Nature Notes

Owling.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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12 thoughts on “Nature Notes

  1. Another wonderful post. You are so very lucky to see so many owls. For the past 2 years I’ve been a volunteer with our Wildlife Trust following up possible Barn Owl sightings but so far no nests have been found in my local area. Barn Owl numbers are very low here in NI so they need our help if they are to survive here. https://www.ulsterwildlife.org/barnowl

  2. Your writing is so immersive – looking into the sloe-black eyes framed in a heart-shaped face, of the Barn Owl, I too was spellbound. My heart aches and I have a deep longing to be back there. You live in a lovely part of the country.

    We too have four owls roundabout but I’ve never been lucky enough to see them all on the same evening!

    • Here are some of my own Owl encounters …

      The night before last it was pitch black and as I let the dogs out for the last time that evening a Tawny Owl hooted from close by. To dark to see – he must have been in the field maple overhanging the barn. They don’t usually come this close to the garden, but this time of year their calls echo one another from the woods around.

      Earlier that evening before it was properly dark I was driving along the back lanes to the village when a Barn Owl blew out from the fields and flew ahead of me a white lantern lighting the tunnel of hazel overhanging the lane before ghosting off to glide over the fields away down to the river.

      Driving up the lane to collect my son from the college minibus I nod to the Little Owl huddled up close to the trunk of an old weathered Telegraph pole opposite the Churchyard Yews. The Yews some 2000 years old – the Telegraph pole young in comparison at less than 50, already past its lifespan. Yet the Owl seemed somehow older than both.

      Returning down the lane the familiar white rump of a Male Bullfinch flashed in the evening half light as he flew up from the hedgebottom to a favourite Ash tree, hanging heavily with dry rust brown keys. Just on the bend before the church a Short Eared Owl wheeled and banked over the lane at the end of its flight run over the marsh. We stopped the car in the middle of the lane and watched it quarter the marsh – a pale almost golden brown moth-like bird.

  3. Wow. There are too many complimentary adjectives for me to sort through right now – as I wait for daughter to wake up to open her Christmas presents – that I want to offer in praise of this delightful, incredible piece of writing. I was totally transported into your owl-world, which seems to be a place of open spaces and night-magic. Your powers of description are cut-glass crafted bits of wonder. I love your writing. How beautiful.- riches indeed – to see four owl-species in your locality in one evening – I don’t own a house either but feel incredibly lucky to have experienced the wealth of wildlife on my doorstep-though only two owl species encountered so far. Wishing you a happy Christmas and a wonderful.new year-with-nature.
    Genny

    • Genny – thank you so very much, you have made my Boxing Day with your lovely comments and thoughts. I hope you too had – and are having – a wonderful Christmas and a New Year filled with the wildlife we love, too!

  4. Ownership is sometimes quite a complicated concept – Gilbert White didn’t own Selborne in the accepted use of the term, but for readers of his wonderful book about the area, he owned every nook and crany he visited, observed and reported on. You don’t own a house, but you own your entire corner of the North Wessex downs by your observations and ability to transport us all there through your ability to carefully and thoughtfully chose the exact words to convey the area’s riches and your enjoyment of them. It’s like in “Otters” where you are the only writer among the many books I have read which describes otter spraint as “the size of my little finger”. So simple, so exact and so extraordinarily helpful – rare indeed. May you long continue to bring us such observations and such pleasure.

    • Oh you are lovely – and wise too, thank you! I explore the idea of ownership in the book I’m writing quite a bit – and mention Gilbert White as well as John Clare. My next post (due shortly, unless I fall asleep by the fire!) addresses the idea of trespass a bit, too. Thank you for mentioning ‘Otters’ and the descriptions – I think cutting my teeth writing for the RSPB and their Youth Magazines for the wonderful Derek Niemann (then Editor, now author) helped enormously. I hope it helps get peoples eye in, in a way they can really relate to and imagine – and then find! Thank you so much again – another lovely comment that has quite made my Christmas!

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  6. Nothing to do with owls – but your line … ‘To each horse, I carry the moon in a bucket.’ … reminded me of an old poem by Edward Slow which recounts the old Wessex smuggling legend, “The Wiltshire Moonrakers.”

    It tells how two village smugglers outwitted the Devizes Excises-man, when their donkey bolted and tipped the barrels into the pond, by telling the official they were ‘reakun var a cheese.’

    He believed them!

    It starts …

    Down Vizes way zom years, agoo, When smuggal’n wur nuthen new, An people wurden nar bit shy,
    Of who they did ther sperrits buy. In a village lived a publican …

    https://edwardslow.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/01-wiltshire-moonrakers-the.pdf

    Edward Slow (1841-1925) – The Wiltshire Moonraker

    But is best listened to:

    It’s a long time since Oi spake loick tha
    – but then I’m from Zummerset!

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