Much like the Barn Owl, the Short-eared Owl is a cosmopolitan species that can be found across the globe, apart from the continents of Antarctica and Australia. In Britain, it is a species closely associated with open country – moors, marshes, grassland and dunes for example, which separates it somewhat from the other owls which are more arboreal. Although they do breed in the north of the country and near the coasts, it is really winter which is the best time to see them throughout Britain. This is a partially migratory and sometimes nomadic species, with northern populations in Scandinavia and Iceland moving south, including to the UK, to spend the winter, which bolsters the local population by many thousands. As I live in the far south of England, it is only really in the depths of the cold season that I get a chance to find one of these beautiful owls, but they are well worth the wait each year. 

Their scientific name Asio flammeus translates as ‘flame-coloured eared owl’ and although the ‘ears’ (just feather tufts) in this species are hardly visible, the flame part is more understandable.  If you see one of these gorgeous birds flying whilst the sun is still up (as they often do) then the bright golden patch that illuminates the primary feathers on each wing is clear even from a distance. In fact, it is hard to mistake this species for any other given a reasonable view; they are much larger and longer-winged than Tawny or Little owls and their colouration is quite different from a Barn Owl. Even the superficially similar Long-eared Owl has enough differences to tell them apart, not to mention Short-eared Owls are much more common.

It is difficult to predict a sighting of this owl unless an individual has wintered in one spot for weeks, as they roam widely through the winter months and their numbers can vary hugely from year to year depending on the prey population. Even so, some places are more likely to turn an owl up than others; coastal sites are good, especially undeveloped coasts with grassland or marshes, river valleys can also attract them and during migration headlands (on the east coast especially) are places to watch.

The first Short-eared Owl I ever saw was in Kent, at the then RSPB-run Elmley marshes reserve in the Thames estuary, on a typically windy, freezing day in that tree-less land. My friend and I had been sitting in a hide overlooking a small pool, which if I remember rightly didn’t have many birds on it. It was cloudy, but the sun was breaking through and lighting up the extensive grazing marsh in front of us – making the grey clouds appear black as soot. Without warning, we were both greatly surprised when a seemingly huge brown bird with wings as long as my arms swooped in front of the hide windows.

It rapidly disappeared around the corner of the hide and we both ran out the door as soon as we realised that it had been a Short-eared Owl which had just flown right past us. Seeing as the Elmley marshes are flat as a pond and totally lacking any bushes or trees the owl remained in sight for a good few minutes before it got too distant. Besides the lovely amber-coloured patch on the wings, these owls have a warm yellow-ish brown streaky plumage with a pale cream underside and barred tail. The head is quite striking, like a painted mask; its face is a rough circle lined with a ring of white, then it has honey-coloured cheeks and a white x-shaped center over the bill, with dark rings around each eye that accentuates the incredible glowing yellow colour of the iris.

SEO on a gate in April this year, Sussex

I have seen shorties quite a few times since then, although each encounter is a real treat and something I savour, as I do when I see any owl species, though shorties are quite a delight as they kindly fly during the hours of light. A particularly memorable meeting with a couple of Short-eared Owls was in the valley of the river Ouse in Sussex one winter. A walk down to the river one afternoon was rewarded by watching two owls hunting very closely over the fields, and with the sun behind them their expansive wings were lit up at each sweeping graceful turn by the cool January sunlight. Binoculars were not needed then and it was a delight to be witness to such charismatic, but deadly predators.

The above illustration is by Charles Tunnicliffe.