January can seem one of the darkest, deadest months when the problem of hibernating/dormant/absent creatures is compounded by the grimness of the weather which altogether makes staying inside the easiest option. However, there are a few exciting sights to be seen in and around Grantham even in this gloomiest of months. The first of these is owl-watching on the hills which rise up to the west of the town.
Dusk comes early at this time of year which makes the days depressingly short but does at least make crepuscular species – those which come out at dawn and dusk – a lot easier to see at sociable hours.
If you walk the footpath which continues up a muddy track through an archway of trees at the end of Beacon Lane, you will quickly find yourself surrounded by rough grassland, a perfect habitat for voles and mice and, therefore, a perfect hunting ground for owls!
Around 3 – 4 o’clock in January, you will begin to see them come out and hunt, especially on the broad open grassland to the right at the top of the footpath. Several barn owls – a native resident species – can often be seen, along with a short-eared owl which has taken up residence this year. My photograph is sadly rather pathetic but you at least get a feeling for this impressive bird – a much better gallery from the Hills and Hollows in previous years can be found here.
The short-eared owl is a migratory species which arrives in the UK in early winter from the northern continent – Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland. They will often stay in one place throughout the winter before flying back to their breeding grounds in the north. You will notice how much larger a bird the short-eared owl is with broad, almost buzzard-like wings. It flies low and drops regularly and dramatically into the grassland hunting its prey – you could almost imagine it falling like a child and getting quickly back to its feet as it progresses up and down a hunting patch. The barn owl by comparison will often perch and watch before gliding over the grassland, hovering lower and lower when it spots something tasty until, at the last minute, it drops silently upon its unsuspecting prey.
Take along binoculars, if you can, and don’t forget to wrap up warm as it gets cold when the wind blows! Even if you don’t see the owls (and I’ve no doubt you will), the view across Grantham from this height can be spectacular! You may need a little patience but, as the darkness falls, the birds will surely appear.