Way back in early January sister-in-law had a question for me about owls. She lives in suburban Bedford, with a large park across the road and, nearby, several large gardens with mature trees – ideal tawny owl habitat. Every night she was hearing long hooting calls, but just to-whoo. What had happened to the tu-whit, she wanted to know. The answer is that the traditional tu-whit, too-whoo is actually a dialogue – the male calling – hoo, the female answering – kwick. Her owl was probably a lone male establishing his territory and advertising for a mate. A happy ending came a few weeks later when she heard a pair in duet.
A friend living near the centre of Ilkley reported hearing a veritable male voice choir of owls, possibly four individuals competing with long hooing and those wonderful shivery quavers. Clearly her owls had not yet sorted out their territories. One was at least a semi-tone in difference from the others, she said, and it seems likely that to owl ears each caller had his own voice – they would know exactly who was whooo. Owls breed early so no doubt will soon be settled with eggs in the nest.
Other creatures are on the move too. Every time the snow recedes I am fascinated by the number and the newness of the molehills that suddenly seem to become noticeable against the faded winter grass. Moles are mysterious creatures – practically all their lives lived out of our sight in their networks of underground tunnels – and not so glamorous as to attract much research. Night and day are irrelevant to a mole; it lives its life in 4-5 hour alternating periods of activity and sleep: patrolling its domain to search out worms or other invertebrate prey that has dropped in and sleeping upright in its nest of dried plant material. Snow must put a stop to excavation so, post-thaw, moles have to get extra-busy. Now is a good time to admire the spoil heaps that signpost each mole-domain. It fills me with admiration to see how they clearly know their soil – choosing the better drained, less acid terrain – so that a field full of molehills may well abut onto one completely clear. The junction of the old Addingham road with the by-pass is bordered by two grass verges identical to my human eye, one quite bare, the other studded with the work of several industrious moles.
Last Friday, a chilly dank winter’s day, saw me checking on the work of another industrious digger. I was visiting my favourite badger sett. It’s on the sloping edge of a wood close to pasture and its extent and many entrances suggest it has been home to local badgers for hundreds of years. There were lots of signs of activity, fresh digging and the remains of old bedding by the main burrow. This is the time of year for cubs to be born, and it pleased me to imagine them – tiny sparsely furred, eyes tight shut – in their cosy underground chamber. I walked away through the grey winter field – and next day it snowed!