There’s a Short-Eared Owl on the Island; I’ve read WhatsApp reports in the Westray birds & wildlife group. We’re driving to get fish and chips, and chips, when we see it:

Short-Eared Owl - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

It’s magnificent.

In Orkney a Short-Eared Owl is called a Cattieface. This Cattieface is busy hunting over the fields near Noltland Castle. If only I could get a photograph of it with the castle behind; that would be suitably epic. The Short-Eared Owl is a bird mentioned nearly 200 years ago by The Reverend George Low in his Fauna Orcadensis. It’s an entertaining read:

Fauna Orcadensis - Rev. George Low - The Hall of Einar

Here’s the section on the Short-Eared Owl:

The Short-Eared Owl

“This bird I shot in the hills of Hoy,…”

Hold on. “This bird I shot…”? That was the classic way of the naturalist back then. Gentlemen naturalists and the occasional lady naturalist would either shoot specimens or pay locals to shoot birds for them, so they could have a closer look at them, or stuff them for display. It always shocks me that Gilbert White, the author of the Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, would shoot anything interesting he saw. How must it have seemed when nature appeared inexhaustible? It’s almost unthinkable now. The Reverend George Low continues:

“…where it is very frequent, and builds its nest among the heath. It is impudent in breeding-time, sometimes catching up chickens from the doors. I have likewise seen it in chase of pigeons in daylight, which is not ordinary with the owl kind. In a nest I found in Hoy were the remains of a moorfowl, two plovers, besides the feet of several others, and the birds, two in number, ready to fly, the nest was in a large heath-bush, made without any art; intolerably fetid, by reason of the heat of the weather, which had putrified some part of the provisions; and which was still increased by the dung, &c. of the birds, which the parents did not seem so attentive to remove as I have observed the smaller birds upon such occasions. The description of this bird is as follows:

The length of this bird was thirteen inches, the breadth three feet; the weight ten ounces and a half; the bill strong, and much hooked, of a blackish horn-colour, almost buried amongst a set of white bristly feathers; the eyes large and full; the irides a most beautiful colour, commonly yellow; the pupil large, with a nictitating membrane ; the eyelids covered with black bristles, round them a circle of white, mixed with tawny; the crown of the head brown, variegated with lighter colours. Above each eye stood a single feather, taller than the rest, the half of which (or one web) was black and the other white. While the bird lived, and was suddenly startled, it would erect these like small horns, and fall a hissing like a cat; but the horns were scarce discernible when it died, unless to a nice inspection, in which it would be seen that they covered more of their neighbours than they ought. The ears were surprisingly large, opening from the neck to the throat, surrounded with a set of small parti-coloured feathers. The back of the
head was covered with brownish feathers, edged with grayish yellow; the back and coverts are brownish, edged with a dull yellow. The legs, to the nails, are covered with whitish yellow feathers; the quills are dusky, barred with red, the second feather serrated; the tail brown and spotted; the breast and belly a dirty yellow.”

It’s a great description, although I’m not sure I’d use the words “impudent” and “without any art”.

Short-Eared Owl - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

Things have changed significantly since Reverend George Low was alive. It’s now no longer acceptable to shoot a bird just to have a good look at it in the UK – unless you mean photographically.

It sweeps away over the fields without me being able to capture it with the castle behind. I just wish that they were “Very frequent” now. Its presence on the Island is a highlight for me, and I’d love to see more of if it comes back, but I have to go.

Short-Eared Owl - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

I have a fish supper waiting, cold beers to get from the Pierowall Hotel and Jacks Chippy closes in fifteen minutes. Let’s hope we stumble upon it again. Until then, I wish it happy hunting, safe from the gun of a curious gentleman naturalist.

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