Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Short-Eared Owl Watch

I've just finished this painting of a short eared owl and it is now on show in my gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire. 

Birds of prey have always fascinated me, especially owls. I have studied barn owls, tawny and little owls in great detail. But more elusive owls, such as short eared owls, were missing from my portfolio until this year. 

The British Isles have a resident population of short eared owls which mainly live on moorland. These birds migrate to lower lying lands when cold weather sets in. But much of the Britain’s winter population is made up of short eared owls that have migrated to the UK from Scandinavia, Iceland and even RussiaThese birds are truly nomadic in the sense that they will migrate over 1,000 miles in search of good hunting grounds and to escape bad weather.

Living near the east coast, we are perfectly placed to see the first migrant short eared owls as they arrive in autumn. They favour large areas of rough grass, estuaries and marshes where they are more likely to find voles, their preferred prey.

You can tell what time of day an owl hunts by the colour of its eyes. Short eared owls have a piercing yellow eye, as do little owls and snowy owls. This indicates that they hunt during the day. Whereas the almost black eyes of a tawny owl means it hunts mainly at night. The painting below, which I also completed this year, shows just how bright their eyes are.

The fact that short eared owls hunt during the day means that they are easy to watch, when you can find them. The best time to see them in winter is during the late afternoon and large numbers of owls can occur in areas of good hunting.

I have seen them in the valley below my gallery in Thixendale, but their hunting patterns can be erratic and unreliable so when I learned of a popular short eared owl haunt south of the Humber River a year ago I took the opportunity of a clear winter’s day and went to see them for myself.

I set out my chair and tripod on the edge of a large patch of rough grass land shortly before lunch and waited. Before long a charm of goldfinches surrounded me, feeding on the thistles among the tussocks of grass, as buzzards, kestrels, marsh and hen harriers flew above me.

Then just before 2pm, as if out of nowhere, the air seemed to come alive with owls. I watched five short eared owls in the distance as they took it in turns to attack the marsh harrier. The attack looked almost synchronised as one by one they plummeted down like fighter planes mobbing a target. They mobbed the harrier, which had been sitting in a tree, until it gave up and flew away. Then three more short eared owls joined them and all eight began quartering the grassland to hunt on their long wings.

It was quite a spectacle. I waited for one of the owls to come in range of my camera, but they turned their attention to the buzzard which had been sitting on a fence post for the past two hours minding its own business. They soon moved him on and resumed skimming the long grass looking for voles.

It wasn’t long before one of the short eared owls spotted a perch close to me. It landed on it for a few minutes, shook its feathers – it was so close I could see the water droplets as they spun off its streaked plumage – looked me in the eye, and then it was off chasing another owl away. It was a really special moment. Its eyes, which are set off by dark markings that look like heavily applied mascara, are so piercing they seemed to see right through me.

There were so many owls that it wasn’t long before another drama unfolded before me. An owl that I was watching suddenly twisted in the air and then plummeted to the grass. I thought that perhaps it had caught something. And so did the kestrel I had seen earlier.
Within seconds it also dived into exactly the same spot. I couldn’t see exactly what happened next but there was clearly a tussle on the ground and the first to take flight was the owl, clutching a vole in its talons.
It was closely followed by the kestrel. Despite the fact that the kestrel was dwarfed by the owl’s metre-long wingspan, the kestrel seemed determined to try and pinch the owl’s prey.

The owl climbed higher and higher into the sky with the kestrel in dogged pursuit. But as the owl extended its lead, calling out angrily at the kestrel, the kestrel changed its tactics. It moved away and then climbed higher than the owl. Then it turned and stooped back down towards the owl. Swooping underneath it, the kestrel grabbed the vole as it passed, leaving the owl in a bit of a spin.
The kestrel then hovered down to the ground, transferring the vole from his talons to his beak just before it landed, the sun just setting behind it.
I have seen kestrels pinch meals off barn owls many times and the stealing has an official name, klepto-parasitism, but I was surprised to see one try it with a larger owl.
It made for a spectacular end to a great afternoon.

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