The vast regimented ranks of plantation forest can seem lifeless for much of the year; dark and foreboding they stand in silence, with barely the whisper of a birdcall to stir them from apparent slumber. To some extent this all changes in summer, as countless Goldcrests and Coal Tits broadcast their thin, territorial songs from high in the canopy. Later in the summer, there are even more signs of activity, as small family parties of tits, leaf warblers and finches move throughout the plantations in search of feeding opportunities. Such flocks are commonly encountered, mobile though they are, and on occasion the path of a mixed flock may follow your own; your walk accompanied by a small chorus of soft tweets, churrs and weeps.
A two-hour walk around the woods at Middle Harling the other morning brought several encounters of this nature, with the soft flutterings of a Long-tailed Tit flock the first welcome diversion from the low monotone buzz of many flies and midges. Later in the walk it was a very different sound that caught my attention. In a shelterbelt on the edge of an area of clearfell I chanced across a young Long-eared Owl, potentially taking its first wing-beats towards full independence. While it may have left the nest several weeks ago it could still have been dependent upon its parents for much of its small mammal or small bird diet.
Throughout the various stages of their lives Long-eared Owls make some of my favourite sounds. As nestlings they make a short ‘pssee’ call which, although not much to write home about when uttered by a single chick, has a wonderful jingling quality (like jingling small coins in your pocket) when several chicks call together. Then, later in life, there is the food begging call of older youngsters, notably those that have left the nest. This is best described by thinking of the sound made by an un-oiled hinge. It was this call that first alerted me to the bird, difficult to see well as it sat in thick cover.
It has been a couple of years since I last saw a young Long-eared Owl so it is good to know that pairs are still breeding in the forest. The Long-eared Owl is one of those species about which we know surprisingly little, largely because they are widely but thinly distributed, fairly secretive in habits and predominantly nocturnal in activity. The most recent estimate suggests that there are somewhere between 600 and 2,000 pairs in England, breeding in coniferous plantations, mature hedgerows and shelterbelts. Numbers are known to fluctuate from year to year because of variations in prey availability and may be swelled in winter by the arrival of migrants from further north.