Short-eared Owls: “They come from the land of the ice and snow”

01 February 2021 | Posted in Wilder Horsham District
Short-eared Owls: “They come from the land of the ice and snow”
Short-eared Owl © Frank Hollis

By Michael Blencowe

Senior Communities and Wildlife Officer, Sussex Wildlife Trust

I’ve been taking a short local walk down across the fields towards the Adur in recent weeks. It’s a short circular trudge but it’s the only exercise I’m getting at the moment. But my three-mile journey is nothing compared to the journey that some birds have made to visit the Horsham district. The thrushes and ducks I have seen would have flown over a thousand miles from Northern Europe. The White-fronted Geese I have watched grazing have flown over two thousand miles from Northern Russia.  Recently there has been another winter visitor seen along the Adur; a Short-eared Owl.

Photo 1 Frank Hollis

This Short-eared Owl was photographed along the Adur a few years ago by Frank Hollis.

Short-eared Owls are scarce winter visitors to Sussex. Swiss ornithologist Paul Geroudet described them as ‘nomads who camp where the table is laid’. This winter there have been a few of these wandering diners reported in Sussex and a small parliament (the collective term for owls, pub quizzers) have arrived and have been hunting around the county’s meadows where they have been tucking into a bountiful rodent buffet.

Photo 2 Frank Hollis

A Short-eared Owl having its vole lunch stolen by a Kestrel (Photo: Frank Hollis)

In the Horsham District, we have four breeding owl species. The most familiar will be the Tawny Owl – who’s hoots and twit-to-woos can be heard in and around towns and villages. The Barn Owl is that pale spectral spirit that may be glimpsed in the headlights along our country lanes at night. The Long-eared Owl is our rarest, most elusive species. The Little Owl was introduced here in the 19th century. It eats worms.

Photo 3 Frank Hollis

Short-eared Owl photographed by Frank Hollis.

In cold winters Short-eared Owls can be added to our list. A hunting Short-eared Owl is a sight to behold. It’s a large bird - with a 1-metre wingspan - but agile. It twists, weaves and glides low over the ground before dropping hard on its prey. Its ‘short ears’ are just feather tufts. Its bright yellow eyes are set in a face which seems fixed in a permanent impatient, angry expression. After hunting along the Adur the owls will roost, no doubt dreaming of Northern Lights, lemmings and that long journey home. 

Wilder Horsham District is an innovative five-year partnership between Sussex Wildlife Trust and Horsham District Council working to deliver a Nature Recovery Network for Horsham District.

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  • Bob Ball:

    04 Feb 2021 12:18:00

    Nice article. Short eared owls breed on Skomer Island every year.

  • Tony Wetjen:

    04 Feb 2021 12:31:00

    I’ve often seen Barn Owls, Little Owls less frequently but have never seen a Tawny Owl! Not surprising of course as Tawny Owls are relatively secretive but make up for it with their calls. I look forward to seeing a Short Eared Owl sometime. I assume that they frequent the upper reaches of the Adur?

    Tony Wetjen
  • Grace Yates:

    04 Feb 2021 12:37:00

    I saw a Short-eared Owl last month, it was being mobbed by gulls along the Winchelsea beach ridge. I watched it for a long time as at first was wondering what I was looking at. Great to see people with fantastic cameras getting good photographs, my Iphone 8 wasn’t able to manage. All the best, Grace

  • Anthony Bauckham:

    04 Feb 2021 13:05:00

    I saw a short-eared owl up on Chantry hill last year. It flew up from the farm. Landed a couple of times and then flew over a ridge. Wonderful bird.

  • Chris Glithero:

    04 Feb 2021 13:08:00

    Very interesting to read as I am a novice when it comes to identifying birds and wildlife. This is an easy way to learn more

  • Joann Wyatt:

    04 Feb 2021 13:15:00

    Here, in West Sussex, just North of Bognor Regis, we have rough grassland and wooded copses. Over the last four years, we have had Barn owls, little Owls and Tawnies. A few winters ago (could have been 2015) I was walking from the car park at nearby Church Norton-another spot with similar, rough, open ground -around Pagham Harbour and saw a Short Eared Owl out hunting on a grey afternoon. I mistook it for a Barn Owl, at first -as it had fairly light plumage-but it flew back and forth, concentrating in broad daylight -so was easier to spot. A lovely, bird.

  • margaret riche:

    04 Feb 2021 13:36:00

    How Lovely,
    I have only ever seen them in books or on TV.

  • Amanda Connolly:

    04 Feb 2021 13:43:00

    These short eared owls are certainly a joy to watch hunting as they appear often before dusk when its still light. I walked the nature reserve site on the Downs near the Brighton racecourse each afternoon over during the months of December and January and watched one swooping down , totally unfazed by walkers or dogs.

  • Mary Barber:

    04 Feb 2021 14:39:00

    Wonderful photography!
    Next best thing to seeing them in the flesh.

  • Melissa Shelley:

    04 Feb 2021 14:44:00

    Lovely informative article. I have seen tawny and barn owls but never a short eared owl , I never knew that they were such big birds!

  • Patricia Whitehead:

    04 Feb 2021 17:15:00

    Hi we hear owls calling of a night. But a week or so ago there was an owl calling and its call was strange. It was low but broken. Haven’t heard it since. Would this be the short eared owl. We are mid Sussex. Thanks.

  • John Hurn:

    04 Feb 2021 18:58:00

    Saw a short eared owl last winter on Downs near Beachy Head, wonderful sight. Not yet this winter though.

  • Serena:

    04 Feb 2021 20:45:00

    I think it may have been a short eared owl that flew right in front of my car yesterday at dusk, along Plumpton Lane, in East Sussex, heading towards a spectacular sunset. It was very white underbelly and quite whitish top feathers, and didn’t think it was a Barn Owl.

  • Steve Walker:

    04 Feb 2021 23:57:00

    They have been overwintering on and around East Brighton Golf Course for the last few years. Lovely to watch them hunting low over the rough grass.

  • David James:

    05 Feb 2021 09:15:00

    I would imagine that SEO’s would be a little scarcer in the Sussex river valleys this yea,r due to the amount of rainfall we’ve had In past wet years they have been driven off the flood plains further up into the higher Downland valleys such as the Burgh when their prey has been flooded out.

  • 05 Feb 2021 09:17:00

    The last two years I have spotted this visitor at The Brooks, the small conservation area one the edge of Bognor Regis. Hope to see them again this year.

  • Tim Freed:

    05 Feb 2021 10:23:00

    Hi, I heard an unfamiliar owl-like call in my Ferring garden early the other morning (3 Feb). Tried to peek the bird without luck. It appeared to be mobbed by a corvid. Listened to likely calls on the internet but no good until I saw Michael’s article about Short-eared Owls in Sussex. On the BTO site I found a perfect match on the ‘call and wing clapping’ link: Can’t prove it but I reckon it has to be this species!

  • Greta west:

    07 Feb 2021 06:05:00

    An amazing sight, a short eared owl has flown twice through our garden. Too fast for photograph

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