The Beauty of Owls

One of the lasting memories of my first night at our cottage was to be looking out of the rooflight window on a magnificent starry night, when a white apparition flew past. I was so shocked, it seemed supernatural. It was all white and the local farmer told us it would be a Barn Owl. He had Barn Owls nesting in his barn, and so it was probably one of the parents hunting for food for its young. It was such a beautiful sight. That vision summed up the beauty of this wild area in its iconic form as it flew silently by.

The owl is an example of one of the earliest hunters of mammals. Fossils have been found in the USA and France. The Ogygoptynx and Berruornis dated to the late Paleocene era show that owls were already present as a distinct lineage some 60–57 mya (million years ago), and, hence, possibly also some 5 million years earlier, at the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. This makes them one of the oldest known groups of non-Galloanserae landbirds. To think, humans nearly wiped them out in the UK through dangerous farming methods and a deliberate desire to kill them.

A month ago, another amazing sight. A Long Eared Owl settled in the ash tree by our garden. It was only there for a brief rest, then flew to the forest nearby. I had never seen one before. But I quickly checked my ‘Bird ID App’ and learned this particular owl is rarely spotted as it is super secretive. It may have been a tired immigrant resting in the open as they arrive from Scandinavia to spend the winter. This species is attracted to the large conifer forests in Scotland. They are more common in Scotland and according to a fellow bird lover, the one I saw had bred here in the summer (he found the nest at the top of a tree in the forest) but the wet weather seems to have drowned the young in the nest.

The weather this year was exceptionally wet in England and Wales. By June 12th more than 75mm of rain had fallen. At that time of the year, the jet stream should have made a more northerly track, steering the wind and rain towards northwest Britain, Iceland and Scandinavia. We got torrential rain here on the 22nd June. On 28th June 3 supercell storms hit Newcastle on Tyne, the first ever event of this kind, causing flash floods. The next day we had a violent storm, but not as serious as the one in Newcastle, but resulting in flooding in Scotland. Maybe that storm coincided with the hatching out of the Long Eared Owl chick. According to Philip Eden, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, “the first half of June across the UK was the wettest for 150 years – and let’s not forget April was the wettest on record too.”

Melting sea ice and accelerating Arctic warming are causing changes in the jet stream that are bringing more extreme weather. Recent research, including studies by Georgia Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, has linked Arctic warming to increased risk of a variety of extreme weather events.

The Times said: “The Western Isles, which have so far escaped their usual July downpours, will be reunited with the weather that they have lent to the South for the past few weeks.” The Met Office told the BBC to pass on that “there are now signs that the unsettled weather will become more focussed towards northern and western parts of the United Kingdom.” And so it did. Mid July was wet in Scotland.

Paul Hudson, who presents the weather for the BBC, said in his blog “The jet stream is a fast moving zone of winds high up in the atmosphere, caused by the temperature contrast between cold air to the north, and warmer air to the south. It’s along this boundary, where warm and cold air constantly battle each other, that most of our rain bearing weather system form……. Recent research has also pointed the finger at weak solar activity as a possible explanation for the cold, dry winters that Europe and the UK has experienced in the last few years. These were caused by the jet stream being unusually far south, and the research conducted by Reading University concluding that such winters could become more common in the next decade or so as a result of expected weaker solar activity.”

Barn Owls originally evolved in a warmer and drier climate than we have in the UK. They are poorly insulated and need extra energy (food) during cold weather to make up for an increased loss of body heat. Increased winter rainfall is a problem too. Barn Owl feathers are very soft (an adaptation for silent flight) but not very water resistant so hunting during rainfall is avoided. Prolonged rainfall (which prevents hunting) alternating with periods of intense cold (which suppresses small mammal activity) can prove deadly.

Barn Owls are not particularly territorial. The direction in which individual juveniles disperse seems to be random. The local landscape here is ideal for this owl as it is mountainous, with dense forests (which are being gradually logged) and open water. Young barn owls will seek out temporary roost sites (or clusters of closely-spaced sites) that are occupied for between 3 and 15 weeks and are up to 1km apart. Eventually they will settle when they are content.

The dispersal period ends in late November. Birds that haven’t established a permanent home range by this time are probably forced to do so: reduced prey availability and deteriorating weather making survival the highest priority. Survival is linked not only to food supply but to the species’ highly sedentary behaviour. Barn Owls that stay in one place and get to know the landscape in great detail stand a better chance of survival than those which keep moving on. This is due, in part, to the sensory limitations of nocturnal foraging.

Numbers of Short Eared Owl also arrive in October/ November with the Long Eared from Scandinavia to join those who have remained resident in the UK. This is the least common owl in the UK so I am not sure if I have seen one, though if I play its call on my App I think I may have heard one at night.

But I hear the Tawny Owl most of all, it is the most common owl in the UK and likes being close to people. A very vocal bird, particularly during Autumn and Winter. I can also hear them in early Spring on clear calm nights. In the mating season I have heard the female answer the male’s hoot with ‘kewick’ in a duet. Tawny Owls remain within their nesting territory all the year round and pair-bonds last for life. Tawny Owls are dependent on their parents for food up to three months after leaving the nest. As the young owls gradually learn to fend for themselves they also establish territories. The Tawny Owl defends its territory vigorously against neighbours with ‘song’, with threatening behaviour or in flying skirmishes. Predatory mammals, too, such as cats, foxes and dogs, are driven from the vicinity of the nest. Occasionally a Tawny Owl female with nestlings may attack a human approaching the nest, even in daylight, and may even draw blood with its talons. In Britain at least two people are known to have lost an eye from attacks. (Eric Hosking, the famous bird photographer, had this happen to him quite early in his career.)

The Tawny roost in our sycamore trees which stand by our cottage, tall aroboreal sentinels guarding the approach. In the warmer months, when the bats fly around, this fascinating hunter has plenty of opportunities to catch bats and take its pick of the rodents which live in the vegetation and dry stone walls. Before winter sets in the Tawny Owl will eat incubating birds, such as Blackbirds, Woodcocks and Pigeons, picking them off their nests. It will catch rabbits, moles, mice, shrews, voles, and other rodents. It is happy to eat earthworms, insects (beetles especially), birds, frogs, fish, lizards, molluscs, and crustaceans. This diversity abounds around our cottage and this food chain has improved since the farmer stopped dipping the sheep on the land which I have now turned into a garden. The fish have increased since sheep and cows no longer contaminate the water in the immediate vicinity.

In the past, Tawny Owls have been severely persecuted, dying from poisoned bait or pesticide use in agriculture. Their numbers struggle to remain stable, and Scotland is losing them faster than in the rest of the UK. The most common fatalities connected with man are collisions with vehicles, trains or wires, and getting trapped in buildings. Our new landowner is planting broadleaved trees throughout her estate, and as these get established, owls will use that habitat to hopefully increase in numbers in this territory.

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About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers.
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