Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Owling about at work! 17-21 January 2018


   I'm unlucky enough to still be working (maybe I should have worked harder when younger) but lucky enough to have a job that gets me out to some beautiful properties in rural Oxfordshire. And often those fantastic houses come with huge gardens and associated fields, paddocks, woods and so on. The possibilities for birding while at work are almost always there and naturally I am always looking!

   On Wednesday I began a new job at a house on the edge of a small village in North Oxfordshire. I as I drove up the private track that leads to the house I saw the wide open vistas of an old quarry and surrounding fields and quietly thought that this could be a good spot to be for the next couple of days. I make sure that I quickly let my clients know of my birding interest wherever I go these days because, well, you never know what may be around. I must add that in this case I already knew of the existence of little owls in this part of the world but even then when I casually asked "so where are these little owls then?" to my client, her reply of "oh, it sits in our tree out the front" took be back somewhat! The tree in question is just a few metres away from the bathroom window where I'd be working so that tree was sure to get some intense scrutiny over the next day or so. Further discussions revealed though that the owls were more likely to be seen in a pollarded willow next to a small pond about 400 metres away but which could still be seen from the window. I never managed to find a little owl in the whole of 2017 so I was more than a little bit excited by the prospect of finding one here!

The "owl" tree by the pond
   I did do some work (very luckily I am self-employed) but also spent a lot of time gazing at the two trees in question. There were a multitude of other birds in the paddocks and in the garden and I spotted a green woodpecker, lots of fieldfare and redwing, a pair of mistle thrushes and many common finches including a fair number of greenfinch (sadly uncommon in my own area). Despite a pheasant shoot taking place nearby there were raptors around too and red kites shared the airspace with buzzards, whilst a kestrel caught and then devoured a vole on the garden fence.


   For a couple of hours I saw nothing in the furthest tree (by the pond) except for a wood pigeon or two but I had a perfect, if distant, view and kept looking. It was a bright and breezy day so visibility was really good. At around 10:30 I noticed a quick flurry of movement and saw a small grey rounded shape emerge onto a branch. I was pretty sure that it was a little owl but at 400 metres or so it was difficult to make it out clearly. I had the camera with me and took a couple of shots, the viewfinder confirming that it was indeed a little owl! But I would need to get closer so leaving my co-worker hard at it and with the permission of the client, I went out to get a better look. Birding sure does beat working!
Distant view from driveway

   I noticed that there is actually a footpath that runs along the paddock that contains the "owl" tree so maybe not so cloak and dagger after all but at the request of the house owner I've been asked not to divulge exact details of location. Those reading this account who already know of this site will realise where I am now! I took some photos from the driveway that was about half of the distance away and stalked slowly down the field edge boundary hedge towards the tree stopping every 25 metres or so to fire off another couple of frames. As I drew closer I had the little owls full attention and it's piercing stare followed my every move. I didn't dare leave the hedge line since I didn't want to disturb the bird. At my closest I came to within about 50 metres and at that gap the owl was happy enough to stay put. The sunshine helped, the small branches and twigs didn't, but the photos were pleasing since they represent my exact view of the bird. After 5 minutes in the owls company I retraced my steps and returned to work. A quick look out of the bathroom window revealed the owl still sat in the same place!

Better views from footpath

   Despite working at the house all day on Thursday I didn't see the owl in either tree. But I will be back on Monday so fingers crossed it finds its way into the tree outside of the window!

   Friday took me off to a different job in a different part of North Oxfordshire. I had already spent a lot of time at this site and the chaps there had regaled me with tales of a barn owl that hunts over rough grassy fields by the house. Indeed they had seen it stood on the house and surrounding buildings and even on the works container store! In something like 20 visits to site I had yet to see the owl. So today we made the effort to get to site early before light and hopefully get to see it. 

   It was still dark at 07:30 and there was no sign of any owls as we made our way up the driveway towards the house. This is a big building site and because of the works, the paddocks to the either side of the drive have been left to grow a bit wild and it is these areas where the barn owl is supposed to frequent. As we drove in though we only saw a grey heron stood on a bridge over the small stream. 

   I parked up and wandered over to look at the paddocks and lo and behold was greeted by the sight of a barn owl flying low over the grasses! Obviously I had been arriving too late before. I legged it back to the van and grabbed the camera although in truth it was far too dark to take any decent shots. Simon (my brother and co-worker) was as excited as myself since he has a liking for owls too. We watched the owl quarter back and forth over the field for the next 20 minutes or so before it disappeared over the tree line. Several times it dropped into the grass but always seemed to come up with nothing. At one point it flew into a woodshed but quickly disproved my theory that it could be roosting in there by reappearing shortly after. It also very obligingly settled on a hedgerow for a few moments allowing me to get a few nice photos. The show was all over by 07:55 but I went about my work very happily that day!

   Mrs Caley, of course, had expressed her disappointment at missing out on the owls so we made plans to visit both places over the weekend. But then the weather deteriorated into one of the worst two days in recent years. On Saturday it just rained all day and there would be no chance of any owls venturing out to play, hunt, sunbathe(!) or otherwise. So we had to be satisfied with a quick trip to the local wetlands to see very little. Sunday morning, for the first couple of hours at least, was better but the rain had turned to snow! Despite that we stood outside the barn owl field at 07:15 in the dark and shivering against the cold. It was lightly snowing as we peered into the gloom but nothing was astir yet. Mrs Caley retreated back to the car while I walked up the lane and peered over hedges into the fields. I had the access code for the driveway but didn't want to take liberties by entering so remained outside at the gate. 

   At 07:35 a quick movement caught my eye and there was a barn owl sat on a tree branch just 25 meters or so away. I ran back to the car (thankfully only 50 metres away) and summoned my wife outside. When we arrived back at the gate the barn owl was still in the same place which delighted Mrs Caley. It is always good to see a barn owl! 

Barn Owl #1

   I then noticed a second barn owl stood on the same bridge that the grey heron had occupied a couple of days before. So there were actually two, presumably a pair, together! 

Barn Owl #2

   Both owls proceeded to hunt over the fields and didn't appear to be concerned by our presence at all since they would often fly very close to the edge of the field by which we stood. It was great watching them hunt even though we never saw either owl catch anything. The only slight disappointment being meted out by the weather since it was now snowing quite heavily and the light just wasn't lifting at all. I did fire off some frames though but with the high ISO and low shutter speed they are grainy and blurry at best. 

   Again at 08:00 both owls flew back towards the trees but this time I saw where they went and now know where they are roosting. Information that I will have to share with the site manager because of the impact of continuing works. I will still be working on and off at this site for a few months to come yet so hopefully the owls will stay out later as the days lengthen and offer some better photographic opportunities.

   We returned home warmed by the experience despite the cold and snow. Our garden was alive with birds coming to feast on the various feeders, I counted 10 goldfinches a new record for us at home. At 10:00 I glanced up from my desk and saw a fabulous immature female sparrowhawk perched close to one of the feeding stations. It was gazing about and remained in situ for a good 5 minutes before departing seemingly empty taloned.

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