The silent life of the long-eared owl
PUBLISHED: 14:06 22 February 2010 | UPDATED: 11:45 28 February 2013
Now's the time to listen out for one of our shyest and most secretive owls, the pretty but diminutive long-eared owl
Of all our native owls, the long-eared owl, with its enchanting disc-shaped face, bark-brown plumage and characteristic, pointy ear tufts has always been one of the most difficult to see in the wild.
Hidden and silent for much of the time, its hardly surprising weve almost forgotten it exists, eclipsed, as it has been, in the conservation spotlight by the better-known barn owl and the tawny owl of tu-whit tu-whoo fame.
Northumberland is great long-eared owl country and March is a great time to hear them if youre out and about because the male and female are calling to each other and are wing-clapping, says Hawk and Owl Trust conservation officer and natural history broadcaste,r Chris Sperring.
He is working hard to raise awareness of this secretive bird of prey throughout the country and this year will be carrying out a survey of them in an attempt to get a clearer handle on just how many of these rare, often-overlooked, owls remain in the wild.
If ever an owl needed a great PR guru its the long-eared owl and theres no better man to champion their cause than Chris. He is passionate in making the case for their protection, before they disappear from our woodlands altogether and would now like to see rehabilitated long-eared owls being released back into the wild in new areas of habitat that hes recently been helping create for them.
He told us that despite a staggering 50 per cent drop in their numbers since the fifties, largely as a result of habitat loss, this pretty and diminutive bird of prey is not red-listed, nor protected by Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act as some of our other owls are.
Because these birds are so elusive theyre notoriously difficult to study, he suggests, so accurate statistics on the exact population are hard to get hold of. You come across estimates that range wildly from 5,000 to 1,500 breeding pairs, but nobody really knows, he explains. There are so many things we still dont know about these birds, but what we do know for sure is that theyre in trouble.
Although theyre extremely shy you can sometimes see them in the winter months when the birds gather together in large numbers at roost sites. In County Durham, for example, theres one such communal roost site which in winter sees a gathering of up to 70 long-eared owls, says Steve Lowe, head of conservation for Northumberland Wildlife Trust.
Funnily enough the first owl I saw in 2010 was a long-eared owl. Its hard to say exactly how theyre doing locally. Theyre very successful in new plantations when theres a boom in the vole population and they do seem to do reasonably well in places like Kielder, adds the conservation expert.
The problem remains, however, that even where were creating new habitats for them, while other species are responding well in these areas, such as the nightjar, the long-eared owls arent, says Chris Sperring.
Perhaps this is because were beginning to see the start of localised extinctions. Theres a remnant population but no new blood. We havent suddenly got a Utopia of them, he continues.
I think a possible solution, when were recreating habitat like this, might be to try putting back rehabilitated long-eared owls into the wild rather than going down the route of captive-bred ones. It has worked in one area of the country with little owls where weve repopulated the site with them and we could do the same with the long-eareds, he adds.
Certainly the people who rehabilitate the birds seem keen for their re-habbed birds to be involved in a conservation project like this.
If youre going to be out and about after dark this month and want to listen for the birds when theyre at their most vocal it might help to know the males call is a drawn out hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo, repeated every few seconds when proclaiming his territory, while the females is a much more mellow shoo-oogh.
If thats no help, the males call sounds a bit like someone blowing over the top of a narrow-necked bottle, while the females call is like someone blowing through a tissue paper and comb.
If youre still struggling, think of a squeaky gate, as the owls calls have also been compared to this sound. Here in the North East the birds will be calling from around 8 or 9pm and are best heard on the woodlands edge.
If you think youve actually spotted one, count yourself lucky. Long-eared owls can make themselves appear very thin and they will even fold down their facial disk and turn a wing against their paler breast feathers to remain hidden, making them extremely hard to spot.
Theyre smaller and slimmer than tawny owls, have prominent ear tuft feathers which are raised when the owl is alarmed or wants to appear threatening.
The tufts have nothing to do with hearing but instead help make the owl look bigger and assist in camouflage. Long-eared owls also have beautiful bright amber-orange eyes, streaky brown plumage and conspicuous round faces. They really are one of our most striking owls.
Steve Lowe explains that long-eared owls preferred habitat for roosting and nesting are small conifer plantations surrounded by rough grassland, copses, woodland edges, thorn thickets and tall hedges near open country.
When creating new habitats for the birds one of the more novel methods employed by the Hawk & Owl Trust has been the conversion of old garden hanging baskets into artificial nest-sites - a sort of starter home kit for the owls.
The baskets, interwoven with twigs just like a nest, work because unlike other owl species, long-eared owls dont nest in the hollows of trees, preferring old squirrel dreys or abandoned crows nests which these days are often in fairly short supply.
And to further improve the habitat for these birds, conservationists are now calling for more mosaic-style plantations of open grassland within existing forest plantations which would provide ideal hunting grounds for long-eareds.
Long-eared owls prefer a dual habitat of woodland vegetation for cover and open grassland for hunting heir main prey species - short-tailed voles. The Forestry Commission are already managing their land more for wildlife these days, but conservationists would like to see landowners open up more patches of forest and erect some revamped hanging baskets to encourage the owls to nest.
Steps like these can have a huge knock-on benefit for the bio-diversity of the whole forest, not just the owls, Chris Sperring adds.
If you would like more information about long-eared owls, or would like to feedback details on where you think pairs might be in your area you can contact the Hawk & Owl Trust at www.hawkandowl.org.
You can also follow the survey, which is primarily taking place in all forests in the south west, and how general conservation work on the birds is going on Chris Sperrings blog at http//:chrissperring.blogspot.com/