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Psst: The mighty eagle owl is back and its in Yorkshire
Hidden in the hills and dales of Yorkshire lives a mighty eagle owl. These hefty birds are back here in the north of England after an absence that stretches back 1,000s of years. There is some debate as to whether eagle owls can be classified as native to Britain. There are fossil records that date back 700,000 years, but these stop at about 10,000 years ago and no one is sure whether these latest owls, of which there are estimated to be only 50 pairs in the country, are captive birds that have escaped into the wild or whether they have migrated here from Europe – a short flight for a bird with a 6ft wingspan!
A formidable hunter: an eagle owl can take a fox
However they got here, they are an impressive presence. The females are larger than the males and stand at two and a half feet tall and weigh over 4kgs. This makes them one of the biggest owls in the world. The males, which weigh in at just under 3kgs, are still over six times heavier than Britain’s largest owl – the tawny owl. Their sheer size and force makes them formidable birds of prey. Eagle owls can kill a fox or small deer and I’ve even heard of them swallow a hedgehog whole. Even their scientific name, bubo bubo, sounds menacing.
Secret location: this eagle owl needs protecting
Recently I heard about an eagle owl living in the northernmost tip of Yorkshire. I have been asked to keep its location secret in order to protect it. This owl was reportedly highly territorial and had taken umbrage against walkers, runners and climbers that ventured onto its patch.
I couldn’t resist trying to see the owl for myself. I packed my camera, tripod, binoculars and, for good measure, a leather padded trapper’s hat, goggles, visor, thick coat and several neck buffs. I have been attacked by a tawny owl before, and I know how much it hurts when they strike you with their talons. I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to be attacked by an owl twice its size.
Looking for an eagle owl
I set off in glorious sunshine with my wife and two young daughters. They were excited and nervous at the prospect of seeing the eagle owl having heard so much about it. When we arrived at the nearest car park to the location I immediately spotted a photographer, also bristling with equipment. I asked him if the eagle owl had been spotted that day. He explained that it had been seen earlier but was now hiding in the cliffs. I didn’t notice anyone else wearing protective clothing so, feeling a bit over-prepared, I decided to leave my ‘owl armour’ in the car.
The sun was high and as I walked I began to swelter under the weight of my cameras, which amounted to 15kgs. Soon we arrived at a rocky ridge where a group of climbers scaled a cliff face. There were a lot of people about – this was a real tourist hotspot. It didn’t seem the sort of place you would find a bird as rare as an eagle owl.
Tell tale signs of an eagle owl
Then I noticed white chalky poo streaked the rock face. This is the tell-tale sign of an owl’s presence. I began to scrutinise the rocks beneath and soon spotted eagle owl feathers caught in the crevices. Then I spotted a huge owl pellet four inches long. Inside it, I discovered a whole rat skull encased in fur and the remains of rabbit too. I was clearly on the right track, but with so many people about I was unsure if I would get a glimpse of the owl itself.
As my family began scrambling over the rocks I scanned the cliff face for more clues. We were on the windy side of the ridge and it occurred to me that if I were an owl I would be sheltering on the leeward side.
I spotted a likely rock face and headed towards it. As I approached I heard a deep resonant hooting: ‘ooh-hu’, ‘ooh-hu’. The owl was concealed from sight, but by the sound of the repeated hoots it was close by!
I spotted a ledge streaked with owl poo so I focused my camera on this, hoping the owl would land on it. Using a two-way radio, I called my family to say I had found the owl. They arrived a little while later and huddled down in the bracken alongside me. I passed them a bare, but very twiggy branch to hold in front of them for safety. If the bird flies at you, I explained, hold this in front of you.
An eagle owl’s call
I then mimicked the sound of the eagle owl call so that the girls would know what to listen for. With an audio frequency of 250–350 Hertz, the sound is deeper and carries farther than the territorial songs of all other large owls. To my surprise the owl called back. Then, like a winged giant, it appeared from behind the rocky outcrop and landed just where I hoped it would.
An eagle owl is a mighty bird
We all fell silent as we took in the sight of this incredible bird. It had huge feet, each the size of a man’s hand, and covered in feathers. You could see the shiny black talons gleaming from beneath these buff-coloured feathers as it gripped the rock. As it walked along the ridge its steps were slow and deliberate – more like those of a lynx than a bird.
The owl cocked its tail skyward then called again causing the feathers on its throat to puff out and reveal a prominent white patch at its throat. On its third call it raised its long pointed ear tufts. It had huge bright orange eyes that shone in the late afternoon sunlight. This owl definitely had the wow factor. I rattled off some photographs as the owl posed obligingly. Two fighter jets roared overhead and it hunkered down momentarily, tightening its feathers to its body and looking skywards fearfully. But it soon relaxed and began preening its feathers. These were in pristine condition.
An hour later the owl took flight. Its huge wings beating softly as it glided effortlessly around the rock face landing 150 metres away on a grassy knoll. There were people everywhere enjoying the Sunday sunshine, yet it showed no fear of humans. I wondered if this owl was originally from captive stock or if it was just a wild bird so enthused by the onset of spring and the desire to attract a mate that it had forgotten to be afraid.
Its next flight was into a spindly larch tree on the edge of a forest. When it landed, I was surprised how camouflaged it was. Despite its huge size, it was barely visible. But the owl’s incessant calling continually gave its location away and I followed it for the rest of the afternoon and into the early evening. It seemed to be giving me a grand tour of its territory!
In keeping: an eagle owl in Yorkshire
Just as the sun was setting this mighty eagle owl flew silently along the edge of the forest and back onto the rocky ridge where we had first spotted it. I could no longer see it, but I noticed that it was now calling in a different way to before. There were more clicking and clucking notes in its tune now. I suspect within the cracks in the rock face it had found the perfect place to nest, if only it had a mate, and that this sound was to specifically to try to attract one.
My parting shot was of the eagle owl silhouetted on top of a boulder with the sun setting in the background. Eagle owls are extremely hardy and can survive high in the Alps or the Himalayan highlands at 4,700m above sea level. It seemed unbelievable that I had spent the entire day with one on a little rocky hillside in Yorkshire and that it had looked completely in keeping within this landscape.
Author: Robert E Fuller