The Chris Sperring Guide to Owl Watching
Whilst writing this I am reminded of the great thrill I had as a child, on encountering my first wild Tawny Owl. I was eight or nine years old, and sat in a tree late at night mimicking the sound of a male Tawny Owl. Although I could hear several Tawny Owls close by, my goal was to actually see one. I had been doing this for some time without success, and I suppose that this could be described as the ‘patience training’ that every naturalist has to go through. Finally, however, I was rewarded. As I called out the sound of the Owl (which I had learnt to do by blowing through my cupped hands), I suddenly felt that I was being watched. I turned my head and came face to face with a male Tawny Owl, which was no more than an arm’s length away from me. It took a second for me to recover from the shock, by which time the Owl had disappeared back into the darkness from where it had come. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, this event was to shape the rest of my life, and the memory would never fade!
An active interest in Natural History is a voyage of discovery, which should include people from every background. A new naturalist should never be afraid to admit that they lack experience or knowledge, as there will always be plenty of people willing to help and advise. After all, there are no real experts, just a few of us with a bit more knowledge who, like everyone else, learn something new every time we set out on our observational and study trips. Quite simply, the best qualifications for being a successful naturalist are enthusiasm, dedication and patience!
General Rules for Successful Owl Watching
The following is a list useful Tips, which will help to increase your chances of successful Owl watching:
- Wear dark, quiet clothes
- Use lightweight binoculars, which are effective in low light (e.g. 8X40)
- Get to know the area during daylight, and establish the most suitable areas of habitat for the species that you are hoping to observe (i.e. where they are most likely to hunt)
- If you suspect that an area is being used as a roost or nest site you must not disturb it, but watch from a safe distance
- When watching a nocturnal species, arrive at your observation position before dusk – this will allow for your eyes to become gradually accustomed to the gathering darkness, and will ensure that you are ready and settled before the owls emerge
- Do not disturb the birds in any way – remain hidden at all times
- If you accidentally stray close to a nest, move quickly and quietly away
When studying wildlife it is important to keep records. Using a Micro tape-recorder (or Dictaphone) is a good way of taking notes at night, as it doesn’t require the use of a torch, which could disturb the subject. The observations can then be written up at home, as below:
Date ___/___/___ Start Time ____:____hrs Finish Time ____:____hrs
Species recorded___________________ Male or female
If nest site please identify the nest being used as either Box in tree, Box in building, hole in tree, under ground, cliff face or other ___________________________________
Location of observation _____________________________________ Grid. Ref. ___________
Habitat Description _________________________________________________________
Weather Conditions _________________________________________________________
*Note all other wildlife encountered, and record any interesting behaviour.
Although not all British Owls are nocturnal, it is important to consider safety when planning an Owl Watching trip, particularly at night.
The following is a useful checklist:
- Carry a torch (with fully powered batteries)
- Tell someone where you are going and what time you expect to be back
- Take a mobile phone (with charged battery)
- Dress appropriately for the weather (it gets very cold at night) and terrain
- Don’t drive when tired
- Get ample rest before hand (this may not sound important, but if you’re too tired you will not enjoy your Owl watching and will be more prone to the simplest of accidents)
- Follow the Countryside Code
- Stick to footpaths or public land
- When on private land make sure that you have the landowners permission to be there, and always inform them if you are likely to be on their property at night
- Be prepared for the weather to change – watch a forecast!
1. Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)
Where to look for Tawny Owls
Though the Tawny Owl is resident on mainland Britain, it is not found on the outer Islands or in Ireland. The preferred habitat of Tawny Owls is deciduous woodland, but they will live virtually anywhere where there are mature trees, even in urban parks and coniferous forests.
When to look for Tawny Owls
Tawny Owls are nocturnal, and rarely seen or heard during daylight. Therefore, in order to watch them you must be out between dusk and dawn. They are active throughout the night and, depending on the time of year, will split their time between hunting/feeding, pair bonding or attracting a mate, and defending their territory (which includes calling, displaying, patrolling and fighting).
The nocturnal nature of the Tawny Owl, coupled with the densely wooded habitat in which it tends to live, makes it a difficult bird to observe. Therefore, you are far more likely to hear one than see one, particularly as it is a very vocal species (again to compensate for the dense habitat).
Tawny owls will call in every month of the year, but their most vocal time is during the autumn when owlets are distributing away from their parental territories looking for an area to call their own. They will call to assess whether an area is vacant, and the resident owls will respond by telling them where to go!
What to listen for
Male and female Tawny Owls have the same vocabulary, but it is possible to tell the sexes apart by listening to the delivery of the calls. The main hooting call (hoooo-ho-hoooo) is usually delivered by males, although females will use it at a higher pitch. Distinguishing the differences between the two calls is easiest when both male and female are calling together. The screech (erieee erieee) is generally used by the female in answer to the male’s hoot, which is why Shakespeare described the call as Twit Twoo (he didn’t realise that he was actually listening to a pair of Tawny Owls).
In addition to the two main calls of Tawny Owls (the hoot and the screech) there are many other, more subtle, communicative noises uttered by them at various times of the year. During early spring calls will be at their minimum if the pair are breeding, but if you sit still on a quite spring night and listen very carefully you might just hear the females calling from their nests. This call is a much softer, almost submissive, version of the main female screech, which will also be used whilst she is incubating eggs and waiting to be fed by the male.
The pair can also use beak snapping as a means of aggression or affection between them, which you have to be quite close to hear!
The use of Recall
The most vocal time for Tawny Owls is the autumn, when the young owls from the previous spring are all distributing away from their parental territories. All of these fit young Owls move from place to place in their quest to establish a territory of their own, in which they can hunt and eventually breed. They will inevitably, however, come up against many existing territories along the way, which is when the resident birds will call to defend their area against the new batch of intruders. It is at this time of year when the use of recall (mimicking the Owl’s call by using either a tape recording or one’s own voice) is most effective, and least disturbing, for these birds. When doing this you simply play the part of yet another young owl looking for a vacant territory, and will quickly discover whether Tawny Owls are present or not. This is a wonderful survey method, and is very effective for this species. It should, however, be used with caution so as not to excessively disturb the Owl's and prevent them from hunting. Recall should only be used once or twice a year in any one location, and only for a short time (20-30mins) on each occasion.
Tawny Owlet watching
When young Tawny owlets reach about four weeks of age they leave the nest. They cannot fly, and are still covered in fluffy down, but can climb very well. They scramble around in the tree canopy for several weeks whilst they grow their adult feathers and eventually learn to fly. During this time they do not return to the nest, and so have to be very noisy in order to ensure that their parents can find them in the dark (when they are constantly moving around). They make a strange hissing call, which sounds like ‘tutshhhh-tutshhhh’.
Approaching Tawny owlets is easy enough just keep listening out for their calls and follow the sound. Move quietly through the wood, using the trees to break up your outline. They are very noisy and often preoccupied by the tasks of calling and watching for their parents (they want to beat their sibling(s) the approaching food), so unless the calling stops you can be sure that they haven’t detected you. Eventually, you will probably come across the rounded shape of the young Owl silhouetted against the sky above you. When this happens you should crouch down against a tree and remain perfectly still and quiet. You will be alerted to the approaching adult by the increasingly excited calls of the youngster, which is when you need to be even more cautious. You must not allow the parent bird to notice you, as it may refuse to feed its youngster, and may even attack you in the process. If you feel that you have been detected, you should move away from the owlet as quickly and quietly as possible.
2. Little Owl (Athene noctua)
Where to look for Little Owls
The smallest owl in Britain can be found in England, Wales and southern Scotland. The Little Owl is a traditional farmland and parkland bird, with a liking for fruit orchards and small pasture fields with thick, mature hedgerows. Their small size makes them vulnerable to harsh weather conditions, so they tend to inhabit more low-lying areas. River valleys make ideal areas to start looking for Little Owls, although it is not unknown for them to be found at quite high altitudes.
When to look for Little Owls
Little Owls are mainly diurnal, but can remain active into the night when light is good. They are a relatively easy owl to watch and study, due to the open habitat in which they live and their diurnal nature.
During the winter Little Owls are most active in full daylight. On sunny winter days they will use a favoured position for sunning themselves, which can provide a great opportunity for close observations and photographs.
What to listen for
Males begin their main pre-breeding calls in February, when they will use their electronic sounding hoot (sounding like hoooooo) which rises in pitch during delivery. This is the best time to locate individual birds, and to identify the territorial boundaries being defended by each pair. If a female is present she will back-up the male’s song with her yelping call (used by both adults during the rest of the year) which is a lower, backward version of the Tawny Owl screech, and indeed the two are often confused.
Little Owls respond well to recall, but this should only be used occasionally, so as not to disturb them whilst hunting or rearing young.
Watching Little Owls
Watching Little owls is a real joy, and can be easily achieved once the birds have been located. They often give themselves away by calling to each other, and remain faithful to favourite song posts (usually a tree, post or building which give them a high vantage point from which to deliver their song across the territory).
The small, rounded figures of Little Owls can often be seen perched on farm gates, lampposts, fences and farm buildings, particularly just after dawn and just before dusk. Their low, undulating flight and stumpy bodies are easy to recognise whilst crossing the open fields that they inhabit.
Most of the interactive behaviour between a pair of Little Owls takes place in the ‘home range’ (the area directly surrounding the chosen nest site), so it can be relatively easy to locate an a suitable area in which to set a hide. This is a good way of observing Little Owls, as they are shy birds, which become quickly aware of human presence. Place the hide in a position that gives an all-round view of the home range, but where it is partially concealed by vegetation. The types of activity that could be observed in this way are hunting (for insects or small mammals), preening, pair bonding, calling, feeding and rain bathing. The latter is an especially rewarding activity to watch, particularly as it takes place during daylight. Rain bathing involves the owl performing an elaborate dance in order to ensure that the falling rain reaches every feather. This animated behaviour can be seen in other owl species, but is particularly endearing to watch in Little Owls. They are not as upset by rain as the other owl species because they do not require such perfectly silent flight when hunting insects (their main prey). This is truly a spectacle worth getting wet for!
In dry conditions it is possible to watch Little Owls dust bathing. They will find a patch of dust and will roll vigorously in it, which can initially look like the owl is ill or injured. These activities are certainly enjoyable for the owls, but also perform the vital functions of keeping the feathers clean and parasite free.
With the aid of Binoculars or a Telescope it is possible to view early courtship behaviour (which usually begins in late March) from a hide. The latter stages of this activity will include nest site selection, when the male will escort the female around the home range showing her his choices of potential nest sites. It will then be the female who chooses the one which she decides provides the right conditions for successful breeding.
Watching Little Owlets
Young Little Owls leave the nest before they are fully feathered and flying but, unlike Tawny Owls, will return to the nest to roost and escape danger. This means that they will remain in the vicinity of the nest site until they can fly; making watching them fairly easy once the nest has been located. The difficulty is that, being diurnal; the owls can spot you as easily as you spot them.
Little Owls will often hunt from a stationary vantagepoint, by dropping on to passing prey (small mammals and insects). They will also occasionally hunt small birds on the wing by using an erratic flight pattern (aimed at confusing the prey) of high speed twists and turns. When hunting for insects Little Owls will often run around on the ground chasing beetles and picking up earthworms.
3. Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
Where to look for Short-eared Owls
Short-eared Owls are scarce birds, which breed in northern areas of the British Isles, predominantly on upland moorland. They are birds of open grassland habitats, which feed mainly on small mammals and small to medium sized birds. They roost and nest on the ground in their summer habitats and migrate south, often to southern England, for the winter where they also roost on the ground. In their wintering grounds they tend to prefer coastal areas, lowland heath and moorland.
Areas of open countryside with large areas of long, rough grassland are the places to look for Short-eared Owls. However, as they roost and nest on the ground they can be easily overlooked when walking through this type of habitat. If disturbed these owls will rise from their positions on the ground and fly some distance before either returning to the ground or beginning hunting.
When to look for Short-eared Owls
Short-eared Owls are a largely diurnal species, which can be easily observed quartering their open habitats during the day. They will, however, also hunt during dusk and dawn, and when short of food will continue hunting during the night.
In northern England and Scotland Short-eared Owls can be seen in open areas at any time during the year. In more southern areas, however, they are only present during the winter.
What to listen for
It is unusual for wintering Short-eared Owls to call, except in years when there are large numbers occupying the same winter areas. When this happens they will show territorial aggression and will warn each other, using their main barking call.
In their pre-breeding displays the male Short-eared Owls utter a low-toned song, which can be delivered in fast volley as a part of an aerial display above the ground roosting female.
Short-eared Owls hunt predominantly on the wing and low to the ground, which makes them very visual in both day and night. When the Owl is listening or watching the ground it can hold itself in the air by hovering. These observations are easy to obtain, once the owls have been located, and the open habitat and diurnal nature make watching this species enjoyable and rewarding.
Breeding site observation
The breeding grounds are generally upland areas, which can be barren with difficult terrain and changeable weather. With this in mind safety must be a major consideration when looking for Short-eared Owls in their breeding grounds. The other main consideration must be preventing disturbance to the owls. Once an Owl has been spotted it is best to settle down and watch from a safe distance, from where the hunting and feeding behaviour can be observed. The birds must not be made to feel threatened in any way, as getting to close to the nest (which will remain invisible until you are almost standing over it) will cause the parent bird to fly off leaving the eggs and/or young vulnerable to predation and chilling.
4. Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)
Where to look for Long-eared Owls
The ideal Long-eared Owl habitat is dense coniferous woodland, surrounded by open grassland. This dual habitat enables this bird to nest and roost in the forest, and hunt over the open grassland at night.
The Long-eared Owl has a widespread, but sparse, distribution throughout the UK, with strongholds throughout Ireland and much of Scotland. In addition to the breeding birds there is also an influx of wintering Long-eared Owls from mainland Europe every year, which usually arrive during November and leave again by February.
When to Look for Long-eared Owls
Breeding Long-eared Owls hunt during the dead of night, and rarely call. Their most vocal period is pre-breeding season (between January and March) when both male and female will call throughout the night. In the summer the young Long-eared Owls use their classic ‘squeaky gate’ calls to beg for food from their parents. These calls will only be made whilst the birds are in the forests, and may continue during dawn and dusk, and occasionally even during the daylight. When they have a brood of demanding owlets to feed Long-eared Owls will occasionally hunt before it is completely dark, but food must be short for them to be forced into this behaviour.
Over-wintering Long-eared Owls, however, tend to roost in mature hedgerows and will emerge to go hunting just before it gets dark. They may even hunt during full daylight if conditions are difficult.
What to listen for
Male Long-eared Owls use a long, low toned hoot (sounding like ‘hooooo’) which can be repeated many times. The female call is a high-pitched ‘veeee’ sound, which will often answer the male. Long-eared owlets make a call which sounds just like a squeaky garden gate when begging for food. When displaying adult Long-eared Owls will also use beak snapping and wing clapping, as ways of attracting mates and declaring their territories.
When to listen
Long-eared owls are highly nocturnal and tend not to be very vocal. March is the most likely month of the year for hearing adult Long-eared's, although owlets can be heard throughout the summer months.
Watching Long-eared Owls
Long-eared Owls are very difficult birds to watch. They are strictly nocturnal, live in dense forests or plantations and very seldomly call. They are also very scarce in Britain, although it is difficult to ascertain exactly how scarce they are due to their secretive nature and densely wooded habitat.
The most effective way of establishing whether Long-eared Owls are present and likely to breed in an area is to choose a suitable habitat and go out late at night during February or March listening for calls. You will need to choose suitable weather conditions, and may need to do this many times before establishing if they are holding territory or not. Alternatively, it is possible to walk through a suitable forest during summer evenings and hear calling Long-eared owlets, which are fairly vocal when begging to be fed.
Wintering Long-eared Owls mainly use mature hedgerows in which to roost. Their excellent camouflage enables them to blend perfectly into the vegetation, and they will usually remain motionless when they detect danger. They rarely fly from their hiding places when disturbed, so finding them whilst roosting is an incredibly difficult task. It is usually easier to wait until dusk when they will emerge to start hunting. These over-wintering birds are often more visual than those which remain in their breeding territories, as they will even hunt during daylight (often causing them to be mistaken for Short-eared Owls). They also form groups of individuals, which can sometimes build to substantial numbers of 10-15 (or more) birds.
5. Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
Where to look for Barn Owls
Barn Owls are widespread throughout the UK, but are scarce in most areas. There are several national strongholds in areas of southern Scotland, East Anglia, Norfolk and Somerset. They are birds of open countryside, so are the easiest of British Owls to watch. Being largely white in colour, they are also easily recognisable.
Barn Owls require areas of long, rough grassland over which to hunt. Hay meadows, riverbanks, set-aside fields and roadside verges all make ideal Barn Owl habitats. Whereas, intensive farms with heavy grazing, improved grassland and large arable fields are largely unsuitable. The most likely areas to find Barn Owls are farms with small fields of hay meadows, lightly grazed pasture and mature hedgerows.
Barn Owls are strongly territorial and remain in their breeding territories all year round.
When to look for Barn Owls
Barn Owls are mainly active during dusk and dawn, but will hunt throughout the night, and during the day when food is short. In the winter they are more likely to hunt during the day, as food will be scarcer and weather conditions less favourable. Their main hunting method is to quarter the fields within their territory, occasionally hovering and diving into the long grass when they hear prey. The long grass makes catching prey difficult and taking off after a dive can be very hard work. This all combines to make hunting very energy consuming for Barn Owls (unlike other species like Tawny Owls which conserve energy) so they must feed often. A Barn Owl cannot live for more than a few days without food, so when rain and bad weather prevents nocturnal hunting they must hunt opportunistically.
What to Listen for
The main call of the Barn Owl is a long, hissing scream, which is usually delivered in flight. The purpose of the scream is to display territorial occupation, and to attract a mate. There are also a range of quieter chirping noises uttered between males and females, usually as part of the pair bonding process.
Barn owlets are very noisy when in the nest, using a rasping hiss to beg for food. They will also hiss loudly when threatened, so if you hear something sounding like an excited rattle snake coming from a tree, box or building move quickly away for the area. Adult Barn Owls are very prone to disturbance and would rather desert their nests than attack an intruder (unlike other owl species). If you do stray too close to an occupied nest at night the male Barn Owl will often fly overhead screaming, another clear indication that you should retreat.
Watching Barn Owls
Once a suitable Barn Owl habitat has been identified you can simply watch over the potential hunting ground at dusk from a suitably hidden vantagepoint. Barn Owls will be more active at certain times of the year than other, especially when they have hungry young to feed. They can have large broods (sometimes up to 8 or 9) which remain in the nest until they can fly. This puts enormous pressure on the parents, who must catch prey continuously throughout the night and return with it to the nest. This makes identifying active nest sites relatively easy, and a suitable observation position can then be established. You must ensure that you are well hidden from all angles (using a hide is always a good idea) and must not get too close to the nest itself.
Weather conditions must be considered when planning to watch Barn Owls. They are unable to hunt in the rain, as the water makes silent flight (which is so essential to their hunting success) impossible. Rain also soaks the long grass and makes taking off after a dive very difficult.
Barn Owls are a Schedule 1 Specially Protected Species, so their nest site and contents are protected by law and must not be disturbed except under licence - this also applies to photographing Barn Owls at their nest.
6. Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca)
Where and when to look for Snowy Owls
Although British listed, Snowy Owls have not bred in the UK since the 1970’s. They are, however, occasionally present in Scotland and northern England, particularly during bad winters when they move south from their arctic breeding grounds. Scanning the monthly birdwatching reports and birdwatching magazines is the easiest way of finding out if there are any present.
What to watch and listen for
The Snowy Owl is a ground nesting and roosting bird. Its size and colouration can make it easy to spot when flying or resting in open areas, except when the area is blanketed with snow. Its calls are a series of long whistling screams.
The observation of owls should be enjoyable for the observer, without the need to disturb their subject. All British owls are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which prohibits the disturbance of nesting birds in any way. You must not get close to an active nest or roost site. If you wish to collect pellets this must be done outside of the breeding season and when the owls are away hunting. Nest checking and ringing can only be done by licenced individuals with the necessary experience and knowledge. Watching nest sites must be done from a suitably hidden location, at a sensible distance away. Being seen by an adult bird returning with food for its mate and/or young can be dangerous for the observer and disastrous for the owlets.
It is also vitally important that owls are not disturbed whilst hunting, as this could mean that they go without food at a vital time.
Please remember that above all else you are observers, who are privileged to be watching such a magnificent group of birds. You must respect the Owl species that you are watching and let them carryout their normal behaviour in peace. Never interfere with their nesting or hunting activities, and always watch from a safe position.
Useful Study Tools
Binoculars and telescopes
Good pair of binoculars and/or a decent telescope is essential pieces of equipment for any naturalist. They should be strong, but small and lightweight.
boxes are excellent conservation tools, which can also help to encourage
Owls to nest in accessible places to enable us to conduct important
studies. (more details coming soon in the mean time visit www.specialisednestboxes.co.uk)
The British Trust for ornithology runs wild bird ringing schemes, under licence from the Joint Nature Conservancy Council (JNCC). Ringing young owls (whilst still in the nest) provides valuable data, which can help us to plan future conservation strategies for individual species. From rings returned after an owl has died we can discover where it had travelled to (and the distance and possible routes involved), how long it lived and how it died. All of which is very useful information for conservationists.
Night Vision Devises
Night vision devises are becoming more freely available and cheaper all the time. However, they are still relatively expensive, and can be lacking in quality. If you are lucky enough to acquire an ex-military or good quality set of infrared equipment it can be an incredibly useful tool when watching nocturnal wildlife like owls. You can gain an insight into their behaviour which very few people are fortunate enough to see.
Telemetry tracking is sometimes used when a wild owl is captured (under licence) and fitted with a small transmitter. The observer has a receiver which locates and tracks the owls movements until it falls off or the batteries run out. This is a great tool for studying the home range or territory of individual owls, and can give us better understanding of the hunting ranges and behaviours.
A small digital camera tied to a long pole, with a hand-held monitor, is a useful aid when checking nest sites. It enables the observer to quickly identify the number and age of any chicks with the minimum of disturbance to the birds. It also allows for a large number of nests to be checked in a short space of time, as it is quicker and more efficient than carrying ladders for miles across the countryside.
Cameras (particularly video cameras) are also valuable for recording observations and any diurnal behaviour.
Remember - only licenced people are allowed near active nests.
Global Positioning Systems (GPS)
I find that this technology is increasingly being used in conservation. It can be very useful for giving accurate positions on nest sites and boxes, particularly when you are in unfamiliar territory and barren landscapes (like those used by nesting Short-eared Owls). It is also a useful safety device, as it gives an accurate position if you ever get into difficulty.
Placing cameras into bird nests is not a new idea, but beaming the live pictures onto the internet is. The technology now available allows us to gain an insight into the breeding behaviour of some of our most secretive birds. In 1999 and 2000 I helped the BBC to set-up and run a live webcam from inside a wild Barn Owl nest. This did not disturb the birds in any way, but it enabled us (along with millions of other people around the world) to watch and study behaviour that had never been seen before.
Of course this was all done under special licence from English Nature, and was carefully monitored to ensure that no disturbance occurred. It was very successful, and some of the sensational pictures can be seen below:
The owlets at three-four weeks of age
An adult returning with a large field Vole
(standing right in front of camera)
Two fully feathered owlets roosting during the day
Views of fully-fledged owlets waiting for their parents
to begin hunting at dusk - taken by outside camera.
Pictures taken during ‘Owlcam 2000’ - with kind permission of BBCi Nature Now BBC Online
Science and Nature
BACK TO HOME PAGE