Monday, 23 February 2015

February 2015

For the first time Mother and Daughter, Grainne and Annie, seem to be in sync. Both have made a move north within hours of each other, most likely in response to the change in the weather. They have both moved back to their favored wintering grounds.  Have we seen the last of the winter weather or could another cold snap drive the birds south again?

The mild and sunny weather last weekend also saw the first Lapwing flocks and Skylarks back on the moor.. Wonderful to hear the Skylarks song back in the moorland skies.

Highlights from this winter on the moor

Click on any of these images to see them enlarged.

 A few highlights from the winter included a juvenile Rough Legged Buzzard that visited Langholm moor briefly in the first part of the winter. Rough Legged Buzzards breed in Scandanavia and small numbers of birds winter here in the UK usually in the East. Last Autumn there was an influx with many birds seen in Northumberland and Yorkshire and we were lucky enough to see one here at Langholm. Rough Legged buzzards have a white tail with a black terminal band, pale head, black belly, white under wings with black carpal patch.

Rough Legged Buzzard (JW)

Rough Legged Buzzard (JW)
Rough Legged Buzzard (JW)

Hen Harriers

With 47 fledged young at Langholm last season we had high hopes we would see one or two harriers about over the winter. A great deal of patience and multiple thermal layers have been required to get these views of harriers, but well worth it. Many thanks to John Wright for these photos and ID guidance.

How is your Hen Harrier ID?

Adults Hen Harriers are pretty easy to tell apart, the obvious sexual dimorphism meant males and female harriers were once thought to be separate species but how about the juveniles still in their brown plumage?

Juvenile males differ from females by being slighter in build, if you have several harriers together, you can often tell males from females by their size, otherwise is it down to experience - a good excuse to get out and spend every spare minute watching hen harriers!

Young males also have a pale iris - unless you have an excellent view or superb photography skills, this is not always easy to see. 

Young males also display sparse barring in the outer half of the primaries. Juvenile females have coarser barring as can be seen when comparing these two juveniles.

Juvenile male HH (JW)

Juvenile Female HH (JW)

Juvenile Male Hen Harrier (JW)

Juvenile Male Hen Harrier colour ringed bird (JW)

Juvenile Female Hen Harrier (JW)
The male Hen Harrier could be called adult if only seen from below but the dark saddle and wing bars clearly make it an immature bird (3cy).

Red Grouse

And not forgetting the Red Grouse, I never get sick of watching these beautiful and characterful birds strut and chuckle amongst the heather.

Female red Grouse (JW)

Male Red Grouse (JW)
Male Red Grouse (JW)

Red Grouse in Flight (JW)

Male Red Grouse (JW)

Some other highlights

Moon over the moor (JW)
Around New Year the West of Scotland was battered by gale force winds.. while it was our friends further north that were hit directly by the so called 'weather bomb' Langholm got the tail end.. winds strong enough to bring down an unexpected visitor to the moor. After bouncing and stumbling through the heather the Fulmar eventually managed to get back into the air and head for the sea.
Sketch by John Wright
 A very elusive bird, not a common sight and such a treat to see.. a Goshawk! What a bird!
Juvenile Goshawk (JW)

Juvenile Goshawk (JW)

Number 69 wing tagged Buzzard, seen regularly on the moor

Monday, 16 February 2015

February 2015 - We call him the Owl man!

Regular blog readers will know that 2014 was an incredible season on Langholm moor. A mild winter and incredibly high vole numbers were perhaps the triggers for an excellent breeding season for many raptors including  Hen Harriers and Short Eared Owls. The moor welcomed many visitors to perch on the roadside and watch the wonderful views of birds  all around; one such visitor became a semi-permanent feature on the roadside. .  we called him 'the owl man'.
I hope you enjoy this guest blog by Bryan Benn aka (The owl man)

Langholm Moor Short-eared Owls in 2014

In recent years I have developed an almost obsessional love for owls, especially Short-eareds. I am now approaching four years in maybe a seven to eight year period of time writing a book about those beautiful lemon-yellow eyed creatures. I’m not a life long birder, indeed I still describe my identification skills for our feathered friends as being OK for Sparrows and Albatrosses, but still pretty useless for those falling in between! After I lost my wife a good friend introduced me to birding as a way of trying to fill a big gap in my life and the first ”unusual” bird we saw was a Short-eared owl, slowly hopping from post to post in front as we drove an Isle of Sheppey, (Kent), marsh road at walking pace. An amazing and beautiful creature about which I soon developed an insatiable desire to find out all I could. Plenty of scientific papers written on various aspects of their lives, but no book. So I decided to write one myself, and thus started the long road that eventually saw me arrive on Langholm Moor on 23rd May last year.

A road that has already seen me spend vast amounts of time observing and photographing Short-eared owls, (and any other owls that came close), as well as driving to many locations around the British Isles to broaden my knowledge and understanding of them. From South Wales to the Outer Hebrides, Salisbury Plain to the Orkneys and many other places in between. I have seen and learned much and received a great deal of help, (especially on the Orkneys earlier this year), but nothing substantial on breeding season activity. Until I came to Langholm Moor in 2014.

My first visit to Langholm in May was thanks to Sonja Ludwig who had responded very quickly to one of many requests I sent out to various organisations for help with my Shortie breeding season field work. She told me 2014 was an exceptional year for these owls breeding on the moor and on arrival I was immediately watching various males hurrying about feeding their females and the hatched young. As well as vigorously defending their well defined territories from adjoining males and indeed any bird seen as a likely threat to their food supply, (primarily voles), and the young owlets.

On just my second day Mac Hotson and Sonja, (members of the raptor study group), allowed me to accompany them to a Short-eared owl nest where they were scheduled to ring the owlets.

That nest visit saw the male making his distraction display as we got close: a variation of the broken wing display used by a number of other birds. The female stayed on the very rudimentary nest in amongst some taller grasses, (Shorties are ground nesting owls), until we were almost upon her, leaving three young owlets to be rung. Two were healthy sizes and looked in good shape, one was clearly not and the verdict from Mac and Sonja was that it would not survive long. Close by was a 12 day old owlet that had already started it’s wandering from the nest. As ground nesting owls part of their survival strategy is for the young to leave the nest very early and spread out in the adjoining habitat, thus allowing at least some to survive if a predator such as a fox finds the nest. That means the adults have to be good not only at making a number of kills each day to feed them, but also at finding their wandering young who can be up to 200 metres from the nest as they grow. That process is helped by the young making lots of food begging hisses when the adults are flying near, a sound that characterised that part of the breeding cycle over much of the moor.

From then onwards in what became numerous trips from Kent to Scotland, I spent a great deal of time on a moorland road watching a number of breeding territories whilst always making sure I minimised any disruption to the very friendly local people, the owls, and I kept well away from the many Hen Harriers breeding there. Visible activity peaked from mid June to early July as the juvenile owls started to fly, but were still dependant on the adults for food. Meaning very hard work for the adults and not very good news for the many voles on the moor. Large numbers of those latter creatures, (their numbers are cyclical), was the reason for the good number of Short-eared owls breeding on the moor in 2014. A more normal level of voles would see only a small number of owls, and they would be very thinly spread.

June saw the juveniles flying, often together as a family unit as they emerged in the evenings from their daytime roosts: all these owls showing a distinct preference for nocturnal activity. Something not that widely realised by those who only watch their daylight activities in the winter months on coastal marshes and lowland in other parts of Britain.  All too soon the sights of several young lined up on fences where they exist on the moor waiting their first feed of the evening was just a memory as they became well and truly fledged, fending for themselves.

Then, from late July and continuing into October, the owls started to disperse from their breeding territories. A few maybe just across the moor before a final departure, but with the majority no doubt heading directly South to seek milder over wintering areas in Britain. With some possibly going much further South than our shores in search of an area where adverse winter weather does not stop easy access to a reliable food supply.  A very few stayed into November, becoming hard to find due to their continuing nocturnal behaviour.  It will be touch and go if those few stay on the moor or if any reduction in voles and/or bad weather forces them to leave too.

My visits have continued as I need to record the owls’ departures and the empty areas of moor where only a few months earlier I was so regularly finding these beautiful creatures in good numbers. A sadness at times seeing the emptiness.  But an understanding and appreciation that all those who work on Langholm Moor on the project have created an environment with the side effect of helping swell the British population of Short-eared owls. 2014 has been exceptional I know due to the large number of voles, but I do hope that 2015 and future years still see at least some of these lovely owls choosing to breed in such a wonderful and friendly part of Scotland.

Bryan Benn, Kent, England. February 2015 


Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Hattie stays put but Grainne has left the moor for the first time!

After Annie's move south to WWT Caelaverock, we've been watching Hattie and Grainne carefully to see how they would react to the snow. Unlike Annie, who left the moor less than a month after fledging the nest in summer 2014, Hattie and Grainne (fledged summer 2013) have never left the moor. An unusually mild winter last year gave them no reason to leave, clearly conditions were right for  them to stay and breed. This winter has been a bit different, recent snowfall, persistent cold temperatures and string northerly winds has made life a little more challenging. Hattie and Grainne have dealt with the challenge in different ways. Grainne has left the moor for the first time in her life and flown south just north of Carlisle.
 Annie seems settled for now in the WWT Caerlaverock area.

The excitement of following the three Langholm harriers is tempered by the sad news of a bird tagged in Ireland the same summer as Hattie and Grainne - Heather was found shot dead in County Kerry.