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Owl Watching In The Peak District

The Peak District has the ideal mix of habitat to attract just about every owl from the official British List, bar the Snowy Owl, (though winter conditions on the Kinder plateau do more resemble Iceland).

To start in the daytime and with the smallest; the Little Owl is to be encountered on farmland over most of the region, away from the moors.  The walker will sometimes flush a Little Owl from a hunting perch at any hour of the day, though they are more active at dusk.  The first thought is often, “Was that a thrush?”  Its back is the same colour as a Mistle Thrush and even its flight pattern is a little thrush-like, with heavy undulations; but the rounded wings give it away as an owl. 

Often it can be seen on a fence post, turning its head from side to side, scanning for small mammals, worms and beetles in the grass.  You may have to look twice; its plumage seems the perfect camouflage to make it seem like a rounded extension to a wooden post.  It is in this position that the enormous cat-like eyes can glimpsed and it becomes obvious why the ancient Greeks held the bird in such reverence, as a manifestation of the goddess Athene; goddess of wisdom, vision and foresight, amongst her other attributes.  You really can feel that some other-worldly being is staring into your very soul, when those dark, yellow-rimmed eyes are turned on you.

The fossil record shows that Little Owls existed in pre-historic Britain, but at some point became extinct, probably during a colder period.  They were reintroduced into Kent at the end of the nineteenth century and made it as far north as the Peak District during the 1920’s.  It’s good to see them back again.  The region abounds with their perfect habitat - rough farmland with scattered trees and plenty of nesting holes in tree hollows, cliffs and old walls; even old rabbit warrens are sometimes used.  The Derbyshire Dales area is an ideal place to look for them.

A similar habitat is favoured by the Barn Owl.  Almost twice the size of the Little Owl, These beautiful creatures seem to be doing quite well in the Peak District, though they are susceptible to harsh winters.  In fact a snowy winter’s day is often a good time to spot one, as they are often forced to hunt at all hours in search of food, when at other times they prefer the hours around dusk and dawn.  So the sight of one, with its silent white wings hovering or gliding over a snow-covered meadow produces mixed emotions; it is one of the most breath-taking scenes in nature, but also a sign that the bird is battling for survival.

The reason for their success in the Peak District would be down to an abundance of suitable old buildings as nest sites, (other parts of the country are simply becoming too tidy) and a good acreage of rough unimproved grassland where they can find many of the small rodents that make up the bulk of their diet.  They will also eat frogs, beetles, moths, small roosting birds and have even been observed plunging into water after fish.   One of the best places to find unimproved grassland, however, is along road verges and this leads to a high mortality rate from collisions with traffic; they have a tendency to fly just at car windshield height, often swooping over a hedge or wall to surprise their prey.    So, if you want to take an owl-walk at dusk, especially during the summer months, head for somewhere with very quiet country lanes.

One such place is below the village of Earl Sterndale in the upper Dove Valley, not far from Buxton, around the grassy hill of High Wheeldon, which is owned by the National Trust.

The Barn Owl is also known as the “Screech Owl” in some parts, as, unlike the other large owls, it does not hoot but emits the occasional blood-curdling scream - the stuff of superstition and legend.

The same size as the Barn Owl is the daytime-flying Short-eared Owl and the Peak District is a really excellent region in which to watch these rather uncommon birds.  Once again, their success here is due to the abundance of habitat; very rough grassland, moorland and bog.  Their diet relies to a very large part on field voles, and the fluctuation in vole numbers leads to a corresponding pattern in the owl population.  During the winter Short-eared owls from the continent will visit the region, escaping the worst of the weather over there, further increasing your chances of spotting one.

They are an enthralling sight, sometimes in pairs or small groups, soaring fairly high for an owl and quite often hovering over a likely tuft of moorland.  The wings are long and rounded, pale underneath but with a black crescent, known as a “carpal patch” near the “elbow” joint - this tells it apart from the Barn Owl; but really it is the daytime habit and nature of its hunting ground that are the big clues.  The nest is made amongst the grasses; the mother sitting tightly on the eggs, perfectly camouflaged, while her mate brings food.
Any of the high pastures of the Peak are good for Short-eared Owls, but grass and rush is better than heather.  Try the slopes of Shining Tor near the Cat and Fiddle above Buxton.

A very similar bird to the Short-eared is the Long-eared Owl.  Incidentally, the “ears” are not ears at all, but elongated tufts of feather used for display. Similar-looking they might be, easy to see they are not.  This is mainly because, unlike all the owls covered so far, they are exclusively nocturnal hunters, almost never venturing out of a roost, flattened against the trunk of a tree with the camouflage pattern of a giant moth.  Another reason for their apparent scarcity is their fondness for woodland rather than open country, and they show a preference for pine also.  The nest is made in a former crow’s nest, or a squirrel’s drey, so quite high up in the trees.  Your best hope of hearing one, (as spotting one is best left to chance) is to venture into some more mature pinewoods at night and listen for a long low hoot - more steady than a tawny owl.  It also gives a barking call at breeding time, while the young in the nest are said to make a noise like an unoiled hinge.  The woods around the Derwent Reservoirs might be a good place to start looking.  Good luck.

The owl you are most likely to hear in the Peak District, or anywhere else for that matter, is the Tawny Owl.  The call of the Tawny was famously captured by Shakespeare as “Tu-whit Tu-whu!”  The owl does not actually say this, or at least no single owl would.  It is thought that this is the sound of a female giving out a high pitched “Kevick!” and a male bird answering with “ooo…oo..oo.oo-ooo!”  Both are familiar sounds in parts of the region with enough old mature trees, often around villages and even in the middle of towns.  The calls are more often heard during the winter and early spring when the birds are settling out territorial and pairing disputes.  Like Long-eared Owls, Tawnies are mostly nocturnal, but they can often be flushed out of a roost during the day by smaller birds mobbing them.  In fact, this is quite a good why of finding one; listen out for a cacophony of small bird calls in an old tree and follow to its source.

You might find a collection of pellets at the base of its roosting tree and if you are not too squeamish, it can be fascinating to prise one of these apart to see what it has been eating.  The pellet contains all of the indigestible bits of its prey, so you may find teeth, beetle’s wings, fur; enough to put you off your dinner at any rate.

The Tawny is about half-way in size between the Little and Barn Owl, with soft, pale coffee-brown plumage and large, dark, staring eyes.  It is not likely to be seen gliding or hovering like the larger owls, but prefers to sit and watch from a perch before swooping on silent wings.

The last owl worth a mention is the controversial Eagle Owl.   Debate rages over whether it can be called a native species.  As with the Little Owl, there is fossil evidence for it in prehistoric times and many records from the seventeenth century onwards of birds being shot along the eastern side of England.  Plenty have escaped in recent times and set up nesting sites in old quarries in the Pennines;  but these are real monsters, (one having been recorded plucking a small dog from a street in Perth, Scotland) and not everyone is keen at the prospect of them making a come back in the wild.  But there again, it depends on what you class as “native”.  Suffice to say if you see an owl with a five-to-six foot wingspan, it’s an Eagle Owl, but probably an escapee and you should report it.

Simon Corble