In the glow of Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples a Tawny Owl called; only once. On returning home it was not clear if they have been recorded on the dry south east coast of Sicily. This reminded me of ‘Undiscovered Owls’ by Magnus Robb and The Sound Approach and I had to get a copy. This is the latest in the series introducing birders to bird sound. Their punch-line in this case was the discovery of Omani Owl, as well as shining light on poorly understood Western Palearctic taxa.
Until now I have never made a big thing about owls and it’s only in the last few years that I have made an effort to get five species a year. All five can be seen within the 10km square that covers Newcastle/Gateshead which I covered in 2015. Barn Owl is the one for me that goes under the radar. Sometimes they feel like ghosts, just because I don’t see them it does not mean they are not there.
In Robb’s introduction he talks of the calls of owls drifting into and out of our consciousness. Their calls reflect the shape of the trees and cliffs that surround; different to bird song. It was good to read that the team also had to learn what meanings are hidden in the calls of Tawny Owls. Without this, I would not have known it was a male calling as I ploughed back through a muddy track in the dark from a distant Little Owl. So I am on a bit of a mission and more than just year ticking I want to see what these birds do. Another Little Owl roosting in the same Hawthorn since last October and others displaying from a deformed Ash have really opened my eyes. Why have I not done this before?
Driving back through County Durham towards dusk I recalled seeing a rough grazing meadow behind a wood a few years back. Does that have Barn Owls? A Buzzard circled, calling when out of sight. I flushed a Woodcock and waited for ‘ghosts’. I could hear people and dogs nearby and slipped away unseen. I was nearly back to the car when the gaze of two Roe Deer drew my eyes towards them. Stock still, they did not notice the Short-eared Owl above their heads.
The owl rowed quickly across the darkening sky in pursuit of a second. They chased and spiraled high into the sky occasionally one –the pursuer would yap. This reminded me of Robb’s words, ‘SEOs are bastards to record’. Then a third bird was in the sky seeing off a Buzzard. In a year when the birds close to home at Burdon Moor are absent, finding three in a random spot was as exciting as finding a lifer.
I returned three days later. The cold thick grey cloud remained, but added to it was occasional hail brought by a penetrating east wind. The first bird hunted at 3pm and quickly made a kill. It ate just in time to avoid the Buzzard power gliding low out of the wood. The Owl chased it into a tree where it was mobbed by a Kestrel. Through the scope I could see a loose primary on the owl’s right wing. It preened and watched the Buzzard flew back to the wood. On flat wings it glided away and with fast wing beats the owl shot after it. The Buzzard circle high effortlessly, but the Owl went higher and dived. It flew back to the field yapping before landing in a dead Hawthorne where it spent the next hour just watching.
I could no longer feel my fingers and toes when the second bird arrived. The first chased the second until the settled to hunt opposite ends of the field. Two hares chased but I could not stay until dark, I had sat still too long and cold was deep in my bones.
Even though it was misty and this delayed the darkness leaving, Shakespeare’s owl was away to its bed. Even though I had high hopes of visiting the patch regularly, things this year conspired against it. There were three things I wanted to get out of what might be the last visit of 2016.
The first as always was to see whats there. Unseen a Waxwing added itself to the patch list as it flew over calling, seeking more of its kind. Fieldfares kicked up from windfall apples and Redwings beat their way into the sky; one slightly smaller bird with a different wing action may have been a Song Thrush, but was lost in the mist too soon. Redpoll -all dark picked through Birch trees above the land ruined by MotoX. The male Buzzard saw me long before I saw him and flew to the female in the wood where they nest. They both brought in the sound of the Fells as they left.
The track through the wood has been ruined by the bikes so I detoured through acres of Pheasants which will be gone on Boxing Day. Returning to the path I found a footpath sign buried in the mud. Beyond that a permanent sign on the bridle path saying shooting in progress keep out. Two indications that others want the countryside closed.
A Roe Deer, a Jay and a Dipper singing low down in the valley as I passed Causey Arch were on my side. Hi-vis jackets fixing a fence and two dog walkers were not. I left my patch and through and past Beech trees with their feet in their copper-coloured leaves; another Buzzard sat high above me near a Yew that had already stood longer than I ever would. Middle-aged women with trusty steads between their thighs and more dog walkers, before plunging down to the river.
Another Dipper sang above the water over rocks percussion. I had not realised how lovely the song actually is. Then another let me stand and watch it sing and feed. Further upstream I watch the river pass, swirling leaves in a eddy. I could still hear the Dipper. The second point of the winter walk was reached -a oneness. I can hear birds and wind in the trees and the stream. In a man-made environment I hear no sound of man. I sit until the moment passes, my clock reset.
I head back to the patch. Four male Goosander watch over a female as she fishes. She looks up and two display. They are magical in the dull light. Another Buzzard again allows a close approach but is scared off by the bells on dogs collars. Avoiding the paths I push past Hazel whose catkins are there already.
On the patch I am greeted by 4 MotoX bikes racing along a bridle path. Illegal. And then two old men walking dogs calling the police. Who ruins the patch more? I do not share their concerns and reach the car after nearly five hours. Part three, the joy of walking. Grey slips into darkness.
I might get to an end of year review, though there is a general consensus that whatever hope rung in the New Year, 2016 is now drunk and should go home. Three weeks feels like a long time and nothing is going to change just because you wake up with a hangover as 2017 starts. So in at the end of the first week in December when mostly temperatures have stayed in double figures what troubles me the most?
I think mainly it is the disregard for nature -biodiversity, ecology, sustainability, which ever word you want to use. Recently, I have been around RSPB, National Trust and Wildlife Trust estates and two thinks have struck me. Firstly, we are turning nature, even here, into commodities -tame and constrained; and secondly, people often see it as a lump of nature. Somewhere to take the kids or in the latter two walk the dogs. They are not seeing the diversity and they are not seeing how much less of it there is that 10 years ago. and this is less than it was 10 years before that.
So I began to think what is the worst invention that is going to accelerate the distance we have from wildlife. Its not TV as everyone is watching David Attenborough’s swan song -Planet Earth II. Its not pollution and urban sprawl. True enough this is killing wildlife, ask the 10,000+ dead snow gees in Montana.
No the thing that I kept returning to is double glazing. It deadens the sound of the Robin that sings outside my window at 5 am under the street light. It stops me feeling the change in the weather. It keeps me distant from everything that is important. Not just me, all of us. It allows us to be emotionally attached to nature as much as we need to be. The less attached we are the more of it can slip through our fingers.
It starts at home. I can see 16 back gardens from my house. Only three have a tree, only two of them have more than one. There are no ponds apart from ours. And in the summer if they do anything apart from cut the grass -outdoor vacuuming they put out ‘pay-and-display’ bedding plants maintained by their array of noxious chemicals. Suddenly 2017 is not looking much brighter than just being 32 days away rather than the start of a new era.
Finally our adventure comes to an end.
Today was spent around time and down by cable car to the beach. Should have bought the snorkel as the fish in the bay looked amazing.
While on the beach we still managed two more honey buzzard which came in off and flapped over our heads.
The new highlight being last night we discovered our place has Geckos so tonight we will be back to watch them hanging as only they can.
Much of the early planning centred on going up Etna. No euphemism intended. Anyway today with clear sky a flat calm sea we headed inland to Etna Sud. You go up through lava flows some as young as 2001. And then reach a rather commercial district of tourist trinkets and fast food. Go past that get the cable car and the bus up as far as you can go. This is 2500m above sea level. To see steam coming from a live volcano that last erupted in May 2016 and deposited the ash on witch your walking is amazing. There is even a bit of snow buried under the ash from the spring just visible. There are a few flies and I guess that’s what the 2 black eared wheatear were after but they were the only birds.
On the way down we stopped randomly for a scan. 1 calandra lark , 1 kestrel and three Chocolate Marsh Harriers .
In the woodland nuthatch and short toed treecreeper but no Sicilian long tailed tit . Have to come back this cop pice chestnut woodland is incredible. Fungi hunters coming out of the woods in battered Fiats and truffle hounds gave authenticity and we even got good information on Nesting Bonnelis eagle for next time.
We had sun all day but came down into cloud as we headed up the eastern side of the mountain to San Alfio to see the Hundred Horse Chestnut reputed to have been planted in Roman times it is a colossal beast of a coppiced sweet chestnut protected by a fence with its own viewing platform. It was surrounded by a communal nuttery. Further north to Linguaglossa and its vineyards took us through a green and pleasant land unexpected when we first saw the dry island two weeks ago.
We travelled to Taormina a two and a half hour journey but with the detours it was nearly dark by the time we got parked.
First stop Milazzo on the face of it a medium sized port with its associated heavy industry. But head north along a long finger of land that points out at the Aeolian Islands and you are in a magic world which on a less suitable day i.e. 29c in the shade migrants from central Italy and else where would drop in. Best we could do was a hooded crow and a great tit.
Then to Messina into the city turn left at the water and head right out to the point. From here 3km of water separates the Calabrian toe of Italy from the kicking the rump of Sicily. Right on the quayside past the marina and lagolungo we had a great lunch. Too stuffed to take in the home made ice cream the only thing that let us down was a large bird coming high across the water. We had to settle for a Yellow wag while up on the watch point they were excited by their Slovakian Imperial Eagle. This was the end of a 20+ year dream and in some ways felt like a pilgramage.
However to get back out we had to go back through town and watched as an African guy begged for money at cars stopped at traffic lights. What are we doing wrong?
I am sure Taormina will b e lovely but getting up to the place started badly with having to climb out of the car window to get an Autostarda ticket from the lorry height (car one not working), getting off the machine did not take notes ( in the end they let us through without paying ) and then the windy roads of Taormina are hard work. An Alba wagtail from the hotel window and house martins overhead.
At last after all this time on the island we have seen Etna arising in the morning sun.
With the sun came the heat and above the Greek Theatre 3 Honey Buzzards rose circled and soon lost the Buzzard that had set off after them. OK it is not Eilat or the Bosphorus or for that matter Messina, but this is what we came for -migrant raptors.
There were no more until after lunch when after a hot spell with the weather clearing a thunder storm came out of the humidity. In total 9 more Honey Buzzards were seen losing height and flapping hard as the went south from Taormina.
New holiday birds included Tree Sparrow, coal tit and a good look at Sicilian Goldfinch. Possibly it does look browner but as an indicator it did sound different as a family fed on flowers in the garden. Good views of male and female Sardininan Warbler too.