Serendipity I – The Short Eared Owl

Serendipity struck on Sunday a couple of weeks ago. I’d fixed up to go for a stroll with an old friend who I hadn’t seen for a few years to Wicken Fen. That was on the 20th May, but he got his Sundays confused and we ended up going on the 13th.

It was serendipitous because the weather had been grim leading up to that weekend but on the evening of the 13th it was perfect: sunny, warm, calm and we couldn’t have wished for better conditions. And on top of that there was wildlife in abundance. As we got out the car the air was full of swifts screeching overhead – lots and lots of them – along with swallows and house martins. Various species of geese and ducks and great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) were on the lakes, and we were serenaded by cettis warbler (Cettia cetti, Dansk: cettisanger), grasshopper warbler (Locustella naevia, Dansk: græshoppesanger) and other songbirds in the undergrowth, and a snipe drummed in the reed bed. Snipe (Gallinago gallinago, Dansk: dobbeltbekkasin) make this sound by spreading their tail feathers and the wind generates the piping sound by making them vibrate.

Wicken fen is a really good place to see birds of prey too: marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg), hobby (Falco subbuteo, Dansk: lærkefalk), kestrel (Falco tinunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk), sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) and assorted owls can all be seen there. We had been commenting how the birds of prey were conspicuous by their absence and a few minutes later we spotted a hobby perched on a fence post. As we wallowed in our good fortune I spotted an owl behind a tree which emerged right in front of us and it turned out to be a short eared owl:

Short eared owl, Asio flammeus (Dansk: mosehornugle)

I thought our short eared owls were winter visitors, migrating to the relative warmth of the UK from the frozen icefields of Scandinavia and returning in the Spring. But it transpires they are also resident breeders in the east and north of England and the east of Scotland so can be seen here all year round.

This one treated us to several minutes worth of hunting, flying to and fro and diving down into the reeds in search of rodents.

I last saw short eared owls at Burwell Fen, east of Cambridge, several months ago when there was a large number of Scandinavian visitors in residence. While we were there we chatted to a BBC camerman who was there to film them for a TV nature series. I think he would have got some good footage on that day but I’m sure he would have been pleased to get this close to one!

Like all owls, it’s a hunter which is supremely evolved for its particular function.

And then on the journey home, continuing the owl theme, there was a barn owl taking the lazy approach to rodent hunting:

Barn owl numbers have been on the decline for a long time and the exceptionally cold winters of 2009 and 2010 badly affected them. We didn’t see one at Wicken which surprised me because I usually see at least one when I’m there at that time of the evening, so it was good to find this one perched on an advertising hoarding alongside the road home.

I’m a firm believer in serendipity playing her part in human endeavour and she adequately rewarded us on this excursion!

27 responses to “Serendipity I – The Short Eared Owl

  1. One word – wow. Excellent photos as ever Finn. Shorties especially are one of my favourites and you really captured them in flight so well.

    Can I ask, what camera do you use? I’m sure we may have had this discussion before but I seem to have forgot…

    • Thanks Woody, it was one of those classic wildlife moments which just suddenly happened and it was over in a minute but left me with some terrific pictures. Shorties are ace aren’t they! And if you see one close by and stand still they’re not the most difficult to photograph, albeit one of the most enjoyable birds to photograph! Up until a couple of months ago I was using a Nikon D40x with the Nikon 70-300mm zoom lens but I’ve recently bought a Canon 7D for which I’m saving up for the 100-400mm zoom lens. Feel free to ask if you think of any other photographic questions, I love chatting about photography!

  2. Awesome photos. I have never seen anything like these photos.

    • Thankyou very much for your comment. I was very pleased with these pictures too, the owl just did its thing right in front of me. A great opportunity for some photography!

  3. Owls are some of my favorite birds, and it’s beautiful to see them in flight!

  4. Treat to the eye, and the brain.

    Just wondering. Are you noticing a decline in the numbers of predator birds? If yes, are you also seeing a concomittant decline in prey? I’m also wondering how much of an effect subtle changes in the climate have on this balance?

    • I guess it depends what you mean by predator birds. As far as raptors go, I’d say the answer is no. There have been many success stories with birds of prey over the last 2-3 decades such as the sparrowhawk, peregrine falcon, red kite and buzzard. These days I regularly see all of these species as they have increased dramatically in numbers and/or range, both under their own steam and with human asistance, e.g. the red kite. I think climate change will ultimately affect the raptors as prey species die out in their traditional ranges but carrion feeders such as kites and buzzards may still be OK. I think it’s such a complex equation it’s very difficult to predict all the consequences. Suffice it to say the changes are likely to be profound and alot of them won’t be good 😦

  5. Excellent tale there Finn and some fantastic images to boot.

    Kind Regards


  6. Dear Finn, what fantastic shots! I would be giddy with delight if I had such a wonderful spectacle before my very eyes and camera! Thank you and again I learnt a whole lot more here. Sharon

    • Hello Sharon, it was really special to see the owl so close, it flew over us around 10-15m away so I could really see how big it was. And it was a very impressive bird!

  7. Wow, wow, wow! Two owl species in one day. I’ve only ever seen owls a handful of times in my life (although I often hear them at night). Great shots, Finn!

    • Thanks Ruth. It was one of those evenings that will stick in the memory, it’s always exciting to see owls, and as you say, two species in an evening is a real treat 🙂

  8. Brilliant, Alice will love these pictures!!

  9. I hope you are planning for an enlargement of the fourth shot of the short-eared owl to be on display in a place of prominence in the near future. That is a spectacular photograph!

  10. Wonderful pictures Finn, and how fantastic to see not only one owl species, but two! I would be well chuffed if that had been me, I’m glad you had such a serendipitous experience!

  11. I really enjoy your posts ~ the writings as much as the photos. 🙂

    • Thanks for your feedback Sofia, jolly nice of you to say so. I sit here sccribbling away and wondering whether I’m doing things right, so it’s nice to get positive comments like this.

  12. Fantastically serendipitous!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. Wonderful, wonderful! What an amazing experience! I love the clarity of the owl’s eye in the 4th shot.

    • Hello Melanie, I was pleased to get the eye as clearly as that. As a rule of thumb, owls with yellow eyes are day hunters, and those with dark eyes are night time hunters. And as the short eared owl is a daytime hunter so I wanted to show the yellow eyes, compared to the nocturnal barn owl which has dark eyes.

  14. Lovely shots, yes serendipity was with you.

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