Owl spotting this autumn

(c) Russell Savory

Owls have long been a source of intrigue and mystery, often appearing at twilight. As the nights draw in, our waking hours increasingly overlap with theirs, so autumn is a great time for owl spotting.

In Britain we have five species of owls: barn owl, tawny owl, little owl, long-eared owl and short-eared owl. All are native apart from the little owl, which was introduced in the 1800s and is now deemed naturalised. Eagle owls have also bred successfully following escape from private collections and aviaries. There are two families of owls: those with heartshaped faces like the barn owl, and those with round faces like the tawny, short-eared or long-eared.

Owls have an array of impressive features that make them incredibly stealthy nighttime hunters. Fringed edges to flight feathers allow for near silent flight. Their fourteen neck bones (double the number in humans) allow for 270 degrees of movement to keep an eye out in all directions. Ears are often asymmetrical, allowing them to judge exactly where a sound is coming from, which helps to pinpoint prey.

Although highly-skilled hunters, owls do not put so much effort into building their nests. Many, such as little owls because of their size, choose cavities which have either formed naturally or been left by other birds, frequently in trees, or nest boxes that replicate these cavities. Barn owls typically nest on barn rafters, while short-eared owls simply scrape a bowl into the ground.

Look out for these three species of owls to look out for while you’re out on an autumn adventure:

Barn owl - watch for this very pale owl gliding along field margins in grassland and farmland as the light starts to dim.

Tawny owl - listen out for the characteristic ‘twit-twoo’ of female and male tawny owls calling to each other through the darkness.

Short-eared owl - although breeding mainly on upland moors, this owl frequents coastal grazing marsh across the country in the winter months.

Two great places to see owls is at our Clapton Moor and Folly Farm reserves. The Clapton Circuit at Clapton Moor, with its bird hide, is a wonderful place for bird watching, and if you’re lucky you might even spot an owl on the hunt. Folly Farm is a peaceful reserve, with joined up woodlands and hedgerows. It is great for seeing barn owls gliding through the sky at dusk. You might also see some tawny owls nesting in the roost on the farm.

Find out more about visiting our nature reserves here