Being elusive night creatures, owls are not the easiest beings to see in the wild. However, May through to mid-June is the best time in the year to see them. Here’s how to do it.
Owls are nesting at the moment, which means they’re based in one location. I have no idea how owl territories work, but the rest of the time they clearly move about. We get them in a nearby tree intermittently, and unpredictably. Through the rest of the year I will hear tawny, barn and little owls at night – and they won’t be calling from reliable locations. If I see one it will be pure luck. But while they’re nesting, they keep showing up in the same place. If you can hear them, it is well worth keeping going back to that spot to try and see them.
Owls emerge around sunset, often at that point where the light is, for a few minutes, strange and magical. I gather from Elen Sentier that this is called owl light. This is the best time to see them. On emerging for the night, an owl will often call a few times, pairs may do a call and return process.
Tawny owlets emerge from the nest before they can fly. I suspect other owls do too, or will emerge long before they can hunt for themselves. The owlet will hop about between branches, testing wings, learning to glide, to flap… they are ungainly and this makes them easier to spot. They alert their parents to their presence by continually calling, which again makes them easier to find. As they rotate their heads and call in multiple directions, be aware that sound coming from just the one place won’t always sound like that from the ground.
With a growing owlet to feed, owl parents emerge earlier in the evening, because they need more time to hunt, so later in May and early in June the hunting time extends, and the odds of seeing an owl increases.
If you don’t hear owls, the best places to look have trees in, but also good rodent hunting nearby. My two best owl-spotting locations have been the canal, and a cycle path. In both cases there was a slim band of trees, or the odd tree at points on the canal, and then plenty of hedgerow and grass for hunting in. Barn owls do indeed tend to nest in buildings, so old buildings in rural locations are worth keeping an eye on.
Owls aren’t readily disturbed by humans – especially if you’re on a footpath, but don’t get closer to them. My experience last year was that both parents and chick were untroubled by an audience, indeed the young owl was as curious about us as we were about owls. With us on the path and the owls in the trees it was possible to be quite close without bothering them at all. If there’s a footpath, stay quietly on it, because footpaths definitely help wildlife feel more easy about human presences. It’s when we’re unpredictable that they are likely to panic.
If you’ve no owl experience, it may take a while to build enough knowledge that you can see them. However, if you listen for owls through the year, if you can get out in the dark at all, you may find you have owls in area, and then you can build on that to increase your chances of seeing them. You don’t need wilderness, you just need trees and places that mice can live. City parks, edges of towns, canals, cycle paths and other such green corridors can and do support owls. Even the grassy side of a road may be a hunting ground.