It felt like a church service.
A small group of a dozen people, strung out along a length of drystone wall, staring at a field. At first, there was talk. Hushed, low tones, respectful. The late afternoon sun came and went behind a screen of clouds, and on this mid-April day, and coats were zipped and unzipped as the temperature went from warm to cool and back again. From a small stand of hawthorns, birdsong trickled out – a charm of goldfinches, a pair of competing yellowhammers. Every now and then, people walked a few yards to ease growing stiffness in backs and legs.
But then the call went out: “There!” and we all turned to look.
Flying perhaps six feet above the waving tops of the grasses, with a slow, measured wingbeat, as if every uplift and downstroke was carefully planned and considered, was a barn owl. Apart from a slight cough, a shuffle of feet from the watchers, and a low hiss from the dried heads of the grasses, the silence was absolute.
Without call or cry, the owl ranged the fields – two, each about the size of a football pitch – head down, traversing them far more quickly than should have been possible with such a lazy wingbeat. And then, without warning, a sudden mid-air roll. Watched through binoculars and lenses, the owl flipped onto its back and dived down, arcing as it did so in a move that would have done a fighter pilot proud. At the last second, those large talons – three in front, one behind – flipped down from their flight position under the tail as the owl dropped like a stone. Seconds later it was up again, holding nothing – a miss. Strong downbeats lifted it clear and it resumed its patrol, flying over a rise in the ground and out of sight.
For the next two hours, the owl appeared and disappeared, a random magician, and I was struck by its speed. It flew from one end of the field to the other and back faster than I could have run it. The breeze was gentle, but even so, hearing a mouse or a vole six feet below, buried under grass thatch, can’t have been easy. It then dropped for a long time, presumably having caught a vole, and fed on it. When it rose again, it flew to a post left out in the field by the farmer for that purpose, and we finally got a good look.
Barn owls have an inherent softness about them, as if they are made of marshmallow. This one had the classic heart-shaped face bisected by the long, sharp beak, but it had faint spots on the chest and a ring of dark feathers around the chin. In the world of barn owls, it is the females who have the beards. Buried beneath the feathers on either side of her face, just behind the eyes, are two ears, the reason why her face is the shape it is. Differently shaped and one placed higher than the other, an owl’s ears work with the flattened shape of the face to create two sonar systems. Each hears in a subtly different way, with sound taking slightly longer to reach one than the other. This exquisitely-evolved sensor array allows barn owls to precisely locate their prey, even when the mouse or vole is out of sight under the grass and the owl is flying several feet above.
The owl stayed for a few minutes before she flew off towards the back of the field and disappeared. The watchers waited, waited a while longer, and then slowly dispersed. Already later than I’d promised to be, I set off for home, but got quickly distracted by some roadside hares. I spent time photographing them, then – by now seriously late – I declared my day over, put my camera away in the book, and set off again, only to come to a halt in the middle of the road as a barn owl flew straight down the middle towards me. Sadly, and surprisingly given how noisy they are – roads are the main cause of death of barn owls. It is thought that they get overwhelmed and confused by the sound and lights of motorways and fly straight into the traffic. At the last second, the barn owl veered away and landed on the wall by the side of the road, bathed in the setting sun. She stayed there for a few scant seconds before flying away. I have no pictures, but the beauty of that moment, the still image of the owl, wild and free and bathed in a golden sunset, will stay with me forever. It seems that there is still some magic left in the world.