I was going to write a post introducing you to the garden at the new house – the little beasties that I have found whilst digging up the vegetable patch, the birds on my new garden bird list and the Lepidoptera that I’ve found hibernating in the shed. However, that shall have to wait and something so wonderful has happened that I am bumping off that topic and devoting a whole blog post to it.
My current work rota at Wimpole is little bit skew-iffy, as I work one day every weekend – and that day varies, and as a result, I get a day off during the week – again, variable. This week, my day off during the week was Thursday, which dawned chilly but bright. Like everyone, I had some urgent tasks that needed doing, but once those were out of the way, I was free as a bird. That is, I was free if I ignored the rest of my To Do list. I had a choice before me, spend the afternoon working through my To Do list or make the most of the sunshine and visit a nature reserve. As a naturalist, there really was no choice. So off to a nature reserve I went, which in this case, was RSPB’s Fen Drayton Lakes.
You may remember that I’ve been there a few times, spotting Bittern (Botaurus stellaris) from the car park, protecting Ruby Tiger Moth caterpillars (Phragmatobia fuliginosa) from cyclists and generally having an all-round lovely time. Which I expected again, although I would have to be lucky to spot a Bittern again and it would be very worrying to spot a Ruby Tiger Moth caterpillar at this time of year, but you know what I mean. I expected to have a charming wander around a couple of the lakes, watching Coots (Fulica atra), Widgeon (Anas penelope) and the other inhabitants. I hoped for a stroke of luck, perhaps seeing a butterfly or one of the Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) that I had failed to spot when I visited in January, maybe even the Slavonian Grebe (Podiceps auritus) which had been reported and would be a life tick for me.
So, how did my afternoon go, I hear you asking. It started well with a Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) on the Ferry Lagoon (nb: the biggest lake at Fen Drayton), which was in non-breeding plumage but was beautiful nonetheless. Upon deciding to make a real go of it, I headed off on the long trail around Ferry Lagoon. Walking up the road past the car park, I was forced to stop a little while as Long-tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus) shouted their presence in a nearby tree. I always love to see these birds, bouncing here and there, making the most adorable racket. It was by pure chance that during my regard of them, I spotted a much quieter bird, weaving its way vertically up a tree in its silent way. A Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris), and the best (and closest) view of one I had ever had. As I watched it through my binoculars, and occasionally camera lens, another little bird darted briefly through my field of view. Even smaller than the Treecreeper, but not as a quiet, it was a Goldcrest (Regulus regulus). Now I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen a Goldcrest or Treecreeper, so by this point in my visit, I was already a very happy naturalist!
Leaving them to their foraging, I set my boots back onto the path and struck on. Struggling to wade through mud around the top end of the trail, I succeeded in startling a flock of Widgeon who took to the skies in loud whistles and flapping wings. The bird list continued to grow as I added Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), Canada and Greylag Geese (Branta canadensis and Anser anser), Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea). A bright colour caught my eye, albeit partially hidden by a tree trunk. Vivid blue amongst the brown and green, and a scan with my binoculars confirmed my excited hunch, it wasn’t a piece of litter but an actual Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis). Quickly whipping out my camera, I managed to take my first ever (and very blurred) photo of a Kingfisher before it flew off down the river!
What a day this was turning out to be. If I saw nothing else that afternoon, I would still return home absolutely thrilled. But more was to come.
Reaching the northeast corner of the Lagoon, where the path turns at a right-angle to follow the edge of the Lagoon, I was diverted from this route by a glimpse of something just over the ridge, flying low along the edge of the River Ouse. A large and brown bird, gliding smoothly and I must say, rather majestically. I almost stopped breathing when I realised what it could be. I practically ran across the little bridge, and skidded to a sitting position on the other side of the ridge, frantically grabbing my binoculars to get a better look. Yup, no mistaking it, there, flying not 50m away from me in the late afternoon sun, a Short-eared Owl hunting above in the long grasses. Seriously, it was one of the best birding moments of my life to date. Sure, I’ve seen Short-eared Owls before. But it’s always been at such a distance and / or in really bad light. This was remarkable in comparison. It must have known I was there, but it seemed to totally disregard me as it swooped around the field.
Minutes later, whilst I was still not breathing properly, it headed through a gap in the trees to the next field over. I went to get my notebook out and write it down, when a lighter flash amongst the trees caught my eyes. Up went the binoculars again, pressed against my eyes, in a moment of confusion, for I knew it couldn’t be the Short-eared Owl, it was much too light in colour, and smaller too. Wait a minute, could this actually be happening? For before me, now in the same field as the Short-eared Owl had been moments before, there was a Barn Owl (Tyto alba) hunting! Flying slightly higher than the Short-eared, it glided silently, occasionally with a light flutter to the ground – although I didn’t see it catch anything. Again I almost stopped breathing, as it flew closer and closer, until it flew by my position at a distance of what must have only been 10m!
My mind was in a state of bewilderment. Such brilliant birding was unheard of for me – best ever views of so many birds and my first photos of Kingfisher, Short-eared Owl and Barn Owl in the space of less than 2 hours?! What was happening?!?! And then, you’ll never guess what happened next. Well, unless you saw my tweet on the day. Both owls were hunting in the same field, seeming to ignore each other (do either species care about other owl species hunting in the same place? Do they eat the same prey?). At one point, across a distance of around 300-350m, I managed to get a couple of (blurry) photos where they were both in the same frame!
They headed their separate ways, disappearing behind different stretches of trees and I think I managed to start breathing normally again at that point. I attempted to phone Matt to excitedly tell him about what had happened, but of course, he was at work and couldn’t answer. So my mother got the call instead, where I babbled down the phone something about owls and 10m and best views ever and first photos and omg I love this reserve and so on. Thankfully my mother is used to such outbursts from me, and coincidentally she had heard something about Short-eared Owls in the Fens that afternoon on the radio. Now whilst we were on the phone, I was still looking about and actually spotted the Short-eared Owl again, in a scene that will forever be imprinted in my mind. It flew over the ridge running alongside the river, about 200m or so from where I was and what looked like about 20m behind someone walking along the ridge! Moreover, due to its quiet flight, that person didn’t even notice! As soon as the person got close enough, I went over and told them all about it. She was equally amazed and baffled, and promised that she would keep an eye out for it in future, thanking me for telling her about it.
Now I would have happily stayed there for much longer, but I needed to head off to pick up Matt and besides, as the sun dropped lower in the sky, I was absolutely freezing! A brisk walk back to the car, obviously with occasional pauses to look at birds and take photos of the lagoon, and before long, I was driving down the track to leave the reserve.
I pulled over by the field where many of the birdwatchers are to be found recently, it’s a field with excellent views of a Short-eared Owl. At the time of leaving, I learnt that the owl there had been showing itself quite well and was currently resting in a tree on the far side of the field. I could just about make it out in my binoculars. Beautiful, but nothing on the one I had seen earlier.
And so I headed home – content, thrilled, still a tad bewildered. Looking back on it, I know that the afternoon will become one of my favourite birding memories. Something has struck me since. I love going bird / wildlife watching with Matt, other naturalist friends and even those that aren’t that into wildlife, but I am glad I saw those owls alone. There is something about connecting to nature when you’re alone. More than usual, you become part of the landscape and can connect even more closely than when accompanied. That’s not to say I won’t return to Fen Drayton Lakes with company. Of course not, I love being with other people and seeing wildlife with them. However, I will always savour solo adventures into nature and the special feeling I get in my heart when I’m sitting alone watching something wonderful.