The Owl and the Hare
No, it’s not a children’s story! Coming home late one night last week, I’m always on the look out for wildlife - partly for road safety (we have a lot of deer where we are), and partly for interest as to what’s going on at the midnight hour. All was quiet until a mile from home, when I realised a fence post wasn’t quite right as it came within the swathe of the car’s headlights. It was a Barn Owl, perched yet stretching its body which made it look thinner than usual. The coal black eyes studied my now slowed car for a moment before the bird leapt into the air, but instead of flying away it stayed within the periphery of the headlights and flew alongside me for some way. As I continued on with my ghostly companion just a few feet away, a Brown hare broke the cover of the verge and also ran along just ahead of me for a few yards before diving back into the bracken.
With the Barn Owl remaining alongside, I wondered if it had worked out that the sight, noise and vibration of vehicles would potentially flush creatures of all sizes - the smaller ones being ideal for a midnight snack. Maybe, but probably just coincidence. Eventually the owl landed, leaving me to continue on home. It was nice to see as always, and especially good news since a Barn Owl was found dead - from apparent malnutrition - in one of the farm steadings close to home a couple of months ago.
Woodcock - the master of skulk!
Having been out at the break of dawn every day for the past week, it’s also been nice to see the brace of Woodcock that frequent the woodlands on the estate land where we live. We see male Woodcocks roding over home during the Spring and Summer, then there is a break of 2-3 months before our winter population make their presence known. Usually, like the Barn Owl described above, it’s the periphery of the car headlights that can reveal a bird and usually as it flushes from the edge of the road and up through the trees. Narrowing down the spots where they favour, you can slow the car down to bring the lights onto them for a while to study what a fine bird they are. Woodcocks migrate from Russia and Northern Europe, and these wintering birds are most likely to have arrived from there. What we noticed last winter though was how they detest snow, to the point where they will head for the semi-cleared asphalt roads.
This is fine, and a great chance to locate them, but nearly caused household problems last winter; after our first proper dump of snow of the season, Mrs A9Birds and I were heading out early the next morning driving our respective cars with me ahead in the A9Birds 4x4. Having given Karen the terribly condescending (I heard myself as I gave it) snow driving instructions to "…stay in my tracks, don’t brake - just use engine braking, darling…” as we left the house, off we went. All was fine until about a mile along the estate track when I saw a brown shape in the middle of the road - now was not the time to try and avoid one of usual Pheasants. I was already regretting the safety need to just ‘plough on through’ when I realised it was too small to be a Phea……AAARGGGHHHHH! WOODCOCK! So yes, I braked (and the bird flew off safely). I could only imagine the outbreak of Anglo-Saxon words in the car behind…all of which were given to me again that evening.
Welcome to Scotland, Shortie!
Sea Robin and Sea Owl
We started on an owl story, and we’ll finish this month’s blog with another though it’ll be via a roundabout route. The recent conditions (keen easterly wind is a good factor) drew us to the Moray coast for some seawatching. We’re reaching the very end of Pomarine Skua passage in particular, and a 2015 year list ‘tick’ for this interesting bird was still needed. Four hours of scanning yielded no Poms whatsoever (though a seasoned seawatcher on the north side of the Firth managed two, and frustratingly at the same time we were viewing from the south), but it was enjoyable nonetheless as counts of Eider, two Scoter species, Long-tailed Ducks and lots and lots of mostly juvenile Gannets (all feeding) provided good views. Winter plumage Black- and Red-throated Divers were also in evidence, as well as groups of Guillemots and even a single Little Auk doing a very good impersonation of drift wood in the surf at one point, close to where we were parked.
On two occasions in those four hours, my eye caught sight of a small bird flying low over the water and heading for land. The first turned out to be a Fieldfare, not unusual as a winter migrant thrush species though I was maybe surprised to see it flying solo, however, being used to the flocks we get at home. The second sparked some excitement, as it was much smaller akin to a finch or warbler; and it flew low and fast over the water, heading for the headland I was stood on. A few seconds later it pulled up off the sea and onto a rock - welcome to Scotland, one Robin! I was a little underwhelmed at first, then I began to wonder about the story of this brave little bird. Had it come from Scandinavia? Or just across from Portmahomack - still a considerable journey for such a small bird. Anyway - and although it wasn’t a Lapland Bunting, Red-flanked Bluetail or something like that - that little ‘Sea Robin’ impressed me.
A week or so later and I was back at the same spot, and the conditions for ‘proper’ seawatching were terrible; calm winds, flat sea, temperatures in the mid- to high teens and a clear blue skies (tough, eh?!). I knew before setting out that it wasn’t going to be a skua or shearwater boon day, with the lack of stormy conditions that would blow birds into the western end of the Firth, but the light with sun behind you and height of the headland always made it worth a visit to catch Eiders, waders and divers in flight, and so on. Sure enough it was a pleasant time, and quite social too as I met some folk that I’d only ‘spoke’ to on Facebook before. The highlight however (and my not-now-just-Facebook friends would forgive me saying that!) was the appearance off the sea of a Short-eared Owl, not 40 feet away when it eventually came past. Those of you who know of me, my scribbles and my photos know how much I love these birds - my favourite owl species - so to see one arriving on winter migration from across the North Sea was superb. The rich browns and golds of its plumage, together with the penetrating eyes, were enhanced by the low winter sun and it was reminiscent of when I first saw a ‘Shortie’ on the chalk downlands of Hampshire one winter, some years ago. So little is known about the species in terms of migration (could the Hampshire birds I used to see be Northern UK breeding birds? Probably/maybe), and with odd sightings of them along the Moray coast in winter it’s likely they all come from Northern Europe. But could some birds that breed south of home in Strathspey actually head north to the coast for the winter? Possible too, especially as waders like Curlew and Golden Plover make such a move away from their breeding grounds. They, like their Long-eared Owl cousins, will remain mysterious to us for a few years yet me thinks…but I’ll still enjoy watching and guessing.
A9Birds is a birdwatching and wildlife photography company based in Moray, covering the local area including Strathspey, the Moray Firth and Inverness-shire. Please see our website for details of what we can offer you, and why not keep up to date with our sightings and photos on our Facebook page. All photos on this page are copyright Mike Crutch/A9Birds.