Nature Notes

One of our barn owls, taken by Peter Hughes

One of our barn owls, taken by Peter Hughes

Barn Owl Resurgence.

In 2013, our local barn owl group were in deep despair: nationally, the breeding season for these wonderful birds had been catastrophic, and out of 119 nests monitored in the Pang and Kennet valleys, not a single chick survived to fledge. It was heart-breaking news of a much-loved bird already in trouble. On the farm here, we saw the regulars, but did not know how any chicks fared.

What a difference a year makes. With a mild winter and an early and sustained field vole boom, 2014 became exceptional. 175 chicks fledged from 127 nestboxes: more than the four previous years put together. Despair to elation in a twelvemonth.

On a good night for watching wildlife – in the sweet spot of two hours between rainstorms after a dry spell – everything is out. We trundle around the farm in the Land Rover with the big lamp, spotting fallow and roe deer and hares and before long, the first of four barn owls we see tonight.

It flew off a fencepost, rowing through the lamp’s beam on impossibly light wings. It landed on the flank of Woodhay Down, close enough to see its warm-apricot colouring, the pin-grey flecks on its folded wings and eyes dark as the dewpond on the hill at night. It turned its heart-face to the stars, revealing the concave flatness of a satellite dish divided by the narrow, tiny-feathered ridge above its beak. The lights of the town twinkled beyond it.

On the other side of the hill, our second was a first: an owl in the act of hunting, carrying a freshly killed rat by the scruff of its neck. It deftly transferred its prey from beak to foot and flew a short distance, evidently struggling with the weight. Barn owls look big, but are lightweight, duvet-feathered, hollow-boned birds. It landed with its foot firmly on the rat, looked at us, then tugged at its meal, bracing the pull to full height with a heavily feathered talon, rocking on its toes with the effort.

Our night lamping is interrupted then by more pressing concerns; a chimney fire in the village – we belt downhill towards the eerie sight of flames and sparks rising from and into blackness, as if a sudden foundry had appeared and ignited in the dark fields. Still lamping as we go, the beam glances off another two barn owls hunting separate quarters of these huge, flat hectares, but we cannot stop! On the lane, a tawny owl on the edge of the road does a double take as we fly past.

The fire is soon out and we resume our lamping. But the light flickers with a loose connection. Down in Holly Bottom, under the silhouette of the ancient hill fort, the lamp goes out and our night is over.

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