ROLLING STONE IS A FAIR DESCRIPTION OF THE SHORT-EARED OWL, an enigmatic wanderer, migrant and nomad of Norfolk's windswept winter marshlands. It is a bird that, were it human, would most certainly live a life on the open road. They are difficult animals to track down, such is their inclination to rove from one place to the next, yet when you are fortunate enough to locate one, there is a good chance that several may be frequenting the same area. A strong preference for open spaces characterises the owls and their wintertime wanderings yet it is their dependency on short-tailed field voles that drives their meanderings: where there is a glut of voles, the owls will almost certainly follow.
Once you have seen a short-eared owl for the first time, you will struggle to mistake it for any other bird (aside from its cousin the long eared owl that frequents very different territory) for its characteristic flight has a slightly mechanical, flapping manner to it: long, straight wings held rigidly away from a body that looks peculiarly small in comparison, the owls move over the marshes with a buoyant air, combining deliberate, slow wing beats with bouts of serene gliding. In between periods of flight, the owls will often perch on gateposts and this is when their fiercely yellow eyes may latch onto you, their brightness exaggerated by the surrounding black, mascara like facial feathers that give the birds an intense, intimidating disposition. It is not necessary to search for these birds during the hours-of-darkness either, as they are diurnal creatures, perfectly comfortable soliciting their prey during broad daylight. Aiding their daytime plundering is acute stereoscopic vision, which, interestingly for owls, may even allow them to see in full colour, as opposed to the perceived black-and-white eyesight of predominantly nocturnal predators.
The short-eared owl is a member of the Strigidae family, of which there are known to be 125 species inhabiting every continent barring Antarctica, although the short-eared owls we encounter in Norfolk are a combination of birds that have bred in northern England and Scotland alongside continental immigrants endeavouring to avoid the chill of Scandinavian and eastern European winters. Interestingly, they are one of only three species in this family that is migratory, the others being the scops owl from Europe and the oriental hawk owl of Asia. However, not all of Norfolk's short-eared owls are winter visitors. The county hosts a small number of breeding pairs each year, although the locations are kept secret for the well being of the birds.
Gliding above the windswept marshes during the shortest days of winter, a short-eared owl listens eagerly for the slightest rustling from beneath the snow. Should an unwitting vole betray its whereabouts, the owl will strike.
A short-eared owl sits on a fence post during the last light of the day. Snow lies on the surrounding marshland making the task of finding their favourite food, field voles, more difficult than normal.