As the days lengthen and the warmer air encourages the buds and blossom to emerge from their winter slumbers, our birds start to break their winter silence. Blackbirds, robins and song thrushes begin to fill the air with song and fluttering flocks of finches catch our eye on woodland walks.
Not so obvious to hear are the predatory birds that rely on stealth and secretiveness. Owls are perhaps some of the most mysterious with their silent flight and nocturnal habits. Britain is home to five species of native owl and all of them can be seen around our region if you know what to look for, when to look for them and have some patience.
Tawny owls are true deciduous woodland birds, remarkably well camouflaged for their environment with streaked brown plumage which hides their outline against tree trunks. They are birds of the deep, dark night so they don’t really become active until well after sunset making them difficult to observe. However, they are a very vocal owl, particularly in late winter and early spring when they are looking to pair up. The male birds have a distinctive deep and resonant ‘Huuu’ call, whereas the females have a short ‘Kewik’ call. Put those two call and responses together, and you get to the ‘Twit-Twoo’ that is our most familiar owl sound. Listen for them at our woodland nature reserves including Browne’s Folly and Weston Big Wood.
Barn owls are silent hunters of open grassland, seeking out small mammals for prey. They will hunt in darkness but are just as likely to be spotted ‘quartering’ fields at twilight or at dawn as they use their sight as well as their hearing to find food. Quartering is a fascinating hunting method to watch and involves the owl methodically searching an area by flying over it back and forth repetitively. Barn owls will hunt more frequently when they have young to feed, so they’ll be on the wing more regularly in April and May so that’s the best time to look for them. A much less vocal bird than the Tawny owl, they do vocalise with a long-drawn screeching sound and are sometimes referred to as screech owls. This goose pimple-raising call can be incredibly eerie in pitch darkness. Try looking out for them if you’re visiting our Folly Farm and Clapton Moor nature reserves.
Little owls as their name suggests, are the smallest of our native species, about the same size as a starling, though the term native is debatable, as they were only introduced to Britain in the late 1800s, gradually expanding across southern England. Little owls are often active during daytime, so they are the owl that you have the best chance of seeing and they’ll often use tree cavities or derelict farm buildings to hide away in – emerging to sit in the sun often with a bobbing head. Look for them at our Weston Moor and Puxton Moor nature reserves.
Short eared and long eared owls are the least common of our local owl species. They look similar, with long eared owls having more obvious tufts on the top of their heads. Both birds will hunt during the day and will use their broad wings to float gently across grassland looking for small mammals to feed on. Both birds are fairly scarce in our region but often several birds are around, particularly in winter when northern breeding owls venture further south. They like coastal areas, so look for them hunting in grassy meadows along the Severn estuary or sitting upright on fence posts.
What are you waiting for? Plan your visit to a nature reserve to have a chance to spot these wonderful animals.