Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Watched by owls

I spent an hour in the garden this evening, standing on a heap of rotting grass clippings. Maybe it's not what everyone would choose to do on a Tuesday night, but it suited me just fine.

On Saturday night I was mooching around in the garden around dusk, when I heard Barn Owl calls. Eventually I spotted two white heads bobbing up and down a short distance away - some of the owlets I helped to ring last week. On Sunday night, we stood in the middle of the garden and watched as a young owl landed on the fence and tried to work out what we were.

Those encounters were pretty good. The kind of thing that would make your day if you'd been in the field, but in our garden. We're spoiled. Anyone who tells you they don't like watching Barn Owls is a liar. Even the most cynical, hardened twitcher likes them, and that's a fact. Being able to observe them from my own garden is just the icing on the cake.

But tonight was something else.

From my slight vantage point under the ash tree, I watched and waited for Barn Owl activity. I was confident that when the owls came out I'd get a good view.

They took a long time to appear tonight, perhaps because of the clear sky that made the evening bright. Tawny Owls hooted from the oaks. A vole or a shrew squeaked from the nettles. Mosquitoes whined uncomfortably near my ear.

Above the hum of the combine harvesters down the road, I could hear faint hissing sounds. Eventually an adult owl appeared and went off hunting. Then two young owls appeared and took up their favourite perches.

So, I stood on my grotty heap of grass bits as the owls flew about. In the dull light it was hard to see from their plumage which owls were adults and which were youngsters, but the behaviour was different.

The young Barnies can fly quite well, but their landings are a bit... amateurish. They don't quite have the fluidity and grace of their parents yet. They circle and bob their heads up and down almost violently. I haven't really noticed adult owls doing that so much before.

After spending weeks in a dark nestbox, the big wide world must be sensory overload for the young. Every evening I watch them, they seem to be exploring their surroundings and learning... how to be an owl. I wasn't surprised when one of the owlets flew past me in a wide arc.

Then it landed on the garden fence to my right. Of course, Barn Owls are silent in flight but I heard its feet land on the wood. I didn't dare move properly so I twisted around, keeping my feet still. Not very comfortable, but it was worth a bit of discomfort. The owl bobbed its head around in circles, looking around me but not at me, it seemed.

After a couple of minutes it flew a bit further down the fence, to about 12 feet away. I stayed still! It seemed totally unconcerned by my presence, if it had even noticed. Just when I thought that was as good as it could ever get, the owl flew to the next fencepost along - about nine feet from where I stood!

I've been quite close to owls before, but always from inside a car. Being so close to a wild Barn Owl that seemed not to notice I was there was simply amazing. It was probably too close for my binoculars, and I didn't dare move while it was so close. After a few more minutes it flew off and joined its sibling not far away. They sat close together and took in their surroundings.

How am I going to top this? More tomorrow night, hopefully...