Angels of the north
With long wings beating slowly, these owls bring to mind large, pale moths. Seemingly without any effort, they fly low over rough grassland or saltmarsh, patiently tacking back and forth as they search for voles. In her recent book Owl Sense (Guardian Faber), Miriam Darlington coined the term ‘earsight’ to describe the way in which owls such as these hunt using 3D mental maps built entirely from sound. When a ‘shortie’ finally hears the faint rustle of tiny paws, it twists suddenly, then drops like a stone to snatch its hidden prey. Its talons may grip fur before it even sees the meal.
Around 1,400 pairs of shorteared owls nest in Britain, mostly in Scotland and northern England, though numbers fluctuate naturally according to the boom-and-bust cycle of vole populations. In October many of our birds head to coasts for the winter, while the rest migrate south as far as the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, more of the owls are arriving from northern breeding grounds in Scandinavia. It’s impressive to think that these beautiful birds, with their floaty flight style, are capable of crossing the churning brown waters of the North Sea.
Watch a BTO video about owl identification: bto.org/about-birds/bird-id