10pm and a joyful revelation. A pair of little owls sit side-by-side on the whitened, papery branch of the stag-headed oak overhanging the field; then fly in opposite directions to resume hunting. As I creep past their oak, with its hidden hollow and ancient girth, I hear the insistent psssssht, psssssht of chicks. Confirmation at last that the pair are raising a family.
The following evening, I go out late to shut the hens up. A bird starts and flaps in my neighbour’s fruit cage: a pigeon or blackbird that will make its way out. But something about the soft soundlessness and the shape of the bird makes me look again. Little owl.
On investigation, it is trapped on top of the netting. At first it panics and flies off with the net as if on purpose, to trawl the night sky for stars or moths, until the net tightens and pulls it cruelly down.
It bates like a hawk on the fist.
My husband arrives with scissors and we discuss, in low voices, a release plan. The owl stills, mantling with spotted wings. We lock eyes. I am astonished, being this close up, to discover he is no bigger than a blackbird. His enormous yellow eyes and fierce, pale eyebrows belie his size. Neither of us, it seems, can look away. The owl’s partner calls her rapid alarm from near the nest and the chicks are calling too. This little owl is needed. We drop the tea towel over the bird, make a neat hole next to it and (discarding my clumsy gloves) I put my hand through to grasp it, pinning panicky wings to the warm creaking cradle of its body. It stops struggling. The net is wound tightly around furred toes. My husband snips patiently. My arms burn with the effort of holding Athene noctua above my head. As I pull it through the net to check for injury, I get a sudden grasp from a cold foot and feel the vice and bite of its talons. It’s fine.
The children walk with us to the open field beyond the trawler’s net and we let it go. It flies straight to the oak in a commotion of yelps and scolds. A yellow fingernail moon glares suddenly through cloud. ‘Like the owl’s eye!’ exclaims my daughter, and we are almost afraid to meet the intensity of its gaze.
The next night from bed, I hear the little owl’s alarm call again. I grab the lamp and pad out in my nightdress. The net is clear. But there is the distinct snore and hiss of a barn owl somewhere. And further still and all around, the chiseek, chiseek call of tawny owl chicks.
The beam of my lamp gathers and fills with moths of field and wood and whirls them in a white kaleidoscope. The owls settle again.