Thursday 30 January 2020

More on The Barn Owls of Farmoor 29th January 2020

Barn Owls are normally seen flying at dusk or at night over fields and hedgerows or along the rough verges of rural roads, when their white bodies and underwings appear ghostlike in car headlights or the light of the Moon. The opportunity to watch and photograph up to two Barn Owls at close quarters in full daylight does not come that often so, with a day of pleasant sunshine forecast, I made my way once more to Farmoor Reservoir in the hope of intercepting  one or both of the Barn Owls that often appear in the early afternoon to hunt over an area of scrub between the reservoir and the River Thames.

Why they come out to hunt so early, I am uncertain. Maybe it is because their territory is currently so flooded and wet that voles are hard to find and they are hungry and need to find food outside of 'normal hours'. However it is well known that the Barn Owls at Farmoor have for many years been encountered hunting during the daytime. So who knows............

A brisk and cold wind was blowing down the causeway as, after a coffee and a chat in the cafe with Amanda, Dave, Dai and Pauline, I made my way with Chris along the stark concrete ribbon of the causeway that bisects the two reservoirs. Chris had contacted me a few days earlier enquiring about where to go to see the owls and was visiting Farmoor for the first time. It was a chance meeting between the two of us, neither of us expecting the other to be at Farmoor today.

We were well ahead of schedule, it only being eleven am and any Barn Owl was only expected sometime around two pm. We wandered around the north western end of the reservoir for a while, killing time and then stood at a slightly elevated position, looking down to Pinkhill Lock that lies beyond the reservoir, on the river. Between us and the moored narrow boats, lay a fallow meadow of flailed stalks and grass stretching to the river, still greatly swollen by rain, mysterious eddies on its surface swirling as the great volume of water flowed fast and silently between its banks. Another legacy of all the rain that has fallen recently, manifested itself on the flattened ground of the meadow, for every dip and depression harboured water, forming infinite puddles and flashes that shone like mirrors in the bright sunlight.

The land is stark at this time of year, the bare dense ranks of distant bushes and copses a monochrome blur, the branches and twigs of larger trees outlined against the clear sky like haphazard cracks in a shattered pane of glass. Where we stood it was calm, sheltered for the most part from any wind and it was as if time was suspended, the scene before us unchanging, becoming a fanciful imagination of a rural idyll as the sun cast its dull winter warmth on my face. We quietly conversed, whiling away an inevitable and not unexpected wait for the Barn Owl. A Red Kite, that most elegant of scavengers rode what wind there was, searching for a meal and found an unsavoury morsel in the form of a long dead fish lying on the reservoir bank. The kite swooped and picked the fish up in its talons and flew on long bowed wings to a nearby tree.

There were half a dozen others, enthusiastic photographers mainly, who had come here with the express purpose of photographing a Barn Owl. Congregating on a distant bench by the river's bank they conversed loudly enough for their voices to come to us on the wind, as they ate sandwiches and drank tea or coffee they poured from flasks. Waiting like us but not wanting to be silent.

I resented this intrusion not because of their presence but the fact the meditative spell the land was casting across my senses was broken by their conversing and the moment was lost. The last time I was here I was on my own but now the owl's presence has become common knowledge and inevitably has attracted others less sensitive to these surroundings and the peace and solace that it can bring if you are willing to allow it.

A Barn Owl appeared from behind us. Its sudden appearance coming as a shock of delight, shaking me from my anxious state, brought on by waiting for so long and having nurtured a growing trepidation that the owl would fail to appear and I would be embarrassed, having cheerfully assured Chris of the owl's definite appearance. The owl sailed downwind past us,  white and tawny gold, like some high priest in his robes, the colours of its plumage radiant against a backcloth of bright green grass that is the reservoir's bank. John Clare in words infinitely more poetic than mine described the Barn Owl's appearance thus 'the owl on wheaten wing, /And white hood scowling o'er his eyes.'

It flew back past us and floated down onto a metal fence post, the bunched talons, ugly, in a grappling iron kind of way, hardly having space to grasp the thin metal of the post. It was never actually at rest but constantly turning its head towards any sound. It looked in our direction as if directly regarding us but it was reacting to sounds from the ground and the dark unseeing eyes did not register our presence.

Barn Owls at rest look a very different bird to when they are in flight. Perched they are angular, almost gaunt, the great domed head, looking out of proportion with its heart shaped disc of a face, dominating the rest of the bird's thin body. A body wrapped in long tawny gold and grey washed wings that meet beyond its tail. In flight it becomes compact, an impression that comes from the bluntness of its flat face, its broad wings and short tail. This is when it is so often  likened to a giant moth. The owl, when flying, appears less alien to my human senses, something more acceptable, for it has a face like mine with both eyes set into its face rather than on each side of its head like most birds. This makes it familiar and comforting to my human senses.

We waited for it to fly from the fence post. Owls do not launch themselves from their perch but caress the air with wings especially adapted for soft and silent flight. Immediately prior to take off the wings are lifted vertically to raise the owl's insubstantial frame of feathers and hollow bones upwards, and catching the wind, the owl is carried away on a flight of natural grace.

We watched the owl, flying over its chosen hunting ground, a neglected waste area of dead umbellifers and rough grass extending as far as The Lock at Pinkhill. For the most part it flew on a relentless patrol, around, away and back again, flickering wing beats carrying it on an erratic and weaving course, constantly side slipping, diverting and swerving with a tilt of its wings or tail to investigate the slightest of sounds but always maintaining a sense of purpose. W H Hudson in his book Nature in Downland described a Barn Owl's flight as 'flopping, unbalasted, aimless and moth like' which will do for me.

On occasions it would halt its 'unbalasted' flight, its acute hearing attracted to a noise in the grass and it would briefly hover with feet hanging down before falling to the ground in an endeavour to catch whatever it had heard in the grass below.

There was also one remarkable occasion where the owl dispensed with any preamble of hovering and in one rapid movement from level flight contorted itself so that its head faced downwards while body and wings were twisted sideways and with a dexterity remarkable for such a large bird fell to earth at great speed in an ultimately failed endeavour to snatch a vole. 

To have such a close encounter with an actively hunting Barn Owl is birding at its most rewarding. There is the pleasure of seeing a creature of natural beauty going about its normal existence but there is more to it than that. Chris and myself had gambled. We had gambled on weather, timing and a host of imponderables that only the owl could answer and satisfy by putting in an appearance. We had chosen our cards and could but trust that the owl would perform as it had done before, and prove we had a winning hand.

That is the adrenalin rush we craved, when it all comes together, the owl appears, remains with us hunting for some time and comes close enough for even the most demanding of us to be satisfied.

This afternoon we could have asked for no more. I had chosen our spot carefully, to stand between the river and the reservoir where I knew from previous experience the owl often flew back and fore. For short periods it would disappear over a rise and others, less patient or understanding, would chase after it but I knew the best course of action was not reaction but inaction, to remain steadfast and hardly move, confident in the knowledge the owl would return on a similar flight path, which it duly did. It was surely no coincidence that when Chris and myself had been by-passed by the others giving chase over the hill, the owl on its return would seem far less perturbed by our dual presence. We hardly moved  more than a few metres throughout and got all the views anyone could reasonably desire.

The Barn Owl eventually flew westwards along the reservoir bank. We waited for a while but it was not going to return and probably had flown to where it would be on its own and less troubled by the presence of human beings.

I walked with Chris up onto the perimeter track of the reservoir to look for the two wintering Greater Scaup that are usually to be found asleep amongst the scattered flotillas of wintering Tufted Ducks. Looking down onto the concrete apron that shelves down to the water's edge, a line of predominatly male Tufted Ducks were loitering there, out of the wind, strung along the concrete like so many shiny black and white piano keys. They gently took to the water not in haste but as a precaution, a re-assurance and slowly floated away.

I scanned another intimate gathering of 'Tufties'  bobbing further offshore on the blue water. A scruffy looking duck on the far edge of the small flock caught my notice, slightly broader in the beam and with a perfectly rounded head.

It was a first winter male Greater Scaup, half way to moulting into its full adult plumage. It must be new in to the reservoir today and a nice reward to complete this pleasant day of birding

1 comment:

  1. Terrific! I wish the ones in Eynsham were still about - you could be completely alone with them, but they were so used to dogwalkers that they weren't much bothered about people. x