First 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
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.
So do I. I can see… trees. Pine trees. Birch trees. Bushes. Not a single bird.
Behind me the Birdwatcher says, low, “Got it?”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!