21 Oct 2011

I didn’t expect that today

Life has a way of occasionally presenting you with a variety of unexpected experiences – some very welcome, others not so much.

Often it’s those innocuous ordinary days that can turn up something quite different. Perhaps it’s their very ordinary-ness that makes the unexpected turn out all the more delightful.

Thus it was last Friday. We were away in the English Lake District in our favourite spot for a long weekend and because we’d decided to go away at the very last minute, we hadn’t really planned it very well. So we needed to spend our first morning doing some food shopping and headed off to an out of town shopping area with several adjacent supermarkets. One of the things on our list that we’d been unsuccessful with in the supermarket was bird food – there is a small bird table outside the caravan and we enjoy seeing the visiting birds, so we headed across the car park to a couple of more likely stores for supplies for our feathered neighbours.

Please click on any of the photographs for a larger view.

Elmo, a fabulously striking Bengali Owl

One of the stores was a large pet superstore and outside the main entrance was a chap with 4 owls on perches, talking to the public and collecting money and raising awareness for his owl rescue sanctuary; Wise Owl World based in Barrow in Furness. He does this on a regular basis to educate people about owls and give them a wonderful hands-on experience of these gorgeous raptors. All of the birds are rescues and have a variety of problems or injuries that would prevent them returning to the wild.

They looked well cared for and in good health and obviously experienced at this meeting the public set up and when put back onto their perches were chilled enough to start to fall asleep – he clearly circulated the birds that were handled so that they all got some peace between times.

The largest owl was Elmo, a Bengali Owl.

He gave me a leather gauntlet so that I could hold one and he handed me Sky, a gorgeous 12 year old barn owl. I didn’t hear the full story that he’d been telling someone else, but she’s obviously been rescued from the jaws of a large dog and was missing a portion of one wing. He described how he’d been called in when someone had found her and she was clearly badly hurt and he said that “we looked at each other quietly for a while and then I gently talked to her and told her how I was going to make her better and we gradually made friends.” The way he interacts with them, they clearly are all friends and they certainly trust him. The Tawny owl Cuddles even allowed him to part her feathers to show me inside her ear – I was totally unfamiliar with the structure of an owl ear before last Friday.

Cuddles – a Tawny Owl – who kindly let me look inside his ear.

I was surprised at how light Sky was, I’d held my arm slightly upwards as he placed her, expecting it to drop to level under her weight – but she was deceptively light. I stroked her gently and was very surprised to find that the bulk of the roundness of her head was predominantly fluffy feathers – her skull underneath the plumage is quite small, the fullness of her head largely consists of the downy soft feathers she uses to dampen any sound in flight and to help direct even the tiniest sound into her super-sensitive ears.

Sky, a 12 year old Barn Owl – deceptively light and incredibly fluffy

There were 4 owls with him, ranging in size, from the tiny 8″ tall Tropical Screech Owl (who don’t actually screech apparently, but he did chatter at things that annoyed him – like passing dogs and crows) called Olly, Sky the barn owl, Cuddles a Tawny Owl and the largest Bengali Owl called Elmo. I asked if I could take a few photographs and he said yes, which was such a joy to have the opportunity of getting so close. Unfortunately, they were outside the main entrance of a modern-built out of town superstore, which was plastered with signs, posters and a burglar alarm – so the background was somewhat unnatural and distracting, so I’ve largely framed in very tight on their faces.

The beautiful Barn Owl that I got to hold called Sky.

Cuddles was clearly distracted by something above him, he periodically looked skywards and turned his head around, as though being vigilant about some perceived threat from above – I asked if it was the car park crows that concerned him, but apparently, the burglar alarm box above them on the wall periodically emitted a high pitched sound that we humans couldn’t hear, but clearly Cuddles, with his super-efficient hearing (Tawny’s have the best hearing of our domestic owls, hence the ear-demo) could hear it and wasn’t sure what to make of it or quite where it was coming from.

Olly, a tiny Tropical Screech Owl – just as he was starting to be irritated by the nearby crows.

It was the tiny wee Olly that was troubled by the crows – at one point they noisily passed, gathering in a small murder on a roof-line nearby, squabbling noisily amongst themselves. Olly first narrowed one eye and looked in their direction with a disapproving eye, then as they continued making more fuss, his demeanour changed somewhat and he apparently took on what the chap referred to as his “angry face”. And by golly jingo was it one angry face. He drew his cheeks in and raised various feathers to take on his most fearsome “don’t mess with me” expression.

Olly wearing his ‘angry face’ – which despite his diminutive size, was quite intimidating.

I learned several things that morning – what an owl’s ear looks like, how light and fluffy a barn owl is, that you can tell a daylight owl from a nocturnal one from their eye colour; coloured eyes like Elmo’s are daylight owls, Cuddles’ dark eyes prove that he’s nocturnal. And I now know what a truly pissed off owl looks like!

What a truly fabulous and special privilege it was to meet them and to learn more about these fabulous and efficient creatures in such close proximity.

6 Jan 2011

Where are my sultanas Boo?

I have two gardens – no actually, I have three really – on account of the garden wrapping round the house on three sides and each one being somewhat different and separate.

That sounds rather grand, but in reality, they’re each very small (each has an area approximately the same footprint as the house itself) and even their combined area wouldn’t qualify as a ‘small garden’ by landscape gardening and TV garden show standards.

Please click on any of the photographs to see a larger view.

We currently have a pair of nuthatches – their MO is to grab food and take it off to hide in a crack or crevice in bark or old branches – I assume they go back to it some time later – the pair work as a team, hiding their food in locations adjacent to each other. Nuthatches are the only birds that descend tree trunks – and can feed – head first, as shown.

On the kitchen side of the house is what we call the ‘railway garden’ on account of it being adjacent to a local railway line running a tourist steam railway. A rather grand name for a rather scrubby patch of land that we can’t do very much with. When we bought the house, in the late 80s, there were a few bushes and scrub outside the perimeter of this garden at the very end triangular tip of an area of woodland behind the row of houses and we got a lot of morning sunshine.

We have daily visits from all the common garden tits – this one being a blue tit.

As the years passed, the scrub became trees and the light levels diminished and things consequently didn’t grow quite so well. The garden area was badly damaged in a freak flood that deposited tons of rubble on the lawn a few years ago and the buildings insurance covered it being re-landscaped.

We always have a posse of goldfinches in the garden, squabbling noisily in their little face masks.

We decided that it’s position under trees that we couldn’t trim (and didn’t necessarily want to) was best served by doing away with the lawned area and to landscape it as a bird garden. We’d always kept feeders in that area due to the surrounding trees, so covering the original lawn area with coarse gravel, with large stone slabs to take feeders and tables, surrounded by some potted planting and seats, suited us well.

One of our handsome male bullfinches – we are currently blessed with 2 pairs. Each pair is monogamous and they are never more than a few feet from each other – if you see one, their partner will be within the same field of view.

We rarely occupied that garden, as the adjacent woodland made it a bug fest on summer evenings and it is actually open around the house, so not very private, so keeping it as one for viewing from the three large windows on that side of the house, rather than being out in, was the best use of the space.

We did return home one day and find that our garden visitors had somewhat increased in size. Another time we returned to find a cockerel, but I didn’t manage a photo of him.

I keep the hanging bird feeders filled (largely with sunflower hearts, all birds seem to like them) and take out loose food for the tables, as required, along with warm water in winter. I make up my own mix of sunflower hearts, sultanas, chopped peanuts and supplemented with occasional stale biscuits, crushed fat balls and grated cheese. I obviously have a reputation for putting out good stuff as some of the cheekier visitors will remind me at the window if there isn’t much left – or what remains doesn’t contain their favourite morsels.

Some of the visitors are quite small – there’s often a mouse to be seen scurrying from under the wall to pinch food off the ground table. I don’t mind the mice, but I’m not keen on their larger cousins.

I have a very good selection of feathered visitors, from regular and widespread garden birds like robins, great tits, blue tits, coal tits, blackbirds, gold finches, dunnocks and sparrows to slightly more rural visitors like nuthatches, bullfinches, collared doves, wood pigeons, wrens, long tailed tits, jackdaws, crows and woodpeckers. I occasionally see a tree creeper and tawny owl too.

The tawny owl is certainly the most elusive and difficult to photograph visitor and this is the best I’ve so far managed, despite setting up a laptop and remote capture system when he was active in the garden one autumn and spending a lot of time waiting for him to visit. I gradually increased the lights and left them on for him to get used to them. Most often, we only get a fleeting glimpse as he lands to catch something to eat and triggers the security light.

The long tailed tits tend to arrive as a noisy, chattering gang to feed in a group – they have such cheeky and cheerful little faces, that they always brighten your day.

Sometimes there’s a deadly quiet descends on the garden and I know that a sparrowhawk is nearby. In fact, just as I’m typing that, some instinct made me go to my office window and there was a tree creeper not ten feet from me. That’s a particular thrill I never tire of.

I’ve only once got a proper look at the sparrowhawk – on this occasion he took his captured lunch just into the scrub outside the garden perimeter and I was only able to find him by following where all the other birds were looking and avoiding.

I think if I had to choose only one, the wren would certainly be up there as a my favourite garden bird. I just wish they didn’t move quite so fast, I might have a better collection of proper photos and not quite so many of disappearing tails, if they were a tad slower.

At present I have at least three thrushes – in that I’ve seen three at once on several occasions – and they, like the blackbirds, are especially partial to some fruit. I put out a plentiful supply of sultanas in cold weather and they’re always the first thing to go – crows and magpies will also come down to the furthest table at the fence-line if they spot sultanas on there – but they’re more timid about venturing onto the tables closer to the house.

I was very excited indeed when I first spotted a tree creeper in the garden. Having spent a lot of time trying to get a photograph in the wild, I finally got one of my best photographs from my own utility room window – on a filthy wet and stormy day – which was very dark indeed! This small rowan tree has since died, but I leave it there as it is one of his favourite spots to feed and I often spot one circling up the trunk and dead branches.

Between the 6 or 7 blackbirds I have, with the three thrushes and a selection of other occasional visitors, the sultanas are picked from the mix in a matter of minutes and then those that feel they have missed out will tell me so.
The thrush above is one such feathered friend. She stands on the front-most corner of the table near the kitchen window until she catches my eye and gestures with her head that there is a lack of dried fruit. If I take some out, she’ll return to feed and bob her head in acknowledgment from the same spot. I took the photograph above yesterday morning when we had a few moments of weak, wintry sunshine and she arrived for her elevenses. It amazes me how quickly thrushes and blackbirds can stuff their beaks with whole fruits and swallow them in the blink of an eye. Makes me wonder how they can become so partial to them when they don’t appear to even taste them.

So despite the diminutive scale of my bird garden, in which little grows, the very trees that make it dark also bring me these lovely visitors, so how could I possibly mind.