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 love of 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?”
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
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.
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.
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 its 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!
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!
I’m a sucker for owls so I do envy you this trip. My favourite is the Barn Owl though I don’t have any near the house. I do have a tawny that does the too-whit bit in the small hours. Sometimes another tawny answers — too-whoo — sometimes not. Sadly, I’ve never yet seen the tawny though it must live quite close by. Seeing a Great Grey in the wild must have been awesome.
You’d have loved it. The owls were magical. We saw two Great Grey – my first was serene but watchful. The second was positively languid, more of a Cleopatra, lounging in (they told me) what was probably an old buzzard’s nest, and painting her nails.
And there was also a fabulous massive Ural Owl, and fantastic Pygmy Owl, finding which was a story all of its own…
And there were some lovely other birds, too. And fantastic landscape. All those lakes! At one point we had a lake on both sides of the road.
What an amazing post, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us and for the wonderful photographs (Andrew Thompson is clearly a star.). Reading your post has been an excellent way to start Sunday morning!
Brilliant photos, aren’t they? Thank you, Sarah, so glad you enjoyed the blog. Putting it together quite took me back into those birch woods.
Magical post. Simply magical.
It was a magical experience for me, Jan. Glad it shows.
Fascinating. You can see why they are always credited with being wise. A bit intimidating that face and those eyes.
Oh yes. Owls focus really well. And when you see them in the scope, they really do look as if they are just in front of you – and looking into your SOUL.
Such a wonderful post, Sophie. I, too love owls and was lucky enough to have an “owl” experience with my granddaughter last year at Center Parc.. Fabulous photographs, too. We had tawny owls around us when we lived in Wales and saw them occasionally perched on the neighbour’s garage roof. And once, driving along a Norfolk lane, had a barn owl fly at fence top height gliding alongside us, like a ghost in the moonlight. Wonderful birds. Thanks so much for sharing your own experience.
I do think that Barn Owls are the most beautiful creatures. Ghostlike, absolutely described them, silent, pale as a sheet and with that unearthly cry.
I’m a supporter of the Barn Owl Trust in Gloucestershire and they have days where you can meet the owls if not face to face, at least talons to glove, as it were. I’ve been promising myself to attend one of those for a while now. Must get on with it!
There’s also the Hawk Conservancy Trust near Andover, Hampshire, for owl lovers too far from Gloucestershire. In spite of the name, it has lots of owls and you can do the glove-to-talons bit with a barn owl and other raptors. Have done so myself and it was fabulous. Looking at their website, I see they now do a half-day “Owl Experience”. Yes, there’s a fee, but then they are doing conservation.
I feel an expotition coming on…
Yup. [smugly] Thought you might 😉
What a terrific post, Sophie. Absolutely delightful. I’ve loved owls ever since Wol, but the only time there were any near us was when we lived in rural Cambridgeshire. I envy you that trip, too.
It really was like visiting some place out of a fable, Lesley. A levitating experience!
What a super post.
Thank you. So glad you enjoyed it.
What a lovely post, Sophie. I love owls but the nearest I can get to see them is at a huge nearby country park which now houses the Scottish Owl Centre. Must be fabulous to see them in the wild and the photos are brilliant.
The photos are very special, aren’t they? I envy you living near an owl centre, Ros. My owl sightings in this country are usually pure luck.
Lovely. Like Lesley I’ve loved owls since WOL in Winnie the pooh.. I was lucky enough to rear a tawny owl from fledgling (found on a suburban pavement) to fledging! It lived in our garage. Wonderful creatures with double eyelids and the spooky ability to turn their heads right round in true exorcist mode!
PS. We also had a Little Owl about a year later, that my brother came home with. As you say, a far fiercer and more recalcitrant character. No question of looking after it. I needed gauntlets. I used gardening gloves. We donated him/her to Regents Park Zoo.
How wonderful, Gilli. Tawny owls are beautiful creatures and I love the way the male and the female will call and answer each other. Very evocative.
I really enjoyed this post. I’ve always thought of owls as creatures from another world. It’s the way they fly so silently, as if they are made of down.
Great point, Elizabeth. My birdwatcher friends explained that silent flight to me a bit.
If I understand correctly, it’s partly because owls have relatively large wings compared with their body mass, so they don’t have to flap so much – think gliders. But the really cool thing is that they have “silencer” feathers. The leading edge of their wings are sort of serrated, so that the feathers look like a flexible comb, and this breaks up the turbulence which would otherwise make a whooshing sound.
I was so intrigued, I’ve looked it up since I got back and there’s a third element too: “those smaller streams of air are further dampened by a velvety texture unique to owl feathers and by a soft fringe on a wing’s trailing edge.” https://www.audubon.org/news/the-silent-flight-owls-explained
So you’re, right. To some extent they ARE made of down. Owls truly are creatures to marvel at.
This sounds like an incredible trip. Thanks for telling us about it.
It was, Lydia. Absolute magic.