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!!!

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

North Uist - Day 4

In no time at all our final day came around, the ferry was to sail at 3:0pm so we did have a few hours to try and squeeze in a bit more birding. It was again another early start and what a refreshing change it was to be greeted by more favorable weather as we departed the B&B. The high winds of the previous few days had all but gone and there was no rain, hooray!

As on previous mornings we initially header for the Committee Road area, but rather than wait until we got to the far end of the road to see any signs of life this time there was activity everywhere! We hadn't even got half way along the road and the bird tally was; Hen Harrier x 4, Short Eared Owl x 7! It was utterly amazing what a difference the mild upturn in the weather had made? Of the birds we'd seen so far all of them were on the wing hunting and at distance, so we chose to ignore them in favour of trying to come across a nearer and/or perched up subject.

Our request of a nearby perched up bird had been granted by the birding gods, as we negotiated the junction at the north end of Committee Road there sat on a roadside post some 50 yards from us was a Short Eared Owl. We drove very slowly towards it knowing that at any second the bird could be off and our chances ruined, but it didn't go anywhere. We got within 25 yards which I felt was near enough so here we stopped and grabbed a load of images. We were both feeling very smug as one of our main objectives for the holiday had been achieved.....

  
Before I'd had the chance to weigh up the risk factor of moving a little nearer the owl took flight. It's not easy wielding a 500mm lens out of the car window trying to attain flight shots, a bit cramped really but a few keepers were bagged.


I've always found it difficult to crop flight shots of Short Eared Owls, especially when "head on" due to the length of their wings. However, I've had a go at cropping the above image a little tighter so as to offer a bit more detail as you can see in this next image, not sure if it works when the wings are clipped like this?


We watched the owl fly back and forth as it quartered the roadside field, it was obviously in hunting mode (maybe the reason why it seemed to be ignoring us?).  It came to rest again only this time it was on a different post, we only had to turn the car 90 degrees to get our very best and closest views yet.


Here it sat on the second post for around five minutes, it was sods law that it coincided with it clouding over making the lighting levels rather awkward. The horrid grey sky only added to the challenge of getting the right exposure, but because it sat there long enough we were able to get what we wanted.

Then without warning it was off again, hunting along the roadside then it drifted further away and over towards the edge of the nearby loch. But, it turned and headed straight back to where we were still parked, it kept coming nearer and nearer, I panicked as I tried to alter my camera settings yet again for a "head on" flight shot.


To our delight it landed on yet another post and even closer than before, the backdrop of the green fields aided in attaining our best images so far.


For the next 30 minutes we had a very intimate time with this individual owl, it was if it was obeying orders to give us a right royal show?


This next image is what it was all about for me, a Short Eared Owl on a very natural looking perch, this is full frame too!


As with most good things they have to come to an end sometime, as did this brilliant experience. The owl eventually upped and left us and flew off into the distance.

Time was now of the essence, catching the ferry was looming ever nearer so we hadn't got time to sit there "chimping" through the hundreds of  images that we'd just captured, oh no we had to get refocused on our next mission......Corncrake.

We headed over to the RSPB site at Balranald in the west of the island, it was here that we'd seen Corncrake earlier in the week but during that visit no images what so ever had been captured. The drive over only took us ten minutes, en-route we saw another Hen Harrier and three more Short Eared Owls, all to be ignored!

Upon departing from the car two Corncrakes could be heard calling from a nearby Iris bed, but hearing and seeing them are at two completely different ends of the scale. We stood next to a fenced off Iris bed and the nearest bird started calling, I kid you not we were only a matter of a few feet from the bird but it couldn't be seen, the Iris's had grown too tall.

The scenario of having this calling bird at our feet went on for an hour,  I was very conscious of the time and something needed to happen, and fast! Then just as we were coming to the conclusion that we were staring defeat in the face another member of the watching public pointed out a bird that had moved to a small clearing. I nearly got trampled in the mad rush as everyone who'd been gathered around the area suddenly huddled together into a small group against the fence! Goodness knows what anyone turning up at that point would have made of this strange sight?? However, putting getting close up and personal with complete strangers aside, I managed an image, yeeeessssss!!!


The dozen or so other people who'd we'd been watching with all soon dispersed, that left just Adey me and another couple who had just turned up. I was very happy with the image that I'd earlier captured of the bird, but it wasn't the iconic image of it calling that I so desperately wanted. 

Then the bird started calling again, for love nor money I couldn't see the dam thing, well not until it was pointed out to me by the couple that had just arrived. It was still a little further away than I would have liked but hey ho I nailed that calling image that I wanted, so happy days!


By now time was pushing on and we really had to make tracks, we had to travel to the far eastern side of the island to catch the ferry. On the way back we saw even more owls, but none that were close enough to make us stop. There were also hundreds of waders showing with loads perched up next to the road, they too were ignored as we had just one more planned stop to make?

After 20 minutes of driving we arrived at the point were we'd had good views of Hen Harrier earlier in the week. We had exactly one hour spare before we had to go so we parked up and started to scan the skies.

Luck was definitely on our side, within minutes a female was spotted hunting over the flat grassy area a few hundred yards away. I got out of the car, set my camera up for flight shots and waited. Gradually it came nearer and nearer, then all of a sudden it was upon us and within reasonable shooting distance. Absolutely fantastic to watch this dark individual  floating around us, pure magic!


We were now clock watching every second that passed, sadly the time beat us and we had to depart before the bird returned for a closer view.

All in all it was a fabulous break, my main regrets being the weather, the long drive and not staying for longer. The highlights being everything else, but especially the Corncrake, the Harriers, the owls and the breakfast! I shall 100% be returning next year, maybe even again this year?

Lastly thanks to Adey, he was brilliant company and made the holiday!

Thanks for stopping by, local owl news to come soon.........

Sunday, 28 June 2015

North Uist - Day 3

Yet again we were greeted with bad weather early morning, the wind and rain hadn't abated at all, in fact it was probably even worse than the day before? Because of the relative success we had with finding the sheltering owls yesterday we decided to employ the same tactics again. We drove slowly up and down the same area again but nothing was seen, we then realised the wind had swung around 90 degrees which had obviously made the owls shift position too. Therefore we moved to different area where the road ran from north to south rather than east to west, this tactic paid dividends almost immediately when another new Short Eared Owl was located. The owl seemed totally unfazed by the cars close proximity and just sat and watched us, it may give you an idea of how bad the weather was in this next image, the owl was soaked to the skin!   


After 20 minutes with the owl we moved on and continued to cruise around this new area, no other owls were seen but we did have our closest fly-by views of a Male and female Hen Harrier. A few distant images were captured but I'm not prepared to share them on here because they were bloody awful!

As the morning moved into afternoon the weather started to improve, well it had stopped raining but the wind was still as strong as ever. Because of this we agreed a return to the area where we'd earlier seen the Hen Harriers could be a good option. En-route we started to see more bird activity, a sure sign that now the rain had ceased it made for much better conditions for them. We were now starting to see our first Short Eared Owls on the wing, a great sight especially over the heath and heather. The odd owl was also seen perched up on post, they were making the most of this drying out period. We came across one particular area where we noted four different owls flying about, a lot of time was wasted waiting for one of them to come close enough for a fly-by image, but they didn't.

A little further along the road we witnessed another of our "must see whilst on Uist", a Snipe on a post.  This bird was displaying and calling with great enthusiasm, it was so engrossed in it's activities our presence was ignored, this worked to our advantages as we both bagged a hat full of images. 


After the Snipe experience we continued to make our way back to the Hen Harrier area, it was taking us ages to get there because every few hundred yards or so there was something else that captured our attention. The next distraction was a small flock of Twite, although they are apparently quite abundant on the islands this was our first sighting! We spent ages trying to get some closer views, initially we failed miserably so rather than trying to creep up onto them we stayed in one spot and eventually a single bird landed on the wire fence next to the car.  


Eventually we arrived back at the area where we'd previously had our best views of Hen Harrier, the road here dissected two completely different types of habitat. To our left was a huge flat plateau area with lots of grassy tussocks and in contrast to the right it was a hilly area that was covered in heather, we parked up where we had a good vantage over both areas and waited. 

Only a few minutes had passed when a distant movement caught my eye over on the grassy side of the road, a Short Eared Owl was quartering back and forth and was progressively getting nearer. Trying to obtain flight shots from within the confinements of the car is very difficult indeed, we knew that if we got out we could ruin the chance of the owl coming within distance but it was a risk that we took! We used the car as a shield and waited, I don't think we spooked the owl but it didn't come as close as we'd have liked, but it was the closest views so far. 


The owl then duly obliged and gave us another tick to our "island wish list", it landed on a post! It wasn't there for too long but at least we'd grabbed an image even though it was distant.


Another couple of owls were seen during the next hour or so, sadly they were too distant, again! But then things got interesting, a pair of Harriers came into view at the top of the heather covered hill, they drifted closer and closer, it was bloody frustrating as I just couldn't lock my focus onto the Hen bird as it came within 20-30 metres of us. The problem being there was just not enough contrast difference between the colour of the heather and the bird, it just blended into the background. From the fifty shots I rattled off, the two images below where the best I managed, oh it could have been so much better!



This was a fantastic opportunity to nail by far the best images of the trip so far, the bird actually flew with 10 metres of the car and I totally blew it! Since that moment I have gone over in my head time and time again on how I could have had my camera setting set up differently so as to have given me a better chance,  there was nothing wrong with the settings, it was purely down to operator error!

Later in the day we also had a Long Tailed Skua drift across the heathland, a lifer for me but it moved far too fast to have captured an image of it, mmmm operator error again I think?

On the way home we also had more waders on posts, this was becoming a regular sighting and quite a comical sight which I've never seen anywhere else apart from here on Uist. 



So for our third day on the islands the weather and consequently the bird viewing did improve, the forecast for day four was predicted to be the best yet, so we planned another early start with a few objectives in mind with our main targets being, Short Eared Owls in flight and on posts, Hen Harrier  images of any type and Corncrakes.

You'll have to pop back in a few days time to see how we got on with our day four objectives?

Catch up soon and thanks for stopping by...........

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

North Uist - Day 2

Our first nights sleep at the B&B was sheer bliss, with both slept like logs after the lengthy journey, come to think of it the six pint night cap might have helped to have knocked me out too?? We had pre-arranged our plans for the day with Pat who runs the B&B the night before, Adey and I were to get up at first light (4.00am) to get some dawn birding in and then return for our full English breakfast at 9.00am.

But what met us on our early morning departure made our hearts sink, howling gales and horizontal rain! That had stuffed our plans for the day of making our first sightings of Short Eared Owls and Hen Harriers. Rather that waste our time on the heathlands and moors looking for raptors we felt our best chance of seeing anything worthwhile would be down by the side of the many lochs that can be found scattered all over the islands.

Considering the awful conditions we did locate a few birds to watch and point the lens at from the relative shelter of the car, these included Ringed Plover, Merganser and Eider. All nice birds to see but sadly our target species for the morning, a Red or Black Throated Diver eluded us!



After breakfast we headed for a recommended area up in the north east of the island, it was suppose to be one of the quietest and most remotest places and here we stood a good chance of Merlin.

Along this road we had our first close up views of Red Deer, they didn't hang around long once we'd pulled up but it was long enough to capture this single image.


At the very end of the road we chanced upon a pair of Stonechats, they gave us some great views as they perched up in the rain.



On the return journey a Great Skua was spotted flying straight at us, a big bulky bird that was being thrashed about in the high winds. There was no opportunities for any images but that didn't matter as this was a lifer for me!

For the next few hours we drove around looking for Merlin, no such luck there but we did have our first sighting of a Hen Harrier. A hen bird flew alongside the car for a few seconds before it twisted its wings into the wind and was gone! We did spend some time trying to relocate it but to no avail. In one particular area we heard Golden Plover calling, however we didn't pursue them because of the rain.

Then it happened, we had our first owl!!!! A single bird was spotted by Adey aside a small heather covered mound. It was hunkered down out of the elements looking back at us! We hurriedly turned around as soon as possible, got our lens poking out of the window and drove back slowly. The owl didn't budge and we both filled our boots with loads of images. 


I was so pleased, at long last a Short Eared Owl image in its natural breeding environment, something I'd dreamt of for years. The light obviously wasn't conductive for photography but I think I made the best of a bad lot? I have purposely not cropped the image and left it full frame as it shows the evocative greens, browns and purples of the heather's to much better effect.

Then things got mad, five minutes after leaving the first owl we stumbled across another!!! This individual was a little further away but within our range, it was a little more alert than the first and was cautiously watching us for a couple of minutes before flying off.


Adey and I then had a quick chat about these two owls and the circumstances around them being located. We realised that the wind had turned 90 degrees and this must had made the owls re-position to a more sheltered spot thus being more visible from the road. It also meant that the wind and rain would be coming straight into our open car windows but it just had to be done. 

In the next couple of hours we employed our new tactic and located no fewer than another six sheltering owls. Not all of them were photographable due to distance or heavier than normal rain that just meant the car windows had to be shut.



Just as the day was coming to a close we stumbled across a very wet and soggy male Wheatear, whilst watching it we noticed it kept disappearing behind a large roadside boulder. I was curious so I went and investigated further. To my delight there were three recently fledged juveniles huddled together out of the wind and rain. The car was soon re-positioned and we waited for the adult to return, it was going to be a race against the light if we were to obtain any images. Then just after 9.15pm the male returned and the chicks all squabbled for their feed. With my ISO set to 2000 a shots of the action were captured.




That's all for day 2 folks, I hope you have enjoyed the story and the images so far?

Day 3 soon.........

Thanks for calling in.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

North Uist - Day1

Hi all,

I have now returned back from my mini trip to Scottish Isle of North Uist, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this bird filled adventure even though it was very exhausting. 

The trip officially commenced when I picked Adey up at midday on Sunday, we set off knowing that we had plenty of time to make the 540 mile drive north to the port of Uig where we would catch the Monday morning, 8.00am ferry over to North Uist.

The drive northward was pretty uneventful really, we made a couple of stops en-route, the first at a Red Kite feeding station and the second at a recommended location for Red Squirrels, we saw neither!! We also stopped off at Fort William for a coffee and supper break, upon leaving Fort William we unknowingly took the wrong road which resulted in us doing an additional 90 miles!!! So after driving through the late hours of Sunday evening/Monday morning we finally found ourselves only a few miles from the port at 3.00am. I'd driven 630 miles and was completely shattered, I was desperate for a break and a kip.

We found a nice quiet location off the main road that seemed perfect for a quiet break and some sleep, we settled down but after 5 minutes I was being kept awake by Adey's snoring!!  A dig in his ribs rendered him quiet for a while but he soon started again, this vicious circle continued for an hour or so. Whilst lying there wide awake I was considering the smothering of Adey with a plastic bag, however, this dastardly thought was soon dismissed from my mind when I heard a Cuckoo calling! 

This species was on our "hit list" Adey was nudged again (with considerable force I may add) and he was soon awoken. The car windows were wound down and we looked around, dawn was only just breaking and the light levels were pretty low but as we sat there four different Cuckoo's were seen. We waited until the light levels were good enough for photography, we were both after a perched bird image but they didn't come close enough for anything any good, the best I achieved is the image below of one of them on a rock with a Meadow Pipit in close attendance. 

Cuckoo & Meadow Pipit
In the end we gave up on getting a decent perched up image and got out of the vehicle, we then used the far side of the car as a bit of cover and attempted some fly-by flight shots. These next two were my best efforts, I am pretty pleased with them as they are by far the best I have ever achieved, but not easy hand holding a Canon 500mm lens for any length of time, I'm blaming the fact that I was fatigued!!!

Cuckoo

Cuckoo
It was soon time to leave the Cuckoo's and continue with our journey, the next few hours were spent queuing for the ferry and then making our crossing over to North Uist. Once on the island we made our way to our accommodation, a nice tidy B&B called the Ships Wheel, here Pat and Calum made us very welcome indeed. It was very tempting to stay at the B&B and get our heads down for a while, goodness I needed it but I refused to give in and off out we went exploring. We made a beeline for the Committee Road area in the west central area of the island, apparently this was Short Eared Central!! I'm not sure how Adey was feeling as we drove to our destination, but I know inside I was feeling very excited, I'd been reading about this area for years and now after so long I was going to experience it first hand!

On route we pulled over a couple of times to take in the views and to identify different bird species that were being seen. This next image of a Meadow Pipit was the first that contained the gorgeous heather in it, oh I couldn't wait to get a similar setting with an owl in it!

Meadow Pipit
As we neared the southern end of Committee Road a small group of Curlews were spotted at the side of the road, I was convinced that as soon as we pulled up they would be off, but I was wrong! They just stood there looking back at us, I was experiencing my closest ever views of this species. 

Curlew
Then from over the hill appeared a Curlew chick, this must have been the reason why the adult birds didn't fly off?

Curlew
For the next couple of hours we slowly drove the entire length of Committee Road no fewer than five times, and guess how many owls we saw? NONE!!!! I was so disappointed, I started questioning as to whether we were in the right location? The maps were checked and for sure we were in the right area, so reluctantly we moved on to check another area.

A few miles down the road and still no owls had been seen, but then matters took a turn for the better when a Golden Eagle was spotted high over the road. Yes it was high, very high in fact but with the aid of my x 1.4 converter I did managed this next image. At the time of watching the underside of the bird was completely in shadow but I have managed to pull out a bit of detail in the post processing. Really pleased we saw this bird, I was in ore of it's magnificence!!!

Golden Eagle
After the excitement of the eagle we continued our search for owls, on another road we came across a pair of Common Sandpipers perched upon a post. The birds were very vocal and seemly unafraid of the car. 

Common Sandpiper

Common Sandpiper

Common Sandpiper
They gave us a right royal show as they flitted from the posts to the rocks in the loch. I can only assume that they must have had chicks nearby?

Another hour or so passed by as we wondered the lanes, still no owls? We then found ourselves at the RSPB Balranald site which was supposedly very good for Corncrake, another of our target species. As we drove down the road to the visitor centre I couldn't believe what I was seeing, there were waders everywhere! But this wasn't your usual shallow water scrape where you'd expect to see them, no this was a combination of Iris beds and lush green pasture. The main species we could see were Dunlin, Oyster Catcher, Ringed Plover, Snipe and Redshanks. What was even more unusual was a lot of the birds were perched up on the wooded fence posts, I'd never seen this behavior before!

We picked a likely location to park the car to see if we could capture some of theses strange antics. Just as we did the wind picked up and the heavens open, luckily we had our cameras poking out of the windows on the opposite side of the car so it didn't really effect us. It was now a waiting game to see if any of the nearby birds would land on one of the closer posts, initially this didn't happen as I think the turn in the weather had put them off. However all was not lost as a Common Snipe flew in and landed in the pasture right in front of us. I was reveling in these reasonably close views of a species that I'd not got any previous images of.

Common Snipe
Adey then pointed out to me a Corncrake that was walking straight down the middle of the road, (another target species) it went under the car and then re-appeared right under our windows. The views were just incredible but too close to capture an image of!!

The rain then ceased and the sun came out for a short period, this seemed to bring the watched area back into life and some of the birds started to land on the perches again, we now just had to wait until a subject came close enough.

Eventually we were blessed with a couple of closer wader species that did land on a closer post, although neither were target species we were very happy to take a couple of images.

Oyster Catcher

Redshank
It was only 15 minutes after the above two images were taken that the heavens opened again with vengeance, that was our cue to make our way back to our digs and then make our way to the Lochmaddy Arms for an evening meal, and a few pints!!

We'd not had any sleep for 48 hours, we were both shattered but thoroughly satisfied that our first day on the island had been memorable, even though we didn't connect with any Owls, Harriers or a Merlin.

In the next post I'll take you through our second day,

Thanks for stopping off...........   

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Local Owls and Scotland.....

Hi all.

Of late my only real trips out have been spent doing some "general birding" plenty of good species seen but they don't seem to quite hit the spot for me like an owl does! So my appetite had been whetted to see an owl or two, I wasn't bothered what species just as long as it was an owl. 

I'd recently re-discovered the Little Owls at my site No 105, although I'd been visiting the area fairly regular of late I always seem to get distracted by the local Kingfishers. So on this more recent visit I ignored the area near the river and went and parked up near the nest tree that the Little owls used last year. I spent an hour here and in all that time I only saw the male bird. I suspect that the hen bird must still be sitting tight incubating her eggs, hence no sightings?



After initially satisfying my "owl fix" with the single Little Owl at site No 105 I then wanted to see a different species so I headed over to one of my known and active Tawny Owl sites. Here two birds were seen although it did take a while for them to show out in the open for a photo or two.



I then set of to another location with the very ambitious task of seeing my third different owl species in as many hours, a Barn Owl. There is a new pair I know of that have taken up in residence in a natural site (Ash Tree) and so far my viewing/photo opportunities have been limited.

I hung around waiting for the a Barnie to show, no luck there but I did have a very brief frame filling view of one of the Little Owls at my nearby site No 230.


In the end I came to the conclusion that these new Barn Owls weren't going to show, so reluctantly I gave up on them and moved on. It proved to be a good decision as the at the second location where I hoped to see a Barn Owl came up trumps.

I parked the car around 100 yards from an old building where I have a nest box sited. Initially there was nothing to see or hear but as soon as the sun had slumped down over the horizon the action commenced. A pair of Barn Owls showed really well at one of the old windows, they were very vocal and flighty (inside the building). I am hoping that these birds prove to be a breeding pair but that won't be confirmed for another few weeks yet when Col and I do our next round of box checking.


Quite a short post this one folks and there won't be another one for around another week because I am off to Scotland! My exact destination is North Uist which is up in the western isles, see arrow on below image. It is going to be a good drive too, 536 miles from Leicester to the ferry which should take around ten hours to drive, and that is if we don't stop!


During my trip I will be in the good company of Adey, one of my birding/photography buddies. We both visited Scotland together a couple of years ago where we visited the isle of Mull in pursuit of Short Eared Owls, sadly we didn't even see a single bird! Again this year our main species target is the Short Eared Owl, surely this time we'll see a bird or two? 

Catch up again soon..............