Mike looks back to his early days on Bird Watching and wrestles with himself over which is really the best British owl.
Mike’s favourite owl is the Barn Owl... or is it?
THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY of the launch of Bird Watching had me thinking back to my early, fledgling days on the magazine. It was more than half the lifetime of the mag ago that I joined as sub-editor. And I wrote my first ‘proper’ article in the July 2000 issue. It was a bit of a filler piece, really, called ‘Ten top thrillers’ about 10 birds which are always good to see on any day’s birdwatching. In short: Puffin, Osprey, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Bittern, Barn Owl, Nightjar, Kingfisher, Avocet, Bearded Tit and Dipper. Inevitably, we all differ in which birds we would include in such a list, and I remember a few disagreements with my choices around the office. In those days, Gordon Hamlett was sub-editing UK Bird Sightings (as he still does today), but in those days he lived in Peterborough (now he is based in north Norfolk), so we saw him often in the office. I remember Gordon saying that in place of Barn Owl, he would have chosen Short-eared Owl as his owl of choice in the ‘ten’. I stood up for Barn Owls (and still love them), but each time I see Short-eared Owls, I can’t help thinking about the ‘Hamlett position’. This year has once more been a good year for Short-eared Owls around these here Peterborough parts. There are a good few over the traditional hunting grounds of the Nene Washes complex (east of the city). But even more of a draw for these partially diurnal beauties is the relatively newly-established rough, weedy tangle of the Great Fen, near Holme Fen NNR. This is a large area of former farmland which has been allowed to rewild. There are even more Short-eared Owls hunting this patch than photographers of Short-eared Owls there, which is very many indeed (they are extremely well-photographed birds). I have already spent a few pleasant afternoons at the Great Fen, with friends and family or on my own, simply staring at the glory of Short-eared Owls doing their stuff (and, of course, photographing them, when I get a chance). Last weekend, I was back there to look for a Great White Egret which had been found in the area. The bird had been favouring the river-like ditch which winds around defining the northern boundary of this part of the Great Fen. This channel is variously called the Yaxley Lode, the Black Ham or the New or North Western Cut, and the egret had appeared at places along several miles of it. I decided to start my walk at a crossing called Froghall Bridge, which, believe me, is nowhere near as romantic as it sounds. So, I started the trudge along muddy tyre tracks in damp grass on the banks of the drain. It was, frankly, a plod and a tiring struggle, this walking malarkey. It made me think of Country Walking magazine, which was originally a spin-off included with Bird Watching in 1987, and how people apparently enjoy walking for a pastime. I prefer a walk with a purpose, and the purpose of this walk was to see the Great White Egret. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy the birding on the six or seven mile slog of a round trip. There were great flocks of Linnets, and a gathering of 150 Stock Doves. I found a couple of decent wintering gangs of Corn Buntings, exceeding 50 birds, and encountered three Peregrines: a flying pair of juveniles and a lovely adult male in a ploughed field, to the north. There were kites, Buzzards and the odd Sparrowhawk, plus a couple of Kingfishers; and eventually I refound the Great White Egret (a few hundred yards from Yaxley village, where I could have started my walk. Grrrr!). Great White Egrets are not as rare as they once were, but they are still a very pleasant treat around Peterborough (and this bird was only five miles from my house, as the egret flies). But, after all, it was standing around doing not much when I saw it. So, I photographed it a bit, then turned back for the long walk back to the car. The real thrill, though, came on this return trek. I simply flushed an unseen Short-eared Owl from the edge of the track in front of me. It floated low and deliberately on stiff, long, golden majestic wings, to land 75m away in some rough grass and stare right back at me with startling yellow eyes. What a bird! Gordon, you were right. Mike is an obsessive patch lister and keen wildlife photographer in his home city of Peterborough, where he lives with his wife, Jo, and children, Jasmine and Eddie. You can see his photos at weedworld.blogspot.com
I prefer a walk with a purpose, and the purpose of this walk was to see the Great White Egret.
DAY OWL The Great Fen, Cambridgeshire, has had at least 16 Short-eared Owls hunting by day, this winter