In Rosedale we have a healthy population of both Barn owls and Tawny owls and we get occasional glimpses of Short-eared owls over the moor but when a Long-eared owl decided to make our dale its winter roost in 2015/16 it was a very special time. It was observed for over two months on a regular basis hunting in rough pasture with plenty of gorse thickets and a thick hawthorn hedge making for a good roost site.
The Long-eared owl was first noticed on 23 November 2015 at 3.30pm when it was quartering the rough pasture at the same time as a Barn owl and a Kestrel. Immediately it was clear there was a noticeable difference between the two owls, one being darker than the other but light conditions were not good. It was a few day later when it was confirmed that the darker owl was indeed a Long-eared owl; the orange eyes and ear tufts unmistakable.
Orange eyes and ear tufts visible as the Long-eared owl sits on the bow perch
It became a routine, each afternoon a walk out to see if it would make an appearance and it didn’t disappoint. On average every couple of days the Long-eared owl was seen quartering the rough pasture from mid – late afternoon as the light began to fade, settling at times on the ground, on a fence post or branch of gorse or low down in a hawthorn tree. It would make spectacular flights, low to the ground, back and forth, coming close to the fence. Occasionally it would hover only briefly but beautiful to watch. It was not always obvious to see. At times a good scan of the ground and thickets with binoculars would locate it just sitting there perfectly camouflaged content to watch the world go by. On one occasion in late December the weather was poor with light intermittent rain and the Long-eared owl lifted from the fence flying towards the edge of the gorse thickets where it tucked itself close in on the ground. It remained there visible for over an hour. Meanwhile, a Barn owl continued to quarter the pasture and a Kestrel appeared. The Long-eared owl watched on as the Barn owl dropped on a vole and lifted off with its quarry. The Kestrel swooped in to steal the Barn owl’s prey, attacking mid-air. Both locked talons and went to ground. A tussle and it was over, the Kestrel flew off triumphant, the Barn owl robbed of its meal only to have to start again. And the Long-eared owl – it just continued to look on about 30m away.
Many times the Long-eared owl was observed dropping to the ground, folding its wings at the last minute to catch prey but only once was it seen with actual prey. On taking its quarry, likely as not a vole, it took a short flight and dropped to the ground. It opened its wings and hunched over, mantling its prey before swallowing it whole. It made another short flight to a well used bow perch on the edge of the gorse and preened itself, full and content.
On 14 January 2016 it was an absolute delight to see the Long-eared owl quartering the rough pasture at 7.35am. It was flying low and dropping regularly to the ground into a fair covering of snow. This was the first sighting of it at dawn.
Perched in hawthorn
On a bright and sunny afternoon in January with the ground covered in snow there was a Kestrel, two Magpies and a Barn owl at the far end of the rough pasture but the Long-eared owl was nowhere to be seen. Just as all hope of seeing it was fading it appeared straight out of the hawthorn hedge. It came out at speed like a bullet and straight in to hunting. Talk about making an entrance.
Alas, it couldn’t last for ever. On 31 January 2016 it appeared at 3.20pm quartering the rough pasture in light rain. It landed a few times as it worked its way along the pasture and beyond. It was gone and this was to be the last sighting.
A few days later it was clear the Long-eared owl had left the area and a search around the bow perch revealed four pellets. Pellets regurgitated by Long-eared owls are light grey and slightly smaller than those of Barn owls. Analysis of the four pellets by Derek Capes of Great Ayton revealed skeletons of seven Field voles and one Wood mouse.
Grey pellets of Long-eared owl made up of fur and bones of Field voles and Wood mouse
The rough pasture was also hunted regularly by at least three different Barn owls and a Kestrel and on 10 January 2016 there were two Common buzzards, a Barn owl, a Kestrel and the Long-eared owl all in the pasture. On another occasion the Long-eared owl and a Barn owl were quartering in the pasture whilst a Tawny owl could be heard calling lower down in the dale. What a great dale we live in and such a privilege to have been in the company of a Long-eared owl that winter.
Just a few facts:
The Long-eared owl is our only true nocturnal owl.
Long-eared owls don’t have long ears. The long feather tufts on the top of the head just look like ear tufts. Ears of owls are where you would expect, at each side of their facial disc.
In winter there is an influx of Long-eared owls in to the UK from the Continent and they roost communally favouring hawthorn and scrubland. Long-eared owls do breed in the UK but numbers are limited.
Long-eared owls are associated with coniferous woodland and scrub habitats during the breeding season and adopt old stick nests like those of crows. They establish breeding territories in February ready to start breeding in March and April. Perhaps it was time this Long-eared owl left to start its journey home to breed. Updale Natural History Recorder