Winter announced its arrival recently bringing to an end one of the warmest autumns since records began with gales, icy winds and snow in parts of the UK. While the seasons change from autumn into winter there seems to have been an invasion of Short-eared Owls to various areas around the UK. These birds come down from the moorland and higher ground during our winter months to spend their time at sea level before departing back to the higher breeding grounds come February and March. The numbers of this most striking of owls has been up on last years and at this rate looks set to match the brilliant numbers of 2009.
Many of these birds are being seen across the whole country at present indicating a fantastic year for their main food source of voles and small rodents. One of the many things that is good about these beautiful birds is that they hunt in mainly daylight, particularly from mid-afternoon onwards and they can stay in an area through the winter months providing the voles and other small rodents in which they feed mainly on remain at a good level.
This year has been a bumper year for voles with the warming temperatures making it ideal conditions for these small mammals to breed. Birds are coming from the continent also to take advantage of the plentiful food source experts have recorded. Over the last couple of weeks I have visited several places of which I have photographed these owls in the past and as mentioned 2009 for me was one of the best years, but this year may just beat that as numbers and sightings continue to rise each week.
Bright yellow eyes that look at first glance as though they are frowning if they look at your directly. With their pale faces acting to enhance their most striking of features, those bright eyes. Hidden away I watch and scan the marshland and rough grazing grounds that these owls love to feed and live on and being a ground dwelling bird they blend in so well with their plumage colours.
Their feathers a mixture of bold bands and rings forming a wonderful pattern that renders them invisible once they are on the ground. Sometimes you hear them before you see them, a loud short “bark” like call echoes across the area. They are normally late risers, starting to hunt from lunchtime onwards but I have noticed after a period of wet weather they can come out from first light, as they need to feed and recover lost time and build up those supplies of food that will see them through the cold weather.
Once in the air you witness their broad, stiff wings flap with great purpose almost in a slow motion fashion, covering the ground well with each rise and fall of their wing beats. Once they leave the sky and come down low you almost lose them among the vegetation colours, until you see their white under wings as they pass by. The distinctive black bands and bold barred tail standing proudly as they glide in between their wing beats.
I have had mixed fortune with the weather so far, after one of the mildest autumns since records begin the weather has changed getting colder with windy and wet weather a lot of time, with the odd break in the cloud sometimes, warming the areas in which these owls are at present. In weather that all owls dislike and choose not to hunt in, survival is by feeding on their larder of food which they stock pile when the goings good and keeps they going until hopefully the weather breaks. If the weather doesn’t change I have known Short-eared Owls to leave an area, vanish to warmer climets way before the late February get away, back to their breeding grounds.
Their bright yellow eyes are surrounded by smudged black makeup, set in a large round, disc like shaped face which is stunning to the eye as they glare at you before flying past. They always seem so startled by the world around them as I watch them hunt or perhaps that’s defiance, but they are full of character and self belief and watching them hunting and comb an area for prey is a magical experience to witness.
They fly warily around each other, closing and drifting apart, rising and falling, slowly spiraling in wide circles, as they drift across the marshland. Notoriously during the breeding seasons they are very territorial and fiercely defensive of their area. But during the winter months as they glide around our countryside almost in a nomadic manner are very tolerant of each other.
I am hoping the cold weather of the last two winters doesn’t happen this year as along with the Barn Owl many Short eared Owls died due to being unable to feed and break through the frozen ground that at times was covered in snow for days even weeks at a time making the whole process of finding food a real contest of pure survival.
I will be concentrating my efforts in the sites I have known for many years over the next several months and I hope to capture a few more images and spend some time filming and watching these beautiful owls. I will update my blog on how I get on during that time and fingers crossed the weather doesn’t betray them, forcing them to move on to other areas.
WWT Photography Competition 2011-2012
I am delighted to have been asked for a second year to become one of the regional judges in this brilliant photography competition. Over the last week I have judged two categories which I was assigned from the Martin Mere wetland centre. Choosing my selection from the autumn heat which then goes onto the final. When the competition closes on 31 August 2012 all regional heat winners will go through to the grand national final to be held in autumn 2012. Then the Portfolio Photographer will be chosen and awarded the grand prize of a trip to Antarctica.
The winter heat is now open until the 29th February 2012 so click on the following link for more information and details of how to enter this brilliant competition. I visit Martin Mere quite a lot, and during the winter months they have the beautiful Whooper and Bewick Swans as visitors, as they spend their winter months with us before heading back north to their summer breeding grounds. The image above was taken at Martin Mere showing three Whooper Swans flying in against the cold winter sky on a frosty day.The very best of luck to everyone that enters.