Lancashire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust
Wildlife Correspondents
1:02 AM 11th November 2023

Autumn Wonders – Owls In The Half-Light

Amy Cooper from Yorkshire Wildlife Trust introduces the different types of owls one can spot at this time of year.

Long Eared Owl
© George Stoyle
Long Eared Owl © George Stoyle
Pick your way around fields or along a cliff top path, the ground cold and hard and the sky clear, fence posts glinting in the frozen morning. You might catch a blur of pale gold swoop down out of the gloam before the ghostly figure flaps slowly away on broad wings.

Winding through a woodland, the pinkening sky colouring behind the higher limbs of bare trees, you might reach a thicket and hear a low hoot overhead or away in the distant trees.

Owls are some of our most captivating birds. Easier to spot as they hunt at dawn and dusk, they retain a sense of mystery. In many cases, the sound of a far-off owl is far more common than the sight. Many who live in close proximity to a woodland or particularly large old tree will tell of the familiar, talkative and rich call of a tawny owl or two echoing through the night. An early morning or late evening ramble through farmland might be interrupted by the eerie call of a barn owl, or even more rarely deeper into the Dales the mewling call of a little owl.

There are five species of owl commonly found in Yorkshire, all of which you may be lucky enough to spot yourself if timing and luck are on your side. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s reserves offer ample opportunities and you’ll find more information and directions on the website.

Barn Owl
© Danny Green 2020VISION
Barn Owl © Danny Green 2020VISION
The barn owl, a pale and slender owl of white and golden brown, has a white, heart-shaped facial disk with dark eyes which makes it very distinctive. They are usually seen over grassland or farmland, and often fly back and forth over fields at dawn and dusk, although you may spot one hunting during the day if food has been scarce. They make a ghostly screeching sound which can be a bit disconcerting if unexpected!

Try North Cave Wetlands, Wheldrake Ings or Ashes Pasture nature reserves for a glimpse of a barn owl – dawn or dusk if possible.

Tawny Owl
© Elliott Neep
Tawny Owl © Elliott Neep
Tawny owls are mostly brown and fairly compact with a large, rounded head a narrow, darker wedge extending down between the large black eyes. They are often seen in woodlands and only fly short distances from tree to tree, preferring to swoop down onto prey on the ground. They are largely nocturnal and have a rich repertoire of calls, including the famous quavering 'hoo, hu-hooo' advertising call.

Try Chafer Wood, Moorlands or Low Wood nature reserves for tawny owls – take care if venturing out in low light as the ground may be uneven.

Short-eared Owl 
© Maurice Gordon
Short-eared Owl © Maurice Gordon
The short-eared owl is sandy-brown owl similar in size to a tawny owl, named for the short ‘ear-tufts’ on top of the head, though they are usually barely visible. There are dark patches surrounding its piercing yellow eyes, as if the owl were wearing a lot of black eyeshadow! In flight, short-eared owls have long, narrow wings with solid black wingtips– as if they have been dipped in ink. They often hunt during the day, as well as at night, but are rarely heard.

Try Flamborough Cliffs, Welwick Saltmarsh or Spurn nature reserves for short-eared owls.

Long Eared Owl
© George Stoyle
Long Eared Owl © George Stoyle
Long-eared owls look very similar to short-eared owls, although with obvious ‘ear-tufts’, darker feathers and less black eyeshadow. They also have white ‘eyebrows’ extending down towards the beak. They have fine black barring on the wingtips compared with the solid black wingtips of short-eared owl. Long-eared owls are typically a nocturnal hunter but can sometimes be seen hunting during the day, and males advertise with deep, soft hoots with no inflection.

Try Spurn and Flamborough nature reserves during migration. Long-eared owls form communal roosts, which are very sensitive to disturbance so should be viewed from a distance.

Female Little Owl
Female Little Owl
The little owl is a small, compact owl with larger whitish markings that give the impression of a false face on the back of the head. The underparts are whitish with bold brown streaks, and they have prominent whitish ‘eyebrows’ that give them a stern expression. Little owls fly with a fast, bounding flight similar to a thrush, and will also run across the ground in pursuit of prey. They are most active at dawn and dusk, but can often be seen during the day. The little owl has a variety of calls, including a fast 'chi-chi-chi' alarm call, a low-pitched hoot, and a mewling call.

Try Southerscales nature reserve for a little owl – and enjoy the Dales whilst you’re there!

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust manages over 100 local nature reserves for wildlife across the county. If you’d like to learn more about the nature reserves near you, visit the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust website or pick up a copy of the new guidebook Discover Yorkshire’s Wildlife from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust web shop and see what wildlife is on offer across Yorkshire.