I so nearly didn’t see it. It was twilight, and I’d just stepped into the kitchen to put the kettle on when my eye was caught by a hunched shape on the apex of our garden-room gable. A tawny owl had chosen this perch to survey the surrounding gardens. As I watched, its head swiveled in the way of owls and it looked directly at me with its great dark eyes, then flew off on soft-feathered wings.
It made me wonder how our owls were doing this year after last year’s disastrously wet breeding season. Tawny owls are early nesters. If they prudently delayed egg laying till the weather warmed up then circumstances have probably favoured them. It’s certainly been dry enough to enable them to hunt every night. It’s a reasonably good vole year, though the lack of rain means earthworms (a surprisingly important part of their diet) will have remained locked away deep underground.
Reports have been coming in from people hearing owlets calling. It’s an unmistakable sound – somewhere between a squeak and a squawk – and very loud, as I remember well. I was staying in a cottage on the edge of the moors and, one evening, while taking a bath, I was disconcerted to hear this breathy squeaking from just outside the window. Luckily it was quickly identified, and we discovered tawnies had nested in a conifer-filled gulley nearby. After that, each evening we walked across the field at sunset and watched – and listened – as the family woke up and began to move between trees, silhouetted against the evening sky: our own shadow-puppet show.
It was here, too, that I had a memorable encounter with a little owl. Taking an evening stroll along the moor edge I came upon it sitting on a gatepost on the edge of some rough pasture. I paused about twenty yards from it and we silently regarded each other. The owl bobbed from side to side as it focused on this unexpected intruder: I stared back. Little owls were introduced in the nineteenth century and, unlike many introductions, seem to have found a comfortable niche in the ecosystem, causing no bother. Their white ‘eyebrows’ and large yellow eyes give them a furious glare, comic in one so small.
Perhaps it’s their facial disk with forward facing eyes that look back at us as we look at them. Whatever the reason, encountering an owl is not so much a sighting as a meeting.