• Barney's around!
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    29 February 2020: This week I was turning into my house at 7:20pm and there was Barney sitting on the footpath post in the dark.

    I stopped, put my window down, turned off the lights and engine and chatted to him for a few minutes. He was 3 metres away as I took pictures with my clapped-out old iPhone [I can confirm his iPhone is ancient - Webmaster], with the flash off.
    I also wanted a picture of him flying so I had to gently shoo him away to do so. Then, I missed the pic!

    Britain's No.2 bird

    Barn owls are the UK's second favourite bird after the robin. They are mystical animals and, because of specialized feathers along the leading edge of their wings, they have near-silent flight. This enables their extraordinary hunting ability. They also don't oil their feathers during preening like other birds as this increases noise in flight. The problem then is that if they fall into water, they can drown. So, if you have a deep water trough or steep-sided pond, leave a piece of wood in it for them to climb on to.

    Barn owls have huge, front-facing eyes like us and so have binocular vision that helps in gauging distance. Most birds have eyes on either side of the head and so are monocular, but have a huge field of vision. A woodcock can see 360 degrees.

    A barn owl's eyes can weigh up to 5% of their body weight (for me that would be 8lbs!). And they don't have eye 'balls' but elongated 'tubes' that don't turn, so they can only look forwards. But they have a deceptively long neck under their feathers and can turn their head through 270 degrees… and almost upside down, like the chap in the picture below. That makes me dizzy!

    Even so, they hunt mostly by sound with their flat face acting as a sound gatherer. Their ears are just next to their eyes and are at different heights, one facing down and the other up so they hear each sound at slightly different times, and twice. That helps them locate their prey in the dark, under grass and even under snow.

    Partners for life

    Barn owls live with their partner for life (about 4 years) and don't hoot or twit twoo (that's the amorous female tawny owl with the 'twit', and the interested chap saying 'hi!' with the 'twoo'). Instead, barn owls make a blood-curdling screech while their owlets hiss like a newly punctured Lilo in a pool. Because of the screech and their ghostly white appearance, barn owls were associated with witches in the past and were hunted… Happily, they are now our No. 2 Top Bird!

    So, please watch out for the barn owl family. When we have a better idea of where they are, we can put up more owl boxes to encourage them to stay. Owls are not territorial so boxes can be as close as 50 feet, but each family will hunt an area about a 1 km radius from their nesting site. In bad times, though, this can go up to a radius of 4 kms or – that's from The Mason Arms, to Cogges Manor Farm, almost North Leigh, Eynsham and Ducklington.

    You can find a lot more
    information on barn owls here on on their nesting habits here.

    Martin Spurrier ~ martinspurrier@hotmail.com

    Click on the images below to enlarge them.
  • Who's that Honking?
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    September is the month of honking over Bond’s Lane it seems – it wasn’t a traffic jam, though, but the arrival of this year’s Canada geese. We’ve been here two autumns now and in early September last year I first encountered several hundred birds grazing on the stubble in the early sun across the field south-east of the church. They were there again this year, but two weeks later, much to the excitement of Tiger, my young Labrador.
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    If you are feeling Attenborough-like, you can walk up quite close to them while they carry on munching because they have strength in numbers. But then Tiger is off like a rocket and the sight of three hundred birds taking flight, each with a six-foot wingspan, is awesome. Poor Tiger, she’s far too slow for these mighty beasts.

    So why are they there? Tiger and I thought, as I dived into Google on my mobile.
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    In the UK since 1665. The RSPB tells us that Canada Geese are by nature migratory but those living in the UK and Ireland tend to be resident, now. However, some wintering Canada Geese from Scandinavia join resident birds in the warmer UK and Ireland in the autumn, so maybe the flock in Bonds Lane were honking in Swedish? Come to think of it, they did sound a bit like the Swedish Chef.

    By the time Tiger had got back to me huffing and puffing, the birds were already in their 'V' formation before flying straight up the Brize Norton flight path and out towards Eynsham, then hard right and back over South Leigh.

    Why do they fly like that?, I thought desperately trying to remember the film 'Fly Away Home'.
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    Into Google again... first, it says, it conserves their energy. (Apologies if I'm teaching Granny to suck goose eggs). Apparently, each bird flies slightly above the one in front, resulting in a reduction of wind resistance. The birds then take turns at the front, falling back when they get tired. In this way, the geese can fly for hours before they must stop for rest. Clever old things these geese who live for 10-25 years and mate for life.

    And it is not a coincidence that the RAFs Red Arrows fly in exactly the same formation and the Tour of France riders do the equivalent on the ground.

    But why do they only honk while they are flying? Google told me that the ones behind honk those in front, not to overtake like on the motorway in Germany, but to encourage the leaders to keep up their speed. When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the wind resistance and quickly gets back into line and take advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front.

    Funny that, because I have heard them honk even when they are flying alone. I guess it becomes a habit when you can fly up to 1,500 miles in a single day. That's one way to Athens or Moscow, or to Barcelona and back. That's an awful lot of honks!

    Martin Spurrier