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The Mystery Owl

Thank God real owls are not as terrifying as this.

At 9 pm for the last few nights the kids and I have been sitting as still as a frog, hidden in the bushes, trying to get a glimpse of whatever creature is making that shrill screaming noise in the surrounding trees. It is a very spooky sound, like a large iron door that leads to a dark cellar creaking ominously. What is also unnerving it that it is a call and response that moves about in the trees around you. It gives the eerie feeling that though I think we are well hidden, our presence to these creatures is actually clear, and they are moving about around me as if we are prey.

Now I knew that is was owls making this noise, but the commonest owls around here are Little Owls and Barn Owls, and I was pretty sure this was neither of those. This was confirmed when I managed to catch sight of one of these beautiful creatures moving silently from tree to tree – it was far too big to be a Little Owl and not snowy enough to be a barn owl. This left me assuming it must be a Tawny owl, even though I was doubtful they lived on the Island.

I presented this theory to a very knowledgeable friend who knows this area and its fauna (as well as its flora) very well indeed. She was sceptical that it was Tawny owls, so I said that night I would try to get a picture so we might be able to see one way or another. So that night, again, I was sitting among the trees, waiting for the creaking iron door.

A Long Eared Owlet giving me the hard stare!

After ten or so minutes I heard the cry in a tree right next to me. I managed to locate the crier and take the (sadly rather grainy) photo you see below. Soon there were cries from all around. I guessed there must have been six or seven owls, shifting from tree to tree around me. It seemed like a hunting party, or maybe hunting practice. What was wonderful was that I got several clear sights of these birds drifting among the branches and over the clearings into further trees. They were definitely too large for Little Owls, and too dark for Barn Owls, but I was none the wiser as to what they were, even after scrutinising the photo for several minutes.

Thankfully, next day, my knowledgeable friend could identify. It was of a Long-Eared Owlet! I had considered this possibility but rejected it as it didn’t have the long, tufted feathers on its head that give it its name. But I didn’t know that the young don’t. And when I searched the web for the owlets and read more about them it all fell into place. This is what they are. There was even a recording of their begging cry, that ominous creaking of the door played back to me!

So now I know a thing or two more about these gorgeous creatures that have been stealthily shifting around in the trees above my head for the last few nights. I found out that our copse is an ideal roost for them as they like to roost and nest within dense stands of wood but prefer to hunt over open ground. These young owls would have been born in the last month or so and it only takes around 35 days for them to be fully fledged and fly well, but they often follow their parents and are fed by them for up to about two months, continuing to make their high pitched begging calls for this time. So, this is ‘the hunting pack’ I saw, and the call and response I heard – we have a nesting family living almost on the doorstep. Also, I read, they often like places where there are no Tawny owls, so I am happy to be wrong in my original theory as to their identity.

What I also know is that it isn’t much good being a shrew around here at the moment. I’ve been working hard to keep my cats away from them, now they have owls to worry about. And a creature like that shows my kittens up as the amateurs they are! An owl rarely missed its marked kill. Its hearing (long-eared owls, like most owls, have ear slits placed asymmetrically on the sides of the head meaning one ear hears the sound slightly before the other, allowing the owls to perfectly triangulate the source of the sound. It doesn’t have to think about it as we do – it just turns its eyes directly on its prey) and eyes focus on the prey from a huge distance. Then it swoops silently down and takes its feed back to the top of its tree and eats its supper with a splendid view.

Having these birds hunting from and roosting in our trees is a privilege. I will be out watching them regularly and am hoping to get to see them grow up and leave home. I wonder where they will go!

Asio Otus, from an child's eye view

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