Hi and welcome to my Blog, my name is Paul Riddle and I live in south Leicestershire, UK. Back in August 2007 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!!!

Friday, 26 July 2013

Mulling it over........

Every since I got back into this "birding" lark 6 or 7 years ago I have wanted to visit Scotland. Several of my birding buddies have been and when ever I hear about where they went and what they saw it only whets my appetite even further.

The biggest draw for me is to go and see Short Eared Owls in their natural breeding grounds, closely followed behind that is to see White Tailed and Golden Eagle in the flesh (or feather). I have been advised that the month of May is probably the best time to go but as we know that has come and gone so too late for that one! However, I am sure that we will see plenty of other goodies whilst there?

North Uist in the outer Hebrides would have been my first choice of destination, but trying to get accommodation this late in the day and nearby to a local pub proved almost impossible. My second choice was the Isle of Mull so after much deliberation I have finally taken the plunge and booked the ferry and some accommodation for early August. I am going with my mate Adey and it will be his first visit too. The B & B that we have booked has WI-fi that we can use (for a small donation to the RNLI) so if we get to see anything of interest I'll be able to update my blog in the evenings, that is if I do it before my visit to the pub!

For those of you who don't know where Mull is located  (and I doubt there are many of you who don't?) here is a map of Scotland with the island pinpointed. The island has an area of 875.35 square kilometres (337.97 sq mi) and is the fourth largest island surrounding Great Britain and a resident population of of 2,667.

And this is the blown up  portion of the same map showing the island itself.

On Monday the 5th we will be making the 400 mile drive up from Leicester up to Oban. We will be going through the night and hope to catch the 7.30am ferry across to Craignure. I think we are pretty well prepared and thanks must go to all those friends who have given us info and assistance especially Mick and Richard who supplied us with maps and loads of detailed info.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Missing dad.........

Yesterdays "general" weather forecast was for another scorcher of a day, but here in Leicestershire it was dull, overcast and breezy and the promised sun didn't materialise until late evening. Consequently most of the day was spent sat in front of the telly watching the cricket and the golf, oh I was nursing a hangover too! But once the golf had come to a conclusion I dragged myself out for a couple of hours. As it was late, and I wasn't really full of enthusiasm I decided just to visit a nearby Little Owl site in the village of Willoughby Warterleys.  It was less of an effort to get near to the owls at this site (no gates to open) and I didn't have a lot of fuel in the Landrover anyway.

I visit this site on a regular basis and the adult owls and juveniles have been showing well, but not tonight? No problems with the juveniles, all three of them showed on and off, the hen owl was also doing more feeding of the youngsters than normal too, mmmmm strange? But there was no sign of the male owl, and that was very unusual. This particular bird is just over 3 years old, I know this because he was rung in at a monitored nest site 2 miles away in the summer of 2010. He was relocated during the spring of 2011 at his new site and with his new partner. This is his third year of breeding and so far he has go on to father 10 youngsters. He is a very confiding owl and I believe it is because he is so tolerant of my presence that his partner and juveniles accept me so well. As you may have gathered I have a lot of affection for this owl, (yeah stupid I know) he and the male Barn Owl at my "nest cam" site are were my two favourite birds. As you are aware the male Barn Owl disappeared a few weeks ago in suspicious circumstances, it really would be a major blow if this owl was to go missing too. 

Whilst at the site I tried to make the most of the late sun and grabbed some images of the rest of the family. The three juveniles were predictably on their usual perch waiting to be fed.

The hen owl was working her socks off trying to forefill the demands of the chicks.  

The hen owl used several different perches that offered good vantage points where she could scan the ground for a passing beetle or tit bit.   

One of the juveniles then left the rest of the family, it was fascinating to watch it as it moved along the hedgerow in search of some food for itself. Whilst it did this it offered me a couple of photo opportunities where it was "back lit" by the sun. Not the easiest of circumstances to quickly get the exposure correct but I gave it a go as I liked the backgrounds..

I had a few more seconds to get my settings "better" in this next image. A bit of flash fill lifted the heavy shadows from the bird.

The juvenile I was following went too deep into the hedgerow and I couldn't see where it was going so I headed back to where the other two youngsters were perched up. I positioned the Landrover a safe distance away and waited for mum to return with some food. It was then I noticed that they were both begging whilst looking to my right, had the male owl returned?

I glanced over and there no more than only a few feet away was the hen owl, blimey I'd never been so close to her before. I had to lean out of the window a bit to get the right angle for a photo but it didn't seem to bother her. The light was good and the background was just perfect.

She then shuffled around and looked straight at me, it was a magical moment as I could see the setting sun reflected in her eyes.

I stayed at the site until well past 10pm, as I departed the juveniles were still very active and begging loudly for food, the male owl still hadn't shown...............???  

Friday, 19 July 2013

In the pink....

When time has allowed during the last week or so I have been making a beeline to one or the other of my two favourite Little Owl sites. There isn't really anything to choose between them really as they are equally as good as one another. Both sites have 3 fledged juveniles and because the adult owls are comfortable with my presence (it took three long years!) the juveniles also allow me to get quite close in the landrover without spooking them.

Because of the mini heatwave we are having at present I have only been visiting the owls in the evenings, it is absolute torture being in the landrover in the middle of the day in this heat, it is like being in a pressure cooker! But just because I have been limited to evening visits it doesn't mean I have had less photo opportunities, quite the opposite! The owls have been tending to use the same perches that are quite close to the nest tree, which hasn't been offering much variety and becomes difficult to offer something a bit different. However, because the juveniles are getting older, wiser and braver they are starting to spread their wings so to speak and are wandering a little further afield. This is not good news for the parent owls as they are now struggling to keep a close eye on them as they go off exploring, but its great news for me because it is now offering a whole new  spectrum of photo opportunities.

One such instance was very late on just as the sun was setting, I knew the owls were out on the feed and moving along a hedgerow in a family pack. I'd driven up ahead of them a positioned the Landrover adjacent to a gap and waited for them to approach me. One by one the juveniles passed by and a few shots were captured (all blurred because of the low light & shutter speeds) but one of the adult birds stopped and sat on a wooden fence with the setting sun behind it. Wow this was a fantastic opportunity to capture a really different kind of image. Although I was unsure on what would be the best camera settings as I'd never been faced with this situation before?

Although the sun had nearly set it was still giving off enough light to put the owl into complete shadow. I quickly played around with the settings and exposed for the owl, which was OK but then it bleached out the sun to the extent it couldn't even be seen! I needed a compromise, I then under exposed my settings so as to capture the brilliant yellows and red glow of the sun and engaged my flash so as to lift the shadows around the owl, below.

I am pretty chuffed with the final results although still a little dark, it did need two passes of my noise reduction software because it was very grainy indeed. I think the "reddish bob" to the left of the owl is what they call lens flare, a phenomenon I know nothing about?? If anyone has any suggestions as to what would have been more suitable settings in this scenario (without major image manipulation) I'd be very grateful to hear from you.

Another "new" opportunity was when a trio of owls perched up amongst some thistles (or at least that's what I think they are?). Two days previous I had envisaged this image in my head and strategically positioned a small branch amongst the "pink pricklers". This was more in hope than anything else but during another time when I was tracking the family on  an outing along the hedgerow they settled on it for a few seconds. The sun had almost set and the lowest owl was partially in shadow but I don't think it spoils the overall effect?  I have aptly named this image, "owls in the pink".

The last image in this mini set probably took 20 hours of waiting to attain (5 x 4 hour sessions). I chose to "stake out" this log as it is a favoured perch of the owls and I like the dark background too. Normally it is only used by one and sometime two of the owls at a time. I've been desperately trying to get a family portrait of all five resident owls together in one shot (I still am!) and I think this log is my best chance. However I have twice managed four of them together on two separate occasions, yes I am being greedy wanting all five but I am very thankful for getting four. 

No doubt I will be spending some more time with these owls over the forth coming weekend, who knows what other opportunities will present themselves???

Monday, 15 July 2013

Rogue male.....

I do apologise for it has been ages since I gave an update on how the Barn Owls are fairing up where we have the nest box cameras. If you recall I was expressing my concern as the male owl had not been seen for a number of days and I feared the worse for the 3 chicks in the nest. It was the male who brought in the majority of the food and I didn't think at the time that the "lazy" female would be able to cope. 

Well it is good news and bad, the three chicks are all still doing very well, see latest screen capture below but the male has still not been seen.

I think it will be a matter of days now before the chicks venture out of the barn on their maiden flights, but we haven't got to this stage without a few more frights. Only 3 or 4 days after the male owl (dad) had disappeared that another male Barn Owl was seen around the area. He very quickly took a liking to the hen owl and at dusk on consecutive evenings he would appear and chase her around. This was obviously a hindrance as she needed to be concentrating on feeding her youngsters. Then one evening he followed her into the barn where the box is located and he saw for the first time the 3 chicks in the nest.  He then repeatedly attacked them on a nightly basis and on a couple of occasions he managed to evict one out of the box and then attacked again talons lashing out before it fell to the floor. Luckily Glyn observed all this nasty and aggressive behavior and went to the rescue, he returned the chicks to the box seemingly none the worse.

This has been going on now for a couple of weeks and in all that time the chicks have been growing and getting stronger on a daily basis. The rogue male was obviously an unattached bird and having realised there was no male in this new territory he wants to breed with the hen owl. Both Glyn and I think that as soon as the juveniles fledge he will be higher profile around the area and it wouldn't be a complete surprise to see another clutch of eggs very soon.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Two lengthy sessions.........

In my last post I mentioned that there were five owls (2 adults & 3 juveniles) showing well at one of my locally monitored sites. And because they were quite obliging to my presence (when in the landrover of course) I'd challenged myself to attain a "usable" image of all five of them together in the same shot. 

At the time of my challenge I was confident that this feat could be achieved although I knew it was going to be a test of endurance and a lot of luck. It was never going to be a matter of just turning up and grabbing "the shot" but surely if enough time was invested I would stick half a chance? Well I have now invested more than enough time during two separate evening vigils and so far have failed in my task, I am now wondering if I have bitten off more than I can chew? My time there hasn't been without its rewards though, yes there are long periods of time where absolutely nothing happens as all the owls are out of sight "day roosting". But it only takes one owl to wake up and flutter down onto one of the many favoured perches to activate the rest of the family into life. It is then normally action stations for a mad active few minutes. I was very fortunate that during one of these "active periods" the owls decided to put on quite a show on the post right in front of me. And to compliment my good fortune the light levels were stunning as the sun set.
To obtain an image of an owl on its own is quite easy, whether it be an adult or juvenile.

 Two owls together is a relatively easy task too.

A bit more time and patience is required to get three together.

After two lengthy sessions I finally managed to get four in the same shot.

But that elusive shot of all five together still eludes me, its a monstrous challenge!

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The juveniles are out!

Just recently when ever time allows I have been making some evening visits to a couple of local Little Owl sites that are now boasting juvenile activity. All three juveniles are now able to fly (well sort of flap and flutter) and they are constantly in pursuit of mum and dad whilst begging for food. Because of all the antics a few "different" photo opportunities have presented themselves. I have also been blessed with some super light levels as the sun sets. It means no heavy shadows and it is not as harsh as in the middle of the day, consequently a nice golden tinge complements the overall feeling of the image. The light has also allows for higher than normal shutter speeds and this means having a go at capturing some in flight shots where the action can be capture and frozen in time.

I am quite pleased with the results of this last session, its fingers crossed now that the good light stays with us so I can return and fill my boots! My next challenge to to try and obtain an image of all three juveniles and both parents in the same image, mmmmm a tough task but  possible........I think!

Monday, 8 July 2013

Better late then never......?

I do apologise for the lack of posts just recently, there are loads of reasons why I haven't been keeping things up to date but I'm not going into all that now. So I will now make an attempt to catch up on what has been going on in the last couple of weeks.

My last post finished off with the visit of husband and wife team, Mick and Denise from the Stamford Ringing group. We had just finished off ringing the Barn Owls chicks, well on that same evening we also did some Little Owl ringing. 

During the previous weeks and months I'd been keeping a close check on my nest boxes around the Willoughby Waterleys area. I'd got six boxes that had owls in close attendance and breeding looked very likely in them all.

In turn Mick allowed Jon, Col and myself a chance to ring the chicks. It was fiddly business at first but we all got the hang of it and none of the chicks seemed any the worse for their ordeal. Jon has many different birding achievements under his belt, but he had never done any ringing, well he has now!

Jon - First time ringer
Jon - Happy with his achievement.
It may not be apparent from these images but it was absolutely throwing it down most of the evening. The rain obviously didn't effect the cameraman (me!) as I took shelter inside the Landrover as often as I could! From that location I was able to photograph Mick & Col as they performed the ringing as they stood at the back door.

The ring on this owl hadn't closed properly and needed a bit of intervention from Denise to "square" it up. Don't worry, the owl is not screaming in pain, it just looks that way........

This next image shows the same owl as the one above, as can be seen it soon quietened down, all say arrghhh! 


I had a go too and ringed three different Little Owls, this little fellow below was my last victim owl.

During the evening we were also fortunate enough to ring a couple of the adult birds. They were both found inside the boxes brooding the young owls.

It was an excellent evening and massive thanks must go to Mick & Denise for braving the elements whilst ringing my owls.

Cheers guys....!