Wallasea Island seems to be a bit of a hotspot for birds of prey these days. Not only have we got several hen and marsh harriers, barn owls, kestrels and peregrines, but also merlins and short-eared owls. On Sunday morning I was enjoying a stroll along the seawall and was delighted to see not one, but four of these beautiful medium-sized owls - I'm not sure which of us was more startled! Of course, being one of Simon Barnes' army of 'bad birdwatchers', I only had a pair of binoculars to get a better look. However, as I sat and watched surrounding gulls go on the attack, two of the owls went to ground in full view, so I was able to take a priveleged look as they sat on the saltmarsh right in front of me person-watching.
The merlins, being the UK's smallest bird of prey, are a little harder to catch a glimpse of - though an immature young bird landed on the path in front of me over the winter. In winter the UK population increases as most of the Icelandic breeding birds migrate to our warmer climate. They come to Wallasea post breeding,with the first arriving from the end of August and others staying until late March.As with many falcons the female is considerably larger than the male, so immature males are usually identifiable on size. Adult males are distinctive blue grey backed. Females and young birds are plain brown above, not the two tone chestnut with black wing tips of Kestrel.They hunt mainly small birds relying on speed and agility to hunt their prey. They often hunt by flying fast and low, typically less than 1 metre above the ground, using trees and large shrubs to take prey by surprise. But they actually capture most prey in the air, and will "tail-chase" startled birds. They have been witnessed hunting in association with a hen harrier on Wallasea, watching and following behind the bigger bird to chase anything it flushes.
In contrast, short-eared owls - another winter visitor from Scandinavia and Northern climes - are very dependent on a diet of small mammals, mainly voles. They are one of the few owls to make a nest. The female makes a scrape which she lines with whatever vegetation is available close by.The nest is on the ground hidden among grass, heather or reeds. The Short-eared Owl's plumage is buff with dark brown blotches and its short ear tufts are not often visible. The tail is boldly marked with four bars. Their eyes are yellow surrounded with black patches that give it a glaring stare.
Generally Wallasea is one of the best areas for raptors in Essex in winter. The conservation margins along ditchlines provide plenty of cover for voles and good numbers of open country birds are in the fields, together with the wealth of birdlife on the wetlands. A real buffet for the hunters. The wide open vistas are ideal for scanning wide areas to see the birds hunting too and it is relatively undisturbed and with Foulness and Potton nearby there is a huge foraging area.Peregrine(2), Merlin (3), Kestrel(2), Hen Harrier (up to 4) and Marsh Harrier (up to 4), Buzzard (1), Sparrowhawk (2), Short-eared (4) and Barn Owls (3) have all been seen regularly this winter. My thanks to Jeff Delve, my source of this knowledge, without whose expertise I would be a lot dumber!