Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary

Wildlife photography in East Yorkshire

Archive for the tag ““Barn Owls””

Spring, slowly turning into Summer

Fox - paddling pose

Firstly, please let me apologise for the long wait for my first blog-post of the year. I’ve been spending a lot of my free time preparing a self-published book of my black & white street images.

I have managed to get out with my camera most weekends and now that the daylight hours are at their longest, I’ve ventured out on the odd evening too. I plan ahead as best as I can and try to pick the days with a favourable weather forecast but animals and birds can be fickle creatures and I often return home ’empty-handed’.

I’ll save my readers a long boring summary of the year so far, except to say that it has been good one for my photography and I was extremely fortunate to photograph a rare Common Crane as it flew over Watton Nature Reserve on 12 June.

[As usual, please click on any picture to see a much larger version that will look great on your tablet or screen!)

Common Crane in flight

Curlew - dawn flight

Great Crested Grebe - Dawn Light

Black-headed Gull - dawn

Female Reed Bunting

Dawn goose

Roe deer buck - Spring evening

Another Dunnock with insect

Otter watching me

Fox with rabbit

Wren watching

Early morning Barn owl

Long-tailed tit singing

Lady Linnet

Cormorant landing during a thunderstorm

A Perched Kingfisher

<aGrey Heron evening light

Marsh Harrier hunting_2


It’s an ill wind…

Jökulsárlón winter sunset

For those of you who may be waiting for an update from my recent trip to Iceland, I’m afraid you may have to wait a couple of more weeks. I’m still processing my images and exploring different compositions. The good news is that I am now the proud owner of a brand new Nikon D4 and a 24-70 f2.8 lens!

The story started back in Iceland. We were marooned at a small hotel near Jökulsárlón when the weather closed-in. High winds and blizzard conditions meant that we could not travel so we spent the time braving the brutal conditions on the nearby beach, photographing the sea-ice against the fine, black volcanic sand. I had my Nikon D3s and my favourite landscape lens on a tripod when a sudden large wave caught me off guard and the whole kit and kaboodle ended up in the sea! I was furious with myself but I can tell you; sea-water and sophisticated electronics are not the best of bed-fellows. I e-mailed my home and contents insurance company from my hotel and informed them of the accident. Within two weeks of me returning home, I had a brand new camera and lens and since Nikon no longer manufacture a D3s, I was told that my replacement would be the new Nikon D4. Well, I wasn’t going to argue! I must say that my insurer was first class. I don’t usually endorse products or services on my blog, but I will make an exception and say that Hiscox people were fantastic; with great communications and a very prompt, friendly approach to my first, and hopefully last ever claim.

Barn Owl-rear view hover

The arrival of my replacement camera coincided with B.S.T. and extra of hour of light in the evenings. Though the weather has been cold, it has been very dry and the evening light simply marvellous. It’s been a real pleasure to watch the golden light and deepening shadows at dusk. Tophill Low was unusually quiet for the time of year but at least the local Barn Owls and Roe deer have been active. Richard Hampshire, the warden at Tophill Low has told me of the death of two Barn owls following the recent spell of cold weather. It could be that their food source (mice and voles) has had their population reduced by the flooding. So my advice to anyone photographing these birds is to do so with a heightened sense of empathy. Please be aware that these creatures hunt to stay alive and not just for our photographic pleasure.

Barn Owl-early morning flight

Barn Owl-hunting over drain

Apart from the local Roe deer and Barn owls it has been relatively quiet. I did spot the local one-eyed otter very early one morning and a pair of Kingfishers has been very active. I spotted a pair of Great-crested grebes one morning too. A lonely Redshank is often about and the Pied wagtails have returned to the reserve.

Otter-first light

Great-crested Grebe pair

Roe doe leap

Roebuck & Jackdaw

So how is my new camera performing, I hear you ask? Well, I’ll let my latest pictures do the talking!

…that blows nobody any good.

Winter has arrived at last

Blackbird-winter feeding

As usual at this time of year, I arrived at Tophill Low before dawn. Thank-goodness the road had been semi-cleared of the wet snow. Once on the footpath, the only tracks in the virgin snow were those that had been left by the animals and birds. It was quiet too, except for the bitter easterly breeze that rustled the remaining leaves and the dead reeds. The sun gradually rose above the partly frozen surface of the lake, but the curtains of clouds remained firmly shut and the winter landscape took on those familiar pastel shades.

I quickly set up my camera and long lens and waited some movement. I stared at the ice pattens on the surface of the lake; even daring to make a couple of quick exposures of grey and white surface.


The reserve appeared desolate and there was nothing showing on the icy-frozen surface of the lake. I could see a few tracks on the surface and I was hoping for a glimpse of the local fox. I’d seen fox tracks in the deep snow on my approach walk and I stopped several times to view the paw prints. I saw where the fox had stopped and scratched away the surface of the snow leaving a little bare patch of mud and grass. Well, I waited over seven hours in the freezing cold but the fox was obviously elsewhere.

Barn Owl-winter hunting

The local barn owl was active and more than made up for the fox’s shyness. Apart from a few hours rest between dawn and ten, it was hunting throughout the day. Always marvellous to watch, I was also conscious of the added difficulty that the snow had added to the availability of its staple prey.

Barn Owl flying over frozen lake

One of my favourite sounds of winter is the raucous chuckle of a group of Fieldfare. I sat and watched them take the hawthorn berries, much to the annoyance of the resident pair of blackbirds, who clearly did not want to share. The Fieldfares Latin name, Turdus pilaris appears to be quite fitting, certainly to a non-scholar such as myself.

Fieldfare on Hawthorn bush

Finally, just as I was about to leave in search of a nice warm bath, I saw some movement in the far distance and something was running across the surface of the ice. I clicked a couple of times but I couldn’t see to well and thought it was a common moorhen. When I got home and reviewed my images, I was delighted to see that it was a water rail.


A short sabbatical

Filey Brigg-fishermen

After four years and over three hundred trips to Tophill Low, I’ve finally decided to take a break. Don’t worry, I don’t intend to give up taking photographs of the local fauna and I certainly don’t intend to sell my long lenses, I just need a new challenge.

I’m off to Iceland next February to photograph the winter landscape and to be honest, my skills in this area are pretty lamentable. I need all the practice I can get if I wish to return from this trip with something a little bit special. I’ve always found photographing landscapes difficult. There’s a whole new set of skills to master and I have a lot to learn. So, for the next few months, I will be posting plenty of images of the local landscapes & seascapes. I hope you will continue to read and enjoy my blog and perhaps we can all learn from my mistakes. I promise I will return to my former hunting ground in the Autumn, so please be patient!

Tophill volunteer, Katie Hostad.

Tophill volunteer Katie Hostad e-mailed me earlier this week. Thursday was going to be her last day in the area, having successfully graduated from nearby Bishop Burton college. Katie wanted one last evening photographing Tophill’s wildlife and despite my earlier resolution to concentrate on the ‘landscape’, I agreed to meet Katie at the Watton NR hide. I discovered later that Katie had walked some five miles from the main road. After some tuition, I left Katie with my camera & super telephoto lens while I chased dragonflies with my other camera and a 300 mm lens. The following three images were taken by Katie and are truly remarkable; especially as the Terns were more than 170 metres away from the hide. At that distance, you’ve got to concentrate.

I have just heard that Katie was rewarded by her mum & dad for graduating from college, with a brand new Canon EOS 550D. I’m sure that we will see more of Katie’s photographs in the very near future…

Are you a fisherman or a hunter?

Barn Owl-early morning

I was having an unproductive evening sat in a cold hide and watching the rain fall. I considered moving to another, perhaps more fruitful location, when I was reminded of something that I had recently read on the internet. The writer had posed a question that had got me thinking, “Are you a fisherman or a hunter?” He defined a hunter as a photographer that was always on the look-out for a better location, perhaps driving or walking miles in order to find the ultimate spot. On the other hand, a fisherman would research a location beforehand and then remain there until he was certain that the opportunities to capture the scene were pretty much exhausted. I used to be a ‘hunter, but these days, I’m definitely a fisherman. It could be that I am getting old, maybe even a little wiser, but these days, I prefer to watch and wait.

Roe-Deer and fawn

It’s been a very wet week with nothing much to photograph. One early morning, I was delighted to see and photograph a young fawn accompanying its mother. When I contacted my good friend Marc at Wildlife Online, he informed me that the fawn was probably no more than three weeks old and that they usually don’t accompany their parent until they are at least six weeks old. I also spotted this stag roe deer one evening, grazing in the evening’s soft, warm light of a late spring day.

Stag Roe Deer-spring pasture

So, apart from my encounter with the Barn owl, the picture at the head of this post, of course, the Roe Deer, [Note: please click on an image if you wish to see a larger version], it’s been a rather unproductive week. One thing that still maintain my interest, is watching the never-ending territorial disputes between the different animals and birds. The black-headed gulls were chasing the swans and a heron, the swans were chasing the Canada geese and in turn, the terns were chasing the gulls. Always wonderful to watch and always entertaining. Here’s a few examples…


Mute Swan-attacked


I met up with a couple of Flickr friends this week. Joyce and her husband Ian, had travelled up from Carmathen in Wales to visit their relatives and some of the nature reserves of East Yorkshire. Both talented photographers I hope they were not too disappointed by the terrible weather. I gave them some information about Tophill Low and one evening after work, I accompanied them both to a hide. Joyce appeared to be delighted by several whitethroats, who were very obliging and seemed to pose for her lens at every opportunity. Joyce also managed to capture the best moment of the evening with her super shot of a grey heron in flight.

I also took part in Driffield Photographic Societies annual exhibition of photography at the Triton Gallery, Sledmere. I exhibited twelve pictures on the theme, ‘Carnivores’. Today (23 June) is the final day of the exhibition. I don’t believe I’ve sold any prints but it is always good to take part. Here’s a couple of images I took with my Canon S95 on the opening day of the exhibition.

Well, mid-summers day has come and gone. Now I’m really hoping for a few days of sunshine so I can once more see the reserve in all its summer glory!

Return to Tophill Low

Short-eared Owl-flight

It’s been mostly work since my return from my adventures in Bavaria. However, it was good to re-aquaint myself with the quiet delights of my local reserve, Tophill Low. Actually, that’s not quite true as to date, I have only ventured around the perimeter of the site. Still, it was good to see that the Short-eared and Barn Owls are still feeding around the Hempholme area, albeit rather sporadically. A great deal of patience and a lot of luck is required to get a decent photograph of the hunting owls but after all, that’s what nature photography is all about.

Barn Owl-evening light

Barn Owl-eye contact

If you wait around at Hempholme until dusk then it is quite usual to see several roe deer emerge from their cover and indulge in some late evening grazing. Here’s a photograph I took at Hempholme some thirty minutes after sunset…

Made a couple of early morning visits to the isolated hide at Watton reserve. Not too much to report, the local foxes were disappointingly absent but there were plenty of opportunities to photograph the usual habitants which include, Cormorants, Greylag geese, Curlew, Oystercatchers, Lapwing, plus the usual array of wildfowl on the lake.

Finally, I was very surprised to see a Kingfisher from the Watton Reserve hide. A rare event and perhaps only the second time, that I have witnessed, since the new hide was erected. It made a few attempts to fish from a distant tree before giving up and flying off to a more profitable location.

Christmas at Tophill Low

Kingfisher-Xmas day_1

Unfortunately, there was no white Christmas this year. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to the break and an opportunity of reacquainting myself with the wildlife at Tophill Low. I arrived at North Marsh hide around dawn on Christmas day. A Kingfisher turned up briefly but flew off to explore a less windy location. I waited patiently for a fox to arrive but to no avail. Another chap turned up shortly after 9:00 am and we sat together in the golden light waiting for some activity. A few moments later, I heard some voices outside the hide and suddenly saw a black labrador dog dashing around in the undergrowth at the edge of the lagoon. I opened the door and informed the two young men (as politely as possible) that dogs were not allowed on the reserve.

After an hour or so, I disappeared into North Woods with my camera & tripod and eventually managed to get a photograph of a Great-spotted Woodpecker that had been taunting me all morning with its call and tapping. I returned to the hide and to a lovely female Kingfisher. The Kingfisher stayed for about thirty minutes of fishing before departing. The light was perfect and I was happy to get some more photographs of this delightful bird.

Roe Deer-Boxing Day

I visited Watton Reserve on Boxing day. After a short wait, I was joined by a chap who was intent on viewing a Green-winged Teal that had been reported a few days ago. He waited around for a couple of hours but left somewhat disappointed. Nothing much happened until after lunch, then a couple of Roe Deer ran across the spit of land separating the two lagoons. I managed to capture a short sequence with almost perfect, golden light. The fox didn’t turn up all day but that’s the way it goes with nature photography.

Short-eared Owl-winter

Yesterday dawned warm and clear and more importantly, the wind had dropped. I headed over to Hempholme to photograph the Short-eared and Barn Owls. A couple of Short-eared Owls turned up around lunch time and spent an hour or so hunting over the scrub. For most of that time, they were either too distant or obscured by the trees and grasses. Still, I persevered, and was eventually rewarded with a couple of close-up photographs that did justice to those haunting, yellow eyes and magnificent plumage. I used my 500 mm lens with a 1.7 T.C. on a tripod with a gimbal head. I must admit that getting a focus lock was tremendously difficult as the birds flew low between the trees.

Barn Owl winter_2

A pair of Barn Owls appear to share the same hunting ground but usually they wait until the Short-eared Owls have moved on to another location. The photograph above illustrates that the relationship between the two species is rather aggressive and competitive. This photograph was taken a fraction of a second too late but you can see by the flying feathers that the Short-eared Owl had attacked the Barn Owl from above, pushing it downwards with its talons.

Finally, this must be my most unusual photograph this year. On Christmas day, a child’s balloon in the shape of a fish (with a plane suspended below) suddenly appeared drifting NE on the wind above North Marsh hide. I couldn’t resist taking a few photographs before it disappeared from view. It certainly made me smile!

Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year to everyone! I hope that 2012 is a successful year for one and all.

Barn Owl – The Fledglings and a wave Good-Bye

Barn Owl flight_4

Right now, I feel like a proud uncle. The offspring of the pair of Barn Owls I have been observing and photographing for the past few weeks have finally began to fledge. Two, maybe three fledglings are flexing their wings and honing their hunting skills. These fledglings remain inconspicuous, usually in a nearby tree, until after the sun has set. This week, my camera and super-tele lens has been almost redundant, except for perhaps a few minutes of activity around sun-set. Do you know…I didn’t mind at all. Crouched inside a bush, I can enjoy a spectacular show through a pair of binoculars without fussing about exposure settings and worrying about noisy image detail.

Watching the first few flights of these fledgling Barn Owl was a rare privilege (see image at head of this post). The way they continuously bob and rotate their heads is fabulous. I’m not actually certain, but I suspect that this head movement is associated with the fledglings fine-tuning their hearing skills. Soon, they will leave the nest and perhaps the surrounding area altogether. I wish them luck. I may return to the site in a few weeks to see if the parents lay a second batch of eggs. However, the end of July is rather late in the year, but you never know!

So, now it’s time for me to look for another species and location. I did spend a couple of hours at North Marsh hide at Tophill Low a few evenings ago but without any success. The trouble is that I have been rather spoilt by the freedom of wandering the river banks during the past few months and I’m not looking forward to the constraints of photographing from a hide. Oh well! One door closes and another one may open.

Barn Owl semaphore

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