Nocturnal tawnies thrive
Nocturnal tawnies thrive as the most common owl in the area
Tawny owls are busy at the moment. If you wake in the night you may hear their eerie hoots, often two or more birds in conversation as they stake out their territories.
There’s a survey of British owls going on, carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology. As many of them are nocturnal, researchers often have to rely on hearing the calls. Tawny owls are superbly adapted to being nocturnal, with their soft feathers for silent flight, huge eyes that gather as much light as possible and wonderfully acute hearing. Their ears are placed asymmetrically, so that they can pin-point the slightest movement of a vole in the grass. So they fill a very attractive niche, able to hunt when other birds of prey are roosting and small mammals are most active – clever stuff!
The tawnies are the most common owl in the area, but the Wharfedale Naturalists were delighted to discover recently that the much rarer long-eared owl is breeding successfully in our area. This shy bird favours lonely conifer woods, using old squirrel dreys or magpie and crow nests to breed. Our local birds usually disperse during the winter, but hopefully will be returning to breed next spring. The young are very vociferous; their begging cries sound like the squeaking of an un-oiled gate and can be heard at dusk from the edge of the woods.
Our moorland is attractive to short-eared owls. They hunt during daylight so it’s always worth keeping a lookout for a large brown shape flying low over the heather or perching on a convenient fence post. But the owl you are most likely to see at this time of year is another daylight hunter, the little owl.
Originally brought into this country, it’s flourished here, apparently without disturbing the natural ecology. About the size of a thrush, its dumpy shape can often be seen perched on gate-posts or telephone poles. If you approach, it will stand up tall, on surprisingly long legs, its large yellow eyes and white eyebrows giving it a furious expression as it bobs from side to side trying to get you in focus and work out exactly what you are.