Night in the forest. Blocks of densely planted pine trees crowd in close to the track. Narrow trunks, spindly branches and prickly needles are illuminated by the white beams of the car headlights, before disappearing into dark shadows once more. Immense piles of felled trunks, still caked in snow, are stacked by the side of the track and loom out of the darkness as the lights sweep by. Beneath the canopy of the trees, where fallen branches lie prone on the floor, the snow is a mere dusting, reminding me of Christmas Yule Logs.
On one side of the track suddenly the dense black of the packed trees disappears as the forest opens out into an area of clearfell that has then been replanted. Here the pine trees are smaller and overshadowed by stump rows, scrub and bushy trees. Overhead the inky black sky is filled with stars forming familiar constellations. But it is not completely black. On the horizon, above silhouettes of the tree line, there is a diffuse glow to the sky. This glow and the constant, distant, background hum of traffic reveals we are not that far from urbanisation and not as remote as our immediate surroundings might suggest.
The car stops midway along the open patch. Leaving the warmth of the interior our breath steams in the frigid air. The gravel of the track beneath our feet is already frozen and in places like an ice rink. The dark sky and clearfell opens out before us. Above ‘The Plough’ is turned on its side and looks like a giant question mark, perhaps asking why we are out on such a cold night. It’s a good question with a good answer. Owls.
As we continue our project on tawny owls in Thetford Forest we also get records of other owl species within the forest. One of these is the mysterious long-eared owl. Although a resident breeder, they are thinly spread across the UK, are shy, nocturnal and found in coniferous forests, plantations, and mixed woodlands. Not places where many people tend to venture, especially at night. In fact, it is not an owl I have seen myself in the wild…
Our interest in owls using the forest clearly extends to long-eared’s especially as we want to make sure we do not start encouraging tawny’s into long-eared owl territories by putting nest boxes up. Tawny owls are much bigger than long-eared owls and tend to be rather bullying towards them! Still having received and checked records of long-eared owls within the forest we made the decision to see if we could catch one, with the aim of ringing them and filling in knowledge gaps of their distribution in the forest and beyond.
Carefully we head into the clearfell, walking between rows of miniature pines that are flanked by scrub, bushy trees and stumps. It is along such a row that we set our net, switch on the tape and retreat to the warmth of the car. In the short time it has taken us to do this hazy clouds have pushed in overhead, obscuring the glittering stars above.
The strange, deep, hooting ‘oh’ of a long-eared owl fills the cold night air.
It is only a short while before we return to check the net, head torches now cutting across the darkness. Ahead in the sweep of the torches light, as we navigate our way to the net, is a bundle of feathers. Hearts beat faster. Could it possibly be?
Yes. There in our net is a first for me. A long-eared owl!
Back at the car, the first thing I am struck by is the eyes. Deep orange rather than the liquid black of tawny’s or the lemon yellow of little owls. Next, I am taken by how much smaller the bird is compared with tawny owls. To give you an idea, they are smaller than woodpigeons. Other details filter through as I look over the bird. Its feathers are streaked and buffy brown. There is a bar of paler orange on the wing. Then there are those amazing ear tufts that when raised provide its common name. The shape and markings of its facial disc gives the bird a disapproving appearance. Its gaze is direct, piercing and almost accusing.
We process the bird, putting its metal ring on, taking measurements and a photographic record. The UV light trick on the underwing clearly shows two older feathers.
Then, after one last admiring look, we switch off our torches and let the bird acclimatise back to the darkness. Against the sky, I watch as it opens its wings and silently disappears into the night.
Back home and a bit of investigating we discover that this is the first long-eared owl to be ringed in Norfolk since 2012….