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Bird of the Month: The Short-eared Owl. By John McEwen

Blog | By John McEwen | Jan 18, 2024

The short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) has a great advantage for birdwatchers. It’s a daylight hunter and not as nocturnal as the majority of owls.

Its ears are concealed as normal at the sides of its head. The tufts – more visible in its forest-dwelling cousin, the long-eared owl – are for display.

Winter, on east-coast marshes and wetland nature reserves, is the most likely time to see these birds. This happened on a visit with Carry Akroyd (this column’s illustrator) to the Welney WWT reserve, east of Peterborough.

Near the entrance, there was a dyke along which a short-eared owl was gradually approaching, from convenient perch to perch, to within 30 yards or so. It silently passed and was later viewable high overhead. It was mobbing or being mobbed – a bit of both, it seemed – by two equally adept and graceful buzzards. I had never seen an owl at such a height.

There are up to 2,200 resident pairs in Britain which, from October on, are joined by a larger winter migration from Europe.

The first full moon of November is called the ‘woodcock moon’ to announce the conspicuous ‘falls’ of woodcock from the Continent. It explains the short-eared’s traditional name of ‘woodcock owl’. Its migration is in full flood by November.

A folk tale has it that the goldcrest hitches the ride across the North Sea on the short-eared’s back. In 2022, a WUR transmitter revealed a goldcrest taking under eight hours to fly – albeit with a following wind – the 200 miles from Vlieland in Holland to Spurn in Yorkshire.

All birds hitch lifts on vessels in sea crossings. Short-eareds are no exception. And, like other carnivores, they will make a meal of smaller avian travellers.

The short-eared’s principal food (80 per cent) is the field vole. Wanderings are dictated by food abundance. This nomad tendency accounts for the lack of a figure for its winter population – a reckoning further complicated by some residents’ winter migration to southern Europe.

The resident population is largely confined to northern England and Scotland. There the nest is on rough ground, especially moors, and also in young conifer plantations under 12 years of growth.

The short-eared is a ground-nester, laying up to five eggs in a scrape at the heart of a tussock. Several birds can sometimes nest in relative proximity, yet invisibly – because of their blending plumage. They even close their eyes, preventing a glimpse of the beaming yellow iris (the flammeus – ‘blazing’ – in the bird’s name refers to the sun-glinting flight feathers).

The resident population tends to move south in winter, joining the European migration which spreads down the east coast from Fife to Kent. Wetlands and marshes are particularly favoured. Their diet of birds is boosted in winter, perhaps because of reed-roosting songbirds.

Travelling south by train on a later winter journey, I glanced out of the window when travelling past the Great Fen south of Peterborough.

There, gliding purposefully along a dyke, was a short-eared. ‘I know you!’ I thought.

The 2024 Oldie Bird of the Month calendar is available now: carryakroyd.co.uk