RICHARD WILLIAMSON: An owl so noisy some called it the devil himself

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It sounded like somebody moaning quietly in the forest.

‘Ooh, ooh, ooh’ came the cry on the tape recorder.

My friend and I looked at one another in apprehension. He had recorded the dawn chorus, to learn the songs of birds.

There were all the usual noises of blackbirds and wood pigeons and tawny owls.

But this was something else. “Do you think we ought to make a search, or call the police?” he suggested.

“I was not aware of that noise at the time. There was just this dawn chorus noise going on all around me, blotting everything else out”.

He had been in Kingley Vale, one early April dawn, many years ago.

So we went there again.

And we listened carefully in the dusk after we had searched the yew forest where he had stood at dawn.

After a bit the moaning came again, each feeble, sighing ‘ooh’ repeated at two-second intervals.

But we had done our homework first, and we had settled on the moaner being a long-eared owl.

Neither of us had ever heard one before. Several days later, I found the nest, when I suddenly noticed a pair of devilish orange eyes staring down my binoculars from the top of a yew tree.

The bird had made the nest on top of an old squirrel’s drey. Sure enough, over the years, I heard some of the other hideous noises this bird has in its repertoire.

It clicked its beak like a Spaniard with castanets. It squealed once like a pig being killed, the same ‘sharm’ which a water- rail makes. Sometimes it was a cat hissing, and once a peculiar hollow ‘helloa’, drawn out lugubriously. The point of telling you all this is you too might have heard things that go bump in the night and been unaware of what caused them.

The long-eared does breed in Sussex, but possibly not as commonly as 50 years ago. Or is it under-recorded?

The latest Bird Atlas shows it has lost a lot of its old county territory, though it has gained ground in Kent and Herts as well as Lancashire as a breeding bird.

Winter visitors from Scandinavia have also declined.

So please keep your ears tuned for awful crepuscular noises and if certain of sightings or sounds, report these to the Sussex Ornithological Society on their website.

One key sound is that of young ones in June squealing for their parents to feed them, a noise like an unoiled axle wheel.

At this time of year, the male and female sit very close together on a branch halfway up a tree, typically a pine.

And this week’s walk repeats one I made earlier in the woods where it is still known to exist, so you may be lucky and hear ‘the devil himself’ as German ornithologists used to nick-name the long-eared owl.

Sussex folk of yore had three friendlier names: horned, tufted, and laughing owl.