In this blog post we’ll talk about the four most regular owl species found in Speyside and in most of Britain. Because most of these are nocturnal, owls are something of an enigma. So let’s broaden our understand of these charismatic, elusive birds.
Tawny Owl (Strix Aluco)
This is the owl that makes the classic ‘twit-ti-woo’ noise. What you might not know is that only Tawny Owls make this sound and even then, only the males. The females make a loud shrieking sound. It is coloured a rich rufous and white, with some dark barring. The females are larger bodied. They are resident and sedentary meaning they don’t migrate, and being mostly a woodland species means they’re not inclined to make sea crossings like other owls. Hence, they’re absent from most islands including Ireland. They are particularly vocal in the autumn because they establish their territories around this time, which they defend throughout the winter to secure sites for the following spring’s breeding. They are highly territorial, so much so that if young of theirs don’t find a territory of their own when they’ve grown up, they run the risk of starvation. Their territories are typically between twelve to twenty hectares, the equivalent of nearly three football pitches. They have to be big in order to have enough Wood Mice and Bank Voles to hunt. They will also eat rabbits, small birds, beetles, earthworms, frogs and fish. Carrion can be eaten when times are hard.
They lay their eggs in late winter or early spring, usually two or three eggs are laid asynchronously, one every two days. The incubation period is around thirty days, and the young owls will hatch afterwards and will fledge after five weeks. Though they’ll stay close to the nest for up to three months. In this time, they’re going through their ‘branching’ phase of their development. They can’t fly properly, but they can hop from branch to branch. It’s not unusual to see young Tawny Owls on the ground, and if you come across them, no intervention is needed, they do not need to be rescued. They are just learning how to get about and their parents will be watching and can be very aggressive in defence of their young so be careful.
Barn Owl (Tyto Alba)
A bird of open country, this owl has a heart-shaped face that could fit into the palm of your hand. It’s coloured a pale golden brown on the back and white on the front. It has black eyes. Its feathers are soft and fluffy, which muffles the owl’s flight and lets it hunt in silence. It’s so silent that people who have tried to record the sound of its flight on sensitive microphones have picked up virtually nothing. This owl doesn’t hoot but can be heard hissing or even screeching. It hunts mice and voles, especially in grassy fields with tussocks of grass that the voles favour for feeding and hiding. It will happily roost in barns and other buildings, something the Tawny Owl seldom does.
Short-eared Owl (Asio Flammeus)
A diurnal owl, that is, one that comes out during the day. It is coloured yellow and brown, with black streaking, a pale belly and yellow eyes. It’s about the same size as a Barn Owl but is longer winged, with white edges to the wings. There is some light vertical black barring on the belly but not nearly as dense as it is on the Long-eared Owl. In any case there should be a sharp contrast to the colours of the neck and belly. Its ears, that give it its name are rarely visible, though they may be seen when erecting them in response to a threat. It has a buoyant flapping flight mixed with gliding.
These can hunt in moorland and fields, particularly in the summertime, looking for voles and small birds. They can also be found in coastal sand dunes especially in the winter, when birds from Europe escape the harsher winters there to have milder winters in the UK. It’s not a particularly vocal species, most of the time it doesn’t make a noise. Males, however, can make a rapid series of deep hoots with bill clattering, whilst not loud it can carry a long way. They can also make a grating sound when alarmed.
Long-eared Owl (Asio Otus)
The most secretive owl in the UK. It is darker brown, with darker yellowish markings. It differs from the Short-eared Owl in having orange, not yellow eyes. The white lines above its eyes that look like eyebrows, and brown streaks going through the eyes give them an ‘astonished’ look. It has dark barring all the way down the breast, with no sharp contrast between the neck and belly.
There are ear tufts as well, though they are tiny and unlikely to be seen unless the bird is perched. Has no white trailing edge to the wings when seen in flight, which the Short-eared Owl would have. This owl is a rare breeder in the UK, principally because of the Tawny Owl, whose aggression prevents them from living in closed woodland and makes do with marginal woodland habitats, particularly those bordering fields and moorland. It is less likely to be seen during daylight hours and tends to be active in total darkness. Males make a slow series of clear hoots which they do early in the year. When alarmed it can make a sneezing call, like someone blowing through a comb wrapped in paper.
It can make loud squeaking noises, and youngsters can yip loudly, which sounds like a squeaking gate hinge.
One final note on Long-eared and Short-eared Owls. You can see either species in very poor light, so if you can’t identify them because the light’s not good, don’t worry, it’s not always possible.
Our Guided Days Out can be a great way to get out with a knowledgeable guide to help you see our local owl species.