Sunday, February 04, 2007

The involuntary twitch

It's been a dry winter. A warm one too.

Global warming blah blah blah...warmest on record blah blah blah...inevitable drought blah blah blah...rising sea levels blah blah blah drrrooonnnne....

Now don't misunderstand me. I am very much concerned and deeply worried about all these issues. In fact, I have been so since long before it ever made the headlines, and became a dinner party conversation topic for Audi drivers to bore people with. But I'm a fatalist. I mean, I'll do my bit, but when the whole of China won't do it's bit, and when the USA still has its political strings pulled by oil-greedy industry, I tend to be fatalistic and cynical about the whole bloody mess we're sailing into.

The planet will warm up. It is doing. Sea levels will rise. Deserts will grow, forests will die. People will starve, drown, fight, migrate, panic and all the other reactions and consequences you might expect. It's inevitable. It cannot be stopped, any more than the wonderful schemes for social engineering dreamt up by the well meaning Karl Marx could ever work for a greedy, avaricious and downright warlike species such as ours. The planet isn't necessarily fucked, but our current version of it is. But hey ho, life goes on. It's a long way to go before Venus has a twin.

This isn't about global warming anyhow, so I digress. It is in fact, about an owl. A Tawny Owl, to be precise. Strix aluco, to give it its rather unpoetic sounding scientific nom de plume. That's the classic owl, the one which goes "To-whit, to woo!" Only it doesn't. It tends more towards "Whu-hu-hu-hu-hooo!", in varying tones from a muted whistle to a deep (classic) owl hoot. I'm no expert on these lovely birds but I guess these are males letting other males know where their territory is.

For those of you to whom an owl is an owl, this is a Tawny Owl...

These birds are seldom seen but are actually quite common. The Barn Owl, Tyto alba, is much rarer, and looks rather different. Also it doesn't hoot, but makes an unearthly hissing shriek...

As I described in my blog entry 'These are my woods. I love woods me' there are woods behind our house. In these woods, on a night, from dusk until dawn, I often hear the hoots and soft whistles of a Tawny Owl. The calls are usually answered by another owl further down the valley towards Sheffield, and beyond that, by a third owl somewhere around the ruins of Lees Hall, on the ridge between Norton Lees and Gleadless. No doubt there are others in neighbouring patches of woodland too.

I hear them, but I never see them. In fact, I've never seen a wild Tawny Owl. It's usually too dark to see them when they're calling, and they stay stock still, sleeping high in a tree or in a hole in a trunk, during the day.

On Friday of last week; Friday the 2nd of February, I'd left work, on my daily cycle commute home, to Norton Woodseats, some 3 miles South of the University where I work. Usually at this time of year, it's just a steady ride along the roads and up the hills, perhaps venturing through a darkened Meersbrook Park.

On Friday however, after a week or more of almost dry weather, I decided I'd take my summer route, from Meersbrook, up through the darkened woods, to finally emerge at the top of our street. I reckoned the trails and paths through the woods would be dry or at least, the mud wouldn't make them unrideable, as is often the norm in February.

It's getting to that time of year when night isn't quite there when I leave work, the days imperceptibly lengthening to dangle tantalising blue washes in the Western sky as I set off home. On Friday it was like this, the cold, still air shading from indigo overhead to pale sulphur on the horizon. I pushed my pedals to get off road, eventually leaving Albert Road by the allotments, bumping down the dirt road leading to the woods.

I paused to click off all my lights, and let my eyes adapt to the twilight, by the steel gate at the entrance to Carr Wood. Slowly, what had seemed like night-blackness became suffused with shape and texture, as trees and bushes became visible to my night-vision. The background traffic roar of the city was overlain with rustlings and bird calls and the gurgling of the beck somewhere off to the the right in the darkness.

I set off, pedalling up the dimly visible track which leads steeply up through the trees, riding along the mental map I have of the ruts, the rocks and bumps in the surface. After a hundred yards or so, there's a wooden bench on the left, under the heavy elephant-skinned branches of a huge solitary beech tree. I stopped here, laying my bike down and crunching across a carpet of beechmast to sit on the saw-marked slab of oak. I sat and I listened and watched.

Behind me, a full moon the colour of butter had risen above the horizon, just enough to illuminate the trees above me, whilst I remained in a pool of dark inky air, shadowed by the hillside.

Away to my right, faintly, an owl hooted. Somewhere towards Gleadless, maybe half a mile away. A reply came from behind me, nearer, perhaps in the spectral, haunted place which was the old garden of long-gone Lees Hall, up the hill in the moonlight. The owls were talking. I sat still, breathing quietly, as sweat cooled and dried on my face.

A third owl suddenly hooted, close by, somewhere up the track, no more than fifty yards away. It was answered by another, away up the valley, probably the one who calls in the trees behind our house. I sat, eavesdropping in the softly alive woods, as the four owls called, back and forth, across perhaps a mile and a half of space, unaware of the listener sitting motionless in the dark beneath the giant beech. This was their time. The woods at night belong to them. They revert to a different state from the thronged parkland of sunny days, becoming mysterious, sinister, a little wild. Yet I understand the woods, the trees, the animals which live there. I understand them and I feel welcomed and comfortable, almost as if I belong. Sudden sounds and the feeling of being watched by unseen eyes hold no fears for me. Only people are truly dangerous, and there are no people there at night. The danger is all in the abstract.

As I strained my eyes towards the direction of the nearest owl, I saw him, as he came gliding through the black branches, and alighted on a limb of the beech, directly above me, not 20 feet away, and so close I heard his talons scratching at the bark.

My sudden head movement as I followed his flight must have caught his eye, because he leaned forward and looked down at me, bobbing his head around, and side to side, as he inspected me.

I could see his shape and the shine of his dark eyes in the moonlight as he looked down at me. I stayed as still as I could, until he promptly lifted his head, evidently satisfied that I was no threat, and too heavy to carry away; just a lumpen, earthbound plodder. He lifted his head and let out a steam-whistle toned "Whu-hu-hu-hoo!" into the darkness.

Gleadless Owl answered with a distant, higher pitched "Hoo-hoo-hoo-hooo!". My Owl called again, and this time, it was the owl up near our house who responded. My Owl bobbed his head, edging slightly along his branch, then fell forward into the cold air, flapped twice and glided away, effortlessly navigating the web of clutching twigs and branches which to me were barely visible.

I saw him, out near the limit of my vision in the darkness, brace his wings against the air, as he settled on another branch down the slope, another perch on his tour of duty, from which to tell the neighbours what's what, and from which to peer into the rustlings of the forest floor, in the hope of finding smaller prey than me.

I'd never seen a wild tawny owl before. Now I have. You can't put a price on such things.


  1. another astonishing piece of writing, brian. beautiful :)

  2. The owls made me do it.

  3. Yes, a great piece about one of my favourite birds. I hope there'll be no 'owls of derision from some quarters.

    PS - Saw a barn owl on Sunday at Staveley near Knaresborough. See

  4. Hi Brian,

    Posted my first comment before I'd read the piece all the way through. What a fantastic experience. The head bobbing is a range-finding technique of owls as they use parallax effect to precisely locate prey in the dark. Looks like this one was really sizing you up. I've seen a few tawnies (even a day-roosting one at fairly close range) but never had one come and check me out.

    Friends who trap and ring them (for research) play owl call CDs to bring them in as they'll attack intruders on their territory at this time of year. Try a few hoots next time and you might get an even closer visit.

    But remember, Eric Hoskings lost an eye to a tawny owl while trying to photograph one early in his career and I know a story about a guy who had a testicle grabbed through the sack he was holding an eagle owl in while ringing in Scandinavia. They don't readily leave go apparently!

  5. Hi Clive. Glad you liked the piece. I felt i had to write about it, being my first sighting of a bird I've been hearing all my life.

    Maybe something I was wearing had attracted its attention, and it was sizing that up, rather than me as a whole. It was definitely looking straight down at me though. The moonlight was quite bright, and if I'd had a camera I could probably have got a decent photo of it. It was literally house-gutter height above me.
    I've only ever seen two barn owls in the wild, both many years ago, as a kid. One was flying through the woods, along a forest track, in Glen Trool, Scotland, as I sat in our pale green Mk 1 Cortina with my parents and brother. We'd stopped to see if we could spot some deer (we did) but got the unexpected and rather ghostly treat of this majestic owl passingf right in front of us.

    The second was again with my parents. We were out walking, and were passing up the gorge of Troller's Gill, when we came upon a barn owl, stone dead, wings folded, peaceful looking. There wasn't a mark on it and it was obviouly not long dead. An absolutely beautiful bird and so sad to see it lying there like that. Maybe poisoned, or maybe it just died naturally, who knows.
    We left it there.

    As for the bloke losing an eye to a tawny owl. Ouch. Did he end up like Kirk Douglas in the Vikings? And the testicular incident - my eyes are watering even to read it. Eagle owls. Big owl. Long talons.


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