Thursday, 29 January 2015

Eyes In The Trees

This afternoon myself and a work colleague set out to look for Long Eared Owls on a reliable County Durham roosting site. The white snow covered ground provided a nice juxtaposition to the bright blue sky and the warmth of the afternoon sun was noticeable by its presence.
As were walking along the snow covered track my gaze was drawn to movement 50 yards up ahead, it was a Fox, it quickly seen us and carried on its way. It pains me to know that these beautiful predators are still being persecuted and hunted.
Minutes later and a Male Sparrowhawk flew overhead, his orange barred chest patterns and colouration lit up in the low winter light. Sparrowhawks are really quite common but I never tire of seeing them, I've never been lucky enough to see one at close quarters for any length of time but I'm working on it.

So after a short walk we reached the LEO hotspot and began scanning. We scanned again and again yet nothing showed. Last time I was on this site I had a Long Eared perched almost out in the open, this time was very different. Was it the weather? Had the cold and snowy conditions driven the Owls deeper into the scrub. My assumption was yes. So I began scanning inch by inch, up and down, left and right looking into the deeper areas of hawthorn and assorted scrub.
My attention was then drawn to a brown shape in a gorse high up on the bank, I changed position to get a more clear view and yeah, you guessed it, a Long Eared Owl.
We then slowly found more and more individuals roosting in the deeper recesses of scrub, one I hadn't seen was unfortunately flushed, luckily none of the other birds took flight and they seemed very much at ease.
The trick with Owl watching is to not unsettle them and cause them to take flight, this uses precious energy that they may need to survive, especially during the winter months. When flushed during the day they are also susceptible to attack by corvids as well as birds of prey.
To put it simply;
Keep your distance - Observe - Move on.

In total we found 6 birds at roost and I have to admit that these were the hardest Long Ears I've managed to find. They are so amazingly camouflaged that they become almost unnoticeable in the thick scrub, but in a way its the challenge of finding them that appeals to me. You're never certain your definitely going to see one and its that allure that draws me back every time for another fix.

The picture below has two Long Eared Owls in it believe it or not, both barely visible.

The LEO in the photograph below was tucked deep into the scrub on the embankment, if you look at the centre of the image you will see the owls face with its ear tufts visible. Unfortunately ever present branches meant the birds face was slightly obscured. 

I've included a couple of photographs of the individual that took flight, a quick response meant I managed to get a few snaps.  The colour on it is really beautiful, I love how rich and almost bronze its feathers are. 

Well so far this year I've seen every british Owl but a Barn Owl, I have a few leads to follow up in regards to Barn Owl sightings and as part of The Northern Owl Project I have quite a few locations to visit and check for Owl activity in general. This includes the ever elusive Druridge Lane Little Owl! 
I will find you little one!
The mileage is ever increasing, good job the petrol prices are so reasonable at the minute. Can't complain. :) 

Until next time.


Nature North East/ The Northern Owl Project

Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Northern Owl Project update #2

'A wise old owl sat in an oak

The more he heard the less he spoke

The less he spoke the more he heard.

Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?'

Its been a few weeks since my the last update on the Northern Owl Project, and since then I've spent most of my free time following up leads and looking for Owls and Owl roosts, as well as working on a mission statement and document to clearly layout the agenda and aims of this project.
This statement will be available to anyone who would want it upon release and will also be sent directly to bird ringers in the North East, allowing for them to be aware of the project and hopefully get involved with it.
The next step beyond that point is to eventually apply for funding, which is in all honesty quite daunting but I believe with enough research and support its absolutely achievable.

A big thank you to everyone who has contributed their owl sightings over the fast few weeks, a clear picture is now starting form over distribution of each species across the North.
I urge anyone reading this to continue to contribute information to the project, its most definitely invaluable.

My recent work on a private site by request has yielded success with the discovery of a mass of Long Eared Owl Pellets in two spots on the site. Both sites contain large numbers of pellets and are overshadowed by a nest, coincidence? I doubt it. These are LEO breeding sites, I was aware of them breeding in the area but to finally find at least two of the breeding nests is an instant positive.
Will they breed in the same areas in 2015 I don't know but I'll be monitoring the area to find out. Ideally I would like to put up some baskets to encourage breeding should these nests be neglected.
Below are a few photographs of said locale.

Nature North East/ The Northern Owl Project

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Mag-Lime & Muscovy Ducks at Marden Quarry

My Traineeship with Durham Wildlife Trust is rapidly reaching its climax and my ejection into an unknown realm will soon be upon me. I'm constantly scouring the internet and speaking to local contacts for work.
As you can imagine it fills me with dread not knowing which way my career will go from here, I'm optimistic I will remain in the conservation sector but your guess is as good as mine.
It is a tad exciting though.........the uncertainty, what is actually the next step?

Anyway on with the show, work was entirely classroom based on Friday and I used the opportunity of an early finish to have a look around a local urban green space 5 minutes from my front door, Marden Quarry in Whitley Bay.  The daft thing is I've never actually been before despite its close proximity to my dwelling.

It turned out to be an interesting urban sanctuary to say the least, the quarry is one of the very few areas of exposed Magnesium Limestone North of the Tyne. County Durham is a completely different story, it has an amazing amount of Magnesium Limestone landscapes. The quarry now consists of a large pond with a few wooded islands and a large area of mixed scrub on the western edge, consisting of primarily Elder, old knarly and twisted mature Elder, it looked like a passerine's dream.

The pond itself held a few Mute Swans, Canada Geese, Greylag Geese, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Coot, Moorhen and multiple types of duck hybrid. There was a young shoveler feedingby a wooded island and a pair of Muscovy kept watch from the side of the pond. Like two old men keeping an eye on the state of things.
I mentioned how old and knarly the Elder were, well I think these Muscovy Duck can take the crown for that. They're about as primitive as a duck can look, disregarding the saw billed ducks of course, they look like the unfortunate result of a ducks drunken one night stand with a Turkey!!
The bare red skin around the face and the thick, stocky body of the bird make it quite an imposing character when compared to the dainty Tufted Ducks.

Amongst the mixed scrub were the usual suspects, Robin, Magpie, Blackbird, Woodpigeon, Dunnock, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Long Tailed Tit and Greenfinch were all in attendance.
When I say there was Woodpigeon there, I mean there was a hell of a lot of Woodpigeon! I quite like these birds in all fairness, I'm not anti Woodpigeon by any means, but they have that seriously annoying character trait of making as much noise as possible when they fly off!! Much like Pheasants!
Nothing breaks the still of silence better than a startled Woodpigeon or an overly nervous Pheasant!

I've heard rumour that Marden Quarry has been a good place to spot passing rarities, I think I'll make a point to check the quarry out on regular occasions now and see if anything does turn up.
Afterall, I have no excuse, its only five minutes from home.


Friday, 16 January 2015

A Shelter From The Wind

On Thursday I was requested to look for signs of Owls on a private Northumbrian site, prior to this I had time to have a quick pit stop on a local hotspot.
It was a fresh cool morning, the sun was shining down upon the North Tyneside landscape and the wind howled across the open spaces. I took the scenic route to the hotspot and enjoyed the drive, whilst listening to some good music, an essential to a good drive in the car in my opinion. I drove out of Whitley Bay and took the road west through the ominous Hartley Lane and past the Beehive Pub.
I ate there with my better half last week and I highly recommend it, great food, a cosy setting and goats, yes, they also have goats. Pretty strange to me, considering I always envisage goats as somewhat satanic. Anyway I digress...
It took me about 20 minutes to reach the location, I parked up the car and grabbed my necessities, my camera and Bins.
After a slow and steady approach I noticed the Male Little Owl perched upon its regular spot sheltering from the harsh winter wind. As always I was constantly watched, its safe to say this little chap doesn't like intrusion for long and after a short amount of time he hopped into his stone lodgings, out of the wind and out of sight. I know his routine and knew after about fifteen to twenty minutes it would reappear but I didn't want to pry for too long and cause the bird to feel cautious and unhappy in my presence. The female did not show, she roosts deep within a rocky hollow and I've only seen her once. She is however more confiding and not so weary.
I only spent a little while in the area before returning to the car, from this point I took the road North to start my days work on my conservation project; The Northern Owl Project.

In the words of Bilbo Baggins, the road goes ever on.....


Monday, 12 January 2015

A (very small) Pair Of Little Beauties

Evening all, it's late so I'll keep this one short and sweet!
As regular readers to this blog and my Facebook page will know I have begin the process of creating an Owl Conservation project titled; The Northern Owl Project, which aims to conserve our 5 native species of Owl throughout the North East. A large part of this project is public involvement, as most of you will know I ask for any of my followers or anyone aware of the project to report any sightings to me directly; Species, location, number of birds and if they breed in the area.
On Saturday I was contacted regarding a sighting of a Little Owl pair, I visited the location on both Sunday and this afternoon.
On Sunday I only seen one Little Owl, today I noticed the first Owl in the same spot as yesterday and as daylight turned to dusk the second (larger) individual came out of its hidden roost.
This site already contains a tree mounted Little Owl box, hopefully I can get in touch with whomever put that box up, I assume the landowner, and perhaps work with local ringers to have the birds ringed. That is if they aren't currently being ringed anyway.
Due to the distance I kept, these were a weary pair of birds, and fading light, the photographs I took aren't fantastic but I have attached a couple below.  This will be a site I check at regular intervals now and I'm hoping to make time to go early on a morning and catch them soaking in the first of the Winter sun.

(Coming soon an update on the The Northern Owl Project.....Watch this space)

Saturday, 10 January 2015

A Tale of Two Shorties

I had a few hours to spare on Thursday, it was a bright but windy day, so I took a visit to one of my regular owl haunts. 
This undisclosed location, in my opinion, is one of the most reliable spots in the North East for views of owls. You do of course have to know what your looking for and where, you could wander around aimlessly expecting to see one and not see a thing, then again  you could strike lucky.

From the moment I arrived, the locale was teeming with passerine activity; Blue Tits and Great Tits singing and flitting through the scrub and trees.
Redwing, Fieldfare and Blackbird foraged around the horse paddocks, always keeping their distance, whilst Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting hung around the pathways and small hedgerows.

Unfortunately the Little Owl pair eluded me yet again. That's the fourth time that's happened, perhaps I'm not looking hard enough. Though I have been informed by a fellow birder that at least one of them was spotted on New Years day at dusk. There's hope yet.......fifth time lucky? 
I continued on and walked towards the regular Asio owl roosts, due to time constraints I bypassed the regular Long Eared/ Asio Otus roosts as they take more to find in the dense hawthorn thicket.
Whilst walking past the plantations and hawthorn scrub, I watched a Jay foraging, always a treat.
I started walking across the fields, observing a covey of 16 Red Legged Partridges take off and land further across the field. I kept scanning fence posts and hedge lines as I marched on, I slowly approached a regular roost site and in the distance I could see a pale brown mass. 
Using my binoculars after a few slow steps forward I could confirm this was a large Pale Short Eared Owl/ Asio Flammeus on a very popular perch. This is a sizeable individual and the most notable feature are the stunning bright yellow eyes which seem to be constantly scanning you.
After another slow wander closer I noticed another darker shape, higher up and to the right of the first Shortie. I recognised this individual, its a much smaller and darker bird than the first owl, and I've seen it before on this site just a few weeks back. Both birds seemed rather comfortable in my company and even the presence of a cocky Stoat running about in the field below them, with its prey, didn't deter them from their roost.

As you can see on the above photo, the second shortie is clearly a lot darker and was a much more wary bird, never taking its bright yellow eyes off me and always keeping its small tufts erected.
The larger bird was much more relaxed, snoozing every now and again and looking around at the noisy blackbirds in the area, always keeping its tufts up just in case.
What a privilege it was to see two Short Eared Owls at roost.

Have you seen a Short Eared Owl in the North East?
If so, get in touch with The Northern Owl Project and I will log your sighting into the database. Email me directly at or inbox my facebook page.

The Northern Owl Project/ Nature North East

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Northern Owl Project update #1

First of all, I would like to thank everyone that has been in touch and sent me their Owl sightings its fantastic. It's so exciting to me on a personal level to see more and more people come forward and get involved with the project.
Remember to check out my Facebook page and if you have any North East Owl sightings inbox the page or e-mail me directly at

The database is swiftly forming a picture of North East hot spots, with key areas being the Northumberland coast and County Durham, which is an amazing county for all five Owl species. The limestone landscapes and old quarry's almost lend themselves to Owls.

Today I attended a meeting with Ian Kyle, head groundsman at Arcot Hall & Golf Course for thirty two years, I bumped into Ian a few weeks back whilst scouting for Little Owl nest box locations. A chance meeting led to him asking me to put up boxes around the site of the golf course, an area that he has personally had many encounters with Owls.

We discussed current species on site and he took me around different locations where Owls were regularly seen by himself, staff and golfers alike.
Amazingly I have been given permission to do what I want on site, and I can't wait to get started. **Remember that if you are putting up an owl box that you get permission of the land owner.
The Course is riddled with small plantations of scrub and tree, areas of woodland and sections where the greenkeepers have left the grass to naturally grow, creating a perfect space for owls to hunt.

Next Thursday if possible I want to go back across and give the site a full inspection, looking for roost sites, possible old nest locations, signs of any owl activity and of course any owls that are active or roosting on that day.
What an amazing opportunity to be given, made even better because my local wildlife patch borders the land.
The question is, should I consider this an extension of my patch? ;)

Stay tuned for my next update :)

The Northern Owl Project

Coming soon
A Tale of Two Shorties.......

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Pale Gull Trio

"Seagulls, bloody seagulls!" 

Yes, seagulls! Now I totally understand how dull that sounds as the topic of a blog post, gulls however are a bit of a challenging bird to ID, particularly during the winter months.
For example, they take several years to mature and in doing so yield a variety of different plumages. Awkward!
Originally they were a type of bird I was totally unphased by, that was until Saturday morning.
Maybe it was the infectious hype from fellow birders on the fish quay or perhaps it was the fact that this was probably the only time I've really given gulls the time of day.......and now they FASCINATE me!!
Whilst on the fish quay I spotted 3 lifer birds, 2 species and a hybrid, and they were;

  • Iceland Gull
  • Glaucous Gull
  • Viking Gull (Herring x Glaucous hybrid)
The Pale Gulls!

Can you spot the pale rarity?
These three Gulls are all far north birds, hailing from their homes in Iceland and beyond to the Arctic Circle, not massively common around North East shores but they do seem to enjoy visiting North Shields Fish Quay during the winter months on occasion.

Glaucous Gull
Glaucous Gull
The Glaucous Gull is a large, bulky and thick billed Gull species. One key feature to notice with this birds winter plumage is the lack of dark feathers on the primary & tail feathers, giving it an overall very pale appearance. Lookout as well for the white ring it sports around its eye. 
As I say though, this is a large bodied bird, almost equivalent to a Greater Black Backed Gull! The size combined with the distinct pale colouration makes this gull stand out strongly amongst its more common peers.

Iceland Gull
Iceland Gull
Our Icelandic friend is a medium sized Gull, yet again its winter plumage is overall pale and the most distinguishing feature whether flying or perched is the length of the bird's primary feathers, they're long! You can clearly see the length of these on the above photograph.
The Iceland Gull also has a kinder appearance than the Glaucous Gull, this is more than likely due to its more slender beak. Giving it more dove appearance facially.

Viking Gull

Viking Gull
The mighty Viking Gull, also known as the Nelsons Gull, is a mighty bird. A blend of the Herring and Glaucous Gull, it's a hybrid species.  Unlike the Glaucous Gull it has a broad black horizontal bar on its tail feathers and slightly darkened primary feathers. Making is easier to distinguish at a distance.......allegedly! ;)

Viking Gull, showing both the broad barred tail and darkened primary feathers.
Glaucous & Viking Gull in the same shot, Viking Gull is at the bottom with the Glaucous Gull in the centre of the picture. Note the darker primary feathers on the Viking Gull in comparison to the very pale Glaucous.
Iceland Gull, showing pale elongated wing tips.