For the Love of Owls

owls,. Little owlFirst you should know: I love owls. When I was at college, I lived for a time in a cottage opposite a field. We had a visiting Little Owl. I first encountered it when I came home at dusk to find Something sitting on the stone wall that surrounded our garden. I thought a child had dropped a stuffed toy and I reached to retrieve it. Until it OPENED ITS EYES.

It was a Little Owl. And they are really small, as you see. 1.5 bricks tall, max. But the message was direct, unmistakeable and compelling: DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT.

I’ve been a huge fan of owls ever since.

A Holiday of Owls

Arctic Hare, photographed by Andrew Thompson

I’ve just returned from a trip to Finland, where they take their owls seriously. Travelling with my Companion, the Birdwatcher, on an amazingly rewarding trip organised by Bird Holidays I saw some spectacular creatures, including a truly magical Arctic Hare, scampering across a road and into a snow-dotted field..

But it was the owls that got me there in the first place and the very first bird I saw was…. well, let me set the scene.

Owls: Scene One

It is morning. Overcast, but not raining. Our local guide – whom I shall call Aragorn for the purposes of this blog, since he was certainly a Strider – stops our convoy of two people-carriers and helps us scramble over a ditch and into the forest. It is shadowed, but not dark. A bit like a cathedral, come to think of it.

We move softly, speaking in muted tones. Everyone except me is a proper accredited bird-watcher. I do my best to emulate them and not bump into the trees.

We stop. Everyone raises their binoculars. Intent on something.

So do I.  I can see… trees. Pine trees. Birch trees. Bushes. Not a single bird.

Behind me the Birdwatcher says, low, “Got it?”

Gulp. No.

First Owl Encounter

He gives me co-ordinates: middle tree, scar on the right of the trunk? I nod. OK, then up a bit, to the right a bit, see the big branch at 45 degrees, go up along that and…  I see a sort of deeper shadow half way up the tree. Tangled branches? Twigs? Leaves? But what’s that semi-circular something sticking up in the middle of it?

Great Grey Owl photographed by Andrew Thompson

And there she is. A great grey owl, on her nest.

Now I’ve got the binoculars on her I adjust the focus – and step back in shock. For she is BIG.

“Look at her in the scope,” says the kindly UK leader.  I do. And she is wonderful.

In the scope you lose all sense of size. Instead I have the strangest feeling that our eyes are actually meeting.

I study her face – for owls have real faces, unlike most birds. That circular visage, with its pale back-to-back commas emphasising the eyes, makes her look like a Trojan warrior, wearing an armoured nose guard. But she is SO not human.

The whorls of feathers are like rings in a tree which tell you how old it is. I keep wanting to call her plumage foliage. This feels like a very ancient creature.

And then the eyes! Calm but alert. Confident. Golden.

“She knows we’re here all right,” someone says, whispering. Out of respect? I think so, at least in part. I feel suddenly very humble. And privileged. Very, very privileged.

I remember what the gardener, who lived next door to  our Little Owl cottage, used to say. If you look into an owl’s eyes, you should bow to him. So I do. It feels the right thing to do.

Owl Fact One

One of the great pleasures of this holiday is our companions. They know so much, yet they are kind and encouraging – and an education. When I tell one of them about Gardener Bob’s instruction to bow to an owl, she nods approvingly. “A photographer lost an eye to an owl, didn’t he?” says someone. “Yes. The great Eric Hosking,” she replies.

Barn owl taken with a flash bulb 1936. Eyke Suffolk by Eric Hosking

Great indeed. The man photographed birds in black and white from the twenties onwards, carving out a career in a genre he virtually invented. The results are spectacular, as this glorious gallery demonstrates.

There is now a charity in his name which offers bursaries to support natural history and ornithological research through the medium of photography and allied arts.

Anthropmorphising Owls

Watching owls is special for so many reasons. But I think a great element in the wonder of it is that they come one at a time. They don’t flock, like crows or goldfinches. They’re dignified solitaries. Or murderous, like the Little Owl. Or permanently irritated Professor Brainstawms.

Of course, it’s not an individual reaction – their facial “expression” is in the DNA. But sometimes they cheer me up just to look at them and imagine what they’re thinking.

Tengmalm’s Owl by Andrew Thompson

Like this delightful Tengmalm’s owl surprised by visitors – at a proper distance, of course, under Aragorn’s meticulous direction. But their hearing is acute and, when we tiptoed up, she heard us.

And doesn’t she just look like a woman who’s come down two flights of stairs to answer the door to Jehovah’s Witnesses? Bless her!

Owl Fact Two

Owls will always hear us coming, though we approach softly as foot can fall. It’s because of those not human faces, I’m told.

“They’re like a great radar dish,” a birdwatcher explained. “They pick up the noise that voles make underground.”

And then go into that inhuman rotation of the head – some can turn as much as 270 degrees! – so they can lock onto their prey.

 

Owl Encounters

The pleasure of an owl encounter is that it is unpredictable. They might be there. Or not. They might come, especially if Aragorn is playing their call. Or not. They might sit in a tree half a mile away and sneer at you. Or soar away the moment they detect your presence. Or worse.

Hawk Owl photograph by Andrew Thompson

On one day Aragorn took us up a hillside path to where he thought, if I recall correctly, a hawk owl might be seen. He told us to wait for him. “I will go first. They can be aggressive.” And he strode off into the trees, a heroic advance party of one.

Eventually my Companion Birdwatcher said thoughtfully, “It would be ironic if those turned out to be his last words.” The others nodded.

I had the feeling that they all thought it wouldn’t be a bad way to go.

Aragorn survived – but the owls were not in the giving vein that morning.

Hawk Owl

We had several goes at finding a hawk owl and, in the end, one found us. It was waiting for us when we came out of a forest lodge after a candlelit lunch.

And it is extraordinary. There’s the long tail, the glorious plumage as if someone has tipped petals of may blossom over it, and then there’s it false face.

Yes, truly, a false face on the back of its head. And it’s a pretty damn creepy one, too, like an Etruscan helmet with eye slits that you can’t see into. It made me recoil, when I saw it in the scope. So I think it must give even a flying enemy a pretty clear warning.

But what I remember is the owl itself, silhouetted against a winter-white sky, watching us watch it through our binoculars and scopes and the naked eye.

And I felt how difficult it is to understand another species. This must be what it will be like when the human species meets its first extra terrestrial.

Ready to write that Dr Who episode now, then!
Sophie Weston Author

Sophie       

with huge thanks to Andrew Thompson for permission to use his lovely photographs of our Finnish trip. Dear Reader, please credit him, if you wish to use any of them yourself.

Also much appreciation to bird holidays.co.uk for a wonderful trip and especially to Andy and Aragorn for allowing me scope time to digest the amazing sights. There were far more birds than this – and I haven’t covered even half the owls we saw. It was magic. Thank you! 

Explicit Sex in Romances : how often, how necessary?

woman in bed uncorks exploding champagne, metaphor for explicit sexExplicit Sex in Romances: none, lots, somewhere in between?

Explicit sex in romances is a complete turn-off for some readers. They like the bedroom door firmly closed and refuse to read any romances where it is not. That, of course, is absolutely their choice. And I have written some romances that, in my opinion, worked very well without sex scenes. Indeed, one of them — Rake’s Reward — has been called “fizzing with sex” even though it contains no explicit sex at all.

But, equally, I’ve written romances with a lot of explicit sex on the page, even though that is bound to have lost me some potential readers.

So, are there any guidelines for authors here? Continue reading

New home, new garden…

Liz Fielding's new garden started as a messNew garden: with silver bells and cockle shells?

None of those here, when I moved into my new home last summer. The garden was  just a big neglected mess.

The first job was to clear out the weeds and paint the wall. When I say “I”, I confess I called upon the lovely Robert,  who got to work with a some serious tools and, once he’d cleared the bed, a paintbrush.

Liz Fielding's new garden after tough love and paintHere, with a little November sunshine to light it up, is the result.

All he left were a few plants hardy enough to survive the neglect. (I’m trying not to think about the huge store of weed seeds lying in wait for my hoe!)

There is a large deep pink hydrangea, a couple of buddleias to attract the butterflies and a well grown Clematis montana. It was in full bloom when I viewed the property last year and is just about to give me joy.

To begin at the beginning…

spring bulbs in the new gardenBut, back to last November. Once the ground had been cleared, my first job was a scramble to get in spring flowering bulbs. I chose tete-a-tete daffodils, a firm favourite and so hardy. Where the bigger daffodils get blown about and battered by wind and rain, the tetes just stand up and take it!

grape hyacinths and tulips in new gardenI added a load of grape hyacinths, the really deep blue ones. I have a large potful of those, too. Then tulips. I ordered the daffodils and hyacinths in plenty of time and had them ready to go, but It was getting a bit late. The garden centres had switched to Christmas stuff but I found some at one of my favourite online suppliers and in they went.

And up they came!

The new garden plan…

Continue reading

Pedantique-Ryter rants about incomprehensible words

In a recent newspaper column about methods of drying hands, I read the following (to me) incomprehensible paragraph:

The fundamental superiority of paper never looked to be in doubt, though. With paper, you didn’t have to wait restlessly for half a minute for the dryer to finish its bloviation. You didn’t have to fear a malfunction. You could dab at spots on your tie, or dry a washed face, or wipe sweat from your brow.

Bloviation?
No, me neither.

The piece, by Samanth Subramaniam, was about the struggles between the producers of paper towels and hot-air hand dryers to win business in public toilets. I had a context; but the word remained incomprehensible.

I consider myself reasonably well educated and yet I was stumped.

Blowing? Continue reading

Opera for Writers

OK, this blog is truly personal. I very much wanted to write it. I don’t know whether my experience will be of help – or even interest – to other writers. I hope it may. But no guarantees.

There’s something a bit magical, a bit otherworldly about opera. Lots of my nearest and dearest hate it. If you do too, you’ll be in excellent company.

Why I’m Thinking About This Now

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The Sweet Sorrow of Endings

I have done it!  I have finished my latest historical romance!
Hooray, I hear you say. At last.
About time.champagne to celebrate book endings

writer worries waiting for editor's verdict

It has been polished, re-polished and sent winging its merry way to The Editor, the god-like creature who will pronounce judgement upon my baby. As some old writer hack said, “parting is such sweet sorrow.”
It is an anxious time.

But while I wait, chewing my nails to the quick, I have been pondering on Life, the Universe and…

Endings

Continue reading

Audiobook Bertie Wooster

Recently, a reader of this blog, noticing that I turn into a drivelling fan girl whenever P G Wodehouse crops up, invited me to review a new audiobook edition of Right Ho, Jeeves.

Hugely flattered, I returned a resounding “Gimme.”  Only rather more gracefully phrased. At least, I hope so.

And then the doubts set in. Had I implied I was qualified in any way to do this? I had never read/heard/listened to an audiobook. That’s ANY audiobook. The odd 15 minutes with Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 was the limit of my literary listening.

But this was a whole book. What if I didn’t care for the experience? AAAARGH!

When To Read an Audiobook

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Spring colours : yellow and blue?

Spring colours : daffodils in flower among trees

Spring colours — and all aspects of spring, as we said a few weeks ago — gladden the heart. But have you ever noticed that Spring flowers are mostly yellow and blue? Think daffodils, like those above, grape hyacinths, a drift of bluebells…

mist of bluebells among trees

Spring colours: is white included?

Continue reading

Easter : Just Chocolate and Fluffy Bunnies?

Easter bunnies and eggs

Image by annca from Pixabay

If we believe the torrent of adverts, Easter is just a foodie challenge, mostly directed at children (and their parents).

How much chocolate can you eat and in how many different shapes and sizes?

Monster chocolate rabbit anyone?

Easter Eggs

Straw-decorated Easter eggs, image by Jan KameníčekEaster traditions vary across the world, though a lot of them feature Easter eggs, like these beautifully straw-decorated eggs from the Czech Republic. Like jewels, aren’t they?

Not surprising that eggs feature, perhaps. Not only do eggs symbolise new life and rebirth, they were a forbidden food during Lent. There probably wouldn’t have been many about, early in the year. The old stock of eggs would have been gobbled up on Shrove Tuesday, in yummy pancakes.

Fabergé Coronation Egg by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia CommonsThink of those amazing Fabergé eggs, given as gifts to the women of the Romanov family after a Russian Orthodox Easter service. Of course, Easter would usually have been later there than in non-Orthodox countries — most years, the Orthodox Easter is later than the Western Christian Easter. In 2019, the dates differ by a week. But in 2025, the dates will be 31 March and 5 May. (Children in places like Cyprus may get Easter eggs twice over, if they have friends from both communities.
Good, eh?)

Here, in the Libertà hive, we’ve been doing a little research about Easter traditions. Hive members chose their own area to pursue. (And they do not have to come clean about their level of chocolate consumption, either…) Continue reading

Puppy Love : Guest Blog by Jane Godman

Jane Godman, author, Libertà Award Winner

Jane Godman
Libertà Award Winner

Cover of Secret Baby, Second Chance by Jane Godman

Jane’s Prizewinning Book
Click image for Amazon

This month, we’re delighted to welcome a new guest, the winner of the Libertà Books Shorter Romantic Novel Award, Jane Godman. Jane writes thrillers and paranormals for Harlequin Mills & Boon and St Martin’s Press and self-publishes historical and gothic stories as well! Quite a range and certainly enough to keep her very busy.

Jane Godman is much travelled too. Born in Scotland, she’s lived in Germany, Wales, Malta, South Africa, and England. Jane says she still gets the urge to travel, but these days she prefers to head for a Spanish beach, or a European city that is steeped in history.

When she isn’t reading or writing romance, Jane likes cooking, spending time with her family, and enjoying the antics of her dogs, Gravy and Vera. For more about them, read on…

Puppy love — Vera’s Story

Jane Godman's Cairn terrier, Gravy

Gravy

He was unlike anyone she’d ever met before. A darkly handsome Highlander, with perfect features and melting brown eyes.

She wasn’t even going to try to pronounce his name, but it was intensely attractive to her.

Aloof and distant, he ignored her efforts to be friendly, turning away when she approached, and sometimes even leaving the room when she walked in. Continue reading