Discovered Owls

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.

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Two and a half minutes -Alder.

With jumpers already thrown down as goal posts, a single Alder gets picked last when the trees play football; no Spring show; and no pool of gold at its feet.  Awkward by itself, it comes and goes, with no fanfare. The maroon it wears in winter reinforces its isolation, but as a team they are a force of nature.

The ecology of an Alder wood, roots deep in primal ooze, shin deep in winter floods, is one of hope.  Here, even in a mild winter Alder is the boss. At this time, when dusk hits in the middle of the afternoon spirits move.  Picking through the cones on the outer most branches Siskins quietly giggle amongst themselves.  Pointing at the earth bound man sinking deeper as he stands still, Siskin twinkle.  Even when they sell their soul and feed from garden seed dispensers they bring with them the air of untamed wilderness.

Long before I saw my first Siskin I had listened to the words of Native Americans as they responded in 1855 to the advances of the ‘white Chief’ in Washington.  How can one sell the air?.  It contains the first strands of understanding of consumerism and some things that are beyond money.  In this mud and ooze of youth there was a fertile place to bury a seed.  To be followed by the cold rain, summer heat and patience, too much patience.

But money makes the world go round; get a good job with more pay and you’re OK; getting old way to early just to impress you with the money they make.  Then suddenly something reminds you that, ‘ When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money‘.  It is at this point, the seed hidden away for so long begins to grow.

The election in the US is the single biggest ecological disaster in my life time and it will unfold while we bash out a few characters on Twitter.  In January 2016 the Domesday Clock remained at 3 minutes to midnight.  It is a representation of the danger from threats like climate change, weapons technologies, and perhaps most importantly, the potential for nuclear war. The closest the clock has ever come to “midnight” was in 1953 when the Soviet Union conducted its own hydrogen bomb tests following tests by the United States. At that time the Doomsday Clock was two minutes to midnight.  Don’t expect it to still be at three minutes in 2017.

How do I know? Look to North Dakota.  Here Native Americans will be evicted from their land on the anniversary of General Custer’s Birthday -5th December.  They are protecting their water supply from the pollution that will come from the oil access pipeline.  The black snake of ancient mythology that signals the beginning of the end.  This is a few days after Canada’s Trudeau approves pipelines to extract more oil from tar sands. At a time when we need to move away from oil based technologies and meet the Paris climate agreement.  Remember the bad guy has not arrived in the White House yet.

So I return to my small piece of Alder woodland.  In the growing darkness I watch a Woodcock pick along the edge of a small puddle.  This is the only place I have been able to watch this secretive bird feed undisturbed.  Crossing my fingers will not stop them ebbing away, as a tide never destined to return.  Nor will it keep the water fresh or the trees in the ground, but we cannot just let the crime of the century unfold.

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Ash.

The last leaf on the Ash Tree did not hang like an analogy.  It did not tug at the thin thread like a metaphor.  It was, simply, the last leaf on the tree, at the end of a year warmer than the ones that have gone before. It does not need me to describe it into existence -it just is.  Or should I say, it is now, before it drops and transitions into becoming soil.

Earlier in the year I read that ‘New-nature writing’ has become too tame.  So it made me wonder what I had to offer that would not become a symbol for something else like Helen MacDonald’s Goshawk; an act of remembrance rather than a daily lived experience;  or a bucolic stroll across rolling cliches.

So I break the seal around this blank space to write about a leaf, that rattles in sheeting rain, backed by a northerly breeze.  November’s short days do not live in a romantic world.  The tree stands in our garden, 30 cm of vitality was planted a few days after we moved in; that was 24 years ago.

Ten years ago, I cut it back to 7 feet, aiding its journey towards a pollard stump.  Now I take the second step and begin to take down seven upward thrusting branches, each of 15 feet.  Its too early, the sap has not yet solidified to await the coming spring.  There is no sawdust, it emerges as gloppy porridge. The branch weeps; the drops run like tears down the smooth skin.  I count the rings back into my past.  I cast the same circles forward and I will nearly be sixty years old.

The branches come down slowly in sections, none drop onto a neighbour’s car.  I know I am being watched, but from up here just for a moment I can see things differently.  The buds on the twigs are like stubby pencils with which to write about Ash.  Or with Arctic temperatures being 20C above normal perhaps it is the story of ash that needs to be told.  The last leaf remains -neither analogous or metaphorical.
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Taking Spinoza Birding.

The weather was grey, cold and still. Good gull watching weather, so I am told. Wandering, with only a general direction in mind we found a statue standing by one of the numerous canals in Amsterdam. Cast in bronze he was surrounded in a cloak peppered with parakeets and sparrows –immigrants and residents that make up this multicultural city.

Baruch Spinoza, philosopher (1632 to 1677). OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Spinoza’s ideas were too radical for the Amsterdam’s Sephardic community, which not only banned him from the city, but also their religion. According to Spinoza, ‘God has no plan or free will. God is in nature, the bible was made by people’.

This chance encounter last year made a lasting impression. Or perhaps it was the guide I chose that made the lasting impression; John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook. Fascinated by the rumour that Spinoza had a sketch book Berger pieces together small life events with exerts from Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’. In so doing he uses the process of drawing to underline that looking carefully at objects and people allows a person to question the world around them.

Birding is not just about lists and Berger’s approach translates well into the birding I enjoy the most.  The chance encounter with something special like the Short-eared Owl on my patch the other evening.

I know I am looking at a Short-eared Owl.  Its broad wings carry its light body across the field before it drops on an unsuspecting vole.  The sun is low in the sky and when it lands it disappears into the grass the colour of a fairy tale’s secret.

I know I am looking at a Short-eared Owl.  It conforms to my image of one, built up of a composite of all the ones I have seen before.  This image is constructed in the mind.  Any description of a species tries to provide the essence of that species. This one is clearly more yellow than the last one I saw, yet remains a SEO.   To misquote Edward O Wilson who worked on ants, ‘when you have seen one Short-eared owl, you have not seen them all’.  

About 350 years ago Spinoza proposed, “The human mind is the idea of the human body”. Two centuries before Darwinian evolution, Spinoza proposed that the starting-point for our thinking about the nature of humankind should be physiology and the process of life-regulation. No need for the eternal soul and the mortal body. Only now are we able to test some of his ideas.

Spinoza’s quest was to develop an ethical system that was both mindful of the force of biology and true to what we would now call the “enlightenment” principles of liberty and justice. He has a lot to teach us about ethics in the age of genetic engineering.