Owls and things that go bump in the night!

Barn Owl 1.jpg

Barn Owl in Norfolk, photographed on one of our autumn tours

At this time of year, owl activity isn’t just restricted to night-time as adults are busy feeding chicks. This means that they are as likely to be hunting for prey to feed those ravenous appetites in bright sunshine in the morning as they are at dusk, and the owls of North Norfolk are no exception.

As we headed off for our pre-breakfast walk at Titchwell RSPB Reserve yesterday, we were treated to a very close Barn Owl flyby as it hunted up the overgrown track right next to our hotel car park. This was a particularly buffy owl, a really beautiful and very distinctive individual.

At the RSPB Reserve itself, we hadn’t even walked out as far as the lagoons before we caught sight of another Barn Owl, this time perched on a fencepost next to the main path. We had time to set up the Leica scopes for a frame-filling view before it set off on another hunting mission, quartering the grassy field looking for prey. It suddenly executed a handbrake turn and dropped down out of sight into the long grass. We waited but it didn’t come up again, a good sign that it had caught something. We had a wonderful walk on the reserve, going right out to the beach and back and notching up the best part of our 80 species pre-breakfast birding total here on the reserve including Little Gulls, Little Terns, Spotted Redshanks, Sanderling, Ruff, Little Ringed Plover, Gannet, Red-crested Pochard, and many more. As we walked back towards the visitor centre, the sound of Blackbirds alarm-calling in an area of dense ivy-covered trees attracted our attention. Could they be mobbing something? By twisting, bending and generally contorting ourselves in all directions to get a clear view into the trees, we finally caught sight of what was causing the alarm: a juvenile Tawny Owl perched on a branch. This youngster, still mostly fluff overall but with its primary wing feathers developing well, was calmly sitting there completely disregarding the fuss all around it; what a great sight thanks to the tip-off by the alarm-calling Blackbirds!

Tawny Owl

Adult Tawny Owl photographed on one of our previous tours

Back at our lovely hotel nearby as we enjoyed a delicious and well-earned full-cooked breakfast, we looked out of the windows and sure enough, there was another Barn Owl, this time a very pale white bird, hunting over the grassy fields on this side of the hotel car park, presumably the mate of our first bird. Four different owls, and all before breakfast: incredible! Today we rang the changes by visiting Thornham Harbour before breakfast, and as we scanned over the saltmarshes here enjoying waders such as Redshank protecting young chicks, Grey Plover, Curlew, Ringed Plover, Sanderling and Dunlin in breeding plumage, we spotted a Short-eared Owl hunting over the eastern part of Thornham saltmarsh, and enjoyed prolonged views as it hunted up and down looking for more prey. And of course, as we walked back along the seawall here, we saw yet another Barn Owl in the distance. Great to see that these wonderful owls seem to be having a good season.

barn owl norfolk

Barn Owl hunting over the fields

But our exciting bird encounters haven’t just been during daylight hours. Last night we headed out mid-evening to an area of heathland to look for Nightjars. We walked out onto the open heathland and waited for the light levels to drop. Temperatures also fell and it became surprisingly cool, bad news for any midges in the area but good news for us. Even before it started to get dark, we heard and saw Woodcock flying overhead, following their roding circuit over the trees and heathland. We didn’t need to wait long before we heard the first ‘churring’, a weird almost electronic sound: Nightjars! This noise is really peculiar, and wouldn’t sound out of place on a low-budget sci-fi movie! First the sound started up on our right. We scanned into the gathering gloom but couldn’t see anything. Then more churring to our left but still no sign of the birds. Then a higher-pitched reeling sound added to the soundscape as a Grasshopper Warbler joined in the symphony. More churring in a different direction again, now we were completely surrounded by Nightjars, but still we couldn’t see them. Where were they? Then we heard the high ‘wheep’ call that these birds give as they fly, and we caught sight of one, the white flashes in the wing as it flew giving its presence away.

That seemed to be the cue for more Nightjars to fly as we saw two birds on one side of the heath, and at least two birds seeming to chase each one another on the other side of the heath. One bird flew into the dense foliage of a nearby tree but another, a much more obliging bird, landed on the skyline right on top of a post – what a great view. The birds flew so agilely that it was hard to keep up with them, but the amazing light-gathering quality of our wonderful Leica Noctivid binoculars allowed us to keep following the birds with such a bright view, long after some other birdwatchers on the heathland had given up in the darkness. This is the birding our optics were designed for! There was still more churring coming from all directions, we’ve been here many times but never heard as many birds as this, sounds like another bird success story! And while we were standing there in the darkness, we heard a hoot coming from the depths of the trees, another Tawny Owl. Norfolk really does seem to be an owl stronghold at the moment.

Waiting for Nightjars

Waiting for Nightjars!

We finally decided it was time for bed but even as we walked back to the car, we were treated to more birds as another Woodcock flew right over our heads, a fitting end to a wonderful evening.

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