What a day!
The Winter brings too many days with grey skies, cold weather and a muted wildlife landscape. So much so, that it seems we are longing for Spring as soon as the Christmas and New break is over.
There are however some unique opportunities for the wildlife photographer, that only Winter can deliver.
Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) are Winter visitors to Britain.
They arrive from the North and gather in small flocks at undisturbed grassland sites to see out the season in a relatively 'warmer' Winter weather (!), whilst feasting on our native voles and then returning in late March to breed again, when the frozen North - isn't anymore!
A silly o'clock start collecting other wildlife photography enthusiasts Ian and Carl, on the way to Cambridgeshire; some lively Brexit debate to keep us awake and we were good to go, just as the Sun appeared above the frost-covered fenland reeds.
Ian captured the scene so much better than either my 500m Prime lens or iPhone could manage and he has kindly sent me his shot to set the scene - thanks Ian!
copyright Ian Ireland
Some early dawn views of both male and female Marsh Harriers patrolling the wetlands in search of breakfast, boded well for the day ahead and sure enough, it wasn't long before our first sighting of Short-eared Owls.
I think Ian was especially pleased to see them arise from the reeds, having promised our little group a day to remember. He needn't have worried, as this is exactly what it turned out to be, with the winter sun shining all day, plenty to see and photograph, assuming the multi-layered thermals did their job properly and kept us warm and out in the Fen.
The resident Highland Cooo (sic) came fully equipped with its own thermal layers in the shape of a heavy winter coat keeping the frost at bay, whilst it had an early feed on the long grass around the reed bed.
The Shorties seemed to take an interest in the wet areas early doors and we were treated to some lovely views, as the dawn sun lit up their low flight over the reeds. Looking at the others' shots, it seems we all managed a couple of good 'uns and here's my favourites from my own efforts, despite the early hour and finger numbing chill.
I really like the the contrast between the pale winter palette of the frosty reeds and the warm glow of the Shorties browns, creams and burning yellow eyes lit by the sun, low in the sky.
There is a really good population of Kestrels at Burwell Fen and these small raptors are cunning in their pursuit of the Owls, often waiting for the Owls to make a kill and then mobbing them to try and steal the prize.
If you're on your toes, you can sometimes catch the action in mid air with the Owls interacting with each other and their smaller pesky rivals, making for some great photographic opportunities. I managed a couple of 7/10's but there's always next time to turn that 7 into a 10!
The morning shift was deemed to be 'done'. so we headed back to the small car park over the fenland dyke, for flasks of coffee and a sticky bun, (all in the aid of keeping the cold at bay you understand!)
Our intent had been to visit other nearby wildlife reserves in the middle part of the day, but with the sun shining and the Owls still flying, we decided to head back onto the Fen and see out the whole day at Burwell.
This turned out to be the right decision and joined by Alan a little later, we all took up position again and hoped to an even better afternoon. Short-eared Owls are partly diurnal hunting at dawn and dusk, but the weather had been poor for the previous couple of days, prompting a little more daytime activity than could be normally expected.
I had spent around 8 afternoons at a more local, but frustratingly 'Owl-less' Cotswold destination over the previous few weeks, really only getting very late afternoon glimpses of far-off birds, in poor light.
You may then, be able to imagine my delight when we were on the receiving end of a VERY close flyby, cue much grappling to get the camera pointed in the right direction, settings adjusted and the accompanying staccato clatter of shutter release mechanisms.
As ever you hope that the few seconds of thrilling action, can be brought to life with a little time spent post processing on the Mac. This time - things turned out ok and here's a couple from those exciting few seconds of close up action.
If anything the afternoon seemed to tail off after that, with the exception of the appearance of a beautiful Barn Owl, who must have set its wake up alarm too early, because its late dusk rather than mid-afternoon when these birds usually show.
You may notice the complete lack of a Barn Owl photograph below - why I hear you ask?
Well the answer is either 1. It was wearing some mysterious cloaking device, or 2. This photographer failed epically to secure any kind of focused image. Much as I'd like to think it was the former, we all know it was definitely the latter .... harumph #youcantwinthemall
The long day in the sun came to a close and we had just enough time to get a late view of a low flyby, with the light fading.
What an amazing day, great company, wonderful wildlife views, winter sun and a return to Burwell Fen a racing certainty!!