Time Spent with Leo’s . . .
Fair Isle can be a special place to enjoy many migratory birds, but one bird in particular stands out to me as a real Fair Isle special, not in the rare sense but in the views one can obtain of this usually secretive & difficult species to see – let alone photograph, the Long-eared Owl (Asio otus). I always think of Long-eared Owl’s, or Leo’s as I call them, as large birds but actually they are smaller than Short-eared & Tawny Owl’s & nothing prepares you for holding & ringing your first Leo. As with all birds, they are so much smaller in the hand than they appear in the field but these really are all feather! your hand disappears into a mass of soft brown feathers & you find a little scrawny warm body deep inside. The other thing you notice is the incredible large feet & claws, the feet are soft & brown like moleskin, the claws are large & reveal the power & ferocity of these night hunters. Then there are the beautiful stiff ear tufts & the large, round bright orange eyes.
Leo’s breed in the UK & are declining though not regarded as scarce. They come through Fair Isle, as with other Shetland Islands in Spring & Autumn, though more so in Autumn. They head up North in the Spring to breed in the forests & plantations of Scandinavia, stopping up to refuel on the Island’s before they’re last push over the North Sea. In the Autumn they head back South to spend the Winter in the relatively warmer parts of Britain & Europe. Leo’s are normally hard to see in the UK due to their daytime roosting behaviour, they hide silently & often high up against the trunks of conifers & deep in hedgerows, alone or sometimes in roosting groups. However on migration, stopping over on Island’s such as Fair Isle, they do not have the benefit of trees or large plantations to roost in & are much easier to spot or cliff’s or geo’s (A Leo in a Geo is a fine thing to find!) in these sparsely vegetated Islands. They do not come through in big numbers but are certainly annual. When I worked on Fair Isle I was there all the time so managed to catch up with, enjoy, ring & photograph a few in the 2 years I worked at the Obs. However I have visited Fair Isle 2 or 3 times a year in the last 5 years since I left & not had another opportunity arise to meet another Leo – that is until this Autumn, during October. I knew you could get really close to Leo’s on Fair Isle & I was desperate to photograph one again, so many year’s on & with better photographic gear & more vision for a shot, news came through that there was a Leo against the conservatory of the Fair Isle Shop – Stackhoull Stores. I was 2 miles away but thankfully had my photo gear to hand, I began to run. . . .maybe it would get flushed before I got there, maybe it would get taken by one of the shop cats . . . .maybe it will just fly off in the increasing winds & i’ll miss it. . . .phhew, it was still there when I arrived.
What a bird, sat tall & straight against the conservatory window-sill in the shop garden. I breathed a sigh of relief. Other birders, Islanders & photographers enjoyed this handsome Leo at fairly close quarters & most then departed. I had the Leo almost to myself as I hid behind a dry stone wall & full-framed this amazing Owl, at last I had caught up with one again. Before long, lunch at the Obs beckoned & I walked back for lunch, I would see it the Leo was still there later in the afternoon. . . .Well after a rushed lunch & a lift to the shop I turned the corner into the shop garden – the widow sill was bare – where was the Leo!? had he gone? I glanced round, desperately scanning & then I saw him, out on a lone lichen covered rock in the burn below the shop, silent, still . . & half asleep. I slowly approached the field & stalked through the field, staying low & taking my time. Soon I was alone with Leo, he stared at me with intense orange peel eyes & then promptly turned to stare at a blundering sheep which was getting too close for comfort. I stayed in Leo company for maybe half an hour, the sheep gradually moved away & the he turned to face me, dozing in the light breeze, his ear tufts the only movement as they rocked from side to side, forwards & backwards, sometimes in unison, sometimes in opposite directions & on occasion seemingly disappearing altogether. Below are a number of images I took that afternoon before leaving the Owl & heading off to search for more Redpoll’s.