Short Eared Owls

Skomer Island is a favourite haunt of the short-eared owl, which should come as no surprise as this particular species of owl loves voles, and the unique `skomer vole’ is bigger than its mainland cousins.

Summer visitors to the island may be lucky enough to spot an owl quartering low over the central plain, its moth-like or bat-like erratic flight distinctive. This floppy flight action is due to its irregular wingbeats and it flies only a foot or two above the ground. from which height its sudden appearance takes its prey by surprise. It prefers voles but will also take young rabbits, long-tailed field mice, young birds, beetles and grasshoppers. Although it is mainly nocturnal the short-eared owl  hunts in broad daylight during preiods of high activity among voles and young rabbits. During his time on Skomer Island the naturalist and author Ronald Lockley wrote of many sightings of long-eared owls and noted their behavioural idiosyncracies, such as their strange and striking ‘song-flight’ recorded in April, in both morning and evening. He recorded: “One bird would rise until it was estimated to be as much as seven hundred feet up (other estimates on various occasions varied between two and five hundred feet). It would circle, then suddenly clap its wings several times beneath the body, at once falling vertically; the clap of the wings was likened to a ratchet by one watcher. Usually the bird rose again, circled, clapped its wings again, then uttered the hooting ‘boo-boo-boo’ as many as twelve times in succession. The mate of the displaying bird meanwhile remained below activelty quartering the ground from a low level.” He added: “Mating frequently followed the return of the aerial exhibitionist to earth, even when in May the pair were known to have well-grown young.” Sadly, the owls’ three young on that occasion did not survive, for, as soon as they left the nest, in the bracken near the north stream, they were killed by gulls before they were able to fly. They had probably blundered into the nesting-territory of the vicious black-backed gulls which were occupying the same area of bracken. The owls had evidently chosen the wrong nesting site, as having lost their brood, they resumed their display and ‘song-flight’ for about a week in June, but were frequently harrassed by the black-backed bullies as they circled over their nesting colonies. In good years, when the voles proliferate, the owls will rear a second brood. The much-quoted phrase ‘nature red in tooth and claw,’ is particularly appropriate to Skomer for much carnage is caused by the large gulls as well as the opportunist jackdaws. The young of puffin, shearwater and storm petrel are constantly attacked, and the bodies of young and adult birds are seen everywhere. Indeed, the owls will also attack young birds and the Little Owl is particularly partial to young storm petrels on neighbouring Skokholm.

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