The most diurnal of the owl species, this long-winged member of the family is a winter visitor to Portugal from northern Europe. It could occur anywhere in open country supporting good rodent populations but is most likely to be seen hunting low over marshland and river deltas with deep, slow wing beats. As the wings are sometimes held in a shallow ‘v’, a distant bird could be confused with a Marsh Harrier, but the owl is paler, has broader, rounded wings and is slightly smaller.

Most arrive in Iberia during October, sometimes travelling a small groups. They are not averse to long sea crossings and I even saw parties on Santa Maria in the Azores, almost a thousand miles west of Lisbon, which had probably come directly from Iceland. Although solitary during daylight hours, communal roosts can contain up to 20 individuals, suggesting the species is quite widespread in suitable habitats.

The Short-eared Owl has a circumpolar breeding distribution in tundra and moorland habitats, occasionally nesting south of the normal range during ‘vole years’. A small population has recently become established in northern Spain so future breeding in upland areas in north-east Portugal is a possibility.

Its close relative, the Long-eared Owl, is resident and widespread in Iberia but strictly nocturnal, so unlikely to be seen unless disturbed from day roosts in wooded areas. They do occur near human settlements, where their prey species may be more abundant, and can be heard in early spring (normally a muffled ‘hoot’, sometimes repeated at short intervals), so listen out for them now. One was calling like this near my house on 27 February but the species has a wider repertoire later in the spring including some amazing ‘space invader’ metallic sounds.

The closely related, darker plumaged African Marsh Owl used to occur occasionally in southern Iberia, but the Moroccan breeding population has seriously declined and there were few sightings in the 20th Century and none so far in this. Hope springs eternal!