Sandpiper

Curlew Sandpiper

Curlew Sandpiper

Curlew Sandpiper

Greater Flamingo

Little Stint
Along with the Wood Sandpipers the Little Stints were my main target, but they are so dam fast when in flight, this image above was one of my better efforts!

Ringed Plover

Ringed Plover

Whiskered Tern

Avocet
Black Eared Wheatear (black throated variant)
No this image of the Wheatear wasn't taken at the wader scrap, but up in the mountains. This is one of my favorite images of the trip.

Quail
And finally to "the best bird of the trip" our encounter with a Quail. Both Jonah and I were were in agreement that this was the most memorable bird of the week.  Although it couldn't be seen we could hear it calling from a grassy field, there was a dry mud track running away from us and on through the middle of the field. We knew it would be a long shot but we pulled the car along side the track and hoped we'd see it as it crossed the track, and just that it did!! And to make matters even better it paused a couple of times allowing for much improved images. To compound my decision it was the first time I'd ever seen one! 

There were a few disappointments too, no images of Cuckoo's or raptors were attained, well not ones I'd like to share on here! We also saw/heard both Little and Scops Owls but again neither of us bagged an image, I guess that is reason enough for a return visit!!


So in summary it was a very successful trip, the birding was brilliant, the weather was excellent  too (unlike last year when it was trousers and jackets everyday!) neither of us were eaten alive by bugs and gnats and we had our fill of good beer every night!

Finally, a MASSIVE thank you must go to Juan, he looked after us very well indeed, in fact I'd go as far as saying he was the perfect host, cheers buddy!

That's it for now, I guess I'll soon be back with my owls.

Catch up soon........ 








Saturday, 18 April 2015

Ouzels and Owls........

I haven't been out owling this weekend, far too busy with other passions, chores and drinking beer! Firstly I've just returned from watching the mighty Leicester City FC, can you believe we won again, that's three on the trot now. There is still a real chance that we may still escape relegation this season after looking dead and buried on two weeks ago. 

I've also been getting ready for a weeks birding in southern Spain, I'll be flying to Malaga very early on Monday morning and returning late the following Saturday. That's nearly six whole days for me to achieve my main ambition of seeing and photographing a Scops Owl. I do also have some other objectives whilst there but I'll do a post on how I went on with them when I return......

This last week I did have a first though, my first ever image of a Ringed Ouzel. The news came through that there were 3 or 4 birds showing reasonably well over at Brascote Pits, at the time Col and I were erecting another two owl boxes so we had to bide our time. Upon our arrival four other birders were there and they had two of the Ouzels in view, the birds were distant and this image below is a 90% crop of the original, not good quality but I am happy with it for now!

Ringed Ouzel - Male
After leaving Brascote Pits I stopped at one of my known Little Owl sites, I'd not seen a bird here for well over a year so it was a nice surprise when a single bird was seen in the nest hole sheltering out of the wind.

Little Owl, site No 209
In the week I made the most of warm sunny evening and visited one of my newer Little Owl sites not far from the village of South Wigston. Both the male and the female owls were seen which gives high hopes of breeding in the coming months.

 



Sorry there hasn't been much to report from this last week, but there is one last snippet of good news! Do you recall the Barn Owl site where one of the birds was shot dead over the xmas break? Well the farmer phoned me in the week to let me know that he saw two Barn Owls at the entrance to the nest box, not sure where this second owl has come from but it has certainly cheered us all up!!

Catch up soon.......... 

Monday, 6 April 2015

Easter weekend.......

I couldn't help it, I was drawn back to my resurrected Little Owl site No 47, it was still good news as the birds are still there! But then things got even better as I witnessed one of the birds was using the nest box that I erected last year! It was a distant viewing but the new 500mm lens was still more than capable of capturing a shot of the one of the owls as it poked its head out of the entrance hole, below.


The light levels were excellent, so I made hay whilst the sun shone and spent the next hour or so capturing some more images of the resident  pair. 


This next image is of the hen owl and I just managed to capture the moment as she expelled a pellet, if you look closely it can be seen wedged in her throat.
   
 
The pair of them were always in close contact and never wondered too far from each others side. This did give me some great opportunities of capturing some family shots. With a bit of luck the family shots in a couple of months will also include the chicks? In this next image the hen bird is on the right, it can be clearly seen that she is considerably "bulkier" than him.


Because there was sufficient light I did attempt a few flight/take off shots, not easy and an area that I am still trying to perfect, these next two images are ones that I am particularly pleased with.




I have now spent a combined 5 or 6 hours watching these birds, it has become quite obvious that this particular perch is one of their favorites. This image is full frame at 500mm, I still haven't got use to the fact that I am now shooting with a 500mm lens rather than my old 300mm, note to oneself, park further away next time!


As I have previously mentioned in other posts, whilst watching and photographing Little Owls it becomes increasingly difficult to offer " new types" of images. However, after many years this next image of the male owl poking his head out of the hollow of a fallen log is certainly a bit different to the norm as far as my own portfolio is concerned. 


Later in the day I chanced across a Buzzard siting in the middle of a field, I sat and watch it for quite a while but it did nothing, so this is my only image offering.

Buzzard
Of all the British owls the Tawny is usually the first to start breeding, consequently they are even more difficult to see than usual at this time of year. However, after months of investigation at several known sites I have learnt that the males are creatures of habit and they do like to use the same roosting locations. This theory was put into practice when I parked up next to one of these known locations and sure enough there was the male owl perched in his usual place.  It was quite distant and the light quite harsh but I did manage to get into a position that allowed me to get a shot of him through the brambles and twigs.

Male Tawny Owl - Day roosting.
Saturday morning found me out again in search of more owls well before dawn, and believe it or not this followed quite a heavy night on the Stella! Yes I felt as groggy as hell but after a 5.00am hearty breakfast at the local 24hr MacDonald's I was starting to re-join the human race! 

My first port of call was a known Barn Owl site where successful breeding took place last year. The parent owls here did very well in 2014 and raised two broods totaling 7 fledge youngsters. I parked up near the nest tree and kept a watchful eye on the natural nest hole to see if the birds showed. Whilst I was busily feasting in the bacon roll and coffee I kept giving the tree the occasional glance, I'm not sure where the bird came from but at 5.41 am a single Barn Owl just appeared. It wasn't very conducive for photography as there was loads of spindly branches obscuring the bird and the light levels were still very poor, this image below was my best effort of a bad bunch!

Barn Owl - Possible male?
It was very pleasing to see that at least one Barn Owl is still holding a territory here, I'm not sure if this bird is the male or female, I'm suspecting the former as there seems to be a distinct lack of speckling on the breast. I will be keeping regular checks on this site and hopefully in the near future I'll be able to share the good news that the pair are still here.

At 6.14am I now found myself checking out another one of my known Little Owl sites, I did see a single Little Owl (no images) as something far more interesting had caught my attention! In a hollow of a tree in an adjacent field I could just make out a white blob, it was a long way off and meant moving the car for a closer look. I have further investigated distant white blobs before and on several occasions that have turned out to be plastic bags caught up in the tree branches, but not this time!!!

It was a Barn Owl in a location/tree where I'd never seen one before, yeessss. It was obscured by the over hanging branches that drooped out and in front of the hole, but there was no doubting what it was. I was at a distance of around 200 yards so the image below is very much a record shot only. I knew that there was a way of getting nearer to the tree but permission had to be sought from the landowner first.......


At 6.49am a new Little Owl site was located, I was busily driving along a local A-road at 50mph at the time! I just happen to glance over towards a group of Ash trees and a distinctive "brown blob" was spotted in the tree. As soon as it was safe to do so I turned around and went back to investigate further. My initial suspicions were soon confirmed when I had the little chap in my binoculars. It was a considerable distance away (75-100 yards) so the resultant image, (below) can only be classed as a record shot.

Little Owl - New site located 4th April 2015.
That was more or less it for Saturday, I was going down to the football with Daz to watch the mighty Leicester City FC, was this to be the game where we put into action our great relegation escape?

This now brings me to Sunday evening, I made my apologies and left a family party early, I was on a mission to re-visit the new Barn Owl site that I'd located the morning before. Permission had been seeked and granted for me to encroach onto the private land and follow up my plan. This consisted of parking a lot nearer to the tree an hour or so before sunset, the likely time the owl would emerge, if it was still there? Being quiet near Barn Owls is absolutely paramount, especially if good viewing is to be had. 

I was in situ with all the camo/screening up at the car windows, I'd parked about 25 yards from the tree and the entrance hole was clearly in view. There were a few overhanging spindly branches in my line of sight but they didn't prove to be much of an issue. The sun was setting to the west and with the hole facing a north-east direction the light levels weren't very good at all. 

It was now approaching 7.00pm and after a 37 minute wait I was rewarded with an earlier showing than expected. There at the hole entrance sat a Barn Owl, it sat there on one leg and just nonchalantly looked around, it didn't even seem to acknowledge the presence of my car! It was obviously very relaxed and comfortable that there was nothing unto the norm. I hesitated with the capture of my first image as I was a little concerned that the rattle of the shutter releasing would possibly spook it? Then before I'd even taken the first image a second bird appeared, this bird seemed a little reluctant to come completely out of the hole initially. I still held off with the capture of my first image, although I can tell you it was tempted to rattle off a few images. 

My wait was rewarded when after a few minutes the second bird came out a bit further and was nearly parallel with the first owl. I dialed my original setting of F4 to F5 just to give me a greater depth of field (I wanted to go higher but due to the lack of light I daren't). At these new settings I was only capable of achieving a shutter speed of 1/40 second with an ISO of 1250. If I'd gone any lower it would have proved very difficult indeed to have had anything worth keeping.

The shutter releasing definitely attracted their attention, after the first image both birds turned and looked straight down the lens, but they held their ground. In total I took 8 separate shots and this one below was the best of the lot. It then got too dark for any further images without going to stupid ISO settings. It was another 30 minutes before both the birds vacated the hole, at this stage I departed too. 

Barn Owls - New site located 4th April 2015
Considering the conditions I am very pleased with the results, I think the contours and features of the tree certainly complements the overall appeal of the image. 

From what I could see neither of these birds had rings on, so they are new birds to me. Goodness knows where they have come form, or have they been there a while and  I just wasn't aware of their presence? Either way I am very pleased to have found them and I will be keeping a very close watch on them in the future.

Sorry if this post has dragged on a bit, I do try to be concise and as non repetitive as possible but there has been a lot to cram in from the last few days.

Thanks for stopping by, catch up with you all again soon......... 

PS Leicester City FC did the business, a 2-1 win against West Ham, the great escape has started!!!