Time for a ghost hunt
The clocks have gone back, the nights are drawing in and the weather is on the turn. However, this doesn’t mean the chances of seeing wildlife are gone. In fact, this time of year is fantastic for owl spotting.
As we head towards winter, barn owls, for example, will extend their hunting hours into daylight to find the extra food they need to get them through the colder months.
These beautiful birds of prey, with their heart-shaped faces and ghost-white feathers, are perhaps one of the UK’s most recognisable and cherished birds.
Barn owls can be spotted gliding through farmland, grassland, marshes, fens and cattle-grazed coastal fields, and they will even hunt alongside busy main roads.
Masters of stealth, these predatory birds have evolved many impressive adaptations that make them expert hunters of small mammals.
An old country name for this much-loved countryside bird is ‘hushwing’, which perfectly describes its silent, stealthy flight that helps it ambush unsuspecting prey.
This smooth, ghostly, near-silent flight is achieved thanks to the trailing edge of its wing feathers being covered in soft, comb-like serrations that trap air and absorb noise.
Barn owls have incredible eyesight, too, which is specialised for hunting at night in total darkness – it’s estimated their eyes are twice as sensitive to light as human eyes. They also possess camouflaged plumage, plus long legs and toes and sharp talons for snaring prey lurking in deep grass.
Their heart-shaped facial discs, meanwhile, help funnel sound into a pair of highly sensitive inner ears that allow the birds to detect tiny movements at ground level. In fact, barn owls are thought to have the most sensitive hearing of any animal in the world.
Interestingly, unlike other owls that hoot, barn owls make eerie screeching and hissing noises.
Generally, the best time to see them is at dawn and dusk on still, dry days. With such soft feathers, barn owl plumage isn’t particularly waterproof and so they birds tend to avoid hunting during rainfall.
In our region, Hockley Meadows Nature Reserve in Winchester and Farlington Marshes Nature Reserve near Portsmouth are known to attract barn owls – the latter also hosts winter migrant short-eared owls.
Always remember to watch and photograph birds responsibly by keeping a good distance from wildlife, leaving no trace, and keeping dogs on leads at all times when visiting nature reserves.
To learn more about barn owls and other local wildlife, visit the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust at website https://www.hiwwt.org.uk