Thursday, 29 October 2009

Early morning

There's a superb piece of nature writing here - as someone says in the comments box, well worth the long wait.

Here in the Midlands, we're at that time of year when birds should be on the move everywhere. And they are, but I've been far too lazy at chasing after them just lately. I’m not good at getting up early, you see. Never have been. I made the effort this morning, though, after Dave Gray had reported a couple of Short-eared Owls hunting at Cossington Meadows last night. They’re not a bird we see locally very often, so I was there by just after 5.30 to see what I could find.

It was still pretty much dark then, and SEOs hunt in half-light or even full daylight, but I wanted to be in place well ahead of time. It helped that it’s very warm at the moment, so standing around in the dark wasn’t the freezing experience it usually is in the UK in October (well, in pretty much any month, for that matter), and I stood there looking out across the meadows, straining my eyes for any sign of life.

Of course, it’s in such situations that your hearing becomes your most vital sense, and once I’d learned to filter out the occasional sounds of movement from the cattle moving around in the next field, I started to pick up bird songs and calls from all directions.

Robins are never shy of making themselves heard, even in the middle of the night, and sure enough one soon started up from the nearby bushes, quickly followed by a more distant Blackbird and finally, as the sky started to grow light, by Greenfinches and Goldfinches passing up and down the hedgerows. Birdsong has a pretty uplifting effect at any time, but first thing in the morning that’s amplified. The birds are announcing their survival of the cold and dark – to their mates, to the other birds of their flock, to themselves, and to anyone else who cares to listen.

There was still only the faintest glimmer of dawn in the east at this stage, but something was moving out there. First one, then two Barn Owls faded into view somewhere near the centre of the meadow, ghostly against the murk as they quartered the grass with buoyant wingbeats. As I mentioned last week, they often seem to become so engrossed in their hunting that they’re oblivious to humans, and while I stayed statue-still, one came to within 10 yards, only finally lifting his intent gaze from the ground to notice me, and veering sharply but easily away. I watched them for another 15 minutes or so, until the increasing light and the arrival of some dog-walkers persuaded them to head for home.

Barn Owls are (not surprisingly) one of those sights guaranteed to draw hushed, awed tones from birdwatchers of all types. Wigeon, on the other hand, are one of those underrated, and largely understated, pleasures of the British winter. They’re lovely-looking ducks, for starters, but the male’s wheee-oooooo whistle is both evocative and exhilarating, and by now tight little groups of them were whizzing over from the pools towards the lakes nearer Leicester. A few Shoveler, too, with their oversized bills a dead giveaway in silhouette.

Finally, just as I began to give up hope, another shape started moving above the now recognisably green meadow. A Short-eared Owl, without doubt, with the orangey areas on the primaries visible, but I'd hardly had time to get the scope on it before it dropped into a fold in the ground, presumably having found a vole. Good news for the owl, bad news for the rodent and me. I hung around as long as I could, but it didn't reappear before I had to leave for work.

In all likelihood these birds are just passing through on the way from their upland breeding areas to the coastal marshes where they spend the winter, but some do occasionally hang around. Some of the former opencast mines near here I live have attracted them in the past, as in the early stages of their restoration they tend to have wide expanses of grassland, plus small conifers for roosting in. There's also a site in eastern Leicestershire, near Eyebrook Reservoir, that tends to get them every winter, so maybe we'll be lucky and these will stay.

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