Every winter in Hungary, a silent migration takes place. Under the cover of darkness, over 16,000 long-eared owls abandon the wild forests and descend upon rural towns and farmsteads in search of more plentiful prey - no where more than the small town of Túrkeve.
Stepping off at Túrkeve bus station, I was feeling nervous about my chances. I had heard that owls flocked to this small town in the Great Hungarian Plain like no other, but it couldn't be that easy to just see wild owls in the town centre, right?
But, searching along the first road adjacent to the bus station, I immediately hit gold. A very cross looking long-eared owl (Asio otus) was spying on me from its throne high up on a juniper tree, blinking away the falling snow. I must have spent 15 solid minutes watching, photographing and filming this solitary owl, counting my lucky stars all the way, until my attention was drawn to a patch of trees sitting across the road.
The first owl
Here, you easily could count the plump outline of 8-15 slumbering owls per tree. Just sat next to a school, by the town hall, beside a road that leads to the bus station. All day they sat here resting, occassionally being woken up by the passing cars, shuffling around to get comfortable again.
For these long-eared owls, finding enough prey during a cold winter can be difficult, as some rodents begin to die off while others hibernate. In the small agricultural towns littering rural Hungary however, ongoing urban and farming activity maintains a high population of rodents, even when temperatures drop. Therefore, since before locals can remember, select towns across the country have become accustomed to accepting thousands of hungry, wintering, long-eared owls.
Over the recent winter of 2020-2021, a total of 16,455 long-eared owls were recorded wintering in Hungary, but no where saw more owls than Túrkeve. From public observations driven by citizen science initiatives, 593 long-eared owls were spotted over just a single weekend in January 2021 alone. That's roughly one owl for every 15 people living in Túrkeve.
Each morning in Túrkeve, the owls arrive at their resting site well before sunrise, full from a night of hunting in the fields and vegetable patches surrounding the town. After some chattering to each other, their day is then spent hidden up in high trees napping, or at least, attempting to nap beside the busy roads. It is not until after sunset that they reanimate, stretching their wings, chattering loudly into the night, and taking to the skies in huge numbers.
From the first of the ~600 owls flying out of town to the very last, the entire process takes only 25 minutes, but can be easily missed if you're not paying attention. Long-eared owls, just like most owls, are completely silent when they fly. Their disproportionately large wings and highly adapted feathers (including comb-like structures on the edge of their wings) allow them to fly unusually slow and break up the turbulent air that typically causes "swooshing" sounds. However, if you look up and squint against the black, the silhoettes of dozens of owls can be seen melting into the distant night, some even flying low and directly over your head.
Short-eared owls (Asio flammeus) and barn owls (Tyto alba) are also known to winter in rural Hungary, but are much rarer and sadly I did not manage to spot any during my time spent in Túrkeve.
When searching for owls, I soon learned that the key is to look down. After a series of nights out on the hunt, long-eared owls seem capable of producing an enormous amount of droppings. These fall and mark the lower trunks of trees in white, signalling that an owl has been in residence. Among droppings are also owl pellets, undigested packages of food and feathers that are regurgitated onto the floor. Breaking them open, you can find the skulls, bones, teeth and fur of recent prey.
Owl in residence
Until Túrkeve, I had never seen a wild owl before. Now, I think I can say that I may have seen too many owls. Across the four days I spent watching owls in Túrkeve, only two other groups stopped to watch them. For the majority of people living in Túrkeve however, this is business as usual. Though many expressed excitement at an outsider photographing and showing interest in their owls, I can't help but be worried about their future. Anecdotally, the numbers of these owls have decreased over the last few decades, and it will only be too soon before international birders converge upon this holy owl hotspot, transforming the town into an up-and-coming tourist attraction. I can only hope that when this happens, the owls, and Túrkeve as a whole, will continue to be treated with respect∎