By Charlotte Owen
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.