Twitching the Dutch Hawk Owl … on the fly

An out of county interlude – allowable, I think …

It was too good an opportunity to miss. A pre-planned business trip to Utrecht and a long-staying Hawk Owl less than an hour away (52 mins by train + 5 mins in a taxi). It all hinged on having enough daylight left and enough time to get back to the airport to catch the flight home. It was doable – kind of.

I went prepared. Bins, scope, camera and tripod centre column only (for what it was worth) stowed surreptitiously in one bag as hand-luggage. Bowling into to a customer’s premises with a tripod slung over my shoulder would have looked a bit odd. I wasn’t there for a photoshoot.

Visit concluded early afternoon. I could have gone and spent 3.5 hours sitting in the airport. The decision was easy: Zwolle here we come!

An hour later. Walking down Primulapad past the sports field where it is frequently seen. No sign. Then I catch sight of a guy with a tripod disappearing behind some bushes on the other side of Marsweg. He must be in the know. I crossed the road and followed him. As I rounded the bushes I could hear the whirs and clicks of camera shutters and was amazed to see some 20 birders with their equipment trained on some metal framework above an electricity substation. And there it was, ‘The Boy’, seemingly unfazed by the close proximity of its admirers.  Hawk Owl, Zwolle, 10th December 2013 (Mike Alibone) 253.21Hawk Owl, Zwolle, 10th December 2013 (Mike Alibone) 254.32Hawk Owl, Zwolle, 10th December 2013 (Mike Alibone) 255.27

Images & Video: Hawk Owl, Zwolle, The Netherlands, 10th December 2013 (Mike Alibone)

I have always wanted to see Hawk Owl – especially after missing them on a two-week trip to Scandinavia many years ago. Unique and charismatic. It was as beautiful as it was awesome (I hate that word – but it was!).  It spent much of its time loafing and looking and making a couple of short flights before flying off up Marsweg.  My photographic attempts won’t win any prizes. Camera attached to scope, scope rammed against chain-link fence and balanced on laptop bag, just off the ground.

In the excitement I had forgotten I had not moved the time on my watch forward to Dutch time. I had an hour less than I thought. Consequence: train arrives at airport 15 minutes after intended flight has departed. Recovery: caught next cheesyjet flight back to Luton late evening. Mission accomplished.

No shortage of ‘Shorties’

This autumn has seen significant arrivals of Short-eared Owls in the UK with many crossing the North Sea from Scandinavia and some even turning up on North Sea gas rigs (as highlighted in the BBC’s Autumnwatch last week) as well as in many parts of the UK. One flew across the road in front my car while I was driving in Hampshire last week and I’ve recently seen them at three sites in Northants which, fortunately, has not missed out. In the past few weeks there have been records from Daventry Country Park, Pitsford Reservoir, Hollowell Reservoir, Polebrook Airfield, Harrington Airfield, Harlestone Heath and Maidwell and any undisturbed area of rough ground or wasteland is surely worth a look. The last two of these sites have consistently held good numbers with the Blueberry Farm complex near Maidwell producing an amazing twelve, which is likely to be a record day count for a single site in the County (let me know if this has been beaten!). They were still present there this evening and continue to prove to be a popular draw for local birders and photographers. Access and viewing is from the track which runs west from Brampton Valley Way below Hanging Houghton to Beck’s Dairy, Cottesbrook. Six have been reported at Harrington Airfield in the past couple of days, although three is the number more usually seen there. Dave Jackson has very kindly supplied some images taken at the latter locality.

Short-eared Owl, Harrington Airfield, November 2011 (Dave Jackson)
Short-eared Owl, Harrington Airfield, November 2011 (Dave Jackson)

Apart from the yellow eyes (orange in Long-eared Owl), the photos show nicely some key features which distinguish Short-eared from Long-eared when viewed distantly, namelyobvious, broad, even tail-barring (diffuse and less conspicuous in Long-eared), white trailing edges to wings and thickly streaked head and chest, which contrasts sharply with unmarked belly.