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!!!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Barn Owl Ringing 2015 - Round One.....

As the title suggests we have now done our first round of ringing for the 2015 breeding season, as is now the norm I was joined by my owl box sidekick Col Green and our ringer Mike Townsend.

Due to the commitment that is required not all our boxes have been checked so far this year, a combination of bad weather, Landrover off the road, too busy with work or just too many boxes! However, of the one that have been checked so far we have breeding activity with Barn Owls at 8 separate sites. Not huge numbers I know but much better than just the single site we had six years ago, so we must be doing something right as things are definitely going in the right direction.

The first site was a bitter sweet result, this is the site where the male owl was shot and killed sometime over the xmas period of 2014, what made it even worse was this site hadn't had resident Barn Owls for at least thirty years! As you can imagine we were devastated at the time but as they say every cloud has a silver lining and nature has a way of bouncing back, and that was in the form of a new male bird moving in earlier this year. We have erected two separate boxes on trees at this site which are about 100 yards apart (boxes No 1 & 2). Last year the owls bred in box 1, on May 9th both boxes were checked and to our surprise the birds had relocated to box No 2 and had a clutch of 4 eggs!

That now brings us to this visit and sadly only one chick was in the box, I don't suspect foul play but just a sign that times are harder this year with the availability of prey. 

Box No 2 - 1 chick
What a fiery little character this chick turned out to be, easily the most active one I have come across, very vocal and snappy, plenty of attitude!!

He or she was soon ringed and returned to the box, that was around 3 weeks ago so I would now assume that it will be just about ready to be vacating the box?

At the second site our box No 67 is mounted in a Barn, here three very healthy but dozy chicks were ringed. A great result this as this was the first time Barn Owls had used this box since it was erected in March 2011, only a four year wait!

Col at Box No 67 - 3 chicks.
The adult owls must have been using this box for a while now as when Col removed the inspection hatch we couldn't see inside as it was full with discarded pellets, there were so many there was no way we could get the chicks out, so the whole front of the box had to be removed so as to get access.

One of the chicks from Box 67
The third site we visited was Box No 76, we had the same problem as before with gaining access so the whole box front had to be removed again, much to the dismay of Col!! Last year this box had breeding Tawny Owls in it so we were very pleased to have had Barn Owls in residence for the first time. 

Site 76 - 3 chicks
This box contained three chicks which were all soon rung and returned, here is yours truly doing my bit of ringing, yes unfortunately reading glasses are now par for the course!

The Riddler ringing!
And here is a mugshot of my two partners in crime with the whole brood from site/box 76 just before being returned.

The dudes - Site No 76.
Although we did plan to ring more birds at other sites on this particular evening that wasn't possible because the other chicks were either too small, the hen was still incubating her eggs or egg laying hadn't even commenced yet!

From all accounts information has been filtering through from other nest recorders/ringers in the UK that Barn Owl breeding numbers and clutch sizes are down compared to the bumper year of 2014, not good news that but if our other predicted sites produce the expected breeding results we could actually have a better returns than last year. 

Thanks for stopping by, Little Owls next!

Catch up again soon......... 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Dartmoor and owls!

Apologies for the lack of posts recently, there has been loads going on and I just haven't had the time (or could be bothered) to sit on front of the computer for hours on end. Since returning from my very enjoyable trip to Scotland there hasn't been any time to rest, initially there were more nest boxes that needed to be monitored, some surprises and some disappointments. Then there was the first round of ringing that we did at a few Barn Owl sites, it's not quite so productive this year but still a few brand new breeding sites! In between the aforementioned I've also been out monitoring my Little Owl sites where I've had a few opportunities to photograph some recently fledged juveniles. 

However, all that will have to wait as I'm going to be cheeky and insert a quick post from my recent trip down to Devon. 

It was a family break where everyone had to be pleased so we had lots of different seaside activities planned, crabbing around the port, a trip to the zoo, lazing on the beach, amusement arcades, train rides etc etc.....I think you have got the gist (and that was just my list!!!) I was concerned as I'd managed to sneak in my camera and binoculars but when was I going to have chance to use them? 

Our accommodation for the week was a brand new apartment that was based within walking distance of the very pretty port of Brixham. This location was chosen with a bit of selfish intent in mind, it wasn't too far from all the required activities to keep the Mrs and kids happy but also not too far for dad to visit the moors! We'd been there for four whole days before I had the chance to sneak off early on Wednesday morning. I'd been chomping at the bit to get out and by then was sick and tired of looking at seagulls.

The moors were everything that I'd imagined, vast areas of heathland covered in gorse and heather (very similar to Scotland really without the mountains) but there were just too many other people about. I made the mistake of not having a detailed enough map with me so I couldn't really plan to head for the quieter and more elevated back lanes. Instead I just kept driving around until I eventually came across an area that was devoid of  hikers, bike riders and day trippers. My main target was Whinchat, I'd previously done some research and knew that this species bred on the moors, other targets included Stonechat, Wheatear and maybe even a Merlin? 

As I drove along the narrow lanes Stonechats were seen everywhere, initially I ignored them and concentrated on getting to a higher elevation. Then I chanced upon a family party of Spotted Flycatchers, there was six in total feeding along a fence line that offered shelter from a stone wall. I spent an hour with these birds but sadly not one usable image was acquired, never the less good to watch.

I moved on and continued to climb, my next reason to stop again was another family party only this time they were Wheatears. As I watched I realised they favoured a certain group of rocks so it was there I parked up and had a very enjoyable half hour photographing them. I did manage a hat full of images (mostly keepers) but I am only going to share this one shot (below).

Wheatear - Juvenile
For the next few hours I moved around looking and watching all the time, I was pleased with the area I'd finally chanced upon because not another soul had been seen. However, the reason for it being so quiet may have had something to do with it being a military area where maneuvers and firing took place on a regular basis, mmmm that must be what all the red flags meant!!

I'd previously mentioned that I was seeing Stonechats everywhere, eventually I succumbed and pulled over to have a go at capturing some images of them. 

Stonechat - Female

Stonechat - Male
I'd exhausted this elevated area and no Whinchats were to be seen, reluctantly I decided to move to a lower plateau to see if I'd have more luck there. En-route the road winded its way through a heavily wooded area with a meandering stream, it looked good for other target species such as Redstart and Pied Flycatcher. 

Plenty of birds were being seen or heard but mostly common stuff that didn't really call for any further action. A juvenile Green Woodpecker did land close by for about half a second, I messed up that opportunity! I then thought I heard the begging calls of a Tawny Owl? I listened with intent and there it was again, and again. It was faint but I knew what it was, it seemed to be coming from further along the lane. Rather than start up the car and risk the chance of spooking it I got out and moved closer on foot. 

I didn't go directly towards where I thought the call was coming from but instead I circumnavigated it. This plan seemed to be paying off as the closer I got the louder the call seemed to get. I then got to a small clearing at the side of the road which lead up to a small stone shed. This was the spot where the call was at it's loudest, it was by now directly above me but due to the dense canopy it couldn't be seen. This small area looked very "owly" indeed and the sort of location I have back in Leicestershire where adults encourage the juveniles to roost after fledging.

The car was relocated, the camo scrim was erected at the window and the waiting game commenced. For the next 30 minutes it was deathly silent, the car had obviously quietened them down. This was quite normal when waiting for Tawnies to show so it was just par for the course. Then as predicted the begging calls started again, it was now as loud as ever but the bird(s) were still obscured by the dense overhead branches and leaves. Then there was a movement, a youngster had re-located to a lower and nearer branch, unbelievably I had a direct view of it, what luck!!!

Tawny Owl - Juvenile
Because the action was starting to gather pace I knew I was going to be here for a while, the only problem was I didn't have a phone signal so there was no way I could let the Mrs know I was going to be late, oh no in trouble again!!! 

The next few hours proved to be very productive with respect to watching the birds, the juveniles (three I think?) got very vocal at times when one of the adults came in, occasionally taking images was possible and below are a few I'd like to share.

So it was a very unexpected species that I chanced upon on the moors, I'm pretty sure my previous experience with this species helped me initially identify their presence by identifying the juveniles calls, it was then down to doing what I'd learnt on how to locate and "work" the site.  Yes I was there for a few hours but it was time well invested as I am very pleased with my resultant images.

Needless to say when I finally got back to base I was in the doghouse, to be fair I did say I was only nipping out for a few hours and not the whole day!! Although I'd have loved to have had a re-visit this wasn't to be the case as for the rest of the holiday I was making amends.......ah water off a ducks back!!!

Back soon............

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.........