Sussex Wildlife Trust: They come from the land of ice and snow

January 1st, 2019
They come from the land of ice and snow

On soft, silent wings they came. Gliding over forests and skimming across the lowlands until the seemingly impassable dark sea stretched out ahead of them. But still they flew on.

The first signs of this Nordic invasion came in on October. Observers stationed on the Norfolk coastline watched the first of them glide overhead. Another followed. Then another. Elsewhere along our eastern seaboard, more silent invaders were arriving.

Short-eared owls are scarce winter visitors to Sussex. Swiss ornithologist Paul Geroudet described them as ‘nomads who camp where the table is laid’. This winter dozens of these wandering diners were reported in Sussex and small parliaments (the collective term for owls, pub quizzers) lingered around the meadows along the county’s river valleys where they have tucked in to a bountiful rodent buffet.

In Sussex we have four breeding owl species. The most familiar will be the tawny owl – whose hoots and twit-to-woos can be heard in our woodlands. The barn owl is that pale spectral spirit that may be glimpsed in the headlights along country lanes at night. The long-eared owl is our rarest, most elusive species. The little owl was introduced here in the 19th century. It eats worms.

So when short-eared owls arrive it’s an extra owl to get excited about. The meadows around the Ouse, Arun and Adur become popular destinations for owl watchers to observe these graceful daytime hunters.

And a hunting short-eared owl is a sight to behold. It’s a large bird - with a one metre wingspan - but agile. It twists, weaves and glides low over the ground before dropping hard on its prey. Its ‘short ears’ are just feather tufts. Its bright yellow eyes are set in a face which seems fixed in a permanent impatient, angry expression.

I recently led a walk to see these owls and our group waited patiently on the Ouse banks. Our first sighting was high, distant and disappointing. But another hunting owl, seemingly oblivious to us, flew closer. And closer…and closer still. There is something eerie about the sound of seventeen people not breathing, but as the owl passed by we were stunned and as silent as its wing beats. After hunting the owls will gather and roost, no doubt dreaming of Northern Lights, lemmings and the long journey home.

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