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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

Cuckmere Haven. Short-Eared Owl. 07.01.22

Friday 07.01.22 was extremely dark; because of road works at Peacehaven I didn't arrive at Exceat until 14.15.To took a 12 bus from Brighton I was aware from the BirdGuide App that there had been a Short-Eared Owl seen at Cuckmere at dusk over the last few weeks; I hadn't seen it on the last three times that I had visited; and I didn't have any expectation that I would this day, but I did.

Birds seen: Blackbirds, Starlings, Teal, Little Grebes, Shelducks, Rock Pipits, Redshanks, Black-Headed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Great Black Backed Gulls. Little Egrets, Cormorants, a Kestrel, Carrion Crows, Magpies, and a Short-Eared Owl.

I walked down the east-side path, past the top ox-bow lake; through the second ox-bow lake, and down to the bottom scrape - I didn't walk onto the beach today.

As usual the photographs are in chronological order. The sky was very dark, so the light conditions for photography were vert poor.

Kestrel. I usually see a Kestrel at the beginning of the eat-side path; it is probably the same bird.

Top Ox-Bow Lake

Little Grebes


Carrion Crows, Teal and a Redshank

Carrion Crows, a Black-Headed Gull and Teal

Little Grebe

Lower Ox-Bow Lake

Little Egret


Great Black-Backed Gulls ca. 500, on the west side of the Cuckmere; as usual a large late afternoon agglomeration

Mute Swans

Herring Gulls on the river

Rock Pipit on saltmarsh east bank of river

Redshank - lower Ox-Bow Lake

Rock Pipit; east bank of river

Little Egret, lower scrape

Redshank Lower Scrape

Shirt-Eared Owl - side of Downs, 400m up from beach.

Short-eared owls are medium sized owls with mottled brown bodies, pale under-wings and yellow eyes. They are commonly seen hunting during the day. In winter, there is an influx of continental birds (from Scandinavia, Russia, Iceland) to northern, eastern, and parts of central southern England, especially around the coast. They are of European conservation concern and so are an Amber List species. UK breeding:620-2,180 pairs Short-Eared Owl Facts | Asio Flammeus - The RSPB

Seeing a Short-eared owl is a memorable sight. Sadly, breeding numbers are thought to have declined considerably in recent years – perhaps more so than many other predatory birds. We were keen to learn more.

The Short-eared Owl is largely nocturnal and crepuscular (dusk and dawn), but it is still one of the most active British owls during daylight3. Despite this, current breeding numbers are poorly known. Surveys can reliably detect pairs that have successfully hatched young and are busy feeding their chicks but adults that have not nested or whose nests have failed can easily go unnoticed.

Current breeding numbers of Short-eared Owls are poorly known, though surveys can reliably detect pairs that have successfully hatched young.

An estimate of the Scottish population suggested 780-2,700 breeding pairs (1,000-3,500 pairs for the UK in the late 1990s) although this is thought to be one the most unreliable estimates for any raptor or owl species7. A more recent estimate for Britain is 610 to 2,140 pairs — again, note the broad range9. Some experts consider the lower end of these ranges to be the more likely and are concerned that the species may have shown marked declines during the past two decades.

Breeding numbers fluctuate markedly in response to prey availability (10, 13), however, and the birds are believed to range quite widely. These factors have doubtless added to the difficulty in assessing their breeding numbers and estimating population trends.

Habitat use

In Scotland, most of our breeding Short-eared Owls are found in moorland. The highest densities are found in areas of mixed rough grasslands and heather moors (marginal hill ground or ‘white moor’). A typical home range is around 200 hectares (~300 football pitches) and it seems that a variety of grassland types and heights within range is beneficial3. However, territory sizes vary considerably, ranging from 40 to 875 hectares (~56 to 1,200 football pitches)

In Scotland, most breeding Short-eared Owls are found in moorland. Liz Cutting

Young conifer plantations can also be important habitats12, though second and later rotation plantings may be less frequently used. Lowland rough grassland, marshes and coastal sand dunes are also sometimes used for breeding though their use of these areas can be erratic (except on some of the western islands and Orkney).

Elsewhere in Europe, breeding Short-eared Owls can sometimes be found in relatively intensive agricultural areas including cereal crops, meadows and rye grass fields. This difference probably reflects the availability of different prey to that found in Britain. Here they feed mostly on Short-tailed Field Voles. Interesting, they can adapt to life where these are absent or where alternative prey is available. On Orkney, for example, they feed predominantly on Common Voles

Migration patterns

Once the summer breeding season is over the owls tend to leave upland areas and are found mostly in marshes and coastal grasslands. Bird ringing recoveries suggest that a proportion of the birds seen on the east coast in autumn originate from Scandinavia5 with some remaining for the winter.

Our British Short-eared Owls tend to migrate relatively short distances when compared to birds from Scandinavia and Central Europe. Nevertheless, ringed birds have been discovered from as far away as Russia, the Mediterranean and North Africa. The overall degree of connectivity between our breeding birds and those from elsewhere in Europe remains unclear. It would be an interesting area for further research.

Our analysis of ringing recoveries from across Europe suggests that the distances moved between breeding and wintering areas generally increased from the early 20th century through to the 1970s, then subsequently declined. These changes may reflect changes in breeding population densities, at least in some areas2 (their populations grew during the 20th century but have declined since the 1970s). Short-eared Owls: Mysteries revealed | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology




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