MIRIAM DARLINGTON

They may be a rare sight in Bri­tain but long-eared owls aren’t so shy and re­tir­ing else­where.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Miriam Darlington

Na­ture writer Miriam trav­elled to Ser­bia to wit­ness a huge gath­er­ing of long-eared owls. “In the low-ly­ing vil­lages, with their small houses, there seem to be more owls than peo­ple,” she says.

With its chameleon­like abil­ity to meld per­fectly into a back­ground of bark and fo­liage, the long-eared owl is pos­si­bly one of the hard­est to see in Bri­tain. It is one of our most noc­tur­nal and shy owls, and rare too – on aver­age, there is thought to be around 3,500 breed­ing pairs here in sum­mer. If you do spot one it might be the star­tling, or­ange-sap­phire eyes that you’ll see first – its tall ear tufts (not true ears but soft, feath­ery pro­tru­sions) con­firm the owl’s iden­tity. So, with UK sight­ings usu­ally few and far be­tween, where’s the best place to see this elu­sive beauty? Luck­ily, I had had a tip-off.

“Ser­bia?” my hus­band Rick said. I could see him pic­tur­ing land­mines and armed po­lice. But all that was out of date. “It’s okay,” I said. “It’s been safe to go there for years. I won’t be on my own. I’ll be in a group.”

The tip-off was from the 'Ur­ban Birder’, David Lindo, who was lead­ing the owl ex­pe­di­tion. In pre­vi­ous years, Ser­bia has not had a good press but David said that it was now quite safe to visit – the peo­ple were friendly and ac­tively wel­comed eco­tourism. David’s con­tact on the ground, Mi­lan, was pro­mot­ing bird-watch­ing trips to help raise the pro­file of Ser­bian wildlife. He would be tak­ing us to see the largest known gath­er­ing of long-eared owls in the world. ‘If you don’t see an owl on this trip, we will eat our binoc­u­lars!’ the web­site pro­claims. There had been re­ports of 800 owls gath­er­ing in a sin­gle lo­ca­tion. I was go­ing to the owl cap­i­tal of the world, to their in­ter­na­tional HQ – Kikinda.

Help­ing hand

“This is my Kikinda town,” quips David when we ar­rive. There were only two rules for the trip – ‘al­ways look up’ and ‘don’t scare the owls’. Hav­ing agreed to these, we set off.

In Bri­tain, long-eared owls of­ten in­habit ru­ral places, miles from the near­est street lamp. Un­seen by hu­man eyes the owls hunt on windswept moors and roost in quiet patches of pine for­est. Few peo­ple ever wit­ness them, and even fewer still know what they re­quire to sur­vive.

“In Hun­gary, and other Cen­tral and Eastern Eu­ro­pean coun­tries, owls flour­ish in agri­cul­tur­ally un­de­vel­oped places,” Mi­lan ex­plains. But the owls in Ser­bia have ben­e­fit­ted from un­wit­tingly sym­pa­thetic hu­man ac­tiv­ity. Around the towns, and in amongst the houses and vil­lages, peo­ple planted fast-grow­ing conifer trees – for dec­o­ra­tion, shel­ter and fuel. They mainly plant sil­ver pine and spruce – the kinds favoured by long-eared owls. In the ab­sence of other trees, cut down for fire­wood, these ur­ban conifers have be­come prime roost­ing sites.

Agri­cul­tural ac­tiv­ity has also ben­e­fit­ted the owls. The many old-fash­ioned small­hold­ing farms tra­di­tion­ally use grain and corn stores in open stacks, which small mam­mals can eas­ily en­ter. The owls’ favourite prey, small ro­dents, flour­ish, pro­vid­ing per­fect pick­ings. It is now thought that up to 30,000 owls live in Ser­bia. “In some vil­lages, there are more owls than peo­ple!” Mi­lan tells us.

Ur­ban leg­ends

In win­ter, the land has a stark, crys­talline beauty. The days are en­crusted with sparkling rime frost that makes the most or­di­nary things – the grass, the paths, the trees – mag­i­cal and beau­ti­ful. “As the num­ber of small mam­mals in the fields di­min­ishes and prey be­comes harder to find,” Mi­lan con­tin­ues. “The owls come into town to roost. Here, it’s shel­tered, warmer than the sur­round­ing coun­try­side, and there are plenty of rats to eat. The lime trees, white po­plar, and above all the plen­ti­ful conifers are stuffed with roost­ing col­lared doves, blue tits and many other small birds upon which the owls can eas­ily prey. Even bet­ter, there are no buz­zards or goshawks in town – these are the preda­tors most feared by the owls.”

In five months, Ser­bia.com re­ports, the owls may eat over half a mil­lion ro­dents and then, in the spring, they will dis­perse to­wards their breed­ing grounds. Some might move north, re­turn­ing to the Baltic states and

In win­ter, the land has a stark, crys­talline beauty. The days are en­crusted with sparkling rime.

Fin­land where other bird pro­tec­tion so­ci­eties and groups will cap­ture and ring them, and slowly gain more in­for­ma­tion on the move­ments of this mys­te­ri­ous owl.

Group­ing to­gether

Un­like in Bri­tain, where ro­den­ti­cide is used rou­tinely to kill pests (and, as a re­sult, the owls who eat them), poi­sons are not used in Ser­bia. I won­dered, if the sit­u­a­tion was the same in some ar­eas of Bri­tain where this kind of agri­cul­tural progress has in­ten­si­fied pro­duc­tion, how many more owls we might have? We, sadly, de­fine our owl species by their rar­ity, or of­ten their ab­sence. Here in Ser­bia, in these low-ly­ing vil­lages with their small houses, each with their hen runs, pine copses and sleepy, free-range dogs, there did seem to be more owls than peo­ple.

In one vil­lage, as we look up, we see the ear tufts first then our eyes make sense of a nar­row, bark-coloured owl peer­ing down at us with alert eyes. I fo­cus my binoc­u­lars to get a bet­ter view of its pat­tern­ing. The breast-streaks are for dis­guise when the bird is roost­ing. Its back is finely speck­led and the colour of ashes. The up­per-wing coverts are dot­ted with white ‘braces’, an adorn­ment I have also seen on tawnies. The feet are al­most in­vis­i­ble, cov­ered over by pale frills of down, so soft they look as if they’ve been blow-dried for a beauty con­test.

The long-eared owl’s face is dis­tinc­tive – a white-rimmed fa­cial disc and pale, ver­ti­cal ‘eye­brows’. The erect ear tufts and nar­row, sleek, up­right stance give these owls a star­tling ap­pear­ance that makes them look af­fronted. But this one seems to have ev­ery con­fi­dence that it is in­vis­i­ble. It nar­rows its bright irises to two glow­ing sliv­ers, so as not to at­tract at­ten­tion, and sits twig-still, its talons gen­tly curled around the branch. This owl may oc­cupy a po­si­tion some­where be­tween cute and ridicu­lous but its death-bystealth weaponry re­veals a preda­tor that is de­signed to ex­e­cute with­out hes­i­ta­tion.

“How many do you think are in this tree?” Mi­lan asks. "Six? Nine?" We try to count, squint­ing and star­ing. Even­tu­ally, we give up. “27!” Mi­lan de­clares. “No, 29! In one tree!” The trees are not huge, but the ju­nipers, with their ev­er­green blan­kets of aro­matic nee­dles and their co­pi­ous, droop­ing boughs, cre­ate pock­ets of dark­ness that con­ceal their pre­cious cargo. “How­ever many you think [there are], dou­ble it,” Mi­lan adds. “For the lo­cals, the owls have al­ways been there, and are not of­ten of in­ter­est.”

Home sweet home

To un­der­stand any owl species, you need to un­der­stand its habi­tat. Long-eared owls are spe­cialised, in that they need dense ar­bo­real cover and also rough, open grass­land. This makes the long-eared owl a fron­tier species. It oc­cu­pies the edges of these two very dif­fer­ent habi­tats – conifers, to hide from preda­tors, and open hunt­ing grounds full of small mam­mals. In Bri­tain, this com­bi­na­tion of habi­tats may be quite lim­ited, and could ex­plain part of the rea­son why our long-eared owl num­bers ap­pear to be so low, in stark con­trast to the healthy pop­u­la­tion in Ser­bia.

Although these owls can, and do, nest on the ground, they pre­fer to oc­cupy pre-built homes, such as the old nests of crows, but these plat­forms pro­duce a prob­lem. Corvids are care­less builders, and many of the Ser­bian long-eared owls’ breed­ing at­tempts fail due

The owls must have been round-eyed at my in­tru­sion into their pine-nee­dle king­dom.

to rick­ety and crum­bling nests. Mi­lan and his friends at the Bird Pro­tec­tion and Study So­ci­ety of Ser­bia have set up a nest­box pro­gramme, pro­vid­ing warm, dry and strong boxes, so the owls can raise their young safely. “This has in­creased breed­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity by 1.5 chicks per brood, on aver­age,” Mi­lan says.

Cel­e­brat­ing suc­cess

At the end of Oc­to­ber ev­ery year in Kikinda, there is an owl fes­ti­val. Dur­ing the week-long event chil­dren are ed­u­cated about the owls, there is mu­sic and danc­ing, po­etry and art is cre­ated, and sto­ries are told, all cel­e­brat­ing the owls. Word has spread, and these owls are be­gin­ning to be cher­ished. Bet­ter still, groups of owl-aholics are vis­it­ing, bring­ing their long lenses, note­books and binoc­u­lars, and boost­ing the lo­cal econ­omy, too.

The im­age of a friendly owl, made up of bis­cuits and cakes, wel­comes us to the town. The lo­cal peo­ple are used to the tree-point­ing, owl-count­ing for­eign­ers by now, and en­joy the ec­cen­tric in­va­sion. A smil­ing man ap­proaches and speaks to us in Ser­bian, then in bro­ken English, “In there, in there! More owl,” he tells us, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, grab­bing my hand.

Along the sky­line, owls are perched, gath­ered in loose bun­dles of 10, 20, 50. Many of them have been ringed. I won­der if Mi­lan ever runs out of owls to ring? “Some­times,” he tells me. “One year we got bored and ringed a whole load of blue tits, but they are vi­cious! The owls don’t mind it, but the blue tits turn their heads and rip you!”

If you’re won­der­ing what the owls eat in re­ally cold years, when the sup­ply of ro­dents runs thin, Mi­lan has the an­swer, “Blue tits,” he laughs. “When we ringed all the blue tits, a month later what did we find? All the rings in the owl pel­lets – ev­ery last one.”

I spot a gi­gan­tic pile of owl pel­lets and go to col­lect one for my­self. Un­der­stand­ably, there is a law in Kikinda about not dis­turb­ing the owls. Amongst the high and low branches, star­ing down at me, the owls must have been round-eyed at my clumsy in­tru­sion into their pine-nee­dle king­dom. In­no­cently, I pointed the cam­era to record the pel­let heap. In the midst of calm­ing, resin-scented nee­dles, the cam­era shut­ter qui­etly clicked. There was a slight de­lay, and then… the flash.

The tree erupted. Silent, winged things scat­tered in ev­ery di­rec­tion. I stum­bled out into the dusk to see my bird­watch­ing group stand­ing aghast. There must have been about 100 owls, all of them fly­ing from their perches at once, swoop­ing around, or­angeeyed and ghostly, then dis­solv­ing again into the nearby trees. My walk of shame brought me back to my friends in a swirl of dis­ap­proval. I had for­got­ten to look up.

Clock­wise from top left: the long-eared owl's dis­tinc­tive ear tufts are raised when the bird be­comes alarmed; Kikinda is known to have the largest and most im­por­tant win­ter gath­er­ing of longeared owls in the world; in the UK, the owls seek cover in hedgerows and mixed wood­land but are most likely to be spot­ted along the coast dur­ing mi­gra­tion.

Clock­wise from top left: vis­i­tors to Kikinda sit be­neath the town's trees at their own risk; the long-eared owl has a soft beige front, flecked with lit­tle choco­late ver­ti­cal splashes that help it blend into the trees; Kikinda has em­braced its owl pop­u­la­tion, which has be­come part of the town's ap­peal.

In the UK, you may see a com­mu­nal roost of around 20 longeared owls; in Ser­bia, hun­dreds can be found amongst the tree branches.

The trees that line Kikinda town cen­tre cre­ate an ur­ban oa­sis for long-eared owls

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