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            Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
                     September / 2016 - Michael Ryan
 
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The first Long Eared Owl which we saw, not long out of the nest
Photographs by Michael Ryan and Lucy Desierdo


    It was one of the nicer days of July and at 6.00pm there was still real heat from the sun sending shafts of light down through the leaves as we wandered through a wood. Lucy asked me did I hear a unusual noise, a sound she later described as like a squeaky trolley. I hadn’t, still couldn’t and would have happily strolled on but she went to investigate. She followed the faint sound, trained the binoculars at a tree than exclaimed ‘It’s an owl! Sure enough there it was, sitting high up on the branch of a Scots Pine, a big rounded shape, pale and fluffy with dark patches around its eyes. I’d imagine it wasn’t too long out of the nest but it already had the two tufts sticking up from its crown that give the Long Eared Owl its name. They aren’t ears of course, just feather tufts, their actual ears are two asymmetric cavities, set at slightly different positions on the head so they can accurately gauge the distance of their prey when hunting while the circular disk shape of the owl’s face acts like a sound reflecting dish.
   Evidently the parent owl had nested nearby and the young bird, just recently fledged, would be sitting on this tree till nightfall when its parents would go out hunting to bring it back some food. It looked down at us curiously but unperturbed with big orange eyes, now and then emitting a little squeak. Lucy realised there was another young owl perched above us. It kept getting better. We returned to the original position we’d spotted the first owl from and got a bit uneasy when we saw a pair of hooded crows fly into the tree the youngster was perched on afraid they might attack it but next second a adult Long Eared Owl which, totally unknown to us had been perched in the tree all along, flew out and saw them off. We came back to the wood at dusk and spotted the chicks again. Somewhere in the surrounding trees a parent bird was issuing a ‘barking’ alarm call, though I don’t think we were the source of its concern since a adult flew in carrying a dead mouse in its claws to
feed to a chick. The adult landed in a bush less then three metres




The second chick we spotted that day
Photographs by Michael Ryan and Lucy Desierdo

 

away and gazed down at us. The plumage of the adult Long Eared Owl enables it to blend perfectly against tree trunks where they roost during the daytime, rendering it almost invisible to all but the sharpest eyes. Four days later we realised there was actually a third owl chick.
   We came back often over the next four weeks and watched the owlets get more adept at flying and landing and watched the fluffy down on their wings come loose and the darker plumage emerge. The first few nights we saw the parent birds but as the days passed the adults got quieter and weren’t so visible, perhaps the adult was bringing food later to get the youngsters used to grasping prey in the darkness. In the course of the next few days Lucy spotted bits of white eggshells, almost certainly from the owl’s nest and under the first tree we’d seen the owl perched on we found pellets on the ground. Owl pellets are the undigested remains of the owl’s prey, rodent fur and bones which it coughs out of its gullet in a cigar shaped lump.
   It was through analysing the bones found in pellets of Barn Owls that Birdwatch Ireland raptor expert John Lusby discovered that ten of the Barn Owls whose pellets were examined were feeding on Greater White-toothed Shrews (Crocidura russulas) an alien mammal whose existence in Ireland was previously unknown. The Barn Owl is in serious decline in Ireland almost certainly due in some degree to eating rats that had ingested rodenticides so the fact that some Barn Owls were feeding on other prey items was quite promising. The species we were looking at, the Long Eared Owl, is far more common and though not often observed, seems to be doing ok in Ireland.
   You couldn’t help but be concerned about the youngsters we were observing, unlike their earlier quiet daytime calls when dusk came they would set up such a racket, continuously calling to each other and letting the parents, and anyone else, know where they were, their sharp calls carrying a great distance in the dark. They would often perch on a branch within two meters of us and bob their head around, up and down and from left to right and though I’d seen it on TV to actually watch them rotating their head 180 degrees was a spectacular sight. When you’d see them close they didn’t look so big but when they took off, spreading


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