Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Eldernell & Deeping Lakes :: 15 January 2022

We had postponed a trip to Deeping Lakes and Eldernell last weekend as the short-eared owls had not been showing consistently for a few days. Instead, we had made a return to see if we could get better views of the Pallas's warbler in Abingdon. We agreed to meet at 6.00am and found that the ground was hard with ice and there was a fog - just what you needed for a 2hr drive to see owls.

We set out on time and decided that we'd make for Eldernell (RSPB Nene Washes) first, on the basis that a possible early visit for long-eared owls at Deeping Lakes would be hampered by this fog. On the way we stopped in Wellingborough to pick up a McDonald's breakfast but were soon back on the road - Kevin Heath had taken the lead on the first leg and we swapped over for the second. I'd programmed the destination into the satnav, and we arrived without incident, but still enveloped in fog and the temperature still around freezing. Getting out of the car we found people already present and fishing a stones-throw from the car park. Looking from here I was absolutely sure I’d got to the right place.

We put on our boots and then referred to a note from Nick Truby indicating where the short-eared owls were most likely to be found. We followed the instructions and within a couple of minutes spotted two birders standing by a fence in the general locality; we made our way down to them and indeed they were on a bird - in fact two. It was possible to take photos but the fog would require extra processing to extract anything I was pleased with and so we waited, hoping that the birds may have a fly around as they had apparently done 15 minutes before. Kevin decided to investigate further down the track and the log pile where the owls often roost; while he was gone a barn owl passed over the back of the hedge - when Kev returned, I let him know about the barn owl and we had a look around the barns from the hedge line to see if it was roosting in view. Soon it showed again, first in the window of a barn (but only briefly) and then on a longer flight out the back of the hedge that the short-eared owls were occupying. On neither of these occasions was there a possibility of a photo. Flying around us there was a small flock of meadow pipits and a passage of tits and finches.

We got back to watching the short-eared owls but then movement to our left caught my attention and I swung round to see the barn owl rising from the ground with a vole. I reached for my camera but by the time I got it raised, the bird was behind a bush and I couldn’t lock focus on it. That would probably be the last time we saw it given the hour and that it had some breakfast to deal with; it proved to be the case.

Kev and one of the other birders went up the slope to the path overlooking the reserve, reporting flocks of whooper swan and common crane - by the time I got there I saw only two of what earlier had been 30 cranes – I never did see any whooper swans.

Short eared owl
Short eared owl
Short eared owl
Short eared owl
Short eared owl

Eventually we decided that the two owls were not showing any signs of moving and headed out to investigate more of the reserve. The reserve is an extensive area of seasonally-flooding wet grassland (washland) that lies along the River Nene east of Peterborough. The entirety of the area covers, with 500 hectares owned by RSPB. It is an internationally important wetland site, a Special Area of Conservation, a Special Protection Area and a Nature Conservation Review site managed by the RSPB. The resident common cranes are a highlight and are one of the few breeding colonies in Britain.

We kept our eyes peeled for either long or further short eared owls but couldn't find either. We pushed on to the floods and located a range of common ducks, buzzard, red kites and marsh harriers. We were surprised at the lack of waders and when we did spot a distant one in flight it dropped out of sight - likely a snipe. Numbers of lapwing gathered in the fields behind and a lone song thrush popped into a tree ahead of us. At one point we saw what appeared to be an owl in a tree - would this be a tawny and give us a three-owl day? - it turned out to be the structure of the bark but from distance had looked promising! Hilarious.

Marsh harrier

When we returned to the short-eared owls there were a few birders setting up for photos and a mother and daughter said they'd be shortly heading to Deeping Lakes as the long-eared owl was showing, although not well. We decided to up sticks and head there ourselves, only pausing for a quick coffee from our flasks.

Within about 30 minutes we arrived at Deeping Lakes and made for the car park along a track covered in mud; a couple of birders leaving the car park confirmed a long-eared owl was visible. Arriving at 'the spot' we were in no doubt that this was the right place to be. A number of scopes were trained on the opposite bank and their owners peering intently - the couple closest to the water turned and we realised it was Nick and Anne Truby. They greeted us and Nick explained they'd come to prepare the spot for our arrival. He allowed us to look through his scope to get our bearings and soon we set up ourselves. Taking photos of the bird hiding deep in the bushes was next to impossible but views of the bird through the scope were better, although it's face mostly masked by branches.

Long eared owl

This next photo taken through the scope.

Long eared owl

Nick and Anne set off to visit Eldernell while we enjoyed the views and Kev left and returned from his car with a phone adapter to his scope - this allowed an attempt at a couple of videos to see if it was easier to isolate the bird.

We joked that as we'd had a three owl species day that we ought to try for another - we'd heard mention of little owls and were only half joking. Chatting to a local he suggested that little owls were indeed possible. We set off round the lake but really didn't know where we were heading - we added goosander and goldeneye to the year lists but eventually thought we would turn back as time was getting on.


As luck would have it, the local we’d talked to appeared and offered to show us where he'd encountered little owl on his last visit. We reached the river and passed numbers of walkers out taking the air - we scanned the trees opposite and within minutes were on a little owl - how lucky were we!

Little owl

We asked our guide where he planned to take us next to see a tawny owl - obviously joking - none were available it appeared, but we were so grateful for his help. It would have been great to get the fifth though 😁.

We'd had a fantastic day and made back to the car and then the road home with a life bird seen. A four owl day is something special.

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