Short-eared owls

23 January 2019 | Posted in Charlotte Owen , Birds
Short-eared owls
short-eared owl © Bob Eade

By Charlotte Owen

WildCall Officer

Owls have long been creatures of myth and legend, and catching a glimpse of one of these elusive birds is always a magical experience.  Of the four owl species in Sussex you may already be familiar with the ‘twit-twoo’ of the tawny owl or the ghostly grace of the barn owl, our two best-known and most common species.  Our rarest resident is the secretive long-eared owl, whose amber eyes and wise expression could come straight from a fairy tale, and completing the quartet is the diminutive little owl.  No bigger than a starling, this species was introduced in the 19th century and is an expert at blending in with the fence posts it often perches on during the day.

But at this time of year we have an extra special winter visitor.  The short-eared owl migrates here from the snow and ice of Finland, Scandinavia and parts of Russia.  Its nomadic nature sets it apart from our resident owls, who don’t wander far, and the ‘shorty’ bucks a few other owl trends too.  As you might expect, it is a fearsome nocturnal predator but there is no respite for its small mammal prey as these birds will happily hunt in daylight too, timing their mid-afternoon flights to take advantage of the field vole rush hour.  Between meals they will roost on the ground, hidden within a grassy tussock, and come spring when they have made the return journey to their northern breeding territories they will nest on the ground too, only taking to the trees when inconvenienced by heavy snowfall.

The ‘ears’ are actually short tufts of feathers that can be raised or lowered depending on the owl’s mood.  Since they are often flattened against the bird’s head, disappearing into the dense facial plumage, it’s the eyes that are the most distinctive feature; a piercing yellow gaze accentuated by heavy black makeup that creates a severe and frowning face.  It’s impossible to slip by a short-eared owl unnoticed but they will tolerate a careful observer as long as a respectful distance is maintained.  

It’s been a good year for ‘shorties’ in Sussex so far this winter, so keep your eyes peeled.


  • Mark Raven:

    25 Jan 2019 16:04:00

    My son Andrew and I spent a wonderful 30 minutes or so watching our first sight of a short eared owl hunting at Woods Mill this afternoon (25th January). Food for the soul!

  • Sue Collington:

    30 Jan 2019 12:33:00

    A regular sight hunting in the fields beside the Adur. We catch sight of them most late afternoons from about 3pm.

  • Phil Godbold:

    30 Jan 2019 13:28:00

    Yesterday, about 1/2 mile North of Upper Beeding on the West side bank of the Adur in the late afternoon

  • 30 Jan 2019 17:03:00

    I’ve seen this daytime owl twice now down at Bersted Brooks conservation area in Bognor. Incredible.

  • Gina:

    30 Jan 2019 19:01:00

    I have also one north of Bramber flying from one side of the River Adur to the other.

  • Charles Perceval:

    30 Jan 2019 21:10:00

    I and several others on top of a bus saw an owl perched on a TV aerial on the chimney of house in central Ferring about a month ago. I am not sure if it was a short eared owl. A pigeon was perched nearby.

  • paul boyland:

    31 Jan 2019 07:29:00

    At least 4 shorties along with a regular ringtail hen harrier and marsh harrier on horseeye level to the east of Hailsham. Photos on my Instagram paulboyland1

  • Anna Schumann:

    01 Feb 2019 18:43:00

    Love seeing the shorteared owls by the Adur at Beeding – and often the added bonus of a Barn Owl quartering too. Feel so lucky to have them in the neighbourhood. Have also seen a pair of peregrines there too… it’s a wonderful birding spot

  • 02 Feb 2019 11:23:00

    I would love to be able to see and photograph these wonderful birds. Any recommendations as to where I could come to reliably see them? I see Upper Beeding is just over an hour for me (from Romsey). Could someone recommend somewhere to park for a walk to see them?


  • Andy Hudson:

    02 Feb 2019 23:46:00

    Hi Mark. My son and I parked in the car park at Bramber, then walked along the road to the river. Head north along the east bank of the river for 1/2 mile to a mile, there are fields on the right. We saw a short eared owl and a barn owl about 4pm. We met a regular visitor who said he’s seen shorties every time he’s been in the last few weeks. Good luck!

  • jill allen:

    11 Apr 2021 14:51:00

    I was walking along the river in the marshes at the back of herstmonceux castle today 2ish and a large bird of prey flew ahead of me the whole river, stopping and when I got close swooped low along the river, I thought it was a buzzard because it was so big but it wasnt displaying there behaviour , it stayed low the whole river and then veered off low over the marshes. was it an osprey?

Leave a comment