Aerial battle for survival in bleak midwinter

Robert Fuller, a wildlife artist based on the Wolds, witnesses some cunning tactics in an epic struggle against the elements.

A short eared owl

Last month, I spent five days in deep snow and sub-zero temperatures captivated by the battle between some short eared owls and a kestrel.

Both species were trying to survive in more than a foot of snow covering their prey and one had realised that it was better to be patient and wait for the other to do all the hard work.

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Short eared owls have always fascinated me.

Just before Christmas a friend tipped me off about three short eared owls that were frequenting a dale on top of the Yorkshire Wolds.

One evening I went to check it out and sure enough there they were, looking for voles along the steep dale sides.

When the heavy snow fell in January, I decided to devote a few days to watching them. I arrived at the dale late in the afternoon all dressed up in a warm white snow suit as camouflage.

I saw two short eared owls skilfully hunting in the valley below. I decided the best position to watch them would be the top of the dale, so I sat down in the knee-high snow.

Within minutes I spotted another two owls hunting. There were now four short eared owls gliding effortlessly in the valley below me.

I was virtually invisible against the white snow, so all I had to do was wait until one came my way. Before long two approached me, so I trained my camera on them.

Suddenly the owl twisted its wings and plummeted down, punching its way through the snow crust. Its body and legs were completely buried in the snow and all I could see was its upper body, its wings spread across the surface and its tail twitching from side to side.

Then its head dove down into the snow and it began brushing its face from side to side, sweeping deeper and deeper into the snow before pulling out a plump vole.

The second owl spotted its friend’s success and flew down to make a grab for it. Both owls flew upwards and began to fight mid-air.

I shouldn’t have been surprised – every meal in these tough conditions is worth fighting for. At this point, as if from nowhere, a male kestrel appeared and joined in the scrap. I’ve seen kestrels do this before. In fact they are renowned for pinching prey, especially from barn owls.

Being the smaller and more agile bird, the kestrel quickly snatched the vole. But the prey was still in the tight grip of the owl’s talons. The two birds of prey began twisting and spiralling down to the ground while the second owl followed in hot pursuit.

Then all three disappeared out of sight around the corner of the valley.

For a moment there was nothing, and then the kestrel reappeared clutching the vole in its talons and flying directly towards me.

It landed on a fence post not far away and was just about to tuck into its stolen meal when it spotted me.

The kestrel bobbed its head up and down as it tried to work out what I was.

The shutter of my camera clicked and it flew off to eat its meal in peace.

Meanwhile, the owls were already hunting again below me. Dusk seemed to come far too quickly that day and I reluctantly began to trudge through the deep snow back to my car.

After such a dramatic sighting I was keen to see more and the following day I abandoned painting in favour of a trip out to see the owls again. There had been hard frost overnight and a crust of ice had settled above the snow so I wrapped up for Arctic conditions.

As I arrived at the dale, I could hear the alarm call of a kestrel. I scanned the far side of the dale with my binoculars but couldn’t see anything.

I was wearing an extremely warm trapper’s hat with the earflaps wrapped around my face to stave off the biting wind. But it was stopping me from hearing the direction that the alarm call was coming from.

As soon as I took my hat off, I realised that the noise was directly above me, high in the sky.

It was the male kestrel locked in another aerial combat with a short eared owl. The owl had a vole clutched in its talons. But this owl’s tactic was to circle higher and higher in the sky.

The kestrel was below it and from this position couldn’t launch an attack. I had only just arrived on the scene so hadn’t had a chance to change the settings on my camera from the night before.

I splayed my tripod legs, guessed at some settings and dropped to my knees with my camera pointing skyward and started snapping.

Trying to pinpoint prey through a foot of snow using hearing alone must be tough, but in strong winds it must be nigh impossible.

One day I had sat tight in the snow all morning and the owls had done the same. It was minus four and windy. I was so cold by lunchtime I just had to move.

I walked down the valley and up the other side and back down again just to warm up. As I got half way up the opposite side one owl started hunting.

It moved down the valley quickly before plunging into the snow. I was pleased to see it caught a vole straightaway.

This time a crow spotted the catch and approached to try and snatch it. But the owl out-manoeuvred the crow.

It landed on the snow briefly but was forced to fly when another short eared owl took chase, and before long the two were battling against each other – and against the wind.

They flew up almost vertically, the chaser calling out furiously as though frustrated that it couldn’t keep up.

Neither of them noticed the kestrel until the last moment when it came in with its shrieking call.

The kestrel grabbed at the vole and sent itself, the vole and the owl into a spiralling tumble. The owl gave up its grip and the kestrel had won another meal. This kestrel was a survivor that was for sure.

Owls reveal social side

Up until now I hadn’t realised just how sociable short eared owls could be. They would often sit together in the same area.

One day I saw five owls all within 30 yards of each other – three were in the same hawthorn bush and two were on the ground next to it.

Not only did they sit together they would also hunt in the valley at the same time. I would be sitting motionless for hours waiting for an owl to take flight and then suddenly there would be owls hunting on the wing in every direction.