Wildlife: Secrets of a muted hooter

You seldom see long-eared owls - which is why one man's quest to find out more about Britain's most secretive bird of prey turned into a feat of endurance, writes Matthew Brace

A deep hoot in the night - like air blowing over the top of a glass bottle - signals the presence of one of Britain's rarest and most beautiful owls. Secretive and strictly nocturnal, the long-eared owl (asio otus) is at home in woods near rough grassland. Its reclusive nature and excellent camouflage make it devilishly hard to find, which has meant previous studies of this species have been difficult - and results limited.

However, recent research by Robert Williams of the University of East Anglia in Norwich has revealed important new information about this elusive bird of prey. Dr Williams has found more evidence to suggest that Britain has a self-supporting resident population but also fears that the bird is suffering a decline in numbers.

A self-supporting resident population has been suspected by scientists and ornithologists but Dr Williams's evidence is the strongest yet to prove it exists. "There have been records of long-eared owls here for years. All the places in East Anglia ending in Hoo were named after the call of the male long-eared owl," Dr Williams said. "It was not known whether all the winter migrants returned to Scandinavia in the spring or whether some stayed here to breed."

Many long-eared owls still make that perilous journey each spring from Britain to their northern breeding grounds. Their numbers vary from year to year, with peaks every three to five years. But Dr Williams discovered that those owls living in southern England, where prey is more consistent and reliable, seem to be resident year-round.

"If it is a particularly poor year for prey or an especially harsh winter, the resident birds will moderate their breeding and maybe not even breed at all," he said.

During his PhD study, Dr Williams also discovered that long-eared owls have lower juvenile and adult survival rates than tawny owls, which are doing well at the moment, and that the UK population was dwindling, with the major causes of death being predation, starvation and bad weather, as well as increasing numbers being killed on the road.

"They do seem to have declined this century. We don't know what their natural level is because they are so secretive, but the Victorian naturalists talked about them as if they were much more widespread than they are today.

"The naturalist C B Ticehurst said they were more common in parts of the south than the tawny owl," Dr Williams added. "As the tawny has increased in numbers recently, the long-eared owl has appeared to decline. We still don't know if there is a connection between the two. We also know about the decline from local county bird reports. They don't breed at all in Cornwall and there are very few pairs in the south west of England. It is estimated there are between 1,000 and 10,000 pairs in the UK now. My guess would be around 2,000 pairs."

The chief reason behind the decline is the problem affecting many bird species - agricultural and land-use changes which have meant the destruction of the blackthorn scrub and fenland of the long-eared owl's natural habitat. The owl is a vole specialist and relies on this rough grassland for hunting.

Dr Williams is keen to draw attention to the plight of the species and possibly get it registered as a bird of concern. During his three-year study he found 24 nests with eggs (indicating a breeding pair) and went to extraordinary lengths to get those results, spending nine months in the wilds of Kielder Forest in Northumbria, living owl hours, with only one trip home every four weeks, and braving an icy Force Six wind on the Old Hall Marshes in Essex.

"Radio tracking long-eared owls is really difficult because their range is so great," Dr Williams explained. "They are not like tawny owls, which fly from perch to perch to hunt for food, they hunt while flying over open grassland. The only way to follow them is to run after them, so I spent many nights running across wild moorland trying to keep them in range. I fell down pits and holes and into bogs. I was stopped by the police several times when farmers called in to say they'd seen this character running across the moors adjacent to their land in the middle of the night."

He also had some close encounters with his subjects. While he was ringing chicks in a nest, one female long-eared owl made fly-pasts near the nest, clipping the back of his head with her wings, trying to scare him off.

But despite the hardships, he brought home results which will go some way in helping us to understand this most elusive of birds and to ensure its survival.

To find out more about long-eared owls, contact the Hawk and Owl Trust's education centre on 01494 876262 and look out for a book, `The Long-eared Owl' by Derrick Scott (Hawk and Owl Trust, pounds 17.95).

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Practitioner - Faringdon

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunity for you to jo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Developer - Cirencester - £29,000

£25000 - £29000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have be...

Recruitment Genius: Primary School Sports Coach

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Calling all talented Level 2 qu...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project