In the glow of Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples a Tawny Owl called; only once. On returning home it was not clear if they have been recorded on the dry south east coast of Sicily. This reminded me of ‘Undiscovered Owls’ by Magnus Robb and The Sound Approach and I had to get a copy. This is the latest in the series introducing birders to bird sound. Their punch-line in this case was the discovery of Omani Owl, as well as shining light on poorly understood Western Palearctic taxa.
Until now I have never made a big thing about owls and it’s only in the last few years that I have made an effort to get five species a year. All five can be seen within the 10km square that covers Newcastle/Gateshead which I covered in 2015. Barn Owl is the one for me that goes under the radar. Sometimes they feel like ghosts, just because I don’t see them it does not mean they are not there.
In Robb’s introduction he talks of the calls of owls drifting into and out of our consciousness. Their calls reflect the shape of the trees and cliffs that surround; different to bird song. It was good to read that the team also had to learn what meanings are hidden in the calls of Tawny Owls. Without this, I would not have known it was a male calling as I ploughed back through a muddy track in the dark from a distant Little Owl. So I am on a bit of a mission and more than just year ticking I want to see what these birds do. Another Little Owl roosting in the same Hawthorn since last October and others displaying from a deformed Ash have really opened my eyes. Why have I not done this before?
Driving back through County Durham towards dusk I recalled seeing a rough grazing meadow behind a wood a few years back. Does that have Barn Owls? A Buzzard circled, calling when out of sight. I flushed a Woodcock and waited for ‘ghosts’. I could hear people and dogs nearby and slipped away unseen. I was nearly back to the car when the gaze of two Roe Deer drew my eyes towards them. Stock still, they did not notice the Short-eared Owl above their heads.
The owl rowed quickly across the darkening sky in pursuit of a second. They chased and spiraled high into the sky occasionally one –the pursuer would yap. This reminded me of Robb’s words, ‘SEOs are bastards to record’. Then a third bird was in the sky seeing off a Buzzard. In a year when the birds close to home at Burdon Moor are absent, finding three in a random spot was as exciting as finding a lifer.
I returned three days later. The cold thick grey cloud remained, but added to it was occasional hail brought by a penetrating east wind. The first bird hunted at 3pm and quickly made a kill. It ate just in time to avoid the Buzzard power gliding low out of the wood. The Owl chased it into a tree where it was mobbed by a Kestrel. Through the scope I could see a loose primary on the owl’s right wing. It preened and watched the Buzzard flew back to the wood. On flat wings it glided away and with fast wing beats the owl shot after it. The Buzzard circle high effortlessly, but the Owl went higher and dived. It flew back to the field yapping before landing in a dead Hawthorne where it spent the next hour just watching.
I could no longer feel my fingers and toes when the second bird arrived. The first chased the second until the settled to hunt opposite ends of the field. Two hares chased but I could not stay until dark, I had sat still too long and cold was deep in my bones.