Tag Archives: Owls

Birding Eastern Poland: Part II (Forest)

I was straggling at the back of our small group on an unsuccessful walk in the hope of finding Hazel Grouse when I heard something. At first it took my mind a few seconds to register the sound. But on the third or fourth occasion the sound penetrated me at a deeper, primal level. A long, distant, moaning howl. I stopped, felt a small surge of adrenaline and felt my senses sharpen. This was my first wild experience of Wolf in Europe.

The day before, we had encountered an even more distant relic of Europe’s all-but-entirely lost megafauna: Bison.

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European Bison (Bison bonasus)

Our experience of the Białowieża forests began exceptionally early in the morning on the Saturday. It felt like we were tracking something; a guide-led walk to a known nesting site. That nesting site happened to be in a wooded wetland largely created by Beaver.

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How often do we see sights like this in the UK? I would contend very rarely indeed. We no longer have Beaver (other than a few trial reintroductions in Scotland, but lets hope that increases soon), and our country is the most denuded of forest of any country (other than the tiny city-states) in Europe. Where we do have woodland, they are largely lifeless plantations or forests managed and fenced off for pheasant shooting.

The Woodpeckers

This site was to be our first encounter with a target woodpecker. And we did indeed get views of White-backed Woodpecker – a life-tick for me and one or two of the others. We didn’t stay long as the mosquitoes were vicious and legion.

A few minutes drive and another spot of forest where we watched a pair of Middle Spotted Woodpecker making multiple visits to their nest hole.

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Middle Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocoptes medius) – Female in hole and male to right

At the same site we had our first trip encounter with Black Woodpecker; only my second ever. I remember the first time I heard, then saw, one and being taken aback by how loud and big it is (read about that here). The feeling was similar on this occasion – it sounds like an effing dinosaur (I imagine) and the drumming is that of heavy machinery rather than a bird. Later in the day we watched in awe as one of these giants tore a rotting tree trunk to shreds with a large pile of wood chips accumulating at the base.

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Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) through a gap in the hornbeam leaves

At the other end of the size scale, we felt lucky to get a single view of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (a bird I am sad to say I have only seen on three occasions in the UK).

Whilst neither Black nor Lesser were ‘ticks’ for me, the next two woodpeckers were. Bob helped locate the only Three-toed Woodpecker we were to encounter on the trip and this led to the guide discovering its exact nest location. We watched from a respectable distance.

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Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

Finally, on a second attempt, we watched a Grey-headed Woodpecker emerge and then fly from its nest in some parkland near the strict reserve forest.

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Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus) – this was the only photo our group got of this bird

We saw and heard our familiar Great Spotted Woodpecker on numerous occasions but failed to connect with the common Green Woodpecker or Wryneck (which also breed locally). We also made an aborted attempt to see Syrian Woodpecker in Warsaw. The point I am building to with this rather rapid list is that ten of the eleven species of woodpecker which breed in Europe are found locally in Eastern Poland. It was just one sign of many that we saw, on our whistle-stop tour, of the diversity which can be found when natural habitats are preserved or left untouched. The contrast with the UK could not be more stark.

A similar point could be made about owls found locally. As it was, we actually only saw one: a life-tick for me as Europe’s smallest owl, the Pygmy Owl, peered out of its hole to investigate the possible Pine Marten scraping at its tree (which was actually our guide with a stick).

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Eurasian Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium passerinum)

The Flycatchers

A different guide walked us around the Strict Reserve. She was an expert in Collared Flycatcher and told us that in some years there are more recorded in the forest than Chaffinch! The gloom of the forest meant that the photos I got belied just how wonderful our views of this species were.

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Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis)

It was a similar case with the stunning Red-breasted Flycatcher and a handful of Spotted Flycatcher. It was great to see these birds in song, and nesting in their home environment as flycatchers (Spotted and Pied that is) are just passage migrants on our Patch back home.

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Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva)

The Wood Warbler and the hidden birds

In my three and half years of birding the local Patch, we have had a single Wood Warbler singing from the tiny copse we call Motorcycle Wood. In Białowieża, the forests rang out with the wonderful song of these stunning birds.

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Wood Warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix)

As with forests everywhere, birds are not exactly easy to find or see – our failure to see Hazel Grouse or Nutcracker is certainly testament to that. Woodland tits were harder than I expected in Poland: Great Tit, Blue Tit and Long-tailed Tit seemed less numerous than I am used to in the UK; we only heard one Coal Tit once or twice on the trip, and had no sign of Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, or Crested Tit (although we are aware that they are there).

Such is the enigma of forests. They teem with life and yet the ‘life’ does not always make itself easily found. We were aware that the forests hold Lynx, but did not expect to see one (nor did we).

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The long walk back from an unsuccessful search for Tengmalm’s Owl

The trees

The majestic parkland oaks we are used to seeing in the UK, rotund and sprawling, are  virtually anathema to primary forests. There is far too much competition for such overindulgent horizontal growth.  I remember the thinner, taller trees in the wonderful Atlantic oak forests on the west coast of Scotland. But I was taken aback at the size (girth, but particularly height) of some of the trees in Białowieża. They seemed to be freakishly tall versions of familiar trees we are used to in the UK. Maybe that is what thousands of years of uninterrupted survival of the fittest does in a forest?

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The fringes

Some birds seemed easier to find on the fringes of the forest; often as different habitats met. And so it was on the edges of Białowieża village, where we picked up good views of Hawfinch, Golden Oriole, Rosefinch, Barred Warbler, Tree SparrowRed-backed Shrike and lots more. It was often in these fringe areas where from within deep vegetation we would listen to, and on one occasion had reasonable views of, Thrush Nightingale which was another life tick for me.

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Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)

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Female Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

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Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus)

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Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia)

The lesson

Białowieża opened my eyes to what much of Europe, including the UK, could and, perhaps, should be like. Białowieża began, for me, as a place in my imagination, but let’s all hope that it remains a reality for Europe and for the world. Primary forest is part of the primal heritage of all of us; wired into our instinctive synapses. To lose it altogether is surely to lose something deep within our identity. I think we all need the wake-up call in the form of the penetrating howl of a wolf or a Black Woodpecker drumming into our skulls the message of fragile vitality that exists in the remaining fragments of our once great forests.

The sounds of Mirkwood

“As their eyes became used to the dimness they could see a little way to either side in a sort of darkened green glimmer.” – J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit

Tonight, I ventured into a mirky wood. Not the Mirkwood of myth and Middle Earth, but my local Bush Wood. I went to listen for Tawny Owl, but heard the sound of monsters instead; not a giant spider, but something far worse.

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A Bush Wood Tawny Owl for 2017 eludes me still.

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I trod carefully through the wood tonight, but as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, the silver light of the moon (albeit somewhat softened by the urban glow) illuminated the paths quite well for me: hardened mud tracks glimmered softly and reassuringly; whilst darker patches warned of churned up mud; and, puddles shone clearly like warning beacons.

Even taking deeper woodland paths was easy enough and when I reached the space known as the ‘clearing’, the grass glowed.

The wood itself was silent; no owls, no birds at all except a single short alarm call from a Blackbird.

During the day, I often notice how the sounds of traffic quieten as you move deeper into the trees; wood, leaf, mud, and moss seeming to muffle the urban roar and allowing the sounds of the wood to be heard more clearly: most particularly the calls and songs of the woodland birds. But tonight, that magic of the daylight hours appeared to have worn off; even deep within the wood, the traffic sounds filled my head. Our flight paths seemed to have got lower and louder, and the bell-ringers in the local church chimed long and loud.

There was incongruity between the eerie shadows of being alone in a wood at night, and the familiar scream of the metropolis which pervaded every corner absolutely. Any fear of the unknown was drowned out by the sounds of the only-too-familiar.

Turning my camera phone to the trees, the flash-light picked out the branches like green fingers stretching out from the darkness.

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Where my eyes picked up the nuances of the woodland shadow, the camera flash replaced them with the sharp contrast of close and far; light and dark. Only very faint ghostly lines appear out of the darkness in the images, where my eyes could at least pick out a range of silhouetted shapes.

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In the dark, so much more than the day, the wood seemed to be betrayed by the artificial lights and the mechanised noise of the surrounding city.

Was it the wood that was betrayed? Or was it me and my sensibilities? I had come in search of an owl, but I had also come to embrace the peace of the wood at night. The trepidation that still exists in adulthood towards a wood at night, a fear that must have truly primeval roots felt like something ‘real’ I wanted to experience; but it was somewhat shattered by the W19 bus, the Boeing 777 from Tel Aviv to Heathrow, or the motorbike going past at double the local speed limit.

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The moment the Boeing 777 passed over my head, thanks to Flightradar24.com

I keep returning to the wood to look for ‘something’ but I clearly need to look and listen a little more deeply; to the wood and to myself.

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The ‘green glimmer’ of a street light, not Shelob’s lair

Wanstead Patchwork: Part V (a royal twitch)

I seem to have increased my 2015 patch list by one almost by accident. I was in the graveyard of St Mary the Virgin (the only Grade I listed building in Redbridge don’t y’know?) and watching a Collared Dove when I realised it wasn’t on my list for the year yet. I am not entirely clear if it really was the first CD I have seen on the patch this year, or whether I just overlooked it before. Either way, that is 56 seen on the patch this year now:

Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)

Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)

Later that morning I stood on a cold and wet playing field looking at a flock (or if I were to be accurate with my collective nouns, a ‘colony’) of around 280 Common Gulls. Actually, I wasn’t looking at the Common Gulls at all, I was staring at a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls willing them to be a bit bigger, blacker, and have pink legs so I could add Great Black-backed Gull to my patch year list…

Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

… I was shaken out of my wistful staring by Nick Croft who joined me to look at the gulls. As Nick already has GBBG for his list, and because he isn’t as silly as me, he was not trying to morph one species into another. But he was studying the colony in case a rarity such as Caspian Gull (only seen once on the Flats) should be concealed amongst the Commons.

We chatted for a while – Nick is a local expert who generously shares his knowledge and tips about where and when I might see what. I had barely turned my back and walked a few hundred yards when Nick informed me via Twitter that he had seen two more species missing from my year-list: Redwing and Fieldfare. By then however, I had gone a bit too far in the rain to turn back, and I must confess another bird was occupying my mind. Before we had parted, Nick told me how a Scaup had been seen in Kensington Gardens. Slap bang in Central London!

I had recently dipped seeing a Scaup in Nottinghamshire, and it was still a lifer (I’ve never seen one before) for me, so I left the Flats and jumped on the Tube to the West End. The weather was miserable, but I arrived at Round Pond – created by George II in 1730 and in view of Kensington Palace – and immediately started scanning the water.

Round Pond

Typically, this rare inland visitor (apparently the first in Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens for three years and only the second in over a decade), was patrolling around in the middle of the lake, about as far from view as he possibly could be … (yes that dot is the Scaup)

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Nick had warned me that the bird was ‘scruffy’, and he wasn’t wrong. I think this young male is moulting and just starting to show patches of grey and white that will soon cover it more extensively and smartly (WARNING! – Distant record shot coming up!)

Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)

Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)

I left the Scaup and almost immediately bumped into another patch birding expert, Ralph Hancock, who pointed me in the direction of a couple of owl holes. A local Tawny Owl was certainly not showing, and whilst I thought I saw something move in a hole Ralph told me housed a Little Owl, I couldn’t really tick something which could have just as easily been a squirrel.

So, I walked down to the Serpentine – surely the most well-known man-made lake in the UK – and snapped some of the commoner cousins of the Scaup, Tufted Duck and Pochard:

Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

I would complain that ‘why couldn’t the Scaup have come that close?’, but Buddhist wisdom teaches that, “complaining erases good fortune”, so I shall hold my tongue and just be grateful that I saw a bird I have never seen before in one of the busiest parks in the heart of London.

Post Scriptum: Sunday 1 February
I nipped out this morning just after dawn for a quick walk around Bush Wood. I glanced at the Common Gulls on playing fields through the trees and saw something big and black & white in the distance. Looking through my bins confirmed that this time I did not have to imagine the size, the blackness, or the pink legs – they were all there. I whipped out my camera and got a shot before walking to get a much closer shot. The gull must have smelt my eagerness on the wind and took off flying incredibly close to a tower block and then behind it in the strong wind. Anyone waking up and looking out of their window and seeing that giant gull a few meters from their face would probably get a bit of a shock. Whilst I was disappointed not to get a closer picture, I did get a fuzzy super-distant shot of my 57th bird on the patch for 2015:

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)

A Big Birding Year: Part XVIII (‘introducing’ another owl)

Last time I went birding in Kensington Gardens, I posted shots of Tawney owlets.

I returned last weekend, and finally got a photo of a Little Owl (another blogger – google Hyde park birds and you will find him – posts pictures of this owl almost every day) which was my third owl species of the year and my 91st species of bird photographed for the year:

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

This male perches in the same place, in the same tree almost every day through the summer (his mate is more secretive) in one of London’s busiest parks. Despite the millions of people who visit the park, I suspect a very, very small number of people ever see this bird other than those who know exactly where to look (thanks to Ralph’s blog).

There are believed to be around 5,700 pairs in the UK, although this number is declining significantly. But there is unlikely ever to be a conservation effort to protect them as the Little Owl is (apparently – see my doubts below) an introduced species.

According to Wikipedia (actually from Francesca Greenoak’s book on British birds), the Little Owl was introduced to the UK in 1842 by the Ornithologist, Thomas Powys. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I am unsure this is true:

First, the Ornithologist Thomas Powys was nine years old in 1842! It could have perhaps been his father (also Thomas Powys), but he was a politician, not an ornithologist.

Second, in my 1845 (published three years after the Little Owl was apparently first introduced) edition of Yarrell’s ‘A History of British Birds’ (a wonderful gift from a dear friend), he describes the bird as “an occasional visitor” in Britain:

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Yarrell also sources older books referencing the Little Owl visiting Britain and refers to instances of the bird being found in different locations – hard to believe occurring if the bird had first been introduced just three years earlier. Whilst it is perfectly possible that some Little Owls were introduced by man in the 19th Century, I put it to you that the Little Owl really introduced itself to this country.

If my hypothesis is correct, then the Little Owl would be determined to be a natural species of our country and would be given a conservation status (rather like the Collared Dove which introduced itself here a few decades ago and is now common) and could be protected.