Sunday, 1 November 2015

Owls in the heart of the wood

Just north of St Albans by Sandridge there is a whole new wood being constructed. Heartwood Forest is supposedly the largest new native forest in England. I'd not been there before but over the last week or so three or more short-eared owls had taken up residence. The combination of a new site, owls and a ridiculously warm day proved irresistible so Judith and I set out just after lunch.
We got to the car park about 2.30 and it was rammed. There were no parking spaces so we ended up abandoning the car in a passing place on the entrance road. It wasn't all birders, there were family groups, cyclists and dog walkers all enjoying the warm, verging on hot, weather.
The wood itself is still work in progress. At the moment it is hundreds or more likely thousands of small saplings in rough meadow. You could make out mixed native species though so it will be great eventually.

With the autumnal sun relatively low and no wind what did show up very nicely were the lines of spiders webs spun through the grass. Hard to really capture but you did get to realise just how many there were and what a healthy spider population there must be.

The main course though was the owls. We followed one of the paths out of the car park and fairly soon saw a group of about 5 or 6 birders standing on a piece of high ground. On enquiring about the owls we were told one had been seen about 30 minutes before. So, we just waited, a not unpleasant thing to do in the beautiful weather and with skylarks singing overhead. Everyone was looking out towards the farm when I decided to have a look behind me. A large brown shape lifted above the skyline, tilted its wings and disappeared again! "owl, right behind us". We all decamped about 100 yards along the ridge and there it was hunting over the fields.  

Initially it was quite hard to get on to. Although the scrub was low, so were its hunting habits as it quartered the fields about 100 yards away. The light was in some ways poor, with us looking almost straight into the sun, but it did mean the wings became almost translucent.
Gradually it got closer and moved away from ridge allowing us better views.

 Suddenly, where there had been one there were two. A second owl popped up on the other side of our path quartering those fields. Then within a few minutes it was 3 as they were joined by a particularly light coloured bird. For about 45 minutes we were treated to a glorious spectacle as they flew over the fields occasionally stalling to dive down on the unsuspecting vole population. 

As we were taking our leave the last drama was when one of the owls got a bit too close to a crow family and a lone buzzard causing a commotion as all of them rose up in a loud mass eventually driving the poor buzzard into a tree where it was incessantly harried by the crows.

 All in all not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Hopefully the owls will decide to over winter which will make for a great day out if we get some hard frosts!!!