Monday 2 February 2015

Not one - but FOUR Short-eared Owls!!!

Yesterday was the most exciting day ever. It was a bitingly cold but unbelievably beautiful afternoon, so we headed over to Wyke down on the Dorset/Wiltshire border, a place we sometimes go to see hares, in the hope that we might spot one or two before the sun went down. There was not a hare in sight on this occasion, but…… before we even had a chance to park up and get out of the car, we saw a Short-eared Owl! Within just a few moments more we saw another, and another, then another. FOUR Short-eared Owls!!!!

I've never even seen ONE Short-eared Owl before, so seeing four was like a dream come true. We watched the owls hunting back and forth across the fields on either side of the track for around an hour and couldn't believe how close they came to us. It was broad daylight, between 3.30pm - 4.30pm, but the owls appeared oblivious of all the people watching them (at least 20 photographers as well as ourselves). They completely ignored us and just carried on hunting, hovering, flapping their huge powerful and beautifully marked wings, heads steady, eyes down, gliding low and silent just above the grass ,and, every now and then, swooping suddenly down to kill.

Short-eared Owls hunt for small mammals like voles, so the fact that there were four owls in this spot, and also that they are (we were told) seen at Wyke Down regularly in the winter, indicates that this is perfect habitat for them; for the voles and the owls that is.  We marvelled at our good fortune, feeling truly blessed that such habitat exists so close to where we live, but at the same time feeling sad that due to modern farming practices and urban sprawl, habitats like this are becoming increasingly rare and fragmented.

We watched as one of the owls suddenly changed its behaviour and flew up high in the sky to chase away another bird of prey that I assumed might be a buzzard, but on reflection may have been a Harrier. We also watched two of the owls performing some kind of aerial dance with each other.

One of the photographers had a telescope, which he had focussed on an owl who had come down to rest on a grassy chalk bank just in front of us. This owl remained hunkered down in the long grass for at least 15 minutes and was still there when we left. There's no way on earth that we would have been able to even see the sitting owl without a telescope or binoculars; so perfect was its camouflage that it blended in completely with the landscape behind it, but the telescope owner kindly invited us to look through his lens and, oh joy, we were able to see every single last detail on the owl's face as though it were sitting just a few feet away from us! It had stunning markings, piercing dark yellow eyes and the most delightful little pointed ears. It was doing that thing that owls do so well, you know, where their heads rotate fully from far left to far right and back again, in the blink of an eye, for all the world as though they were puppet owls, being worked by a puppeteer with a stick. Mesmerising.

When we finally turned back to scan the fields again after watching the hunkered down owl through the telescope, the others had gone. Not an owl in sight. All disappeared. Anyone arriving at that moment would have wondered what on earth all those people were doing there; standing by the side of the road in the bitterly cold wind with their tripods, cameras, telescopes and binoculars. And hot water bottles….

By now the light was fading fast, so the photographers all packed up and left. Rob and I went back to the car and sat there a little while longer, not being able to tear ourselves away just in case we missed something, but the owls didn't show themselves again.

So, I'm madly happy that we arrived at Wyke Down exactly when we did yesterday afternoon. Timing, it seems, is everything. Thank you universe for such an amazing experience. I feel truly blessed.

Huge thanks to  Steve Farmer for allowing me to use his beautiful photographs of Short-eared Owls

More information about Short-eared Owls here:-

From the BTO

From the RSPB

Brigit x

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