A wildlife fan has captured dramatic photographs of short-eared owls at a Scottish beauty spot. Ron Macdonald, a former Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) manager, took the pictures of the owls swooping on prey.
Unusually, a group of between five and seven owls took up residence at Forvie National Nature Reserve this winter. In most other years, only one or two short-eared owls will winter at Forvie and normally in nearby coastal duneland.
Ron said the short-eared owls have been a dream to photograph. He added: “Although the are nocturnal, short-eared owls do also fly in daylight and often slowly.
“They also like to perch on posts so they make fantastic portraits as well.”
However, Ron confessed that the owls are tricky to photograph against a background of heath and dunes at the reserve.
He said: “I had to employ some basic field craft and photo skills to ensure good photographs. It was worth the work though.”
Ron retired from SNH in 2015 after 27 years with the government agency and now has time to follow his passion for wildlife and photography.
He is also chair of the North East Biological Records Centre and serves on the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Conservation Committee.
Owl watching at Forvie NNR
Ron kept an eye on the Forvie owls for four months over the winter – and he was not alone.
He said: “Following the Forvie owls has been addictive. I can’t get enough of seeing them hunt.
“It’s a passion that’s shared by many, especially wildlife photographers who are attracted by their photogenic good looks and interesting behaviour.”
Ron describes the beauty of the short-eared owl. He said: “They have golden yellow irises and black pupils set against black mascara-like feathers, making their eyes stand out.
“The effect is a piercing stare that literally stops you in your tracks.”
Owls on the hunt
The short-eared owl is primarily a nocturnal hunter, preying upon small rodents, particularly voles and field mice, but also small birds.
However, these owls also hunt during daylight, flying slowly in large or tight arcs as they quarter the ground, with occasional quick beats of their wings.
They then glide until, on hearing a movement below, they hover, then dive talons first to snatch prey.
Ron said: “Like all predators, they only hunt when they have to. Their success rate is surprisingly low, however.
“Fewer than 10 per cent of attacks I observed were successful.
“Some owls will consume their prey there and then, occasionally mantling it with their wings, before swallowing it whole. Bigger prey, such as birds and larger rodents are plucked before eating.
“I’ve also seen owls caching small rodents, creating a food store for when the weather or lack of prey makes it difficult to hunt.”
Ron said he was more likely to spot the owls in drier and less breezy conditions.
He said: “Anything above 15mph or a light rain and it’s likely there will be a no show.”
The owls come to Forvie for the winter season, from October to March, arriving from a variety of places.
A mix of owls
It’s not known exactly where this winter’s owls have flown in from, although it is likely they are a mix of continental and Scottish bred owls.
Ron said: “Continental birds mix with UK resident birds that leave the uplands and head for our coasts and estuaries.
“Some years you will have influxes of both continental birds mixing with UK bred owls at hotspots for prey.
“In fact, owls wintering in the UK can come from Scandinavia and also further east into the Baltic and Russia.
“Equally UK bred owls have been recovered in continental Europe. They are true nomads.”
From 1970 to 2010, reports showed that short-eared owl had been lost from nearly half of its former UK breeding range.
There was a similar 50 per cent reduction in the breeding population.
The current UK population is estimated to be between 610 and 1240 pairs, although it is very difficult to census the species.
Ron said: “Scientists believe the actual figure is closer to 610 pairs. It is now a rare UK breeding bird in urgent need of conservation management.”
A possible reason for the reduction of short-eared owl is more mature conifer plantations.
Ron said: “It’s thought that these plantations are very attractive in their establishment phase, with wide expanses of rough grassland rich in rodent and small bird prey.
“But as they mature, they close in and the habitat becomes much less attractive to owls.
“However, there well may be other reasons, as yet unknown, to explain why we have seen such a dramatic decline.”
Current research by the British Trust for Ornithology in Scotland, using satellite tags, is looking at the owls’ habitat requirements throughout the year and hopefully this will reveal the key factors that determine their survival.
- Forvie NNR is one of 45 in Scotland. NNRs are special places that look after some of the best of Scotland’s nature on behalf of everyone who lives or visits Scotland. See www.nature.scot
This article appeared in the Sunday Mail.