Winter is the perfect time to go owl-spotting, says Brian Pike
Owls are among our most elusive birds, more often heard than seen. But if you want to catch a glimpse of one of these handsome and mysterious predators, then winter is one of the best times of year to go looking. Despite their reputation as nocturnal creatures, most owls prefer to hunt at dawn and dusk rather than in the wee small hours. Winter days are short and often gloomy, so you won’t need to get up early or stay up late to be in with a chance of seeing one. And, of course, it’s much easier to spot an owl on a bare winter branch than it would be amidst summer’s lush foliage.
There are five species of owl that regularly breed in the British Isles, any of which you might be lucky enough to see in or around the Dales. There’s also a far rarer, and rather more controversial, sixth owl that shows up from time to time.
The one you’re most likely to have living nearby is the tawny owl, the UK’s commonest owl. It’s about the size of a wood pigeon, albeit rather dumpier, and has a round head and mottled brown plumage.
The barn owl is less widespread, and slightly smaller. It’s easy to identify thanks to its pale, heartshaped face and creamy white underparts. This pale plumage can make it look quite ghostly when the bird is caught in the glare of car headlights.
The long-eared owl is less common still. It’s about the same size as a barn owl and has a brown face, piercing orange-irised eyes and distinctive ear-like feathery tufts which it raises when alarmed.
Of even more concern to conservationists is the short-eared owl, which has a pale face and yellow-irised eyes. Our population of short-eared owls has declined in recent years, a situation which hasn’t been helped by persistent, and illegal, persecution of birds of prey on shooting estates.
Our roll-call of British owls is completed by two contrasting species. On one hand there’s the diminutive, thrush-sized little owl, a pert, endearing bird that was introduced to this country in the 19th century.
At the opposite end of the size scale is the enormous Eurasian eagle owl, which in recent years has nested, on and off, on moorland on the Yorkshire–Cumbria border. There is heated dispute as to whether these massive predators – most of which have undoubtedly escaped from captivity – are entitled to be included on the British Ornithologists’ Union’s definitive list of British bird species.
The Eyes Have It
Regardless of their residential status, all owls share a number of special features that adapt them perfectly to their nocturnal (or, strictly speaking, crepuscular) predatory lifestyle.
All owls have large, forward-facing eyes designed to provide stereoscopic vision in low light. They also have extremely flexible necks, allowing them to rotate their heads almost full circle.
Owls’ ears are placed asymmetrically on their heads, which makes it easier for them to pinpoint the location of their prey by registering the minute time difference in the sound signals that reach right and left ears. What’s more, their rounded, satellite-dish-like faces help capture sound waves and beam them towards the bird’s ears.
Specially shaped feathers with serrated edges make owls virtually silent in flight, and most species’ mottled plumage provides excellent camouflage, enabling them to swoop on their targets unseen and unheard. Long, sharp, curved talons and a short, hooked bill help them grip their prey – predominantly mice, shrews, voles and frogs – and despatch them instantly.
For some species of owl, notably barn owls, their soft, noiseless feathers have an unfortunate downside: they aren’t waterproof. As a consequence of this, barn owls can’t hunt in wet weather. Worse still, they can easily get waterlogged and accidentally drown whilst trying to drink from cattle or horse troughs. On the Barn Owl Trust website you can find instructions on how to make a simple mesh float for troughs to prevent this happening
Even if you don’t manage to catch a glimpse of your local owls, there’s a good chance you’ll hear them and be able to identify them by their calls. Here are some pointers.
Barn owls don’t hoot. Instead they emit sudden, bloodcurdling shrieks of the sort more often associated with horror films than cosy nights in the British countryside. They also make hissing and snoring sounds in and around their nests.
Tawny owls are more vocal, and they’re the species you’re most likely to hear.
Females make a sharp ‘kee-wick’ call, to which males respond with a wavering ‘woo-wh-wh-woo’. It’s this call-and-response that has entered the popular imagination as ‘twit-twoo’, although as often as not you hear just one side of the conversation without the other.
The little owl’s call is a cross between the outraged yelp of a small dog and a kittenish miaow. Long-eared owls seldom call, but when they do it’s with a series of melodious ‘woo’ sounds or a noise rather like one of those party favours that unroll when you blow into them. The short-eared owl’s calls, also rare, are a rapid ‘hoo-hoo-hoo’ or a harsh, grating rasp. You can listen to recordings of all five of our resident owls at rspb.org.uk.
All images © RSPB except short-eared owl © Les Foster