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Owl's That For a Day's Work!
Feb 19, 2019

Winter is well and truly coming to an end; yesterday I spotted my first snowdrops, and while out and about today I saw my first ladybird. With the palpable change in seasons, our winter migrants will soon be leaving our shores to return home. One migrant I had yet to catch up with this year despite multiple postings of them almost daily on my social media pages were the Short-Eared Owls (or SEOs). While there are resident populations of these gorgeous predators in Scotland, they can be more easily spotted in winter when there is an influx of birds from the continent; for the first time in a few years, the coast of Aberdeenshire was the site of such an influx. What makes these owls in particular such fascinating photography subjects is the fact that they hunt during daylight hours, and if you're lucky with the weather, you might just experience what I did.

I was not alone in my adventures today; in fact, without the help and guidance of the wonderful Michele Emslie, it might not have been half the day it was! Yes, this is the very same Michele who trudged up to the hares with me in my previous blog (it's interesting who you'll meet in the field!). Michele kindly offered to meet with me nearby and guide me on a lovely scenic walk to find the owls at what was considered their usual haunt; after a period of particularly gruesome weather over the weekend, I hoped that the calm today would bring them out in force. We walked for a while, chatting about where and when Michele has seen the owls before on this same journey previously, and admired a kestrel hovering nearby. Almost like a guide, we inadvertently followed it as we took the marked path to where we were going; as we ended our walk, the kestrel took wing properly and disappeared out over the bay. Upon arriving at our location we joined up with Yvonne (also from the hares!) and Ian, a pair of keen fellow owl enthusiasts with big cameras. Our day almost ended there, however, when Ian revealed that he had been on the site since 8am and hadn't heard or seen a thing; as it was coming close to mid-day, this started to ring alarm bells. He went on to also talk about how a large group of photographers had swarmed into the area during the weekend, but even with all those eyes on the grass, not an owl was seen. Things weren't exactly looking great.

On the Dunes
A SEO appears out of nowhere, sweeping over the hills in complete silence.

Mid-day came and went. Ian eventually left us for a short break at home. Yvonne, Michele, and I therefore had to decide on a course of action. We decided to follow the winding footpath for a while, in the hopes that somewhere deeper in the grass there would be owls. As we descended into a slight drop, Yvonne's eagle eyes spotted a ghostly shape sweeping over the grass. "We have an owl!" It was moving with absolute silence, those large wings barely moving as the breeze carried it up and over the hill. Thank goodness, we thought, we had at least one owl left on site! Uplifted, we carried on for a bit, keeping eyes peeled for pale bodies, yellow eyes, and fresh pellets. Our route was dotted with old signs, like feathers and dusty, bleached pellets, but little else. We had traversed a fair distance to no success, so turned back to where we had come, in hopes that the owl we had seen earlier would be quartering nearby. It seems the silent assassin of the mound had went as quick as he'd appeared. It was time to come up with another strategy, as time was wearing on; with one owl on the move, if there were others they would soon awake too, and we would have to move quick to get somewhere to spot them.

Keeping Watch
A particularly territorial owl watches another nearby, who may be encroaching on his favourite spot.

In the end, we decided to split up; Yvonne was going to watch over a known roosting spot near the water, while Michele and I made tracks back down the path with aims of heading further than before. We had barely left Yvonne when we met a pair of dog walkers, who were nice enough to tell us they had seen two owls hunting further down! We let Yvonne know, and set off trudging back down the path at speed; we had barely walked 100m or so until we saw them. Both owls were going talon to talon above a rough heather patch. We didn't have time to catch the short spat before the split, but the separation sent one of the owls hurtling in our direction. We decided we would stick with this individual and try to hang around this area near the path. It turned out to be a good move, as the two owls hunted in wide, arcing circles nearby without a care for us there. The nearest owl to us even landed nearby on a favoured post, giving us ample chance to get pictures of him perching, just as the light was beginning to fade.

A Biting Problem
As the light fades, an owl lifts off from some midge infested grass.

We spent around an hour in the company of the owls, watching them hunt nearby, diving headlong into the grass after voles. Very few attempts on them were successful, but once or twice we were lucky enough to see lunch grasped tight in their claws as they rose into the sky and took flight. The owls eventually seemed to vacate the area (a car had somehow rolled up onto the verge nearby, and I don't think the owls were as keen on cars as they were people), and the light faded into the clouds. At this point, I decided it was time to head off; with another two hour or so trip home to contend with, I didn't want to be travelling too long in the dark. I said my goodbyes to Michele and Ian (who had returned upon hearing the owls were still present), shouldered my camera bag and returned to the car park. On my way there, I caught my last, fleeting glimpse of an SEO over the lochan, disappearing into the long grasses on the other side for a rest. I left with a smile on my face, and even now, writing this, I'm still wearing it.

A great big thank you again to Michele for her generosity in helping me find the owls and being my spotting partner for the day. It's so uplifting to spend days out with other photographers, as I still have so much to learn. I'll be carrying this experience with me for a while!

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