An­gels of the north

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - WILD OCTOBER -

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

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