Nature Notes

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The birds are nesting …

Little Owl Waltz.

It’s been a week of quiet spring revelations – of frost after hail and blackthorn blossom. Riding the horses along the edge of the scarp, a raven passes in the opposite direction. With almost 1,000ft below us, it marks our presence with an easy flip-flop of a barrel roll, Top Gun style, without breaking its horizontal flight line. The ring ouzels are back on the hill and for an incomprehensible, frightening moment, there is a huge, strange and thin crescent moon, swung at an odd angle in the sky. Then, as a man appears hanging beneath it, I realise the paragliders are back, too and the spiraling, white curved parachute rights itself. In a few moments, the ordinary becomes extraordinary: birds fly upside down, strange new planets are revealed and mountain blackbirds appear on a hill just 26ft short of a mountain.

The behaviour of birds is changing as the season moves on. After forming large, noisy chattering flocks, there is a sudden absence of fieldfare and redwing, but flocks of golden plover are still here, mingling with lapwing that have returned to their breeding site in greater numbers than ever before – conservation works. They sit quietly on the greening field, all facing the same way, punctuated by the black, white and petrol colours of the lapwing, their long crests blowing in the wind.

Around the village it seems every bird is nesting. A goldfinch has a pigeon breast feather in its beak and a kite trails what looks like a long honeysuckle vine, to its whinnying mate in a chestnut by the church. I leave an upturned dandy brush full of moulted horsehair on the gate post and before I am indoors, a robin and a blue tit have both gone off with stiff ginger moustaches of the stuff.

On a clear, starlit evening, putting the chickens to bed, our newly resident pair of little owls are calling. I have heard the male since February and recently, the female too, but never seen them together. They make an extraordinary variety of lovely calls. Tonight, I watch them perform an intimate waltz around the oak branches in silhouette. The female flits coyly away, and the male calls ‘wherroo, wherroo’ and follows. They bob up and down at each other and then one sidles up the branch to the other and they nuzzle up. There is some affectionate, kestrel like whickering, and to my astonishment, they mate. And at that moment, with tawny owls calling in the clear wood, a barn owl rounds the corner of my neighbour’s garden, flies below the little owl’s branch in front of me and floats away over the hedge. Could it get any better than that?

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