June 07, 2014

A white owl

Last night, after work, I went to London's northern limits hoping for an encounter with one of the avian world's most magical and unearthly members, the barn owl. I had been invited along by David Darrell-Lambert, chair of the London Bird Club, via the magic of Twitter; he has asked me not to disclose the location to prevent the nesting birds being disturbed by people whose desire for a good photograph exceeds their sense of responsibility towards the natural world. Unfortunately, there are a few such types about.

I had taken a pair of walking boots, a dark coat, binoculars and bug spray in to work with me, and changed there before getting the Tube north. I found a pub in which to wait, where I'm sure I cut a strange figure among the dolled-up, Friday-night crowd, all fake tan, tits and talk of a TV programme called 'Dangerous Dogs' in which one of their number had recently appeared. Outside, modded cars drove slowly up and down, soundsystems blaring. It was a strange start to an evening's birding.

The site itself was a world away from the brashness of the nearby suburb: acres of rough, unimproved grass and scrub, dense, uncut hedgerows and mounds of flowering dogrose and bramble: perfect owl territory. Dusk was falling, late swallows swooping overhead, and although we could hear the M25's distant drone it was all but drowned out by song thrushes, jackdaws, whitethroats and dunnocks singing down the dying of the light.

We climbed a small rise, following a faint trail through the long grass and thistles, the undergrowth around us rustling with voles and other creatures. And then, as we turned, there it was – just like that: luminous in the gloaming, "like an angel, or a Buddha with wings" as the poet Mary Oliver describes it. A ghostly barn owl was floating perhaps ten metres from us, a revenant driving the right words from my mind with a single unearthly scream before swinging away on silent pinions to quarter the far field.

What is it about these moments that brings such access of joy, that drives the image so deeply into both mind and heart? I still recall with perfect clarity the barn owl I saw thirty years ago, with my father and my best friend, at the end of a long afternoon's walk: how it drifted low over the long, golden grass in the glow of the setting sun, how we stood and watched for perhaps a quarter of an hour, and left feeling transformed: touched by something sublime, something that felt to me then (and still does) as close to sacred as someone like me is ever going to get.

Standing quietly with David and letting him pull for me the different sounds from the thickets around us was magical, too: the 'keek-keek-keek-keek' of a perching hobby, changing in intensity as it moved its head; thrushes calling alarms from distant hedges; the hissing of invisible owlets in a far wood; voles squeaking in the grass. As the birds quietened, pipistrelle bats began to flicker overhead and the quiet shapes of deer detached themselves from the shadowy field margins. And then, as we walked back, there was the barn owl again: hunting further away this time but just as numinous, its slow, white wings seeming to pull light from the perfect half-moon above as night finally fell over the living fields.