Displaying Owls

A Teesdale bird in 2012.
A Teesdale bird in 2012.

Can’t resist making a quick mention of the short eared owls which have suddenly appeared on ground near the Chayne. I had a fantastic time watching two pairs displaying over the long grass last week, and having lost track of the time in my enthusiasm, I realised that I had been sitting for two hours when the darkness came on the first spots of cold rain came out of the East. During that time, I had seen almost the full range of breeding behaviour and borne witness to some of the most curious noises I’ve ever heard.

A particularly breath-taking spectacle was the sight of all four owls suddenly rising to a tremendous height and engaging in an outright fight. Clumps of feathers blew off downwind, and two owls bound their talons together and fell in a vertical spiral down towards the ground. There was an extraordinary impression of weightlessness to these birds as they span head-first in a freefall, and although they only fell for sixty or seventy feet, my heart was in my mouth. This happened twice, and each time there was a strange, scarcely audible booing sound over the rustling, wind-raked grass. It is fashionable to lavish praise on the display flights of the hen harrier, but these owls put on a show that would have totally eclipsed even the most ardent “sky-dancer”.

In due course, the owls returned to hunt, pausing now and again to circle round and exchange bizarre, yapping calls. I am besotted with short eared owls, and if there was never another blackcock in the world, I would happily spend my days following these birds instead.

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