Worcestershire: Little Owls, Kingfisher and A Confiding Snipe

A few years ago I made the conscious decision to focus on Scottish wildlife when it came to photography and have therefore spent all my holidays in Scotland familiarising myself with specific areas and the wildlife that lives there – so that I could learn their behaviours and hopefully improve my photography of them. Plus, of course, I love Scotland and its countryside, why on earth would I ever need to leave!??

However, one of the two guides on the fab otter workshop I participated in on Mull last November, Pete Walkden, does little owl guiding down in Worcestershire on a local farm. On my return from Mull I looked at some of Pete’s images and videos (this is a good one!) and decided it might be a nice thing to do. To be honest, owls have never really excited me. I love looking at and taking emotive images, and most owl photographs I’ve seen don’t really do it for me, much as I can admire the skill in taking them – mind you I’ve only ever had a brief encounter with a tawny owl & seen some tawny owlets.

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Tawny owlet at Aigas, 2015

But little owls appealed to me, Pete’s photographs and videos of them ticked the “make me smile” box – so I booked a week down South to see the owls and hopefully some other “exotic” English wildlife.

It was a great week, and although I confess in the weeks leading up to it I was craving to return to the highlands and the gorgeous purple heather carpeted hillsides, I actually really enjoyed the experience. It’s good to do something different every so often and the highlands aren’t going anywhere!

I was staying in an Airbnb cabin at the bottom of a garden in Lickey Hills. Small, but very well laid out with everything you could ever ask for. Perfect base for my nights down there. On the Sunday I visited the Worcester Wildlife Trust’s Upton Warren reserve which consists of two sets of pools – The Moors and The Flashes. The Flashes are bone dry due to the lack of rain although there were plenty of lapwings (there was no shortage of these gorgeous birds in Worcestershire) and curlews.

I spent time in The Moors’ hides and chatted to some friendly locals which is always helpful when visiting a new area. All the birders seemed to know one another and became quite excited at a Caspian Gull – I couldn’t get enthused by that, and to be honest couldn’t even figure out which one of the gulls it was… Nice area though, good set-up but little to see at this time of year sadly. Some massive dragonflies mind you! I saw and photographed my first banded demoiselle which was beautiful plus some butterflies. I didn’t have a macro lens with me, so these were taken with the Tamron 150-600 which doesn’t have a close focus so I had to stand way back!

A couple of the people I spoke to recommended I visit Grimley Pools. So as it wasn’t too far away I went there in the afternoon. As I approached the very first pool I saw a little egret at the edge – beautiful. I tool a few photographs before it flew off, not the most exciting image, but the best I got!

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I then saw something out the corner of my eye. It flew a little like a game bird, and landed on a fence post a fair distance away. I took a few shots just to see what it was and it transpires it was my first green woodpecker! I then moved on past a pool used for fishing and walked along the side of a field where the next pool was obscured by reeds (no reed buntings to be seen though). Eventually I came to an opening…

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My first impression was that this was a perfect spot for a kingfisher, and no sooner had the thought entered my head, I spotted a brief flash of blue. It was gone in a second though! Optimistic that it might return I settled down and initially entertained myself trying to photograph the migrant hawkers that hovered above the water and a passing cormorant.

Suddenly out the corner of my eye I saw a bird fly down and land less than a couple of metres from me at the side of the reeds – it was a snipe. Figuring it would disappear as soon as it realised I was there I slowly picked up the camera and took a few photographs of it within the reeds.

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It seemed completely unphased, and in fact, stayed in the area feeding and grooming in the shallows until I departed. A really beautiful bird so close up, and because it was there for so long I was able to work with it to take some lovely images, getting down low. Fab! I’m not sure 400 photographs of it were strictly necessary, but still…

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This has been my most successful image on Twitter for some time!

Whilst photographing the snipe I caught another flash of blue and turned to see that the kingfisher had reappeared and was perching in a nearby tree. I swung the camera round and fired off four shots before it flew off – amazingly all were in focus! I’m pleased with this especially as I had no time to compose! I’ve been reliably informed that it’s a juvenile female kingfisher.

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Eventually I decided I should leave as I had dinner plans, but it was a very enjoyable and fruitful afternoon.

Monday was little owl day. Pete took me to the farm and parked by the barn where the owls have their nest. Mum has moved on, but Dad and the two little owlets were around. The barn roof is relatively photogenic and Pete has erected a few perches next to it. Dad and one (or other) of the youngsters were around for an hour or so, and entertained me running around the barn roof to eat the worms Pete had provided. So full of character with the most amazing, penetrating yellow eyes. The first two here are of the owlet, the third of Dad.

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A rare cheery expression!

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Interestingly the only time they seemed to shut their eyes was when eating.

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I loved how they scuttled across the roof, it was quite delightful and so great to watch.

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Dad would often sit in the tree and watch over the youngster.

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Unfortunately they didn’t land on the perches and after not much more than an hour disappeared and never returned. This was possibly due to at least six buzzards flying overhead and calling out for much of the day plus the nights had been warm and muggy so probably ideal for late night hunting. A bit disappointing but it was great to have seen them for the hour, and you can never guarantee that wildlife will “perform” as hoped. Plus, for the most part (with the exception of Neil McIntyre’s red squirrel hide and Bob Smith’s Perthshire hide) I am cursed when it comes to hides, and Pete’s had great success so far this summer – so it was probably my fault!

Pete was kind enough to offer me another go the following morning, and again the birds appeared almost immediately. On this occasion the Dad did spend a fair bit of time on the perches in very photogenic poses in good light. So that was brilliant.

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Sadly though, again, after an hour they disappeared. But I came away with images I like and although more time with them would have been good, I was pleased with what I had achieved and at least I had company during the hours of inactivity. I think my favourites are of the birds looking skywards.

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Tuesday afternoon I returned to Grimley. This time I ventured a bit further and checked out some of the other pools. Lots of birds including a number of little egrets but none close enough for photographs. When I’d mentioned to Pete on Sunday that I’d been there he’d asked if I’d seen the hippo, to be honest I thought he was joking, but no, transpires there is one… why? I have no idea!

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I therefore returned to my spot from Sunday hoping to see the kingfisher again. As before it appeared briefly a couple of times and I was beginning to give up hope of photographs when eventually it came and perched on quite possibly the least photogenic spot in the area – a barbed wire fence. Typical! Still, it stuck around for a good few minutes in lovely light so not all bad.

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I also saw a couple of snipe fly by, plus little egret, heron, cormorants and more dragonflies. Gorgeous and fruitful spot and I’m amazed I had such luck here over my two visits given that I wasn’t in a hide, just sitting at the side of the pond (I did try my bag hide, but it was too hot!) Here’s a great crested grebe that passed by a few times.

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Wednesday, again on the recommendation of someone I met at Upton Warren, I headed further South to Gloucestershire to the Slimbridge Wetland Reserve. I’ve never seen so many varieties of duck and geese! Incredible how many there are. Some very pretty ones. They have a number of hides, but there was little to see that was close enough for photographs. Lots of lapwings though (as there were at Upton Warren and Grimley). The final one I went to gave good views of the crane family – 2 adults and 2 juveniles. When I arrived there were a few photographers getting very excited that the birds were about to fly… they didn’t! So they all left. I stuck around and eventually they came really close to the hide which was good. Very elegant birds.

Lovely to see avocets for the first time too, they breed at Upton Warren, but had already left.

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I also loved the black winged stilt – it looks so delicate and ever-so-slightly comical.

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Other than that I photographed lots of ducks & geese, most of which I have since deleted, and attempted to get action shots of them. Don’t ask me what any of these are though!

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There was a very young flamingo.

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I also enjoyed the water vole tank in which there was an active family of voles. They seemed smaller than the fossorial water voles I photograph in Glasgow, but quite adorable as you can see from this video.

Otters were great too, always a joy to watch. This is the North American river otter, a close relative of our Eurasian otter, almost identical but apparently a little bigger.

Thursday I bid goodbye to Worcestershire and headed west to Gigrin Farm to photograph the red kites, a place I’d been keen to visit for some time. But given how many photographs I took there, I’m going to save that for a different blog! Here’s one as a taster:

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Suffice to say, I had a great few days in Worcestershire/Gloucestershire, and no regrets about deciding to forego the highlands for a rare trip South – maybe I do need to consider leaving Scotland every so often for variety’s sake. My thanks to Pete for the little owls, local advise & company (a novelty when I go away).