Wednesday, 14 March 2018

LEO's, 23rd February 2018

Work was a bit slack so after booking an impromptu week in the Cairngorms we decided to take our time in getting up there and chose to visit the RSPB reserve at Saltholme en-route before spending the night at an inn just off the A1 near Bamburgh.

Saltholme is a reserve that has been created in a marshy area deep within the highly industrialised area of Teesside near Middlesbrough. It is bordered on all sides by huge factories and chemical plants but despite that attracts many different birds into the various scrapes and lagoons. There is nearly always something good to see and in recent years it has become famous as a wintering site for long-eared owls and they were our reason to visit since we'd not had a really good view of them for many years.

After the 3 hour drive we pulled into the visitor centre car park and, fortunately, donned our new wellies. Striding into the centre itself we were greeted warmly by an enthusiastic young lady who after our inquiry as to the owls put a dampener on proceedings straight away by proclaiming "oh, they haven't been seen for a few days and that you've basically wasted your time coming"! Now, in the proceeding few days, I had been looking at the RSPB Saltholme twitter feed and I knew that the leo's had been seen almost every day so I was rather surprised by her statement to say the least. I explained the manner and length of our journey north and said that we'd might as well go and have a look for them anyway seeing as we'd made the effort. Another staff member helpfully showed us where to go to find the birds (if there). After a brief pause for a coffee and a sausage bap in the cafe we strode out into the biting wind towards the bushes where the owls are known to roost during the daytime hours.

We were very single minded in our approach and walked straight on by whenever we saw a hide (which cost us an easy water rail but, hey, we get those in Bicester!) or another path away from our route. We did see some tree sparrows at the reserve feeder station and came cross a small group of teal on one of the shallow scrapes which I quickly glanced through since there had recently been a green-winged teal amongst them but there was no sign of that bird. 

Tree sparrow

(not a green-winged) Teal

As we approached the scrubby area the path became very muddy and we were grateful again for buying the welly boots at Christmas! Indeed the last few yards that lead up to a small raised mound in the reeds were under about 4 inches of water (no mention of that in the visitor centre) so wellies were an absolute necessity! We joined a couple of other birders (who had very wet feet!) on the mound and before they could tell us about the owls I politely (well for me anyway) asked that could they not say where they are because it would be far more fun to locate the birds myself. Thank you very much! It took me less than a second to locate an owl sat in almost full view about halfway up one of the scrubby alders at about 50 yards distance. Not so tricky then.

Long-eared owl

The other birders said that there was supposed to be another long-eared owl around but that they hadn't managed to find it the scrubby trees. After a few minutes of idle chit chat and a few questions from me as to "what else is about?" they left and, almost immediately of course, I spotted the second owl! Less than 4 feet away from the other one but less obvious since it was hidden away behind a few branches. I turned to hail the couple back but they'd already disappeared (I did see them again later on and gave them the good news...).

(two) Long-eared owls
After soaking up our best views of long-eared owls since seeing 13 together on an island in a gravel pit at Fishers Green, Waltham Abbey nearly 20 years ago (!), we headed back into the main reserve to see if the green-winged teal was around and also to see what else we could find. None of the hides turned up the teal but we had nice views of pintail and wigeon as well as a smattering of waders such as redshank and snipe. 



A pair of stonechats were dutifully obliging in a small paddock and small flocks of golden plover and lapwing reeled around overhead. 

Male Stonechat

Female Stonechat

Golden plover

Back at the visitor centre we enjoyed some more good views of tree sparrows which are hard to find back home but this trip had been all about the long-eared owls and we were both delighted to get them. It also gave us a full nap hand of all 5 British breeding owls already this year, although as I write this there is breaking news of a snowy owl in Norfolk!

Tree sparrow

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