A business conference in Edinburgh on Friday 13th and another business meeting that promised to be difficult, further south at Gateshead on Saturday, necessitated an overnight stay somewhere. Spurning the opportunity to stay overnight in either city I decided on somewhere rural and found myself a very nice four star B&B just inside the English border.
After what can only be described as an 'interesting' drive from Edinburgh, leaving in the chaos of Friday night rush hour traffic after dropping off my business partner at the airport and contending with high winds and torrential rain that turned the road into a watery hell, I finally and gratefully made it to my accommodation for the night.
Chatting to D the owner I learnt that he used to be a falconer but even more interestingly he told me he still kept owls of which he was very fond and a real enthusiast. I enquired what owls he had and rather than the expected Barn or Tawny Owls learnt that he had a pair of Great Grey Owls and a pair of Siberian Eagle Owls.
This was too much to resist and I enquired if it would be possible for me to see them the following morning before I left for Gateshead. This request was readily granted as my host was only too pleased to talk owls and show them to me.
Somewhat frayed in mind and body after a trying and long day at the Conference followed by the difficult drive from Edinburgh, I retired to the nearby pub for a reviving pint and watched England playing Spain at football on the pub's TV but soon I was feeling tired and went back to my accommodation and retired to my room and blissful sleep.
Next morning after breakfast, D and myself went to see the owls which were housed at the bottom of his garden.
I was first shown the Great Grey Owls.
They really are the most wonderful looking creatures. The close set yellow eyes look almost too small for their head and to me create a vision of a shocked old lady with a wrinkled face shrouded in a shawl. Errol, the owl that served the Weasley family in Harry Potter was a Great Grey Owl and colloquial names for this owl are Phantom of the North, Spectral Owl and Lapland Owl. The Great Grey Owl has also been the provincial emblem of Manitoba in Canada since 1987.
The facial discs are the largest of any owl and allow it to locate mice up to two feet under the snow, where in silent flight the owl launches itself feet first in a snow plunge to seize the unseen and unsuspecting rodent.
At first the two owls were a bit nervous and the female clicked her bill in aggression, the resultant noise a bit like the sound one makes when tapping a pen on a desk but slowly they relaxed and from their perch at the back of the enclosure just sat and stared at us with a look of surprise. This species is the largest owl in length, around 72cm and exceeds that of the European Eagle Owl and Blakiston's Fish Owl from Japan. However appearances can be deceptive and certainly are in this case as most of the body, although making the owl appear large, consists of just feathers and its body weight is actually very light, considerably lighter, fifty percent lighter when compared to the Eagle Owl, than either of the two aforementioned owls. D told me that although their heads look huge the skull is in fact tiny and most of the head just like the body is actually just feathers. He also told me he had hand reared them in his kitchen, which must have been taxing at times not just for him but for his obviously understanding wife.
We moved on to a hybrid Peregrine/Saker Falcon which came to greet us and was obviously expecting food. D fed it a dead day old chick which it grabbed excitedly and then took it to a feeding block and proceed to tear into it with some gusto.
Finally we went to see the Siberian Eagle Owls, a bird of superlatives. These are an Asian sub species of the darker plumaged European Eagle Owl and are the palest of all the forms, their plumage being almost cream on the back but still looking quite magnificent. The prominent ear tufts which are not ears at all but just feathers, stood out clearly and added to their magnificently fierce appearance. The female was huge and the male, which huddled close to her appeared almost emaciated and puny when compared to her bulk. That was until you looked at his legs and feet when there was no mistaking their power and killing capacity. An Eagle Owl has been recorded catching and killing a Roe Deer that weighed thirteen kilos and another was seen to carry off a Red Fox.
These two Eagle Owls I was looking at had also been hand reared by D and he went into the enclosure and they somewhat reluctantly allowed him to pick them up and stroke them before he scattered a number of day old chicks on the ground for them to consume. Rather him than me!
With both species of owls it was the eyes that drew my attention. Maybe it was because they were so colourful, yellow and staring in the Great Grey's and fiery orange and glaring in the case of the Eagle Owls, they were mesmerising, intense, pitiless and un-nerving.
And so a pleasant hour was whiled away looking at these beautiful owls and then I was on my way to the very different urban surrounds of Gateshead, my pleasant interlude between business meetings well and truly over but not to be forgotten.