Category Archives: short-eared owl

The winter stare of a short-eared owl

I’d never have found them two minutes later. I watched them, a pair, drop to ground after twenty minutes working the field and hedgerows and there achieve an instant metamorphosis—bird become sullen vegetation. Fixed on the spot where they went down, I located them only by their intensely yellow irises, stark and astonishing against indistinguishable feather-scrub, like a night creature’s eerily luminous eyes in singular darkness.

Photo: W.dog.net

Short-eared owls are always a remarkable and special winter sight. They breed in northern and Scottish uplands, but their numbers are swelled from autumn onwards when continental birds disperse to new territories across the rest of more southerly Britain. Some years bring so many birds that every likely patch of land for hunting seems to have a resident pair (one year the small common just across from my in-laws, right on the edge of a busy town, had a pair that hunted each evening right among the regular dog-walkers).

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Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

The owls’ seasonal appearance makes them particularly associative of shortening, colder days. Their cryptic plumage is somehow the stuff of winter itself: matched to the subtleties and gradations of arctic tundra. It is the drab beauty of earth and grass intricacy; winter browns of loam and thorn, sedge, stubble and reed. It’s those facial markings, too, which conjure for me the year’s darkening nights—that black smudging mask framing the eyes has something of a Gothic, All Hallows spectre, a ghoulish stare that is unyielding and severe as winter itself.

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Mist coming in over the owl field. Beeding Brooks, Sussex, 27th December 2018

That evening mist came in quickly as the sun set. It seemed to generate and rise from the earth itself, as though the field steamed with optimistic warmth. The cows became monoliths, their dark, head-down bulks forming a stone henge. To the south-east where St Peter’s church stands on a knoll, I could hear the jackdaws’ nightly Tenebrae in the tall stands of beech tree either side of the rectory. The birds continued to drift across from the west, their black forms like bonfire fragments in the red sky. Periodically and suddenly, the growing roost broke to an explosive cackling as thousands of jackdaws took flight before settling again minutes later.

By contrast, the owls hunted on in complete silence, easy and elegant on long, languid wings. The mist in the last minutes of light had consumed the whole field and the owls’ ghostly figures dissolved into whiteness.

 

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The year’s end on the Essex marshes: frost, ancestry and owls

There is heavy ice on the windscreen in the complete darkness of 6.30am. I labour with numb hands to scrape it clear before setting off. All the way through Kent and Essex, the land is white and thick with mist, eeriely unpopulated, even on the motorways. I am travelling to meet a friend at Old Hall Marshes for a winter’s day birdwatching on the marshes of the Blackwater Estuary. This is not till later though, and I have other plans first.

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I arrive at Woodham Walter before sunrise; a small, picturesque village to the east of Chelmsford with a distinctive redbrick church – reputedly one of the first purpose-built Reformation churches from the early years of Elizabeth I’s reign (1563). This type of morning is my favourite of all in any season, and I am excited to be out early: frozen, silent, a sense of the land transformed and hushed under the white frost. Most would argue now that wilderness does not exist, that there is no land in our crowded island that is not owned, worked, managed, plotted, spoiled or mapped. Certainly not the flat farmlands of Essex. At moments like this, however, you can at least feel that even the most agricultural terrain can’t possibly be more beautiful and pristine. Woodham Walter lies quietly down country lanes by arable fields, as it has for centuries. I drive them carefully, sliding on occasion because the sun has yet to melt ice and frost. The mists and and close horizons are like ghosts this morning – they put me in mind of the early medieval past, when Anglo-Saxons and vikings fought a bloody battle near Maldon, a short distance from here where the fields become saltmarsh on the Dengie Peninsula and the Blackwater sweeps out to the cold North Sea.

Woodham is a village that became part of my knowledge and history suddenly, a few years ago, when I was researching my father’s ancestry. That first visit was in winter, too; heavy floods and droves of fieldfares ranging the drab ploughlands. I have come again just before the new year, and it occurs to me afterwards that I indulge the imaginative notion that the dark, cold end of the year raises the past far more evocatively for me than any other season or weather. A good time for hunting one’s own history. Before the Great War, before the rural migrations to cities in the 19th century, my forbears worked the land around Woodham Walter for two generations, and in Polstead, Suffolk, before this. The censuses show the family’s address as Burnt House Street. There is no record of this road name now, but there is a ‘Burnt House’ on a little-populated road (Stivvy Road) leading north out of the village which looks to be from the 18th century. What tale was sensational enough to be memorialised in a street name? A fire, would seem the obvious answer, perhaps in this very house. The buial register in St Michael’s church lists some of my family in unmarked graves.

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This morning I park up opposite The Bell Inn. The air does not feel immediately cold so I set off in my new herringbone blazer (a Christmas present from my brother) and scarf. The cold bites quickly and I regret the decision, but carry on past the graves down the left side of the church and out across the iron-hard loamy fields either side of a narrow grass path leading to a thin band of mixed woodland. I am constantly in mind of my ancestors amongst so much arable land. Not much can have changed in the near two centuries since they worked long and wrenching days out here. My great, great  grandfather, James Warren, who moved the family from Polstead, was still labouring in the fields at 77 years of age. Come the next census in 1881 he has moved to Great Baddow to live with his daughter Sarah and son-in-law, James Linn. My breath plumes, dispersing into the lingering mists that the sun will soon burn away. As I reach the woods, the sun just crests the bare tree line to the right of me. I take pleasure in being entirely alone here when the winter land and light is at its most glorious. It inspires an urgency, a desire to capture the always-escaping experience, before the rich world of amber and shade and crystalline hoar on every stem are gone. At the moment of sunrise you feel it most because it happens in minutes, seconds even – the time of day when you visibly see the world roll away below the sun. Mist still smokes from the field as though dreaming warmth. This is J.A. Baker’s world, author of that nature writing classic, The Peregrine – the unnamed, mythical estuarine and arable flats ‘as profuse and glorious as Africa’, across which he seeks the peregrine for a decade. Remarkably, a peregrine wings with speed and purpose over the woodland, heading east, as I turn back towards the church.

Later that morning Jeremy and I met as usual in the car park at RSPB Old Hall Marshes for our biannual saunter round the peninsula. Amongst the barn owl and bittern and bearded tits, we delighted most at the sight of shorteared owls loping up and down the sea wall pastures on languorous wings. One perched, fence post-still, atop a small hawthorn shrub for a long while, staring at us intently with its All Hallow’s glare. Baker uses the word ‘soothed’ to describe their action. That sounds about right. They appear so silently and unannounced from the grasses as to make their colours and forms seem indistinguishable.