Few creatures capture our imagination as deeply as owls

Few creatures capture our imagination as deeply as owls, not bad for an animal that only comes out when we're all asleep – or do they? Cheshire Wildlife Trust's Tom Marshall investigates

When it comes to the typecasting of wildlife in stories, movies and literature, there at the top of the tree – in every sense of the word – are the owls. With that dinner plate face and a seemingly endless variety of expressions ranging from complete surprise, absolute cunning or infinite wisdom, there’s certainly no shortage of material.

Most of us will be familiar with two owls in particular: the almost ethereal and ghost-like barn owl and the tawny owl. The latter in fact being the likely source of the classic ‘twit-twoo’ – which is in fact not one owl, but two responding to each other through the trees.

The blockbusting Harry Potter series introduced many of us to the snowy owl, which although now immortalised forever as young Mr Potter’s friend Hedwig, is in fact only a rare visitor to Scotland’s outer islands. The Western Isles of Lewis and Harris are two of the few places you’re likely to encounter one in the wild.

It’s also a popular misconception that our owls are the proverbial creatures of the night. Not so. Only the tawny owl limits itself to appearing well after the sun goes down, with almost all our other owl species happy to show themselves during the day.

Owls can be found in almost every type of habitat in our landscape, from the highest peaks in our uplands, to wind-swept coastal saltmarshes and of course the more traditional haunts of farmyards and woodlands.

From a wildlife-watcher’s point of view you really don’t need a copy of ‘My First Owls’ to hand to know what you’re looking at either.

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Away from the Scottish islands, the owl you’re most likely to encounter during a trek onto the high tops is the short-eared owl. Similar in size to a barn owl, it actually nests on the ground among the heather and grasses of the Peak District, Pennines and the Scottish and Welsh uplands. Rather more brown than a barn owl, after nesting most short-eared owls make a short winter migration to our lowlands and coasts, where they often reward the patient photographer with a stare of those piercing yellow eyes.

Often taking the high road too is the little owl, unsurprisingly our smallest UK species at just a few inches tall. It is also not strictly a ‘native’ having been introduced from the continent during the 19th century, but is now considered one of our own, and is a firm favourite despite its rather fierce expression.

Easily spotted on telegraph poles, dry stone walls and in cavities in dead trees it can be found throughout open country where there are trees or old buildings to nest in. Not quite the voracious predator that its larger cousins can claim to be, you probably need only be wary of a little owl if you’re a slug or an earthworm.

One of our truly nocturnal owls, the long-eared owl is much prized by wildlife watchers although rather like buses, once you’ve seen one long-eared owl, several often come along at once. This is down to the owls’ preference for roosting communally in hedgerows in the winter, and it’s not unusual for photographers to capture an image only to find that several more owls are lurking in the background!

Despite their name, the ‘ears’ referred to on many owls are actually differing sizes of feathered tufts which can indicate alarm or even the ‘mood’ of the owl. In reality, an owl’s ears are set rather unusually with one slightly lower than the other.

This strange adaptation allows them to accurately judge sound and distance – even with no visual reference – and as a result sees that curious, seemingly impossible head twisting.Contrary to our childhood story books however, an owl can only turn its head through 270 degrees, not all the way around.

Their disk-shaped faces play a role in helping to ‘funnel’ sounds, perhaps as much as 10 ten times more clearly than our own ears. Two extremely large front-facing eyes also afford binocular vision – something we as humans are also reliant on, which helps in judging distance and pin-pointing movement. Like a photographer’s big telephoto lens, large eyes allow for capturing whatever light is available, even if that is only moonlight.

The owl’s greatest weapon in its hunting armoury is surely stealth, and this is no more apparent than in the exquisite barn owl. As anyone who has been fortunate enough to have an ‘owl man’ visit their school and fly a barn owl above their heads will know, the silky-soft, dense feathers muffle even the smallest noise making it a truly silent hunter.

As a result, the barn owl’s element of surprise is unrivalled, however the pay-off for this gift from Mother Nature is that it really is a case of rain stop play for barn owls, who can suffer greatly when prolonged periods of wet weather hit their hunting grounds.

Fascinatingly, a group of owls is known as a ‘parliament’ of owls; perhaps one group of local representatives we’d all definitely like to see in our constituency.

Where to see owls

Parkgate (Neston), Wigg Island Community Park (Runcorn), Norton Marsh/Upper Moss Side Farm (Runcorn): Short eared owls in winter, best watched for as the tide covers the saltmarshes forcing their prey of small mammals inland.

Open country in Broxton, the River Gowy corridor, including Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Gowy Meadows nature reserve, and Thurstaston on the Wirral are well-known haunts of barn owls.

Little owls can be seen at the Trust’s Hockenhull Platts nature reserve (Tarvin).

Find out more on Cheshire Trust’s website at www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk or why not post your own owl sightings on the Trust’s Facebook page.

And upload your photos of owls – and any other wonderful wildlife you spot around the county by clicking the red button below

The print version of this article appeared in the January 2012  issue of Cheshire Life 

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