It's been a bumper year for short eared owls here on the east coast of Yorkshire. There have been a record numbers of sightings of this rare owl, which features on the RSPB's amber list of species in crisis.
These beautiful birds of prey (see my painting above) favour large areas of rough grass, estuaries and marshes where they are more likely to find voles, their preferred prey. The banks of the Humber is one of the prime places to spot them, especially as these migratory birds arrive from Europe.
Unfortunately the population of voles, their main source of prey, is has been low this year and I hope there will be enough to sustain the influx. The lack of voles will, however, ensure that the short eared owls will be hunting during the day when you are more likely to see 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. There is a popular short eared owl haunt south of the
I took the opportunity of one 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. At just after 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 a marsh harrier which had been sitting in a tree nearby.
The attack looked almost synchronised as one by one they plummeted down like fighter planes mobbing a target. They mobbed the harrier, 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 and 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, 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.
One owl suddenly twisted in the air and then plummeted to the grass. I thought that perhaps it had caught something. And so did a nearby kestrel. 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.