Friday, 13 January 2017

In search of short-eared owls

Buwell Fen, Cambridgeshire, part of the National Trust's Wicken Fen
Short-eared owls (Asio flammeus) are winter visitors to my part of the world in Eastern England. I remember watching one hunting on my local patch some years ago. I know that Burwell Fen (part of the National Trust's Wicken Fen) is a good place to see wintering short-eared owls, and I've seen lots of lovely photos over the past few weeks, taken by people in the know and with long lenses I presume!

I decided to take an afternoon out and go look for some owls myself, and I was not disappointed...

The afternoon was cool, with patches of blue sky at first, but by the time I arrived at Wicken it was looking more cloudy. I walked over to Burwell Fen, enjoying some good views of teal, widgeon, shovellers and a pintail duck on Baker's Fen en route. Last time I was there Baker's Fen was very muddy and the water level quite low, but there was plenty of water, and plenty of wildfowl, this time. At Burwell Fen I perched myself on a bench on a viewpoint overlooking the fen; a bit exposed and chilly, but a good place for a quick sketch.

Ink and wc sketch of Burwell Fen, sketched in situ with colour added later
This high point on the otherwise flat fen is courtesy of an in-progress 'livestock bridge'; it's being constructed to connect Burwell Fen to the rest of the Trust's land, allowing the Konik ponies and Highland cattle freedom to roam and graze across all of the National Trust's land there. The cattle were around but distant, and a herd of about 30 Konik ponies was milling around the water. A heron stalked the edge of the water, and a little egret flew past in the gloomy light.

Konik ponies, Burwell Fen

Konik pony, Burwell Fen

Konik ponies, Burwell Fen
Little egret, Burwell Fen

Eventually I spotted an owl off in the distance (helped by also spotting a couple of birders/photographers with scopes/cameras pointing in that direction!). I decided on a walk along the track through the fen, and was rewarded with two owls hunting, one on either side of me (hard to know which to watch!). My photos weren't great - it was quite gloomy by this point, with sunset approaching and a lot of cloud cover - but just watching the birds was a real treat. They have very long wings and look quite pale in the dusk, and fly back and forth over an area thoroughly, occasionally diving into the scrubby undergrowth in pursuit of a vole or similar. In all there were, I think, three owls on the fen that afternoon; on occasion there can be many more (15 were recorded one year!). They can be seen all day, but your best chance is early morning, or late afternoon in the hour or so before sunset.

Short-eared owl, Burwell Fen

Short-eared owl, Burwell Fen

As the sun went down (still pretty much behind clouds!) and the light faded, I headed back towards Wicken Fen. A barn owl flew over, and a muntjac deer crossed the path just in front of me. In the gloom I could see and hear a huge number of rooks and jackdaws overhead - evidently I was close to a flight path into a roost. There seemed to be thousands of noisy corvids in the air; quite a sight and sound, and a great finish to a really good afternoon.

Short-eared owl ink sketches from photos

Short-eared owl ink sketches from photos


  1. Fantastic! What a magical experience. We have a local barn owl here and lots of Tawnies, but I've never seen a short-eared. Wonderful stuff.

    1. Yep, it was pretty good! They are quite big owls, lovely to watch,and there's always plenty of other things going on round and about. A good afternoon out all in all.