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Friday, 22 February 2013

Signs of Spring, a Barn Owl, and the Skinless Shrew...

I lay in bed thinking. The half moon glows through the open curtains, faintly lighting my room. I wonder whether the great hunter has had any success since our meeting a few hours before. I wonder if it is still quartering the fields, perfectly focusing its senses onto finding its prey. Its deep steady wing beats as it silently moves through the air. Suddenly, the owl banks, spreading its wings. It sweeps sideways and plummets into the reedy undergrowth. Effortlessly, it lifts itself up, with a small mammal hanging in the grasp of its talons. There is something magic about the Barn Owl. I stumbled across one whilst I walked with Ellie at dusk earlier in the day. Initially, I had been enjoying the partial cloud cover, as the setting sun lit their undersides with pale pinks and deep oranges. The air was still. And the scent of river water hung in the air. 

The sun begins to set over the Ivel

Hanging over the River

And then, the Barn Owl. Impossible to miss; with their huge wingspan, bright white and a steady flight. I caught a glimpse as it dived for prey. Missing after its first attempt, the owl took a second dive only seconds after its first. Its moments like this where the excitement, adrenalin and pure joy at such an encounter takes over. I crouched myself into the ditch, no longer worrying what people might think coming across a man crouched in the reeds, and watched as the owl turned and flew straight towards me. I can be fairly self-conscious sometimes, especially nowadays. It can not always look good, creeping around bushes with a camera in hand. Thoughts of having my photo library searched by police to prove that I was not photographing the school kids in the playground, but instead the charms of goldfinch feeding in the hedgerows, occasionally happen. My mind digresses, as it often does.

The Barn Owl after two unsuccessful dives

The owl then crossed the river, and disappeared beyond the woodland. Continuing on its quest to sustain its bodies energy demands. Later on, from the ditch beside the track, no more than three or four feet away, the owl lifted itself up and flew away, before turning across the field and, once again, disappearing into the diminishing light. Incredibly, a Barn Owls sense of hearing is so good, that they can catch small prey in total darkness, without the need for their vision (which also happens to be excellent as well). One ear is positioned slightly higher than the other, a bit like Sloth from the Goonies, to enable them to pinpoint sounds exactly. Although, I do not think Sloth benefited in the same way...

Into dusk

Hunting at dusk, under the watchful eye of the Moon - about 384,000 km away

Snowdrops. Or snow piercers as they are known in France. A sign that spring is soon to be arriving here in the UK. Mistakenly thought to be British, these flowers are non-native invaders, thought to have been brought over from mainland Europe in the sixteenth century.

Piercing their way through the Earth
Like an army of small spears, the flowering stalks grow upright in clusters spread across woodland floor.

Drops of 'snow'

Eventually, the flower heads open up and drop. Hanging in a sober fashion, they carpet the woodland floor with bright white. And, despite being non-native, they are a very attractive plant that lifts the British spirit. They are a sign of brighter, warmer and longer days, with an air filled with the sex driven sound of bird song. Already excited!
This woodland has been well and truly pierced

Making the most of the recent sunny weather, here are a couple of shots walking in the river with Sky...

Trying to hunt moorhen, like something out of The Deliverance...

Light on the river
The Barn Owl seems to be reliably hunting the same patch, and I hope to return in the days to come. I promised some photos of the taxidermy effort of the shrew I found whilst walking Sky. Instead of posting them here, I have decided to dedicate this blog to all things wild and alive; and all things dead and taxidermy here:

Also, it was National Nest Box Week recently. Check out the website, and give some birds a safe place to lay some eggs this year !

Friday, 1 February 2013

A frozen landscape and feeding the birds...

The New Year saw temperatures drop dramatically all over the country. Which meant one thing… stand still! Lots of people cannot cope, while lots of people get over-excited (mostly kids, or the kids that never grew up), and others moan in the great British negative manner we all seem to thrive on. But how many people stopped, and took a moment to appreciate exactly what it was that coated our landscape? And what about the field voles? The owls?  The hibernating insects?

River Ivel, Langford
Passing through the now transformed concrete jungle. Roads of tarmac, curbs and bricks and mortar. Now frozen. So what was dull, grey and lifeless, now gripped by haw frost. Like sweeping all of the damage we have done to the environment for the benefit of our own kind under a carpet of pure, white snow. Places I would normally detest suddenly look beautiful. Hidden under a cloak of bright white. The snow continued to fall all over the country. Each flake as unique as the people on our planet, individual in shape and form.

Frozen Barbed Wire

Food for the birds is vital in this cold and ice. Finding natural food stuff in such wintery conditions is difficult. A great time to get some close views of garden birds, as they are drawn in to the food and water readily available in our gardens.

Blackbird in the Snow

The first Uncle-Nephew long walk of the New Year, took us on a 14 mile stroll from Langford, through Broom and out to Shuttleworth, looping back around along part of the Ivel Navigation. Probably the most exciting thing about the snow for me, is the tracks left behind by animals. Fox prints, muntjac, birds of all sizes. The slightly longer print of the blackbird, as it makes its way out from the hedgerow. Taking to the air, its wings brush against the surface of the snow, leaving the perfect spread of wing feathers at the end of the track.

Inconspicuously amongst the branch of the deep green fir tree. Occasionally showing itself as it bounced between branches, to hunt for its favored food types of small insects. The soft olive plumage and bright golden yellow crest make the goldcrest a gem among birds. Holding the record as Britain's smallest bird. Momentarily, we were shadowed by the incredible raptor, the red kite. As it soared between the firs, twisting its forked tail, so to give an effortless impression. 

The cold weather seems to give animals that extra bit of courage and boldness, necessary as they become ever more desperate to survive the extreme cold. It takes a lot of energy to keep warm, energy that needs replacing with more food. Some of my most enjoyable encounters with kingfishers have been during the winter months, when lakes have turned to ice, and frost and snow grips the yellow lichen coated branches overhanging the river. This walk was one of these moments. All the kingfisher could care about was catching its next meal. Finding the perch. Eyeing up the fish. Calculating dive speed and direction. And plunging into the slow flowing river Ivel, pulling an unwary stickleback from the water. Even the dogs didn't bother the bird, as we followed and watched from a few yards away, diving and feeding, time and time again. 

Kingfisher after catching a Fish

Flying to its next perch

Having the friday afternoon off of work meant the three generations, Granddad, dad, and I, could get out and take in what remained of the snow before the rain and floods set in. 

Tree in the Snow

Looking down over Pirton

Sky living it up!

Even though the snow has cleared, it is never too late to start to feed the garden birds regularly. My mum hasn't had food in her feeders for most of the year, until this month. And after two weeks, I counted three great tits, three robins, two blackbirds, song thrush, two blue tits, four sparrows and a dunnock, all within the space of an hour. Also, if you fancy putting some nest boxes up, now is a good time - try the RSPB site for advice on sizes and placement - - Birds can be fussy! 

One of four sparrows


Great Tit

I have recently acquired a dead shrew, found in the field opposite my house. Rather than severe the flesh and head off and keep the skull, I decided to give taxidermy a proper go, using the kit and book Rachael and her family kindly bought me for christmas.... expect a gruesome blog to follow!