At a recent party, I heard three separate conversations about Barn Owls. “Oh, we have one living in our shed.” “I have a Barn Owl roosting in my stables. ” “You know, we’ve got a pair mating in our barn.” And to each of these, I gave an acknowledging smile and grudgingly contributed, “Roger and I have spotted one once or twice on a standing stone along our track.” Doesn’t compare, does it?
I love owls and spotting them is different from other types of birds. Most are fairly elusive during the day, enjoying the nocturnal and crepuscular way of life. This definitely doesn’t correspond with my behaviour. I’m up with the sun, busy during the day and then ready to hunker down when the sun sets, particularly in winter when it is colder. Nothing beats sitting by the fire on a cold winter’s night, good book and glass of wine to hand.
Our wet and rainy December has given way to a less wet, but certainly colder January and February. We had our first snow flurries the other week, but not much accumulation. Then these past few days, the temperatures dropped to an angry cold, the clouds moved in and we have a proper eight or so inches of snow. Currently, when the news isn’t about Brexit, it is all about the Polar Vortex gripping the Mid-West in America. Less newsworthy, we’re having our own wild winter on Dartmoor. The dogs go crazy in the snow, following the fresh scents and animal tracks on the surface. They love nothing more than diving into a snow drift to chase a snow ball. While Millie and Brock are busy sniffing newly laid scents, I am moved by the pure resonance of the dawn chorus. This layer of snow dampens ambient sounds leaving a still backdrop for the songbirds. Because of this and the play of morning light, I enjoy getting outside first thing. Likely, right after any owls have decided to call it a night.
With this much snow, we presently have the moors to ourselves, except for a brave few photographers. This solitude won’t last long as no doubt, the weekend will bring all the madness of people coming to go sledding. They will leave their cars parked all over, block gates, and leave behind a trail of litter. This is the part of the snow fall I do not enjoy. But the roads are not fully passable at the moment, so they haven’t arrived yet. This gives us a chance to fully embrace our own little winter wonderland and the thrill of laying our own fresh tracks in the snow.
Roger andI head out onto the moors with Millie and Brock, the ashy coloured sky reveals an occasional patch of blue. The sun has tentatively peeked out, lighting the clouds in a pleasing combination of pink, purple, and grey. The tors look especially brooding on top of the hills in this light and with their dusting of snow. With the wind to our backs, we march up past Crockern Tor, and then north along the ridge.
Trudging through virgin snow, we pass sheep who keep a watchful eye on Brock. We do too as he is still working through his instinct to herd them. After about forty-five minutes, we clamber to the top of some rocks, pause, and take in the views. The sun is now casting our shadows across the gorse, reeds and granite boulders. We catch sight of a bird of prey quartering low over the moors beneath our vantage point. We watch it either hunting or waiting for a clear moment to feed on something already lying dead below. Roger is certain it is a Hen Harrier, which we don’t often see.
It’s thrilling to spot a bird of prey. They are spectacular and spellbinding examples of power and grace. Possessing top predator status can’t be easy and that means they will never be as numerous as other birds, so there is a certain novelty and happy surprise to seeing these elusive creatures. Since moving to Dartmoor, we have spotted Red Kites, Hen Harriers, Buzzards, Kestrels, Sparrow Hawks, Barn Owls, Tawny Owls, and Hobby. Roger has spotted a Merlin, too. He once observed a pair of Peregrine Falcons in this very spot we are standing now.
Owls are part of this elite top bird group of predators. And like all birds of prey, they are powerful, fast, graceful and nimble. And yet, despite appearing ferocious, they are fragile. I suppose that is what being a bird of prey ultimately means. They sit on the top of the food chain and their numbers are essentially controlled by the amount of prey available to them, an amount so easily disrupted by climate and people. With curiosity and admiration, we happily watch the Hen Harrier.
As we move on, I bring up the conversations at that recent party. “Roger, why is it almost everyone seems to have a nesting Barn Owl?” “Roger, why don’t we seem to have nesting Barn Owls?” “Roger, did you believe everyone’s comments about the nesting Barn Owls at the party?” “Roger, could there be that many nesting Barn Owls living in such close proximity?” Clearly, my envy was getting the better of me because while many of our friends and neighbours are able to report Barn Owls living in their out buildings, all we can confirm are Jackdaws, rabbits, rats, mice, voles, toads, and a million spiders. In the spring, Swallows and House Martins will join the crew. And, Pied Wag-Tails will make nests in the cracks in the mortar of the building’s walls.
In the meantime, if I can’t see a Barn Owl, I’ll darn well listen out for one. Unlike the hooting sound of the Tawny Owls living in the stand of Pines across the river, I will need to listen carefully for an eerie screeching and hissing sound. I’ll also have to keep Millie inside as she enjoys nothing more than conducting a night time perimeter bark to warn off foxes and badgers, in order to keep our chickens safe. I doubt we’ll get a resident Barn Owl anytime soon, though I may sign up for a Nest Box workshop at the local Barn Owl Trust. It’s important to encourage new critters to Crockern.