Thursday 30 January 2020

More on The Barn Owls of Farmoor 29th January 2020

Barn Owls are normally seen flying at dusk or at night over fields and hedgerows or along the rough verges of rural roads, when their white bodies and underwings appear ghostlike in car headlights or the light of the Moon. The opportunity to watch and photograph up to two Barn Owls at close quarters in full daylight does not come that often so, with a day of pleasant sunshine forecast, I made my way once more to Farmoor Reservoir in the hope of intercepting  one or both of the Barn Owls that often appear in the early afternoon to hunt over an area of scrub between the reservoir and the River Thames.

Why they come out to hunt so early, I am uncertain. Maybe it is because their territory is currently so flooded and wet that voles are hard to find and they are hungry and need to find food outside of 'normal hours'. However it is well known that the Barn Owls at Farmoor have for many years been encountered hunting during the daytime. So who knows............

A brisk and cold wind was blowing down the causeway as, after a coffee and a chat in the cafe with Amanda, Dave, Dai and Pauline, I made my way with Chris along the stark concrete ribbon of the causeway that bisects the two reservoirs. Chris had contacted me a few days earlier enquiring about where to go to see the owls and was visiting Farmoor for the first time. It was a chance meeting between the two of us, neither of us expecting the other to be at Farmoor today.

We were well ahead of schedule, it only being eleven am and any Barn Owl was only expected sometime around two pm. We wandered around the north western end of the reservoir for a while, killing time and then stood at a slightly elevated position, looking down to Pinkhill Lock that lies beyond the reservoir, on the river. Between us and the moored narrow boats, lay a fallow meadow of flailed stalks and grass stretching to the river, still greatly swollen by rain, mysterious eddies on its surface swirling as the great volume of water flowed fast and silently between its banks. Another legacy of all the rain that has fallen recently, manifested itself on the flattened ground of the meadow, for every dip and depression harboured water, forming infinite puddles and flashes that shone like mirrors in the bright sunlight.

The land is stark at this time of year, the bare dense ranks of distant bushes and copses a monochrome blur, the branches and twigs of larger trees outlined against the clear sky like haphazard cracks in a shattered pane of glass. Where we stood it was calm, sheltered for the most part from any wind and it was as if time was suspended, the scene before us unchanging, becoming a fanciful imagination of a rural idyll as the sun cast its dull winter warmth on my face. We quietly conversed, whiling away an inevitable and not unexpected wait for the Barn Owl. A Red Kite, that most elegant of scavengers rode what wind there was, searching for a meal and found an unsavoury morsel in the form of a long dead fish lying on the reservoir bank. The kite swooped and picked the fish up in its talons and flew on long bowed wings to a nearby tree.

There were half a dozen others, enthusiastic photographers mainly, who had come here with the express purpose of photographing a Barn Owl. Congregating on a distant bench by the river's bank they conversed loudly enough for their voices to come to us on the wind, as they ate sandwiches and drank tea or coffee they poured from flasks. Waiting like us but not wanting to be silent.

I resented this intrusion not because of their presence but the fact the meditative spell the land was casting across my senses was broken by their conversing and the moment was lost. The last time I was here I was on my own but now the owl's presence has become common knowledge and inevitably has attracted others less sensitive to these surroundings and the peace and solace that it can bring if you are willing to allow it.

A Barn Owl appeared from behind us. Its sudden appearance coming as a shock of delight, shaking me from my anxious state, brought on by waiting for so long and having nurtured a growing trepidation that the owl would fail to appear and I would be embarrassed, having cheerfully assured Chris of the owl's definite appearance. The owl sailed downwind past us,  white and tawny gold, like some high priest in his robes, the colours of its plumage radiant against a backcloth of bright green grass that is the reservoir's bank. John Clare in words infinitely more poetic than mine described the Barn Owl's appearance thus 'the owl on wheaten wing, /And white hood scowling o'er his eyes.'

It flew back past us and floated down onto a metal fence post, the bunched talons, ugly, in a grappling iron kind of way, hardly having space to grasp the thin metal of the post. It was never actually at rest but constantly turning its head towards any sound. It looked in our direction as if directly regarding us but it was reacting to sounds from the ground and the dark unseeing eyes did not register our presence.

Barn Owls at rest look a very different bird to when they are in flight. Perched they are angular, almost gaunt, the great domed head, looking out of proportion with its heart shaped disc of a face, dominating the rest of the bird's thin body. A body wrapped in long tawny gold and grey washed wings that meet beyond its tail. In flight it becomes compact, an impression that comes from the bluntness of its flat face, its broad wings and short tail. This is when it is so often  likened to a giant moth. The owl, when flying, appears less alien to my human senses, something more acceptable, for it has a face like mine with both eyes set into its face rather than on each side of its head like most birds. This makes it familiar and comforting to my human senses.

We waited for it to fly from the fence post. Owls do not launch themselves from their perch but caress the air with wings especially adapted for soft and silent flight. Immediately prior to take off the wings are lifted vertically to raise the owl's insubstantial frame of feathers and hollow bones upwards, and catching the wind, the owl is carried away on a flight of natural grace.

We watched the owl, flying over its chosen hunting ground, a neglected waste area of dead umbellifers and rough grass extending as far as The Lock at Pinkhill. For the most part it flew on a relentless patrol, around, away and back again, flickering wing beats carrying it on an erratic and weaving course, constantly side slipping, diverting and swerving with a tilt of its wings or tail to investigate the slightest of sounds but always maintaining a sense of purpose. W H Hudson in his book Nature in Downland described a Barn Owl's flight as 'flopping, unbalasted, aimless and moth like' which will do for me.

On occasions it would halt its 'unbalasted' flight, its acute hearing attracted to a noise in the grass and it would briefly hover with feet hanging down before falling to the ground in an endeavour to catch whatever it had heard in the grass below.

There was also one remarkable occasion where the owl dispensed with any preamble of hovering and in one rapid movement from level flight contorted itself so that its head faced downwards while body and wings were twisted sideways and with a dexterity remarkable for such a large bird fell to earth at great speed in an ultimately failed endeavour to snatch a vole. 

To have such a close encounter with an actively hunting Barn Owl is birding at its most rewarding. There is the pleasure of seeing a creature of natural beauty going about its normal existence but there is more to it than that. Chris and myself had gambled. We had gambled on weather, timing and a host of imponderables that only the owl could answer and satisfy by putting in an appearance. We had chosen our cards and could but trust that the owl would perform as it had done before, and prove we had a winning hand.

That is the adrenalin rush we craved, when it all comes together, the owl appears, remains with us hunting for some time and comes close enough for even the most demanding of us to be satisfied.

This afternoon we could have asked for no more. I had chosen our spot carefully, to stand between the river and the reservoir where I knew from previous experience the owl often flew back and fore. For short periods it would disappear over a rise and others, less patient or understanding, would chase after it but I knew the best course of action was not reaction but inaction, to remain steadfast and hardly move, confident in the knowledge the owl would return on a similar flight path, which it duly did. It was surely no coincidence that when Chris and myself had been by-passed by the others giving chase over the hill, the owl on its return would seem far less perturbed by our dual presence. We hardly moved  more than a few metres throughout and got all the views anyone could reasonably desire.

The Barn Owl eventually flew westwards along the reservoir bank. We waited for a while but it was not going to return and probably had flown to where it would be on its own and less troubled by the presence of human beings.

I walked with Chris up onto the perimeter track of the reservoir to look for the two wintering Greater Scaup that are usually to be found asleep amongst the scattered flotillas of wintering Tufted Ducks. Looking down onto the concrete apron that shelves down to the water's edge, a line of predominatly male Tufted Ducks were loitering there, out of the wind, strung along the concrete like so many shiny black and white piano keys. They gently took to the water not in haste but as a precaution, a re-assurance and slowly floated away.

I scanned another intimate gathering of 'Tufties'  bobbing further offshore on the blue water. A scruffy looking duck on the far edge of the small flock caught my notice, slightly broader in the beam and with a perfectly rounded head.

It was a first winter male Greater Scaup, half way to moulting into its full adult plumage. It must be new in to the reservoir today and a nice reward to complete this pleasant day of birding

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Farmoor's Ghosts 22nd January 2020

Barn Owls and Kingfishers are both resident at Farmoor Reservoir and are arguably the two most desirable birds to try and see on any visit there. Both species can be seen with patience and a little local knowledge. The Kingfishers that visit the pool at Shrike Meadow have become so well known that the previously unoccupied hide overlooking the pool is now often full, as birders but mainly photographers come to get that 'particular' shot of it, sat on its post in front of the hide.

Today I went to the hide but it was full of photographers waiting for a Kingfisher to arrive and I rapidly retreated, deciding to go and look for Barn Owls instead.

I do not get on well with hides as I do not care to be enclosed for too long with other people unless I know them well. I can also be a bit anti social at times, preferring my own company. It's not that I do not like people and if you sit in a hide you need to recognise that others are just as entitled as you to be there but it's the chatter that you often have to put up with, the constant blather about camera settings, where you should go for the best results for this bird or that, the attempts to out do each other with birding tales or photographic experiences. It drives me to distraction. It's not only in hides either, the same frequently happens outside as well, wherever birders and/or photographers congregate in numbers.

For me birding is intensely personal and emotional, incorporating a whole gamut of both spiritual and esoteric experiences. On my own an encounter with a bird is a world of difference to when I am  in the company of others, even those whose company I like and trust. On one's own you have time to feel the essence of the bird you are watching, its surroundings and how it affects you. There are no inter personal distractions and you are free to do as you please. It all combines into a similar experience as, say, going to the theatre and enjoying a really good and uplifting performance. Even when the bird has flown you are left with a sense of well being, a feeling of having achieved and enjoyed something all by yourself that is out of the ordinary. Whilst walking alone, birding, thoughts often pass through my mind that have nothing to do with birds but somehow they too become a part of the whole experience and in some cases act as a therapy. There is a fashionable word for it now called Mindfulness

I should also like to make it clear that I have met many nice people in hides and have had rewarding conversations and you know who you are, so I trust you will forgive this mild diversion from the normal.

Enough said for now! 

The Barn Owls at Farmoor are well known  to the general public and birders alike as they often hunt during the afternoon in broad daylight and are therefore conspicuous. They are also used to encountering birders, dog walkers and ramblers and as a result do not seem overly concerned about a human presence, although they remain reasonably wary. Here also, they are safe from collision with fast moving vehicles, a frequent fate for Barn Owls that hunt the verges of our busy roads in Oxfordshire and elsewhere in Britain. 

Everyone loves a Barn Owl. There is something about an owl that imparts an overt contact with the wild. They are secretive and mysterious, legend and fable are attached to them from down the centuries, so when one comes to delight us, such as at Farmoor, there is that innate thrill of encountering something special, no matter who you are. To see one suddenly appear, silently floating on soft wings over the rough grassland and the scrub of the long dead willowherb and meadow sweet adjoining the reservoir, brings a sense of the magical, as if with the owl's presence the whole area has been transformed out of the ordinary to the extraordinary and will remain so until it departs.

The Reverend C.A Johns wrote in the nineteenth century of the Barn Owl's flight as follows: stealthily they fly along the lanes, dipping behind trees, searching round haystacks, skimming over the stubble, and all with an absence of sound that scarcely belongs to moving life. Yet, though by no means slow of flight, the Barn Owl can scarcely be said to cleave the air, rather, it fans its way onwards with its down fringed wings, and the air, thus softly treated yields to the gentle force and retires without murmur to allow it passage......

Dai, who lives locally and goes birding at Farmoor virtually every day had told me that recently two Barn Owls had been seen hunting over a particular area of rough grass and umbellifer scrub owned by Thames Water, that lies between the reservoir and the River Thames. I made my plans to go there. 

They can appear at anytime but usually it is in the afternoon and they are well worth going to see. Sadly such a sight is all too rare now as Barn Owls have become scarce due to habitat degradation and the loss of barns and outhouses in which to breed. Artificial nest boxes have gone some way to redress the loss of breeding sites but the overall population remains low, so we are indeed privileged to have them at Farmoor.

The location in question at Farmoor is at first sight unremarkable, you could describe it as waste ground but in weekdays it is a peaceful and quiet haven despite being close to busy roads and two large villages. The River Thames that runs by it is, at this time of year, untroubled by boat traffic and although the Thames Path winds its sinuous way along the river bank there are few people using it in winter apart from the regular dog walkers. Looking to the west my eyes pass over a rural scene of  pastoral meadows, the timeless river and then beyond to the stark outlines of winter trees in the distance. It is hard to realise you are only a few miles from the centre of Oxford.

Taking Dai's advice I made a visit to Farmoor on Monday, getting there in the early afternoon and stood alone in bright sunlight and with a certain stillness embracing the land that only a cold winter's day can conjour. Looking west over the fields I  could see the effects of the rain that has been falling for so many days. Fields normally green and with sheep grazing were underwater and gulls, geese, ducks and swans were taking advantage of this new, albeit temporary habitat. The river was swollen to a brooding monster, running fast and silently with a relentless and powerful force, flattening the reeds and vegetation at its edges, the water level high enough to have breached the banks and to isolate trees in their own private lake.

At just after two pm a Barn Owl came from the west, ghostly pale in the sun, flying distantly and low along the perimeter of the flooded fields, its wraith like form moving steadily to pass across an indeterminate dark hedgeline, the distinctive stiff wing beats of its flight bringing it closer and closer. It rose to some height and floated across the river, then descended in a series of quick shallow flaps and occasional glides, tilting and swerving, responding in an instant to whatever attracted its attention on the ground. It proceeded to hunt across the expanse of dead and flattened stalks in front of me, quartering back and fore alongside the threadbare hawthorns that run on each side of a path that leads down to Pinkhill Lock It passed before me, moving away and then came back, its heart shaped face, a halloween mask held steady between its long wings.

The head of a Barn Owl is large, out of proportion to its slender body, giving the bird a front heavy, blunt faced appearance which is very apparent when they are seen in flight. The head is the business end of the owl, where the incredibly sensitive ears are located, set asymetrically below the eyes, in a round disc like face that serves as a sound receptor. Its hunting strategy is to locate prey by sound as it flies silently on specially adapted wing feathers, then dive and at the last moment before impact locate its victim by sight, whilst bringing forward the talons to seize and kill the prey. Many such attacks fail and the owl will persist until it meets with success, occasionally perching in the meanwhile, as if to take a break and make an assessment of its situation, before resuming the hunt.

The owl circled round, forever searching and listening for any sound coming from the ground that would betray its vole prey. Suddenly it checked its flight, stalled, hovered on slowly beating wings and dropped into some rough grass. It stood for a few seconds, twisting its large bulbous head this way and that, as if surprised it had missed its prey. A comical 'where did it go' moment.

The few seconds on the ground were sufficient for the owl to recognise it had been unsuccessful and it rose on rounded wings, the undersides gleaming white in the sun, to resume its search. It covered the whole area at least twice, relentless and thorough in its quest and then, once more  twisted in mid flight, hovered for a momentary check before dropping with feet and legs held together and wings held outwards until the very last moment, before landing in the grass at speed, the wings now held aloft, clear of the coarse grass and herbage. Sadly this attempt also met with failure.

The owl rose into the air once more and continued its quest, now moving further away from me, to the east. I moved closer to where it was hunting and once more it dived into the grass. I could just discern its white head in the grass before it was inclined downwards. Had there been a successful kill?

The owl was on the ground for almost a minute, invisible in the long grass and then rose and wheeled up into the air to fly past me at no great distance and this time there was a small brown carcase grasped in its talons. The owl, had at last been successful and flew purposefully west, heading for somewhere secure to eat its meal and I lost sight of it in the glare of the sun. I waited for half an hour but there was to be no return. 

The sun was now declining perceptibly in the still cloudless sky and shadows were drawing across a land preparing for dusk. I left for home.

You can just see the tiny vole held in the owl's talon
Tuesday's weather was similar to yesterday, very cold and with the sun continuing to shine, unhindered by any cloud. I decided on another afternoon of watching the Barn Owls. After all, this weather would not last and here was an opportunity to make the most of this unexpected break from rain, cloud and wind. I arrived at Farmoor at just before two in the afternoon and stood expectantly, awaiting the arrival of the Barn Owl. I was still waiting an hour later. I could see no difference between the conditions today to those of yesterday but obviously the owl did.

However, during that fruitless hour, I witnessed a most unexpeced thing and one I never thought to see, least of all at Farmoor. Looking across, I could see the river that swept in a large bend round the water meadows to run towards the lock keeper's house and moored longboats, whilst the main flow went through a weir that controls the river's flow. I noticed two adult Mute Swans on the river that I thought were renewing their pair bond.They were breast to breast, with their long sinuous necks almost entwined but beating each other with the bend in their wings. I looked more closely and quickly realised my error, they were two adult male swans fighting. Barging with breast, half spread wings and neck against each other. A trial of strength if you like. At first they were some distance upstream but were being carried closer on the river's current until the beating of their wings was clearly audible. Neither appeared willing to give way and first one would be in the ascendancy and then the other appeared to get the better of its rival. They were being followed by a female that was presumably paired to one of the swans. She  kept making a high pitched squeak as if in concern at what was happening. Each male swan's strategy was to barge and bludgeon its opponent into submission, occasionally using their bills to peck at each other but mainly using brute force of body and wing to try and make the other submit. This continued for at least fifteen minutes, as all the time they came downriver on the current, the two swans, never apart, locked in deadly combat. I expected one of the swans to eventually accept defeat but in this case neither was willing to desist, concede and make its escape. It looked like a fight to the death and indeed that is what it was. The two swans still locked in combat, passed behind a line of bushes on the river bank but when they emerged on the other side I could see one swan was floating lifeless, its neck and head submerged below the water whilst the victorious swan still barged and beat at its lifeless body, following it as far as the weir where the dead swan was carried on the rushing water through the weir and away downstream.

The female swan hung about upriver of the weir still emitting her strange cries of concern. The victorious male swan that had followed the dead swan as far as the weir returned to join his mate and both pushed steadily against the current, swimming upriver and the last I saw of them was the male swan standing and preening on some flattened rushes, as if nothing untoward had happened.

I looked up this behaviour in BWP (Birds of The Western Palearctic) and it informed me that what I had witnessed is a very rare occurrence but not unknown and the usual victor is the swan already holding the territory. I certainly will regard Mute Swans differently from now onwards!

At just after three in the afternoon a Barn Owl floated behind me. Initially looking in the wrong direction, I almost missed it as it flew in the sky above the reservoir bank but it turned and came towards me, dropping down, before turning once again and rather than  quartering the same ground as yesterday seemed to prefer the reservoir's bank of manicured grass, briefly perching on the barbed wire fence surrounding the reservoir's outer perimeter.

It took off again and shortly afterwards dropped like a stone into the long grass behind some hawthorns but when I went to investigate where it had landed,  it flew up from almost in front of me. Both of us surprised. I pointed the camera at the owl, hoped my settings were right and pressed the shutter. The owl could obviously hear the camera clicks and gently veered away to hunt further from me and not long afterwards it caught a vole and flew, as yesterday, westwards and was gone.

I assumed this was the finale and there would be no more Barn Owl activity this afternoon.  I called Dai and we were talking on the phone when to my delight another Barn Owl, or was it the same one, flew past me.

'Sorry Dai. The Barn Owl. It's back. Must go' I exclaimed and terminated the call. Dai would understand. I followed the owl's progress and this time it gave me the closest views as it hunted over the rough grassland and scrub of dead umbellifers.

A creature made even more beautiful by the bright sun, its white underparts almost luminescent and its upperparts and wings shining, golden buff suffused with much grey, whilst three separate lines of black spots were strung like pearls across its spread wings. Its buff and grey upperparts made it surprisingly hard to see against the scrub and rough grassland it flew over, although its white underparts and large size plainly stood out as it passed before a darker background of hawthorns

Like the previous owl, it was quickly successful in capturing a vole and after no more than ten minutes it too departed to the west. I lost sight of it as it flew through the trees by the river.

I waited but I knew it was unlikely that I would see another Barn Owl today and so it proved.