Sunday, 4 March 2018

Feeding Wild Owls

Barn Owl waiting for food
I used to know a one eyed Barn Owl in Kent. If I positioned myself on the birds blind side it would fly really close to me, before when it turned its head and good eye in my direction it saw me, at which point I could see the bird panic as it  banked sharply and rapidly flew away. This individual owl stands out in my memory not because it only had one eye, but because it came so close, a rare thing for wild Barn Owls.

Scroll forwards a couple of decades and I'm sitting in a curry house in Holt, north Norfolk with my friend David  who is talking about a friend of his who feeds Barn and Tawny Owls in his garden "flocks of them, up to eight or nine in the air at once."

I'm intrigued and a little sceptical at first, but I trust my friends bird knowledge and know slightly the person he is talking about. As the curry and lager goes down I ask if it would be possible to see this spectacle for myself and bring my young family along. My friend has a think for a moment and then says that he'll make a call and see what he can arrange.

Which is how a few weeks later I find myself in a large garden come scrubby meadow with my friend and his daughter, our host, my wife and our two young boys. It is freezing and the arrival of the bad weather soon to be known as the "Beast from the East" is just a couple of days away.

Earlier sitting in our hosts lounge we'd already seen video footage of the Barn Owls in their nest site in his roof and now we have come outside into the cold night air with a bag of dead day old chicks, several of which have now been placed on carefully positioned dead tree branches.

Above us in sharp silhouette against the sky and stars a barn owl fly's silently round the field, looking down at us, eyes set in its large round head held aloft by long white wings. Looking up I get a sense of what it must be like to be a vole in this same meadow when one of these top predators is hunting.

But this evening the owls are not hunting but scavenging, our host supplementary feeds "his" birds helping them to fledge two broods last summer. In this unique setting and in accepting this free source of food the birds have also become habituated to people. Nonetheless this gathering of seven people is the most that they have experienced and our host is cautious about the effect that this might have on the owls behaviour.

There are now three owl's flying around above us in a ghostly holding pattern. The kids for the moment forget the cold and excitedly point out the circling Barn Owls.

Barn Owl getting a free meal
I focus my camera on a dead day old chick that has been placed on a branch less than three metres away from where we are standing. I pop up my cheap DSLR 's inbuilt flash, I'm ready, just as well because one of the tamer owls decides that it is safe to come in for food. It descends quickly, wings held high and legs stretched forwards talons ready to grasp a dead chick. Although we all know we should be quiet an excited chatter accompanies the birds rapid descent and departure. I don't think that any of us visitors had expected that, a wild owl coming in quite so close.

Over the course of the next 15 to 20 minutes (I didn't check the time) two more Barn owls come in to grab a free meal and another shyer pair watch from high in a tree waiting for us to move on before they come down for their food.

Our host decides that we should turn around and move a few metres to where we can view another dead branch that he has planted in the grass of his meadow garden. Here on the edge of some scrubby trees he hopes we will see the Tawny Owl that he feeds.

Now there used to be a one eyed wildlife photographer who lost an eye when he was returning to a hide on a Tawny Owl nest late one night. His name was Eric Hosking and he had his accident way back in May 1937 before the advent of modern camera gear. I'd heard his story many times and had never quite understood how it could have happened. But on this cold Norfolk evening it became a lot clearer to me how such an accident might have occurred.

Our hosts Tawny Owl was usually later to put in an appearance than the Barn Owls and it wasn't on its normal perch waiting to be fed when we had arrived earlier in the evening. Maybe there were too many of us. Now gathered together we stood even closer to the bait than we had for the Barn Owls and as for them there were some basic lights rigged to illuminate the scene. Somewhere in the darkness we could hear a Tawny Owl hooting, a more familiar and less other worldly sound than the screeching of the Barn Owls.

Tawny Owl with supplementary food
Then in the time it took to utter a warning "here it comes" the resident Tawny Owl shot towards us in a fast low level flight out of the dark and straight to the dead chick, talons outstretched wings up to brake. One flash of the camera and it was gone as suddenly and as quietly as it had arrived.

Now having seen the speed and power of a bird I normally only see dozing in a tree during its day time roost, I could better understand how Eric Hosking could have lost his eye in a speedy attack by a Tawny Owl defending its nest.

The cold is starting to rise through our feet and permeate our bones, one child tired, excited and cold goes back to the car to warm up. Another declares that they need a trip to the loo. So reluctantly we decide to call it a night and turn to leave. Just as our bodies are at 45 degrees to the perch with a dead chick on it a Tawny Owl bursts from cover and repeats the rapid flight in and out we'd seen earlier.

Maybe not the flocks of owls I'd been promised over a curry, but a truly remarkable experience nonetheless. We thank our host and climb into the car to drive home with his admonition ringing in our ears to drive carefully and not hit any of his owls.