Friday 14 February 2020

An Encounter with a Barn Owl 14th February 2020

The barn owl swiftly rose on high
Serenely so, in fact.
To glide across the pale blue sky,
As if no need to act...
I saw it land on yonder tree
And set my camera's view
To focus on its majesty,
To learn what it would do...

And what I saw felt mine all mine

As if the only one
To see its glistening black eyes shine
And shimmer in the sun...
For it stayed still as if to pose,
Permitting me the chance
To zoom in more, till way up close,
The picture to enhance...

My camera clicked time after time,

To capture all I saw,
Because, to me, it looked sublime
And thrilled me to the core...
But glad was I that it was free,
To live its whole life through,
Not put on show for you and me
To stare at in a zoo...

Denis Martindale

I really did not intend to look for a Barn Owl at Farmoor today as I was concentrating on doing some scrub clearance with The Friends of Farmoor, a group set up for those interested in improving the wildlife habitat in and around the reservoir and with tacit support from Thames Water.

Driving around the reservoir to get to  our destination near Pinkhill Hide we were treated to the magnificent sight of around eighty Snow Geese feeding on the grass before they were flushed, as a man surprised them by appearing from around a hedge and getting too close for their comfort.They immediately and noisily took to the air. 

White and blue morph Snow Geese at Farmoor 
This however treated us to a magnificent flypast and indeed flyover by the mainly adult Snow Geese  wheeling in formation out over the waters of the reservoir. There were up to five young birds in the flock but to this day no one can say where the Snow Geese go to breed. It is fashionable to be a bit sniffy about these geese as they are not wild in the truest sense and are not in their native country but I am willing to confess to feeling some affection for them as they roam the reservoir and bring visitors a lot of pleasure. To see up to a hundred of them together is undoubtedly a sight worth seeing whatever the circumstance and long may they stay here.

It looked as if today was to be one for feral geese as another separate flock of thirty or so Barnacle Geese also flew over and around us, keeping a discrete distance from the Snow Geese. They are not so frequent visitors to the reservoir as the Snow Geese but can appear here, unpredictably, at various times of the year. As if to complete the set a few of Farmoor's many feral Greylags joined us too, all the geese of whatever species giving vent to loud calls of protestation at being disturbed.

After clearing some of the cut scrub by Pinkhill Hide I was standing chatting to Sally when she alerted me to the fact that a Barn Owl was visible, flying around near Pinkhill Lock. The Barn Owls here are well known for appearing in daylight and are attracting a lot of attention at the moment but usually they appear later in the day, around 2pm. Currently it was only noon. As the work was all but done I got the camera from the back of the car and walked the short distance to where the Barn Owl had last shown itself. Of course when I reached the spot there was no sign of the Barn Owl.

There was no one else around as I stood and waited to see what, if anything, would transpire. The answer for the first twenty minutes was nothing at all but then the owl appeared from behind a low rise  and proceeded to hunt over the waste ground to my right but at some distance. 

This was not a particular worry as I knew from previous experience that if I remained where I was the owl would sooner rather than later come flying nearer to me. I watched, fascinated as it flew into the steadily rising wind, allowing the strong airflow to buoy it up and by holding position on rigid outstretched wings, it slowly glided  forwards over the ground before it turned and drifted downwind, back over the rise and out of my sight. Was that it? Had it gone for good? If so it had retreated in entirely the other direction to that which the owls normally follow when they depart from this area, which is to the west.

I decided to wait for half an hour and then go to the cafe to join the others for lunch. Fifteen minutes later the owl re-appeared, this time flying directly towards me. Up to now there had been no people around but there is an unwritten law at Farmoor that when a minimum of disturbance is prerequiste there will immediately appear numerous dog walkers and members of the public out for their regular constitutional. 

The Barn Owl was still flying straight towards me and even perched on a fence post within metres but at that very moment was disturbed by two walkers and their dog and flew further away. 

This kind of thing can be a little frustrating but you have to accept that is the way it is and hope that the owl will not go too far and indeed in this instance it didn't, coming back once more, searching low over the grass and reasonably close. 

It briefly and clumsily settled on the ground but soon rose into the wind and inexorably continued heading away from me, following the river, and the last I saw of the owl was it searching the distant reservoir bank as it moved to the west.

For all the time I watched I never saw it once dive down in an attempt to snatch a vole, which is worrying and I do hope it manages to catch enough prey to survive. These are tricky times for the Barn Owls of Farmoor, as this desperately poor weather of high wind and copious rain is creating serious problems for them with regard to finding enough food to survive. The oncoming stormy weekend weather looks particularly bad and will test the owls severely.

No one is sure how many Barn Owls are here but I think I have seen at least three different individuals and it is thought there could well be three pairs holding territories along the  course of the river between Eynsham and Bablock Hythe. It would be nice to think so. Maybe one pair will use the new owl box 'The Friends' put up recently on the Thames Waterworks building



  1. Yeah, I worry about them too.... :o(

  2. I worry anout them, too.... :o( (Even though they hate me! ;oD )