Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Little owls and little surprises

Visiting the same place over and over it's possible to get a feel for what will be where. I know, for example, that, at this time of year, the scrapes will be full of avocets and the marshes will be full of yellow wagtails, skylarks and meadow pipits. But it's the little surprises that always give the biggest thrills and make the early weekend starts worth the effort. This week I rose especially early to take advantage of the longer hours of daylight and made my way out to Elmley.

The second tree behind the farmhouse hosts a pair of little owls and I planned to get straight out of the car and head for the viewing platform to scan the oak for them. However, as I pulled into the car park I caught sight of one of the pair sitting on the barn porch, obviously hunting the paddock. It looked over at me as I pulled up with a good angle of view, it was very squiffy parking but, hey, it was early and there was a little owl sitting in the open.

Although it was obviously aware of me it soon settled back to its scrutiny of the grass, carefully watching for a juicy worm or a soft centred beetle. Many people think that little owls would turn their noses up at invertebrates but, in fact, worms and beetles make up the majority of a little owl's diet and they take small mammals less frequently. A little owl pellet can often be identified by the presence of shiny, black beetle wing cases. I watched as the little owl bobbed its head and adjusted its position until, after fifteen minutes or so, it pounced on something and flew off around the barn. I reparked the car and began to pack my gear, quite happy with the sketches I'd made. As I put the sketchbook away the owl returned and perched on one of the buttresses supporting the three sided barn that forms one side of the paddock. It had placed itself perfectly for a painting which immediately formed in my mind. I restarted the car and repositioned again for the best view and started back in with the sketchbook.

As I watched the owl was 'buzzed' several times by the swallows that currently have at least four chicks in the nest in the ladies toilets. The owl, however, seemed totally unfazed and continued its watching. The swallows can't have felt too threatened either as they soon gave up and went off in search of flying insects to feed their own young. I spent another twenty minutes or so just watching, sketching and photographing the owl.

At one point the silence was broken by a loud squealing from behind the car. I turned and was rewarded with the sight of a stoat determinedly pursuing a rabbit kitten. The rabbit jinked and leapt but the sinuous streak that was the stoat stuck to its tail with deadly purpose. The participants in this life and death tag race disappeared into the undergrowth and witnessing the outcome of this everyday drama was denied me. I've seen stoats many times and I've seen them with dead rabbits too, I've even 'squeaked up' a stoat or two in the past but I've never before seen a chase like that one. I feel privileged to have been witness to such a great little surprise.

I stayed with the little owl until it finally flew off and I got ready to walk to the hides. My path took me past the farmhouse and, as I emerged on the other side of the building, I saw a little owl fly up onto a fencepost whilst making a racket, calling loudly. Other birds shouted alarm and mistrust at the owl as it continued to call and bob its head like a demented Jack-in-the-box on its spring. I got the owl in my binoculars and noticed that this one wore a ring on its leg, unlike the owl I'd been watching in the paddock. I wondered what all the noise was for and I scanned the area for a cause but it wasn't until I got the bins back on the owl that I realised what I had missed at the first sighting. Two or three feet beneath the adult was a fledgeling, clinging precariously to the side of the post. I took one or two quick photos and, even though the adult had settled, I moved away quickly so as not to risk stressing the owls. I wondered if the owlet was out of the nest for the first time. Sunday was Father's day so I like to think it was the male that was keeping an intense yellow eye on his offspring.

The walk out to the scrape was accompanied by the sedge warblers singing their ratchety, scratchety song from the reeds whilst the skylarks sang sweet summer from skyperches overhead. As expected the scrape was full of avocets. Some are still sitting on eggs and young and others are still mating and squabbling. Running the gauntlet of the crotchety avocets were a couple of pairs of ringed plovers. They are charismatic little birds and one or two went into the sketchbook. But mostly I just enjoyed being out and watching the comings and goings of daily life on the scrape.

The sun had come out and the skies cleared by the time I made my way back to the car. The blue sky was criss-crossed with the vapour trails of aircraft and, with the skylarks singing and butterflies flying, I wondered if this was what it was like in Kent during July of 1940, skylarks and spitfires, now there's a thought for a painting in the future.

I checked the oaks one last time for the little owl family and, sure enough, both adults were in sight. The sketchbook had to come out again, I love little owls.