Although the winter months can seem rather quiet in our parks and woodlands, with very little in the way of birdsong, there is one bird which is in full song on cold, clear winter nights. This is the Tawny Owl. Tawny Owls, which are found throughout Milton Keynes, have a long courtship season from the end of summer through to late winter. The female bird makes a loud ‘kee-wick’ call and when the male bird responds with a long, drawn out hoot, it can sound a little like ‘tu-wit, tu-woo’, as coined by William Shakespeare. In fact, both sexes will hoot but it is usually only the female bird that makes the ‘kee-wick’ call. The birds will pair up and mate over the winter and make their nest, often in a large tree cavity or perhaps an old crow’s nest, between January and March.
Although still a common and widespread species, there is concern that Tawny Owl numbers are falling nationally. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is asking members of the public to help monitor numbers this winter by spending twenty minutes at night listening out for their calls in their gardens or local parks. Results, both positive and negative, can be posted online to help the BTO map their current distribution and abundance. A link to the survey can be found here:https://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/project-owl/tawny-owl-calling-survey
As well as the Tawny Owl, both the Barn Owl and the introduced Little Owl breed successfully in and around Milton Keynes. Both these species are more associated with farmland than woodland and both Barn and Little Owls breed at several locations in Ouse Valley Park. You may be lucky enough to see the ghostly shape of a Barn Owl hunting at dusk and in cold winter weather they will sometimes hunt during the middle of the day as well. The fields at Stanton Low can be a good place to watch out for them.
Finally, although it is not a species that breeds locally, the beautiful Short-eared Owl visits our area in cold winters – but only when the Field Vole, its main prey species, is present in high numbers. They will sometimes hunt alongside Barn Owls at Stanton Low but the odd individuals can turn up anywhere where there is rough grass. One even spent a few days on Willen Island several years ago. So why not take a late afternoon walk in Ouse Valley Park this winter and see if you can see – or hear – an owl or two.