They may be a rare sight in Britain but long-eared owls aren’t so shy and retiring elsewhere.
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 But all that was out of date.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.
“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.
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.
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.
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