Walking the ancient driftway through Halvergate marshes, we paused by High's derelict drainage mill to watch the aerial manoeuvres of a mixed flight of golden plovers and lapwing.
Alongside the nearby Fleet dyke brick foundations could be discerned around a prolific growth of nettles all that remained of a marsh homestead. Last occupants of the house before demolition were short-eared owls. Despite a three-foot wing-span they readily gained entry through broken dormers.
These marsh owls arrive on Halvergate and Breydon levels each winter, but usually in very small numbers. However, on occasions exceptional totals have appeared.
Prey is largely small mammals, particularly short-tailed field voles. It is remarkable that far across the North Sea these birds were aware of a vole 'plague' on the East Coast marshes.
The earliest of these exciting invasions was during the 1964/5 winter when an estimated total of 100 owls spent the period between November and January on the marshes. That Christmas, a day-time roost in a ruined cottage and its abandoned garden held as many as 52 owls; a second roost in a derelict orchard close to the Yare attracted an additional 25 birds. Sadly, at least two were found shot.
Six years later impressive numbers of short-eared owls again descended on the marshes extending inland from Breydon Water. A total of 60 birds occupied roosts at Wickhampton, Havlergate and Haddiscoe Island.
Even these high numbers were eclipsed on Christmas Eve 1972 when 116 were found by Peter Allard (who else?!) roosting alongside the Halvergate Fleet bank.
This spectacular total provided the unique sight of over 80 owls in the air at the same time. Food supplies were abundant, the visitors remaining several weeks. I recall watching this assembly on more than one occasion. Surprisingly perhaps they favoured the scantiest cover where grasses had been burnt and only odd thistles and reeds survived. The very next winter short-eared owls were almost totally absent from Halvergate. One wonders if such scenes will ever be repeated ...
I always enjoy watching the marsh owls. Each bird works to and fro across the levels, buoyant wings beating steadily with a pause every now and then before the hunter sweeps onwards in an easy glide. From time to time the birds hesitate, swing upwards and reverse before hovering momentarily over some spot where a rodent is suspected.
Often they are mistaken, but then one and then another wheels suddenly before dropping rapidly on unsuspecting prey. Often these nomads quarrel with carrion crows passing too near.
On successful days short-eared owls have come very close to my selected gateway revealing splendid buff dress, barred and streaked brown, staring golden eyes and prominent black patches on wing undersides.
Unprecedented numbers of short-eared owls bred in Broadland in 1933 all attracted by a plague of voles. Some 18 nests were known in the upper reaches of the Thurne.
Voles were piled high round each nest, the numbers taken being far in excess of the birds' needs. On such occasions instead of the normal four or five eggs the owls may lay as many as nine or 10 eggs.
I chanced upon my first nesting short-eared's close to Berney Arms station. When in the vicinity of the downy young, the parents wheeled overhead harshly barking. Both showed displeasure diving at me repeatedly. On another occasion two pairs of owls had bred highly successfully not far from Breydon.
Visiting the site
when the young were fully winged I had the great pleasure of watching
a total of 13 birds in the air simultaneously. Their flight so graceful
and so effortless
By Michael J. Seago