Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Owls playing chicken

Features editor Matt Merritt writes:

Last night, I was driving home from Nottingham, at about 11.30pm. It was rainy and windy, and I’d got about two miles from home, on a straight, downhill stretch, when I saw a Tawny Owl standing upright at the side of the road.

I slowed right down and managed to avoid it, and pulled to a halt a little way further on, hazard warning lights blazing, before going back with a torch. To my surprise, it was still there, and didn’t fly away even when I got to within almost touching distance.

Now I was worried. I assumed it must be injured, so I started trying to work out ways to pick it up without hurting it, and without suffering severe injury myself (the wildlife photographer Eric Hosking famously lost an eye to a Tawny Owl). Quite where I’d have taken it, I’m not sure, there not being any all-night owl surgeries in the vicinity. I went back to the car, found a padded photographer’s case to put it in, donned gloves, and prepared for the difficult part.

It had gone, thankfully. I had a good look around the area on foot, drove back up and down three or four times, but it had clearly flown away rather than just hopping into the ditch.

Thing is, this is the third time something like this has happened to me. The first, 10 years ago, was on a similarly lonely stretch of road near Bourne, Lincolnshire, where I was living at the time. That time it was a Long-eared Owl, which was stood in the centre of the road, stock still. I only saw it late and was terrified that I’d hit it, but when I got out to walk back, it watched me part of the way, then flew easily away.

Just a couple of months after that, the same thing happened with another Long-eared Owl (odd because I don’t know of any breeding locally) just about a mile from where I saw last night’s bird.

So, I’m baffled. Roads must be great places to catch voles, etc, as they emerge from cover, but I can only assume the owls get rather dazzled by headlights and are unable to fly away from approaching cars. I’m trying to get an owl expert to explain more, but has anyone out there had a similar experience?

Patch list challenge update

Well, we're approaching the home straight, and intrepid challenger Mike Passman, who watches Thurlestone Bay in Devon, is hanging on to his lead, but there's still time for things to change...

He writes: "September was not as successful as I had hoped – very settled weather with few days with winds in excess of force four, so very poor passage of seabirds.

"A juvenile Pied Flycatcher (163) was found in the willows by East Soar Farm on the 14th. Next day, a Ruff (164) spent an afternoon on Thurlestone Marsh, while a walk around South Milton Ley on the 16th produced a juvenile Redstart (165).

"While searching the Bolberry Down area on the 21st, I flushed a Short-eared Owl (166), with the star bird of the month located in the same field on the 22nd – a juvenile Dotterel (167).

"As usual there was another mega dip – I went to Cornwall for a long weekend on the 25th, when a Glossy Ibis landed on Thurlestone Marsh before moving to South Huish Marsh, last being seen at 8am on the 26th. So far there have been reports of eight species which I have not managed to see! I'm going to need some very favourable weather conditions to achieve the 175 target."

Meanwhile, in the East Midlands, features editor Matt Merritt is desperately playing catch-up. He writes: "September was very quiet indeed, but a juvenile Common Rosefinch (147) trapped and ringed in a Thornton garden on the 26th was an unexpected tick to get - many thanks to Andy Smith for his generosity in letting me, and many other birders, see this great bird.

"October has brought a few ticks that I'd missed earlier in the year - fairly common birds that I'd trusted would cross my path at some stage. So, the 13th brought a flyover flock of Golden Plovers at Cossington (148), and the 14th a Kingfisher (149) at Cropston Reservoir (I've been hearing them at Kelham Bridge all year, but hadn't actually seen one). This one was, bizarrely, behaving almost like a wagtail, hopping around the small boulders on the dam near the waterline, and only once darting out to fish.

"Finally, on the 16th a couple of Marsh Tits were at Beacon Hill - they're usually harder for me to find than Willow Tits, which breed at one of my regular sites."