Woodlands echo to hoots in the night

THERE’S no sound which better captures the atmosphere of the woods at night than the hoot of an owl.

NIGHT OWL: a little owl silhouetted against the moon PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

But even when they are at their loudest and most active, these nocturnal hunters are not always easy to spot – and there are even some popular misconceptions about the noises they make too.

LOCAL FAVOURITE: a little owl poses for the camera PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Like that “twit – twoo” we so often mimic, for example, is not one owl, but two different owls calling – the high-pitched “kee-wick” of the female tawny owl, which is responded to by the “hoohoo” or “twoooo” note of the male.

Owls have evolved as specialised hunters with a wide range of skills to help them locate and catch their prey. Each species has a range of incredible “superpowers” that many other birds do not possess, but which give owls the ‘tools’ they need to survive.

Different species can see in almost total darkness, have soft feathers with a comb-like ‘fringe’ on the flight feathers which aids silent flight, have round facial discs with special feathers to ‘catch’ sound and a toe that swivels so talons can be used in different ways when squeezing prey or gripping a branch.

PERFECT CAMOUFLAGE: a tawny owl hides in the trees PICTURE: Andrew Knight

But for most of us, spotting any of the five species of UK owl can be tricky. They can be notoriously difficult to track down, are very well camouflaged and tend to set up home in some pretty hard-to-reach places.

The calls may echo around the woods on an autumn evening when pairs begin courting, ready for nesting around February, but can you tell your tawny owl from a barn owl or little owl?

DAYDREAMING: a little owl appears to yawn PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

For Steve Gozdz and partner Billie O’Connor, relocating to the Chilterns in 2019 to be closer to nature has sparked an ever-evolving fascination in the wildlife to be found near their home base where the ancient villages of Goring and Streatley straddle the Thames, the meeting point of two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs).

From here, Steve’s Owl Walks over the past couple of summers have introduced locals and visitors alike to the range of owls to be found in nearby woods.

EVENING RAMBLE: owl walks have proved popular with locals PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Says Steve: “We are really lucky to live in an area which has four different types of owls all sighted in a small radius. Whilst the short-eared owls and barn owls are a less common sight for most, it’s been delightful to show a number of local residents the families of little owls we have nesting and breeding here in Goring & Streatley, and to help them learn more about them and the tawny owls we so often hear and sometimes also get to see too.”

Steve’s business, GG Wildlife Experiences, was born out of lockdown and his long-standing interest in wildlife.

“I think there really is a growing interest in the countryside and appreciate of the wildlife within it,” he says. “The difficulties of Covid-19 have been numerous, but during these hard times we have seen a positive by-product – the growing love and appreciation of our countryside and wildlife.”

FEATHERED FRIENDS: little owls nest and breed locally PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Billie adds: “We already know we are incredibly lucky to live in such a beautiful location, of scenic countryside and amazing wildlife. Many of us might hear the evening and night-time calls of different evening creatures, the most recognisable for some being the tawny owl.”

Steve started Goring Gap Wildlife Walks back in 2019, but the broadening into a wider range of experiences was a natural step, says Billie. “We now offer guided wildlife spotting boat trips, and even nature breaks, so expanding the business and rebranding made sense, to show we now offer so much more.”

The pair believe that helping people understand local wildlife better will encourage them to want to look after it. “The more people understand, the greater their interes, and then a lot of people want to know about how to protect it, how to create good habitats in their garden or on their land to allow wildlife to flourish – which is a great way to protect and grow those species we really want to see thrive,” says Steve.

BIRD IN THE HAND: wildlife photographer Steve Gozdz

So much so, that last year Steve turned his woodwork skills to good use and began creating and installing custom handmade owl boxes for those in the local area.

“You can’t just put any box up and hope for the best. Different Owls require different habitats and very different homes; it also depends if you are creating just a roost, or are creating a nesting location,” he says.

Steve will check out the garden or land and advise on the most appropriate box for the owl type that is likely to frequent the area. And in some cases, he has advised against buying one, as the habitat just hasn’t been right. “The environment needs to be suitable for a long-term habitat in order for the wildlife to flourish, and so I want to ensure we give the right advice, and give the wildlife the best chance,” he explains.

HOME TO ROOST: owl and bat boxes have proved increasingly popular PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

A new request at the end of last year was bat boxes, and Steve began installing these for customers who enjoyed seeing bats in the garden and wanted to provide a safe haven for them.

As the guided owl walks season comes to an end, Steve is now busy with a series of owl box orders in the run-up to the roosting wintering period, ready for the next year’s mating period when new pairs will need to find new homes……

You can contact Steve at info@ggwildlifeexperiences.co.uk or visit his website for guidance or advice on your garden’s suitability for different wildlife. Guided Wildlife Experiences run all year round.

Picture of the week: 21/12/20

THIS week’s picture choice is an extraordinary portrait of a hungry kingfisher by local wildlife photographer Will Brown.

The 19-year-old spends as much time as he can outdoors with his camera photographing wildlife in their natural habitats around his home in Hertfordshire.

TASTY TREAT: a hungry kingfisher by Will Brown

He recalls taking his first picture using his dad’s camera at RSPB Rye Meads, a local wetland reserve beside the River Lee which is a firm favourite with walkers, birdwatchers and photographers thanks to its many trails and hides.

That picture was a kingfisher, and these birds remain his favourite subjects, even though his growing portfolio includes owls, kestrels and small garden birds, as well as foxes and other mammals.

“Kingfishers have always been and always will be my favourite subject to photograph,” he says.

His striking shot was taken in October this year in Hemel Hempstead, when the bird was particularly obliging.

“Hemel has the canal, rivers and lakes with lots of access so it is ideal,” says Will. “It was posing beautifully for me on the bridge, hardly disturbed by people which is very unusual for kingfishers as they are usually quite nervous birds.

LATE BREAKFAST: a short-eared owl hunting by Will Brown

“Owls are my rarest and most challenging subject, and another one of my favourites,” says Will.

His striking owl pictures here were both taken on the same evening in November this year.

“By far the best owl experience I have ever had. Quite amazing,” he recalls. “The type of owl is a short-eared owl. They only stay here during winter months. In the summer they migrate to colder climates, such as Scandinavia.”

Still photography remains his main love at the moment, although he has experimented with video footage of owls and kingfishers. “I’m sure in the future I will do this more often,” he adds.

And to answer some of those technical questions about equipment, he explains: “When I first started getting into photography I used the Canon SX50 for the first couple of years. Then I moved on to the Canon 7D Mark II with a Canon 100-400mm Mark II. However, occasionally, depending on the situation I am in I sometimes use the Sony RX10.”

FAMILY PORTRAIT: fox cubs in Hemel Hempstead by Will Brown

Foxes are the main mammals to feature in his portfolio, including an eye-catching picture of cubs taken in Hemel Hempstead back in August 2018. “It is very rare to have them all out at once in the right place!” he says.

Clearly patience is a virtue when it comes to widlife, and that hasn’t always been easy to cultivate, he admits.

“Patience is a skill which has taken me years to develop. When I was about 10, I used to sit around in a bird hide with my dad, bored and uninterested as to what was going on with the wildlife. I use to drag myself along with him because we would always go and get a KFC after.

“After a while, I started to become more and more interested. Patience is a skill which requires the right mindset as well. These days, I am more than happy to wait around all day for a particular bird or animal to show and would not feel fustrated at the end of the day if I produced no results.

“I just enjoy being out and around nature. I never thought all those years ago I would be where I am now, sitting in a hide waiting for my dad to leave and get me a KFC!”

ON THE WING: another shot of a short-eared owl by Will Brown

When lockdown restrictions allow, he hopes to take a part-time photography course at college to help improve his skills and learn more about the industry.

For the moment, his main plans are to keep working on building his portfolio and continuing to sell his photos and reach as many people as he can.

“When someone buys some prints from me, I don’t get a buzz from the fact that I might be making money, I get a buzz from the fact that my photo is in someone else’s house,” he says. “That’s what I love about what I do.”

Framed copies of Will’s prints can be obtained from his website or follow him on his Instagram account.