Short-eared Safari

Sometimes we ungrateful, unemployed conservation volunteers can make it all sound like a bit of a slog. Toiling away for free, just waiting for one of those elusive paid contracts. But that would be to massively understate some of the advantages of the volunteering life. For example, I’ve recently signed up as a monitoring volunteer with the Great Bustard Group – the organisation planning, with the help of EU Life Project funding, to establish a viable breeding population of wild bustards in and around Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.

As monitors, we’re out and about following up on bustard sightings as reported by the public, and also watching the faithful flocks at release sites. But it’s very difficult not to notice that we’re also getting to spend a whole day touring the Wiltshire countryside, much of which is classically beautiful in a very English way, with winding valleys, (flooded!) brooks, meadows, pasture, autumnal copses, and timeless stone villages. With just a hint of the Russian steppes to make those bustards feel more at home on the higher ground between valleys. Indeed, in this part of Wiltshire a great chalk plateau lifts the ground, opening it to the sky until it expands into great stretches of productive farmland, as well as the plain itself, the largest expanse of calcareous grassland in north-west Europe which is studded with significant wildlife and archaeological sites.

In other words a fabulous, surprisingly varied landscape that is rich in birds of the open countryside: hosts of linnets, corn buntings, winter thrushes and lapwings, and on my few visits thus far numerous raptors, with kestrels and buzzards particularly common, bolstered by a few red kites and an occasional hen harrier cameo. One notable winter visitor to the area is the short-eared owl, which enjoys hunting across the rough grassland from roosts in some of the scrubbier parts of the plain. Since it sounded like a good way to round off a day’s monitoring, experienced hand and driver for the day David Wall (chair of Wiltshire Ornithological Society, so a more than helpful guide to birding Wiltshire) suggested a detour across the military training area – the less shot over, publicly accessible eastern side, I hasten to add – to look for owls.

It’s the nearest thing to an African-style safari in southern England. Wending circuitous routes in a 4×4 across open grassland studded with low scrub and occasional clusters of trees, one feels a long way from the cones and snarled up traffic of the A303 – in reality just seven miles away as the owl flies – or even from the chintzy quaintness of the serene Avon valley villages to the south and west.  Reminding me of high-jinks past, we drove up through the pretend Afghan village at ‘Baden’s Clump’, along the very tank tracks which I’d boldly traversed in the distinctly less off-road capable Hatmobile last summer, on a fruitless search for stone curlews. This time our search was notably more fruit-bearing, with a first short-eared owl sighting coming mere seconds upon our arrival in a likely looking area.

And what an exciting species to catch up with. Short-eared owls are rangy birds, their long wings giving the illusion of great size, though in reality they’re no bigger than a barn owl. As David pointed out to me on Monday, they have a unique moth-like flight pattern, such that before you’ve even seen much detail short-ear alarm bells are ringing in your birding brain. Then there’s that piercing, deep yellow, black-lined gaze. ‘Cataface’, they’re called in parts of Scotland – not hard to see why when a short-eared owl fixes you with a distinctly feline death stare. Unforgettable for the birder, sheer terror for a bank vole. I thrilled to see a second bird alight on a low tree a few tens of meters from our truck, allowing a close up view of that famous face. On the next track, a third quartered back and forth; round the next bend yet another flew, disappearing into the twilight as we made our way down the plateau and back to the valley.

Could this be one of my top-ten birds? Indeed, I’ve been thinking of such a list and SEOs are closely in the running to become sole owl representative in one of those coveted positions on my avian hit parade. Coming to this blog space before Christmas! Anyway, after last week’s somewhat pacifist plea of an ending, this week it actually seems appropriate to end with a vote of thanks to the British Army. If they hadn’t bought up at least half of Salisbury Plain decades ago in order to blow things up on it, I daresay much of the grassland would not be here today, nor would as extensive an area of short-eared owl-friendly habitat. And being, in technical terms, publicly owned land, there are a lot of places you can go on it, within reason, and the army really don’t seem to mind you being there (despite my experiences with the odd helicopter a few weeks ago). Definitely more accessible and welcoming than many a stretch of farmland, in fact. That said, if there were a way, I can picture a future Salisbury Plain on which the big guns have fallen silent and the only vehicles roaming about are green-fuelled off-roaders filled with responsible everyday folk on nature tours. Call me a hippy. But wouldn’t that be fantastic? I’ll see you on a short-eared owl safari.

Photos: Andy Pay at Windmill Farm in  Cornwall (used by kind permission).

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