Owls - Shetland Nature Diary - March 2010

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Early spring truly is a very special time of year indeed. Even though signs of spring are often slow to arrive and indeed subtle when they do, they are among the most momentous of the year. Whether it is the first Skylark in song, frogspawn in your garden pond or Celandines and primroses beginning to appear - at last, these are the signs of 'spring in the air'.

Further afield stirrings of spring have usually already sprung by the time we notice and for birds especially. March is often the month when typically we begin to see the first of the migrant species of birds passing through, most of them on there return to Northern breeding grounds. Amongst the birds you are likely to visit your garden at this time might include Robin, Chaffinch, Siskin, Greenfinch, Brambling or maybe even a scarcer Hawfinch or Yellowhammer.

There is something quite magical and mysterious about an owl

There is one family group of birds that is sure to draw interest, even for those with little or no ornithological interests and that is owls. There is something quite magical and mysterious about an owl; their staring eyes, circular face, silent flight and of course their nocturnal habits are among the many attributes, which make owls so appealing.

In Shetland we have only two species of owl regularly or commonly recorded, the Long-eared and the Short-eared owl. Long-eared owl is probably the most commonly recorded of the two species. Autumn is also a good time for birds passing through and you often find that birds that arrive later in the autumn often over winter when it is not unusual for birds to seek out the same mature gardens and plantations each winter.

The number of birds that may spend the winter here is usually a reflection of weather conditions or food distributions in their normal wintering grounds. I remember one winter several years ago when up to seven roosted in a sheltered sycamore garden, a truly awesome sight- all randomly perching on branches in one corner of the garden. It has been known for double figures to be recorded in one plantation in Shetland. They have even been recorded attempting to breed in Shetland on more than one occasion.

Like their name would suggest, Long-eared owls have prominent 'ear tufts' above each ear. These feathers, up to an inch long are nothing more that decorative features which in flight are held flat. Like all species of owl, Long-eared owls are magnificently camouflaged and can be near impossible to see whilst roosting. Unlike their shorter eared and daytime hunting counterparts, Long-eared owls are nocturnal feeders.

During the day they are most likely to roost in a secluded and often out of view corner. If found they are best left in peace, after all who wants to be woken up in the middle of a deep sleep! On a calm, clear moonlit night you may even be lucky enough to watch these majestic nocturnal hunters in action.

About Brydon Thomason

Brydon runs a specialist wildlife guiding service that focuses on all aspects of Shetlands exhilarating natural history for individuals, couples or small groups (maximum of 6), specialising in: otter watching, bird watching, wild flowers, boat trips and much more. Read more about these trips at www.shetlandnature.net

Having lived in the Shetland all his life, Brydon is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable naturalists in the isles. He welcomes any questions or comments on the monthly nature diary and should you require any information on any aspect of Shetland's natural history please contact Brydon

View Brydons otter watching blog by visiting http://shetlandotterwatching.blogspot.com