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January Star Species: The Barn Owl

This month’s Star Species is the Barn Owl. This much-loved bird of prey is a particular favourite of Gerry, Forest Ranger at our Forest of Dean location. So much so that he has his own pet Barn Owl, The Professor.

Here, Gerry tells us why the Barn Owl has captured his heart.

A rare but welcome forest visitor

“The Barn Owl is perhaps one of Britain’s most loved countryside birds. With a distinctive heart-shaped face, wavering silent flight, beautiful flecked plumage and pure white under parts, a sighting of this bird of prey will always be a memorable experience.

Predominantly, as it’s a bird of the open countryside, you probably would not expect to see a Barn Owl on your average Forest Holiday. However at our Forest of Dean site in Gloucestershire we have being having regular sightings around our meadow cabins over the last few months.

A moment of Magic

I remember distinctly my first sighting here in the Forest of Dean. It was early summer and I had spent some time observing two young tawny owls in the woodland copse opposite the Forest Retreat. As I patrolled back around the meadow cabins, I suddenly heard a sharp shriek. I looked upwards and a ghostly white Barn Owl soared overhead. It was an unexpected, exhilarating moment, leaving me with that natural high that you have when you have a sudden intense connection with the natural world.

One guest I spoke to recently, mentioned that he had a similar unexpected Barn Owl encounter whilst he was relaxing in his hot tub one night. Definitely a unique way to watch wildlife!

The perfect predators

In many ways Barn Owls are perfect predators as they have evolved to have a number of unique adaptations, making them extremely efficient hunters. Their broad wings and incredibly light body make them very aerodynamic. The soft edges to their wing feathers enable them to fly silently, making it almost impossible for their prey to hear or see them coming.

Asymmetrical ears, along with a heart shaped facial disc which funnels sound towards the ears , gives them incredibly sensitive hearing, and extremely flexible head rotation allows them to have an amazing field of vision. Long legs and razor sharp talons help them to reach into long grass to catch small mammals and a hooked beak to rip flesh, along with the ability to swallow prey whole, means that a Barn Owl will get maximum nutritional value from its food.

Quartering slowly, about two metres high across a meadow, the Barn Owl will use its exceptional hearing to listen out for hidden voles and mice. Once prey is detected, the owl swoops down and utilises its long legs to reach into the grass to catch the unfortunate mammal. Those razor sharp talons ensure that death is almost always instantaneous and the owl will fly away to a perch to enjoy its meal or perhaps bring it back to a nest where hungry young owls may lie in wait.

Meet the Professor

Personally, I've been lucky enough to have the opportunity to look after captive-bred owls over the last few years and learn about their behaviour through first hand experiences. Resident here with me at the Forest of Dean is The Professor, my Barn Owl companion who accompanies me on my Twilight walks. It’s an incredible privilege to look after ‘the Prof’ and I have learned so much about Barn Owls through my observations of him. Many of our guests light up when they get the opportunity to hold him and experience his unique personality.

Chance encounters that lift your spirits

I have had an increased number of sightings of Barn Owls in the wild too. 'Partly this is due to a developing awareness and knowledge of their ecological niche and knowing the best times and places to look for them. But partly too, I have just had some incredibly lucky chance encounters!

A sudden sharp shriek from overhead, the sight of a ghostly owl apparition in your car headlights or observing a hunting Barn Owl gliding noiselessly over a meadow will always lift your spirits. Unexpected natural encounters such as these give us moments of wonder and intrinsically link us to our wild heritage.”

Will you see a Barn Owl at the Forest of Dean this year?

Come for a cabin break in the Forest of Dean and be sure to book onto Gerry’s Twilight Walk. We can’t promise anything, but if anyone knows how to spot a Barn Owl, it’s Gerry. As he says, there have been a few memorable sightings at the Forest of Dean recently and, if they prove elusive, at least The Professor will be happy to meet you.

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