Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Le grand duc


























There is something magnificently apt in the French name for the Eagle Owl - the Grand Duke - an aristocratic aloofness, mystery and power. I certainly sensed this yesterday evening, in the dusk after sunset, in a perfect still calm with the moon and Jupiter starting to shine above me. The first bats had emerged and the last vultures had reached their roost. There was silence. Then, almost inaudible, a muffled "oohu". The next call was louder, more resonent, appearing to come from the dark rocky massif in front of me, the gorge creating a perfect acoustic arena. Then another call, quickly followed by another. Clearly I was now listening to two birds calling to each other. Instinct told me to scan the top of the cliff, where the sharp crisp boundary between the dark rock and the evening sky was visible. And there it was, close to the highest point of all, a new shape that had not been there a few minutes earlier: a large body, rounded head and long "ear-tufts" sometimes sticking out horizontally, sometimes just catching the slightest wisp of a breeze. It slowly moved its head. Its mate was not visible perched, but obviously had been nearby because as I watched, the second bird appeared in flight and headed due south, making a long silent glide into the distance, its wingspan as large as a Grey Heron's. Its mate stayed put and was silent for a few minutes, before it gave a more nasal barking call, its body tilting forward as it did so. This told me that this was the female. She stopped and then took off, but unlike the her mate, flying in my direction, overhead and then landing on the rocks behind me. There she stood for a short while before taking off again and gliding off to the east.

Eagle Owls are top predators with a huge variety of prey including hares, Roe Deer fawns and buzzards. Here in Extremadura they are quite common and widespread, although no one really has a good idea of the population size, which is estimated at anywhere between 400 to 800 pairs. Although the call can be quite far-carrying, it is also easily swamped by other sounds such as traffic and the calling each winter evening does not usually last very long, so detecting Eagle Owls is not as easy as one might imagine. The attached photo was taken in the spring by a guest of ours,David Irven.

Yesterday evening there was no doubt, however, who the Le Grand Duc of the terrain was, staking out its territory from its lofty vantage point and challenging the silence with its haunting call.

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