Short-eared owls

Hunting in the late afternoon winter sunlight.

Over the years, I have seen these incredible birds just a few times. The first was as I was house hunting around the borders and, crossing the Lammermuir Hills, spotted one skimming  across the ground Рslow and silent, a couple of feet above the heather. I managed to pull into a lay-by and spent a very happy 10 minutes watching as it tracked back and forth, occasionally diving fast into the vegetation before launching itself back into the cold, calm air. I managed to keep it in view, often difficult to spot as the bird blends into its environment unbelievably well. The last time it struck, it stayed on the ground, possibly having caught its prey amongst the scrubby heathland. 

Into the dive

An approach to photographing wildlife

The first stirrings!

In-flight entertainment

I couple of months ago, back in the first few days of winter when a light covering of snow lay on the high fells, I spotted a short-eared owl at a great distance lifting from the ground and starting to gain height. It had something grasped tightly in its talons and, as it lifted up into the brisk northerly wind, out of nowhere, a kestrel shot up beneath the owl and tried to steal its hard-fought meal. The two locked together for a few exhilarating seconds as a raven decided to fly up and join in the fun. The two birds seperated and the owl turned and quickly glided away from me with the kestrel in pursuit. I soon lost them against the dark backdrop of distant hills. The raven having arrived late to the party, circled, croaked its mournful call into the wind and headed off to find excitement on another part of the fell.
With just a short telephoto lens on the camera, I just managed to catch the action – though it was at a good distance from my vantage point.

At least I now knew that the owls were in the local area and to keep an eye out in the late afternoons for them hunting across the fell.

They’re here!

A late afternoon walk up onto the fells just behind my cottage. Almost dark, cold and windy – the kind of days when eyes are cast downwards out of the chilly air rather than scanning around looking for wildlife. On glancing up and to my right, I see a ‘shortie’ racing across the fell, wings beating hard against the wind. I watched for a few seconds, managing to grab a quick photo, before the bird stretched its wings and swooped down behind the slope that lay between us.¬†

So, the game is now on! I have somewhere close to home to watch out for the bird – always hoping that this is a regular haunt – and can start visiting regularly to try and work out a plan.

Closer to home


Getting closer

The next few weeks the fells are wracked by storms. Heavy rain and strong winds batter the house, keeping me close to the fire and scanning the horizon through the rain-spattered window for a break in the weather to head up on the hill. When I do finally get a quiet afternoon, the clouds are low and dark, the ground underfoot waterlogged. I head up to where I saw the owl last – but nothing and I fear it has been blown off the fellside.

Better weather follows. The wind drops and fog rolls in; blanketing the hillside and allowing only brief glimpses through the low clouds. I wait for a couple of hours, slowly leeching any warmth out into the frigid, damp air. For a moment the fog dissipates, lifting to allow me a view down into the valley below. There! Skimming low to the ground, wings almost brushing the reeds and rushes, an owl gliding down along a shallow dip in the hill. The next few minutes will be seared into my memory forever. I suddenly catch a glimpse of another short-eared owl climbing quickly up the same notch in the landscape.

As they meet, they suddenly rise together, both calling loudly across the fell.

There are a few sounds that drive deep to the core of our bond with nature. The first curlews to arrive, crying out for partners, golden plovers flying low over the cottage in the middle of the night sending out their shrill whistle into the cold air. The harsh ‘kree-eeek’ bark that echoes across the empty hillside raising the hair on the back of my neck, my toes curling into the ground as I try to sink lower into this wild place.

The next few seconds pass with me staring open-mouthed and wide-eyed as a third owl appears – heading directly into the fray. As the birds break, one turns and heads low and fast towards me. No time to focus the camera, the bird is too quick and low to the ground. I instinctively duck as the large shadow passes just feet above me – silent, wings at full-stretch and is gone.

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