I own neither a passport, nor a house, but last night, saw 4 species of owl within a mile of home.
I heard the first before I saw it. The yelp of a little owl from the farm as I walked my youngest daughter home from school. We scan the outstretched limbs of the trees overhanging the field – the autumn filigree of beech mast, all nuts expelled, against a big heaven – until we find the owl’s small, rounded outline and approach carefully. A tree’s length away is enough: it bobs up and down with a stay-where-you-are pee woo woo; fierce eyebrows pale in the failing light.
Walking the dog half an hour later, the day begins to fold. There are quince bright as lightbulbs or lemons in the bare hedge. Field maples stake the boundary at lamppost intervals: wet pools of yellow light in lost leaves, glimmering up from the earth. The sunset has formed an apricot browse line under the sentry beech that marks the footpath, against the rain-dark, navy serge of Wiltshire’s vales.
I walk beneath the big wet coliseum of an ancient chestnut, its bark split into great warped boards, like an antique wardrobe left out in the rain. I spot the tawny owl at the moment we make brief eye contact. It flicks off the branch and is gone through the complexity of trees in absolute and dextrous silence. The empty branch rebounds.
I get into the car to pick up my son from a village 7 miles away, where the bus from college drops him. There is still enough light and as I drive up the road that cuts through the down’s steep escarpment, I habitually scan the fence posts for owls. The short–eared owl, however, comes off the hill and flies alongside a few wingbeats, thwarted briefly in its hunting flightpath. Level with my wing mirror, it turns to look at me: a round face and kohl-rimmed, fiery eyes, held steady, then it powers in front, and is illuminated in my headlights. Pale and striated as winter grass with black brackets at its wrists, it sculls off on wings like long, thin oars.
Our return journey is made in near-darkness when, in the same spot, a barn owl comes into view off the hill and over the car. It alights on a fencepost. We coast on the clutch until, windows down, we are at eye-level with it. It has its back to us, satellite dish head tilted to the ground, gathering, triangulating and pinpointing sound. We are a distraction. It turns its head through 180 degrees and fixes us with sloe-black eyes framed in a heart-shaped face. A spellbound moment and we drive on to leave it in peace, the headlamp beams filling with December moths.
Home. Then evening stables. Through a gap in the sailing clouds, I can see the handle of the plough and steer myself by it. The pale orange frost moon rising takes my breath away. Tawny owls call from the wood and there is the shhhhhp of another barn owl. I have astonishing riches. To each horse, I carry the moon in a bucket.