February, 2017

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Natures Home magazine uncovered

Behind the scenes at the RSPB magazine and much much more...
  • Who doesn't love an owl?

    Feeling envious of Jack’s encounter with the little owls that I’ve yet to see in the quarry opposite The Lodge, I thought I’d keep the owl theme going with a blog of my own – and make me feel a bit better about missing the little owls in the process…

    I’m not having a lot of luck with great grey shrikes this winter. I’ve “dipped” two now in recent weeks, but the good thing about spending time staring at a scrubby field where there should be a great grey shrike is that that time can result in seeing other things.

    I grew up in the Cambridgeshire Fens where barn owls are, well I won’t say common but they are not difficult to see and I used to see them several times a week year round. Moving to the west of Cambridgeshire means I see them far less often which is something I am quite sad about.

    So, while staring across said field, I was delighted to see two barn owls sitting in a barn window nearby. You know the view, the one like this!

    The perfect view of a barn owl - in a barn! (Dave Braddock rspb-images.com)

    Not only that, a third was flying around and accompanied me as I drove away a bit later – very distracting when trying to drive.

    Golden eyes
    I was happy with that, but then another “open-ground” owl appeared – short -eared owl and three of them at that. They are superb in flight, but I was pleased when one pitched down on a clod of earth in a bare field, filling my telescope with its golden yellow eyes.

    Short-eared owls hunt regularly by day, making February afternoons a great time to search (Mike Langman rspb-images.com)

    The hat trick
    Shrike forgiven for letting me down, I fancied making it an owl hat trick, so went to a site where the hardest of all UK owls to see, is know to roost…

    Long-eared owls are difficult. Some species just are and unless you get a bit of help from fellow naturalists, and ideally some “gen”, you can go long periods without seeing them. These long-eared owls spend the day roosting in thick ivy covering some trees and you can safely view them from a distance.

    Now I can’t say the views were stunning (certainly nothing like the above image), but a couple of them turned their heads around periodically and stuck up their ear tufts meaning more of them came into view. They blend in brilliantly, using the thorn-like markings on their flanks to blend in well with hawthorns and other shrubs and trees. It is incredible how hard they can be to spot.

    So, a hat trick of hat tricks of owls made for a great late winter afternoon. Now for those little owls...

    If you’ve seen any owls this winter, we’d love to hear about it. Tawny owls will be in full voice now and our other four species will be getting frisky too. Please leave a comment below and let us know.

  • Little owl lookout

    As far as job benefits go, having unfettered access to a nature reserve must rank pretty highly. It’s certainly something I’d put a high value on, as I’ve found it helps a lot with stress or with helping me gather my thoughts. I walk almost every lunchtime; sometimes just meandering around the reserve for some fresh air and a screen break. But sometimes there’s an objective to the walk.

    News comes weekly of what’s been seen on the reserve via the wildlife sightings summary email. A couple of weeks ago, my interest piqued at reading little owls had been seen roosting in the nearby working quarry, just over the road from The Lodge.

    Wildlife is better with friends, so a crack team was assembled to attempt to see the owls in our 45-minute lunch break. It was going to be tough, as the walk itself was 20 each way. Spotting football sized, motionless balls of feathery fluff amongst the rocks they’re so well camouflaged against was going to be tough in 5 minutes, but the gang were up for the challenge.

    The wild-bunch, ready for an 'owling good time (left to right: Alice, Danny, Catie, me!) (Photo: Jack Plumb)

    Everyone had warmed-up and done their stretches, and we were ready to set off at pace. We stormed down the drive, taking no time to look at the feeders by the shop, even though Danny year-ticked his bogey-bird – and bogey coloured – greenfinch. Over the road and onto the less often walked part of what the RSPB owns at Sandy. No resident stonechat this time, and we couldn’t spare the time to wait for it. 20 yellowhammers loft overheard. Lovely, but not what we’re power walking for. At last, the gate across the quarry road, then up to a viewing point of the whole quarry.

    Scanning... (Photo: Jack Plumb)

    Scan, scan, scan. They must be here somewhere. Four pairs of binoculars searching for little owls was turning up nothing. Suddenly…

    “I think I’ve got them!” said Alice.

    I'm pretty happy about seeing the owls... Well spotted, Alice! (Photo: Catie Krasner)

    Soon enough we all had them firmly in out sights. Two speckled rocks by the side of the track, sleeping soundly. The little bundles were a joy to see. I’d never actually seen a little owl before, and neither had Alice or Catie.

    Can you spot them in this image? (Photo: Catie Krasner)

    Here's a closer look... (Photo: Catie Krasner)

    “I might have to run back for my meeting at 1,” said Danny.

    We’d overdone it a bit, and not kept time particularly well. I won’t say how well, as I’m sure everyone made up the time in the afternoon.


  • Is it spring yet?

    Snowdrops appear in January, leaf break is underway by mid month and the dawn chorus starts in earnest soon after Christmas with great tits, blackbirds, mistle thrushes and song thrushes tuning up and improving by the day.

    Bewick’s swans start to migrate back to Siberia in February and pink-footed geese (below) head to Iceland, queen bumblebees emerge and frogs pop up their heads in ponds.

    It might be the middle of February, but the pink-feet are on their way back to Iceland (Chris Gomersall, rspb-images)

    So, the subject of my blog this week is a question and one that I’d love your views on. When does spring really start in the UK?

    Has spring sprung?
    When do you expect to see your first butterfly? Is it a warm late March day when a butter yellow brimstone dances down a country lane, or dashes through your garden? Or is it when hibernating peacocks wake up and start to leave your house, shed or loft?

    I saw my first butterfly of 2017 on the 3 February when I had a good look at the sunlit, south-facing side of the main house here at RSPB HQ at The Lodge in Bedfordshire. As it was relatively warm and the sun was shining, I had a feeling there may be some insects on show. What surprised me was just how many there were. Nearly double figures of honeybees were busy nectaring and among them were several Eristalis tenax hoverflies – honeybee mimics. Then the real icing on the cake came as a butterfly flew strongly overhead and landed on the side of the house, opening its wings to catch the rays when I could confirm it was a red admiral. This is a relatively new species to overwinter as an adult in the UK, but as this one proved, they are doing it successfully.

    Sunny days bring overwintering butterflies out. The red admiral is a relative newcomer to UK winters (Chris Gomersall rspb-images).

    For me, the seasons are a fluid transition. There is no day when winter stops and spring starts or when summer’s delights suddenly give way to autumn leaves and bird migration. It just doesn’t work like that and watching out for, and seeing, those gradual changes is one of those things that will make you a more observant, knowledgeable and ultimately better naturalist.

    We hear much about the May dawn chorus, but poke your head outside between 7.30 to 8.30 am at the moment and you should hear song thrushes tuning up (Chris Gomersall rspb-images.com)

    And of course, where you live in the UK has a big difference too. It is easy for us southerners to get excited about spring, but if you live in Scotland, it could be several weeks before the same signs and species are sighted.

    Being in tune with the weather and the seasons and helping readers of Nature’s Home prepare for and make the most of the seasons is really important to me. The mailing dates are due to our first issue of the year containing the Big Garden Birdwatch participation form and this means we are always ahead of the seasons, but as my February spring sightings prove, just how far ahead of spring are we when we mail our spring issue in mid-January?

    We'd love to hear about what's happening where you live, so please leave a comment or email us at natureshome@rspb.org.uk