Friday 5 April 2019

Cryptic camouflage

Perhaps mindful of the fact that it was no longer 2018 (and therefore not my Small Year), Eagle-eyed M invited me along on a jaunt to the island of Eday to see a Snowy Owl. This bird, a male, has been around Orkney for several years, mainly on Eday, but I had dutifully not been to see it because it felt like twitching. The species occasionally crops up in the UK (there's a female Snowy in Shetland at the moment, I believe), but is usually to be found at higher latitudes where the ground is much whiter.

In fact, it was this very bird, in all probability, which had produced the pellet I dissected last year, and wrote about here.

The trip over to Eday was pretty uneventful, with little swell from an easterly breeze, apart from one incident where... perhaps an image would help to better describe it...

Quite why the ferry needed to take a 90 right (as us rally navigators would call it), was not made clear.

However, we arrived safely at the pier on the southern end of Eday and proceeded to drive to the north end, a distance of about 5 miles. When we reached the likely area, Eagle-eyed M piped up with "There it is, exactly where it was two years ago, when I last came to see it."

As I hadn't yet unpacked my bins, all I could see in the distance was a white plastic bag stuck against a wire fence (an occupational hazard for much of Orkney's lightweight plastic coverings). Once I had donned boots, waterproofs and optics, I realised my error. It WAS the Snowy Owl.

I guess if you're going to spend your time in an environment where your natural camouflage is of no earthly use to you, then pretending to be an ubiquitous fertiliser/feed/shopping bag trapped on a fence is a nifty evolutionary step. At least in a windy place like Orkney.

After creeping a little closer, to snaffle the above image (and about 50 others that were even more rubbish), we carefully retraced out steps and dropped into the local shop/community centre for a cuppa and to plan our next move.

As the easterly wind had quite an edge to it, we reckoned that going over to the west side of the island would be a good idea (both for the wildlife and for us). En route, we stopped off to investigate a small ghyll which opened out directly onto the shore. Unfortunately it was bereft of birds, save for a recent victim of a raptor, judging by the sad pile of feathers M found. Before returning to the car, we wandered along a track to some dunes, where we discovered that we weren't the only ones to have walked there that morning.

Otter tracks! We also found some spraint, some of it rather fresh.

Over on the west side, M had recalled a place where the single track road ran between a small thicket of bushes and trees. This looked an ideal spot to find birds sheltering from the weather, possibly even some early Spring migrants. However, as we pottered along, looking and listening intently, all was strangely quiet. At least until we disturbed a Sparrowhawk, which was why everything else was keeping a low profile. Now, Blackbirds, Wrens, Robins and a Song Thrush emerged from their raptor-imposed silence, so we could enjoy their songs within the calm shelter of the thicket.

A flitting movement between the bare branches of one of the taller (not very) trees, alerted us to the presence of a warbler, taking the opportunity to rest up and feed, before continuing its migration north. It was difficult to be sure, but we thought it likely to be a Chiffchaff. Suddenly, an owl shot out of nowhere, and in the brief few seconds' view we had of it, we reckoned it was a Short-eared Owl (which breed on several of the Orkney islands, including Eday). I managed one photograph, but it was from a strange angle and not remotely crisp as an image.

We returned to the shop/community centre for our picnic lunch, taking the opportunity for another hot brew, before we ventured back to see our mate Snowy, and then on to the north coast, where deteriorating weather made for an interesting walk. We skirted Carrick House, then along a low clifftop, before heading up a steep slope towards Vinquoy Hill. The wind and rain were... invigorating. We discovered a chambered cairn, of which I had not previously been aware. Through a small metal gate, the entrance tunnel was floored with wood, so at least I didn't get soaked as I crawled in on my hands and knees. Inside were four chambers, presumably for different families of Neolithic folk. Since those days, the corbelled roof of the cairn had acquired a skylight, which both I and the ferns appreciated.

Retracing our steps, we headed back past the Snowy Owl, which was now being mobbed/harrassed by a Buzzard. Although it was raining, I managed a few shots of the encounter, as the persistent Buzzard annoyed the exasperated owl.

We returned to the thicket on the west side of the island, reasoning that the wet weather might have increased our chances of some migrants. Indeed, this proved to be the case, with a couple of Goldcrests, some Dunnocks and more Robins. We, again, saw the Sparrowhawk, at distance, but managed to ID it as a female.

Wandering further along the track, we watched some wildfowl and waders on a small lochan by the shore, before heading back to the car. As we approached the thicket once more, several Blackbirds, thrushes, Robins and Dunnocks were alarm calling for all they were worth. Guessing that it wasn't in response to our presence (we were some way away), we reasoned that there must still be a raptor about. Just before we reached the car, an owl again burst out from the cover of the trees. Hmmmm, we thought, perhaps our ID of Short-eared was a bit premature. We spent a bit of time looking at the one image of the bird I had managed in the morning, comparing what few features were visible with out field guides. The only certainty was that we couldn't be certain. But it might've been a Long-eared Owl. The habitat was right, the time of year was ok, some Long-eareds had been seen recently, so it was a possibility.

Driving back to the pier, Eagle-eyed M spotted what was definitely a Short-eared Owl, hunting over the heather moorland. It was flying close to and parallel with the road, so we trundled alongside it at slow speed for ages, before we had to turn off.

Aboard the ferry once more, I was able to search the internet for images of both birds in flight. As my photo was side on and slightly from behind, the big clue, eye colour, was no use to us. Wing colouration too was impossible to tell. We were left with the size and quantity of the barring on the tail, as well as a glimpse of orange on top of the head, which might be a flattened ear tuft. In the end, we couldn't decide, so back home, I threw the question open to social media and those who have more knowledge of both species of owl. Quite quickly, the answers came back. Long-eared! So this bird was a 'lifer' for both M and I. The Snowy Owl was a lifer for me too, so all in all, the day was an incredible three owl bonanza.


Spadger said...

Brilliant Mr W. Really pleased for you and to get a LEO as well is awesome. And with the SEO means giving more than 'two hoots' about Err well anything! You earned your colours ages ago so shouldn't feel guilty for the occasional twitch where time allows - well deserved. And what's more, with the LEO it's a self found as you didn't know it was there.
Not often I get the chance to be a pedant with you, but .... 'The wildlife and us..' We are also a species of wildlife. But we've become completely detached from acknowledging that which is one reason why we seem incapable to consider the implication of our actions! 😂

Spadger said...

Ps: 142. 10 to = last year Off to see 'Peter' Frampton later.

Imperfect and Tense said...

Re 'wildlife and us', if I'm honest, even in my wildest moments, I'm quite tame.

After running Colossus for 15 hours straight, I think I've decoded your other message:

+++ Visiting an RSPB reserve STOP +++ Hope to beat 2018 total STOP +++

Spadger said...

Awesome Mr W, with both comments you've made me snigger - a lovely thing to end the day. BTW 149.

I had a delayed snigger reaction to on Friday, stemming from some advice given by a friend who came to the bit of a b'day drink organised on my behalf, just prior to the grand day.

Being some 4-5 years my senior, I asked hime what I can look forward to.

I'll have to send the rest by text instalments!