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Winterwatch at Harris Acres

I'm sure like me, wildlife enthusiasts are looking forward to the return of 'The Watches' to our screens this week ... #Winterwatch being the seasonal flavour this time.

The view from my study window and from our (slightly more chilly) bedroom balcony, is no less interesting in this season of short days and dark nights, than it is at brighter times of the year.

So in homage to Chris P and the #Winterwatch team at the BBC, I thought this blog post could share the wildlife spectacle on show here at home, at this time of year.

Winter favourite - the Robin

Where to start then ?

How about with one of our most colourful woodland birds, the elusive Jay. Not as bold as some of the other Corvids like the Jackdaws, who seem happy to mob the feeders aimed at smaller birds. Jays prefer the well timed glide ambush to collect the peanuts left out for ground feeding birds, or to harvest the fat balls and seeds smeared and sprinkled on the assorted natural perches, constructed to encourage wildlife visits to our back garden.

Peekaboo Jay

The Jay is not the only colourful visitor to benefit from my winter supplementary feeding regime.

Nuthatches also make some dashingly bold visits to take advantage of the extra food source, keeping me entertained as they display their unique talent for 'walking' down yet forwards, in their hunt for treats.

Back in the skies above Harris Acres, the Buzzard family continue to do well year on year. My best guess is that they have produced a clutch of 2 or 3 young each year, often to be found jousting with each other, the Corvid hassling hooligans and other raptors, with whom they share the airspace.

Regular readers of my blog post will recognise that my favourite bird of prey, the Sparrowhawk, holds a particular fascination for me.

It's always a delight when I see that familiar silhouette appear in the sky, often prompting some serious indigestion as a leap up from my lunch to grab a camera and sprint up the stairs 3 at a time, to try to get in place to capture the action from the bedroom balcony .

In those circumstances I'm usually a few seconds too late to grab a worthwhile picture, so the alternative plan is to be in place on the balcony for when they appear. I daren't think how many hundreds of hours I've spent doing just that and yet ..... I still haven't nailed the perfect Sparrowhawk-in-flight shot, (as I imagine it to be).

I'm seeing a large juvenile female (I think!) more than the smaller more distinctly coloured male bird at the moment. She shows no fear in the face of any or all rivals, with the acrobatics and speed of a jet fighter, taking on all comers in her pursuit of a good meal.

The male Sparrowhawk can still be seen, however I'm yet to capture him landing on the back garden perches having swooped in for a kill. Here's a pic from last year to give you an idea on what I'm after, although if its ok with him, a front facing landing would be good next time please, sir!

It's not all about our avian visitors at winter.

I've continued to provide some supplementary food for our Fox visitors, with at least two individuals taking full advantage every night, according to my trailcam.

I'm waiting for some proper winter weather and a snowfall, before setting up to take some shots - watch this space for that should the snow come.

The garden and surrounding land is FULL of Deer. The trail-cam picks up Fallow, Roe and Muntjac visiting at all hours.

Perhaps most regular of all are the Muntjac, not least of which is our resident 3 legged female Muntjac, her numerous suitors and offspring. The Muntjac can appear at all times of the day and despite my very best efforts to not let any wild animal become habituated to humans and make an association between 'us' and food .... I have to confess that I've failed spectacularly in this regards with this years youngster from old '3 legs', who appears each night as soon as I emerge from the house to put out the food for the Foxes, oh dear - (pun intended - groan!).

The back garden seems to permanently feature a Muntjac somewhere, doing something (eating mainly), however I did witness some strange acrobatics from a male Muntjac recently, who was performing headstand and cartwheels for my amusement, albeit its possible the female he was with might have been the intended audience !

There's been a 'shoot' (of the shotgun variety) almost every weekend through the late autumn and early winter, yet the number of Pheasants visiting the garden barely seems to diminish.

This can only mean one of two things. 1. the local Pheasant shoot party members are all lousy shots, or 2. that there are so many Pheasants that the shooters are barely making a dent in numbers.

The leucitic Pheasant that was here in the autumn, has survived the efforts of the beaters and their shoot clients and is still turning up here at Harris Acres on a regular basis. I have noticed however, that this bird appears generally more easily spooked and liable to take evasive action than it's 'normally' coloured cousins, perhaps evidence that it's harder for leucitic and albino creatures to survive due to their increased visibility to predators.

So finally, let's turn to the current stars of the show here at Harris Acres.

A Kestrel pair must have nested somewhere nearby (I've searched and failed!) and they seem to enjoy our garden and surrounding land as 'their' patch (as I covered in a previous blog).

I'm seeing much more of the female in recent wintery weeks and she has taken to doing everything bar flying in to sit at the table for Dinner with us, so close has she seemed comfortable to venture.

I see her hovering no more than a few metres form my balcony viewpoint, diving down to the drive and pathway to the paddock, whizzing around the apples trees and perching in the Hawthorn edge close by.

Finally .... she flew into a blue sky and positioned herself in front of the winter sun, allowing me to capture a nicely lit shot of her hover in close detail - what a treat!

Here she is .... (scroll through the thumbnails below to see them large)

I haven't come close to nailing a (good) shot of her with a catch, so here's a bad shot anyway to prove her success.

It's a hopeless picture, but if you squint, you might just be able to see the vole I saw her swoop down to catch by the garden fence, having hovered in the breeze for seemingly minutes before she made the kill.

It's also possible to find her perched in the trees either taking a breather or more likely, planning her next move. Here's a couple of pics; again not so great photographically, but entirely delightful as evidence that this wonderful wild creature is sharing our space with us, here at our home.

The joy of seeing so much of 'our' Kestrels, has an underlying cause, which I also believe to be the reason for my frustrated attempts to tempt the decent numbers of Tawny Owls who can be heard (loudly) nearby, from dusk to dawn.

My conclusion is that we are experiencing a bumper year for voles / mice and other prey. I have found dozens of rodents holes across all areas and the trail-cam proves that they are full of tasty morsels (from a bird of prey) viewpoint!

Whilst a little frustrated with my inability to lure the Owls (or the Kestrels) to land on a photo-friendly post loaded with a tasty de-frosted mousey/voley treat, I am delighted that their natural food supply is at such high levels that they can afford to ignore the supplementary food on offer.

With the resultant unsatisfied search for a winter Owl phot opportunity and with my local Owly haunt having suffered the disaster of a farmer hay-cutting the Owls favourite fallow and tussocky field, me and my mate Ian Ireland headed up to the Dee estuary this week, in search of the beautiful Short-eared Owls.

These kind of trips can go one of two ways and on this occasion, the Owls that were there didn't deem to enter the same postcode as us (as Ian so accurately put it) and we were therefore left with pleasing wildlife sightings but not a great photo opportunities.

Here's three from that trip to close this blog and also by away of attempting an incantation to encourage a closer flyby wherever, or whenever we next go in their pursuit.

Shorties - miles away at sundown

I'm sure the winter has more treats in store for those of us watching carefully for its wild inhabitants; so here's to a few more weeks of chilly fun, before the earth tilts further south and all that terrible warmth and sunshine brings the spring back to Harris Acres.

the view from the bedroom balcony


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