The Ghost Hunter

Barn Owl (c) Andrew MasonBarn Owl (c) Andrew Mason

With its heart-shaped white face, white chest and buff coloured back and wings, the barn owl is unmistakeable and is easy to spot in East Yorkshire, having a number of strongholds in the area. You are most likely to get an unforgettable glimpse of this magnificent bird along field and river edges quartering the land in search of prey.

Where can I see them?

The Vale of York and the Yorkshire Wolds, with low-lying floodplains, meadows and sheltered valleys, provides ideal habitat for barn owls. However, when winter weather becomes harsher they may move further afield, even into coastal areas where temperatures remain a little higher.

The Lower Derwent Valley supports one of the densest populations of barn owls in Europe. Large populations of voles and other small mammals makes this area a breeding stronghold and there’s always the opportunity to see these ghostly-looking hunters during any season. The footpath towards the viewing hides at YWT Wheldrake Ings can be a particular hotspot at dusk. The Lower Derwent Valley is also recognised as a Special Protection Area (SPA) for overwintering populations of wildfowl and wading birds so you may also get to see wigeon, pintail and teal in the autumn and winter months. Birds such as lapwing, curlew and snipe come to the area to breed in the spring and summer.

Tophill Low is another place to go to see barn owls as well as other wildlife including kingfishers, otters and water voles. The network of marshes, ponds, woodlands and grasslands around the main reservoirs is the best place to try and spot these secretive, but sought after creatures. Plus, you may also see kestrels, sparrowhawks and occasional visits by marsh harriers too as well as red kites. Don’t forget to look at the main reservoirs as well, as these are packed with wildfowl including occasional treats like the striking smew, amongst the vast flocks of ducks.

The quiet, twisting roads of the Yorkshire Wolds already offer the chance of a red kite or two, but after dark (and often dawn and dusk) barn owls are also a real treat. Thixendale and surrounding valleys offer a great chance, with local wildlife artist Robert Fuller often capturing barn owls on his range of specialist cameras.

When should I go?

You can see barn owls at any time of year in East Yorkshire but undoubtedly, the best times of day to see these beautiful creatures are dawn and dusk. Barn owls struggle to hunt in wet weather, so a dry period after prolonged rain may be especially productive.

What else can I see and do whilst I’m there?

The Lower Derwent Valley and Tophill Low are both on the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds and a short drive will take you to more wildlife hotspots in the area. Try strolling along Pocklington Canal, one of the top waterway sites for spotting wildlife, and you could be rewarded with further sightings of barn owls and kingfisher as well as dragonflies and damselflies during the summer months. If you liked watching the winter wildfowl and waders then YWT North Cave Wetlands on the outskirts of Hull is another great reserve to visit during Autumn and Winter to catch glimpses of birds including green and common sandpipers, goldeneye and ruff.