A BARN OWL sighting close to our home one Thursday evening provided what I like to think of as a shared ‘super-buzz’ moment for me and our daughter Becca.
This was the first time we had ever seen a barn owl in the wild – but 8-year-old Becca didn’t have to wait quite as long as me for the experience of a lifetime!
The following morning her 84-year-old grandfather told me he hadn’t seen a barn owl for many years – probably not since his youth. Our conversation got me thinking about how lucky Becca had been, and how much I hoped she would have many more opportunities to see this snowy-faced, enigmatic bird.
Spotting a barn owl
The barn owl, or Tyto alba in Latin and Scréachóg reilige in Irish, is easily recognised because of its flat, round, white face, which is sometimes spotted by motorists at night.
In our case, we were travelling home from football training and were driving along a local wooded road when Becca cried that she’d spotted an owl.
I turned the car around, went back and there the owl was, perched on a tree branch. It stayed for a moment and then calmly flew off.
To get some idea of our excitement just have to imagine watching the two of us realise we’d picked the winning lottery numbers. People who know us best will understand.
We went straight home and got out our Collins Complete Irish Wildlife and Becca read all about the barn owl.
Apart from having the opportunity to share the sighting with one of our daughters, the experience was special for me because I had known there was a barn owl living and hunting in the area, but I had never seen it.
Previous barn owl sightings
My husband had spotted a barn owl on the same stretch of road in 2014, when he was returning from an indoor soccer game. Our now 11-year-old daughter Ava thought she had seen one briefly perched on the wooden beam of our swing-set one night a few months later.
The road in question is very quiet and is densely forested with both deciduous and coniferous trees. If you stay alert you might see deer, red squirrels or hares and a variety of birds, including pheasant. Over the years, the girls have learned to keep their eyes peeled for wildlife and they have often been rewarded.
A brief look at the barn owl
When I’ve written about barn owls in the past, it’s been about projects conducted by conservation groups to identify and boost their numbers. So, it means a lot to have finally been able to see one going about its business.
Barn owls are native to Ireland and got their name because they like to nest in old, vacant buildings, including barns, castles, churches etc. They may also live in tree hollows or man-made nest boxes. At night, they hunt small mammals like mice and voles as well as squirrels.
Barn owl Red-listed
In conservation terms, barn owls are a Red-listed bird, which means that plummeting numbers has caused grave concern for their future. Like many birds and mammals whose numbers have dropped since the mid-20th century, barn owls are being affected by loss of habitat due to modern farming methods. However, they are also being badly hit by the use of rodent poisons and the expanding network of busy roads.
Major projects to safeguard the barn owl on the island of Ireland in recent years have been spear-headed by Birdwatch Ireland, which is keen to hear from anyone who comes across a carcass.
Ulster Wildlife ran a Be There For Barn Owls Project between 2013-2016 and is still encouraging the public to submit barn owl sightings. The charity also has advice for landowners looking to help protect barn owls in their area, including tree planting and providing nest boxes.
This morning, after dropping the girls off to the school bus I joined my walking buddy on one of our usual forested routes.
During the 90-minute walk, I told her about our barn owl sighting and we talked about how Nature rewards those who take the time to notice the world around them. Whether it’s a garden, forest, city park or beach – there is always something to be seen.
If you’re interested in reading my blog on why the public’s help on nature surveys is so important to conservationists just click here and I’ve also written about how road kill can provide vital information that could help protect our environment.
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