Hoo’s Looking for Birds?

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.



Treasure Island. A Different Tale.

On some level, all of us love stories of buried treasure and tales of lost fortunes.  Whether the riches are inherited or pirated, they lay hidden in locations known only to those now long dead.  Let’s be perfectly clear, buried treasure is not the same stuff found by archaeologists and metal detector users the world over.  No, buried treasure is just that, it’s treasure, and in my mind the singular domain of pirates or criminals who for whatever reason left their booty behind, well hidden in a remote place, to retrieve later with the aid of a map.

There are many accounts of lost and found treasures and the idea of uncovering unimaginable wealth is seductive.  Many of these supposed fortunes are likely to be myths, or, have been slowly and discretely spent.  Take, for example, the German gold that went missing at the end of WWII.  It is possible that this gold was smuggled to South America and introduced into the market?  Or could it still remain locked in private bank vaults where it is impossible to claim.  Is it not likely that the gold reserves of the last Tsars of Russia are now in the hands of new governments?  And the Titanic?  I’m thinking those treasures never existed in the first place – even though they did recently auction Wallace Hartley’s violin.

Still, you can’t help but dream.  Imagine stumbling upon those Lost Faberge Eggs!  Or uncovering the Treasure of the Knights Templar, especially given the hype from Indiana Jones movies and The Di Vinci Code?   Sure, Long John Silver, Blackbeard, and even Captain Kidd may all come to mind when one imagines looted treasure being buried for later retrieval.  What we do know is that any map worth its treasure, whether tattered or tattooed, has an “X” to mark the spot to locate those hidden gems.

More commonly in fiction than in reality, these maps are often hand drawn and contain arcane clues to aid the user in finding the loot.  One of the earliest suspected instances of a treasure map is the copper scroll, which contains a list of over 60 locations with detailed directions pointing to hidden stores of gold and silver.  It was written between 500 and 100 AD.  But is it real?

I can’t help wonder how do you get your hands on one of these maps?  Who among us hasn’t longed for a crinkled map to fall out of the back of an old dresser or Grandmother’s photo album?  And, what about the crazy luck of the Scooby-Doo Gang finding a treasure map in their pizza box?

I have a standard for what I consider to be treasure, and I suspect I’m not alone.  For example, most, and I solidly place myself in this camp, would NOT consider a bottle of Gallo Rose to be a treasure.  Gold bullions?  Absolutely!  And yet, recently, a treasure hunt has presented itself to us involving a ghost, a pirate and some buried stash!

Here’s the back-story:  Many years ago, a cheap bottle of Rose wine appeared in our house, left behind after being re-gifted by a party attendee.  Hey! Party-attendee! Thanks for that!  When friends called one night to invite us over for a drink, we could hardly show up empty handed so we did the only thing available at the moment and showed up with a half empty bottle of a lovely wine we had started earlier and the re-gifted bottle of plonk, the now infamous Rose.  Not a particularly high-class move on our part, but it was at least an honest gesture.

Since that evening, this bottle has made the rounds between our houses.  Like a bad penny, it keeps turning up unexpectedly:  one time standing proudly in a refrigerator; another time mixed into a case of wine; another, left on a front door step.  When we moved, our friends smuggled it into our house on their first visit, leaving it behind in the shower only for us to discover it as they drove off down the track.   However, Dartmoor magic prevailed and this same bottle made its way to their front door, over 200 miles away, just a few days later.  Back and forth, back and forth, the now speckled-with-paint-from-a-house-decorating-project bottle of Rose joined our friends on a ski trip in France, but failed to make it across the Atlantic to join us in Montana for a birthday celebration weekend with friends.  The cunning deception, detailed planning and execution of this bottle traveling between our two households continues and escalates.

The Bottle itself.  Notice the paint splatters.

The Bottle itself. Notice the paint splatters.

Until recently, I thought the idea of coming across a treasure map was the stuff of legends.  But the other day an email arrived in my inbox entitled ghostofcrockernpast@gmail.com and attached within — a treasure map!

In addition to landmark clues, the treasure map we received contained a helpful message, Treasure buried under large rock. Good luck treasure hunters. Wooooo oooo ooo.”  Honestly, look for yourself:

Not a precise map as there are now two horses in the field and nine chickens in the yard.  But, aren't these maps supposed to have cryptic clues?

Not a precise map as there are now two horses in the field and nine chickens in the yard. But, aren’t these maps supposed to have cryptic clues?

Feeling a little like Nancy Drew, I suggested to Roger we head out in the dark in search of this missing treasure.  We donned our wellies and fleeces, grabbed flashlights and invited our faithful hound, Sam, to join in the hunt.  We committed the map to memory and headed out into the dark.  No self-respecting treasure hunt would be complete without ample atmosphere and we had it in spades.  The clouds obscuring the moon made for an eerie glow and the surrounding mist mostly ate the light from our flashlights.  We took each step with care across the rocky and boggy path indicated on our map.  To add to this atmosphere, a Tawny Owl hooted in the distance as if cueing a spectral ghost, or more to the buried treasure plot, an evildoer hell-bent on stealing our map and thus the buried treasure, to appear and lead us to our doom.

At the end of the trail, we located the large rock, moved it aside and unearthed a cylindrical container swathed in plastic.  Inside was the bottle of Rose.  What is one person’s hidden treasure is another person’s discovered poison.  Now, we await the return of those who entombed their valued goods, securing the memory of its location with a well-drawn map.  We are prepared to happily return this Rose to its rightful owners.

The pirate who will return to collect her buried loot.

The pirate who will return to collect her buried loot.