This is how I normally see barn owls.
photo – Ralph Connolly
Tonight I walked across the RSPB Northward Hill Reserve, where I lived for several years. Enjoying the somehow illicit pleasure of a night time visit. I had come to see the crow roost, to experience the thrill of 4000 birds spiralling over head, but the secret ways I had once known to the roost had long since become a tangle of bramble.
Still the main reserve was open. I walked across the secretive, after dark world, spotting a silhouette of a roosting pheasant, a bulky, long-tailed blob doing a poor job of hiding in a tree. The marshes opened out below me, a watery fenland of flooded fields.
The hide was pitch black but I found the bench and the window catch and poured a hot drink from my flask. Widgeon piped, the full moon stippled the water, shining it’s torch beam onto the wrinkled skin of the surface. I took a sip of hot chocolate, the darkness edged in across the marshes.
A barn owl appeared. For a moment in hovered in front of the hide window, maybe mistaking it for a barn or a box where it could spend the night. Angel winged, black eyed, it seemed suspended in the air only a foot from my face.
A chill of fear ran through me, that moment in the dark when you are brought back to the primeval root of things and realise that you are too close to a fellow predator.
I knew barn owls. I spent the summer plucking them from boxes so they could be ringed. I knew the strength of those clawed feet, the damage they could inflict. For a moment I thought it would land, on the ledge, inches from my face. For a moment it thought the same. It was a second of indecision as it tried to make out what creature those two eyes, sandwiched between hat and scarf, gazing out of the dark box, belonged to.
It realised it’s mistake in time and wheeled away to land on a fence post. We both paused to recover from our shock and then it was gone, across the flood, searching for voles to get it through the cold night ahead.