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Wildlife in Kingston: Long Eared Owl

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Even by 28th March, I was wondering how I’d find space for all the news in May’s Kingston News. I’d planned to mention the red kite which flew over Bramleys on 20th (a new addition to my garden list!) and the exciting appearance (only the second in Kingston as far as I know) of a lesser redpoll, in a garden in The Avenue. I might also have centred on the fact that skylarks and even a shivering yellowhammer were managing to sing on the Downs, in the teeth of snow showers and the relentless, biting east wind and the apparent complete absence, presumably because of the same weather, of any migrants. And then something quite extraordinary happened....

I got a phone call: a very unusual bird had been seen in the back garden of Myrtles, just off The Street. Would I like to go and see it? Dropping everything, my wife and I were there within less than five minutes and – incredibly – there it still was, perched on a fence. It had been in the garden then for some hours, occasionally flitting between a post and a compost heap. There were no trailing jesses and no indication that this was anything but a wild bird.
I couldn’t quite believe my eyes but the photographs (my wife’s – not mine) prove that I wasn’t dreaming and that this really was a long-eared owl – the first I’d ever seen, perhaps the first ever to appear in Kingston and an extremely unusual record for a garden anywhere in Britain. The British Trust for Ornithology receives only about half a dozen such reports in a typical year. Although long-eared owls are very widely distributed, they are very thin on the ground and there were thought to be no more than 600-2000 breeding pairs in England in the early 2000s. Very few of these are in Sussex. In fact, in the last couple of decades, there may only have been one or two pairs breeding in some years, and often none at all. Long-eared owls here are a little more numerous in the winter months but even so the average number recorded in a year is typically only around 12.

These are not large owls, being markedly smaller than the far more common tawny owl. The distribution pattern of the two species is interesting, with long-eareds doing best in places from which tawnies are absent, including Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Isle of Wight. This might suggest that the species are in competition with each other – or perhaps merely that tawny owls are reluctant to fly across bodies of water: certainly tawnies are the most sedentary of all the owls found in the UK.
Long-eared owls are generally nocturnal but may also be crepuscular (ie active at dawn and dusk). They feed mostly on small mammals like voles but also take some birds. They hunt from perches (as do little owls) but also take prey in flight. They nest in copses or patches of scrub as well as more extensive woodland areas, often making use of structures built by other birds – crows, sparrow hawks or pigeons, for example – or sometimes moving into a dray abandoned by a squirrel.

This is rather a quiet owl, on the whole, but its “song” – a very deep hooting, repeated at short intervals and growing louder with each repetition – is said to be eventually audible at distances of up to one kilometre.
The owl stayed only for one day. Where did it go then, I wonder and why did it choose this particular Kingston garden in the first place? I’ll be forever grateful that it did.

- Steve Berry