Short-eared owls: their magic and majesty

Blog post by Oscar Lawrence on 12 Feb, 2024

The light breeze buffets smoke-grey clouds across the eggshell-blue sky, traipsing in their endless cycle of travel. The lush, verdant grasses begin to wither to buff, and banks of reed flutter their feathery tips.


But concealed in the long winter tussock is the king of camouflage - a short-eared owl. Its complex plumage incorporates ash-grey and chocolate brown, woven together into the perfect disguise. Set in coal-black sockets, a pair of icy lemon eyes drift about, intent on spotting prey. Suddenly the bird lifts up into the air. It floats effortlessly on the whispering wind. Twists, turns and banks over the meadow, its wings glint gold. The manoeuvrability, agility, majesty! I can't get over it. I just love them.


The short-eared owl is probably my favourite British bird. Not many people have seen one of these elusive nomads, which only occupy very specific areas. They like to breed on high moorlands in the north and west, but migrate down to Norfolk's marshes, dunes and heaths in the winter.


They are similar in shape to barn owls, but are considerably larger. The underwings and belly are creamy unmarked buff, whereas the upperside is marbled straw-brown. The prominent, round facial disk, used for amplifying sound, shows lemon-yellow eyes surrounded by black, which always give the bird a disgruntled look! Their wings span about a metre, making them our largest owl. They also frequently hunt in broad daylight, meaning they are easier to see than other owls.


Short-eared owl flying over Rockland Broad (c) Jacob Kenworthy

Short-eared owl flying over Rockland Broad (c) Jacob Kenworthy

"Shorties" are also our only owl to nest on the ground, and do so with minimal effort. Their "nest" can barely be defined as such: just a scrape in the ground sometimes lined with grass. The devotion!


To hunt, short-eared owls require long, untamed grasslands, and each year populations fluctuate massively. Why? Because of a tiny rodent called the short-tailed vole. 90% of these owls' diet is made up of these balls of fur not 12cm long, and when vole numbers decrease, so do the owls and so on. This vole year must have been good, because record numbers of shorties have arrived in the UK this year from the Continent. At this time, most Shorties have slowly inched west across the country to find habitat anew, but some remain. 


Finding these birds takes patience, a keen eye and, most of all, luck. Any rough grassland can yield owls on autumn migration, if you know what to look for. So, I give you the challenge of tracking down one of these charismatic creatures of the moors. Good luck and happy birding!

Header image - Jacob Kenworthy

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