Tag Archives: owls

Owl Drunk

We walked towards the full moon. On the hill, the barrow stretched out, attractive, as though a barrow on the night of the full moon would be an excellent place to lie down and sleep. As though the barrow itself was calling, inviting. I declined politely, only to be almost lost, facing what looked like a high wall. The hill can be tricksy, it has played with my perceptions before. I found the signpost that once, in fog, I mistook for a tower. I found the right path, and we made our way to the wood.

I prefer walking without a lamp, but a leafy wood is a dark place, even under the full moon. Walking by torchlight feels like moving but so little changes that it also doesn’t feel like moving. It becomes unreal quickly. Dreamlike. You walk based on the faith that your body is indeed going somewhere, but the mind sits oddly in the flesh, closer to dreaming than waking.

The woods were full of owls, calling. The undergrowth alongside the path was full of sound, alive with small, busy presences. We saw one of them. Larger creatures moved in the darkness – badger most likely. There were many bats and some of them flew close in front of us through the small circle of light.

Just as the sky was growing pale, we arrived at a local beauty spot and stopped to drink tea and look at the moon. Larks were singing long before any other bird. Here, we had an encounter with a local police officer, who had been checking the site and wanted to make sure we were ok and not intending to walk along the road – we assured her that we had come through the woods and would be safe.

We drank green tea under the full moon, raised a toast to someone we thought would appreciate that, and wished him well. And wished him safely with us.

We walked home towards the rising sun, with the woods slowly filling with colour. Bluebells, wild garlic, wood anemone, dog’s mercury, new beach leaves. On the hill, cowslips, early purple orchids and an extravagance of lark song. Owls were singing along with the dawn chorus and I thought I heard the lone voice of a curlew.

Sleep deprived, giddy, drunk on owl song, intoxicated by the dawn chorus, with a head full of hilltop, we came home. The town was swathed in mist, and the feeling of having walked in a magical realm was with is to the end.

Searching for owls

Being elusive night creatures, owls are not the easiest beings to see in the wild. However, May through to mid-June is the best time in the year to see them. Here’s how to do it.

Owls are nesting at the moment, which means they’re based in one location. I have no idea how owl territories work, but the rest of the time they clearly move about. We get them in a nearby tree intermittently, and unpredictably. Through the rest of the year I will hear tawny, barn and little owls at night – and they won’t be calling from reliable locations. If I see one it will be pure luck. But while they’re nesting, they keep showing up in the same place. If you can hear them, it is well worth keeping going back to that spot to try and see them.

Owls emerge around sunset, often at that point where the light is, for a few minutes, strange and magical. I gather from Elen Sentier that this is called owl light. This is the best time to see them. On emerging for the night, an owl will often call a few times, pairs may do a call and return process.

Tawny owlets emerge from the nest before they can fly. I suspect other owls do too, or will emerge long before they can hunt for themselves. The owlet will hop about between branches, testing wings, learning to glide, to flap… they are ungainly and this makes them easier to spot. They alert their parents to their presence by continually calling, which again makes them easier to find. As they rotate their heads and call in multiple directions, be aware that sound coming from just the one place won’t always sound like that from the ground.

With a growing owlet to feed, owl parents emerge earlier in the evening, because they need more time to hunt, so later in May and early in June the hunting time extends, and the odds of seeing an owl increases.

If you don’t hear owls, the best places to look have trees in, but also good rodent hunting nearby. My two best owl-spotting locations have been the canal, and a cycle path. In both cases there was a slim band of trees, or the odd tree at points on the canal, and then plenty of hedgerow and grass for hunting in. Barn owls do indeed tend to nest in buildings, so old buildings in rural locations are worth keeping an eye on.

Owls aren’t readily disturbed by humans – especially if you’re on a footpath, but don’t get closer to them. My experience last year was that both parents and chick were untroubled by an audience, indeed the young owl was as curious about us as we were about owls. With us on the path and the owls in the trees it was possible to be quite close without bothering them at all. If there’s a footpath, stay quietly on it, because footpaths definitely help wildlife feel more easy about human presences. It’s when we’re unpredictable that they are likely to panic.

If you’ve no owl experience, it may take a while to build enough knowledge that you can see them. However, if you listen for owls through the year, if you can get out in the dark at all, you may find you have owls in area, and then you can build on that to increase your chances of seeing them. You don’t need wilderness, you just need trees and places that mice can live. City parks, edges of towns, canals, cycle paths and other such green corridors can and do support owls. Even the grassy side of a road may be a hunting ground.

Searching for owls

Walking at twilight is something I’ve always loved doing in the light half of the year. We tend to do small walks, usually in the same place (longer walks in the day go elsewhere). One of the consequences of repeatedly walking in the same place is that you build up a knowledge of how things happen there through the seasons, and changes become apparent.

The first time we heard the blackbirds shouting warnings, we knew there was something going on. They were concentrated in the trees at the top of a bank, and we were unable to see either them, or the cause of their alarm. The next time we were out that way, the same thing happened in the same place, and we knew something was coming out at night and worrying them. On this second occasion, we heard the very distinctive ‘p-cherp’ of an unfamiliar bird, and started looking for it in earnest.

The p-cherp turned out to be a fledgling tawny owl. At that point, it could just about hop between tree branches. We saw a parent bird come in and feed it a rodent – a stunning thing to witness.

Since that night, we’ve gone out whenever time, energy and weather permitted, searching by sound. With a dense, leafy canopy to hide in, and fading light, the soft colours of an owl do not stand out. We rapidly discovered a second p-cherp, although it took us a lot longer to actually see baby owl number two. Our first owlet became bolder and more capable as the evenings passed. We watched it eat what I think was a rat, delivered by a parent bird. It’s clearly been aware of us, and watches us without alarm, and some apparent interest, while the second owl seems far more nervous when it’s been seen.

There is something very powerful about finding some aspect of nature is gazing back. We’ve been treated to the rotating head dance owls do when they’re considering something. Their eyes are too big to move, so to assess a shape they have to move the whole head. We’ve learned that we must have two breeding pairs of tawny owls in proximity to where we live, and we now have a pretty good idea where they are hunting, so will be going out to try and see them later in the season. We’ve seen barn owls and a little owl in the same area so we know there must be a good rodent population too.

Winter Dark

Winter Dark


Winter dark, branch clawing

The east wind’s tattered tails,

Leaf coat swirl under streetlight.

Snow wind, swan wind.


Bitter night for foraging.

Damp the insidious regret.

Bitter the journey.

Bitter the hour.


Fluting ghost melody,

Owl claws to claw-branch

Wakeful to hunger,

Eerie evening chorus.


Owl song, tree to tree,

Sorrow of summer night

Echoes jaunty now,

Careless of swan winds.


Owl song to the bitter heart,

Winter summer alike

Such is out nature;

Affirming all seasons.

Winter Dawn Chorus

The dawn chorus is something we tend to associate with the summer, but it’s still going on, a few weeks from the winter solstice. It’s quieter at this time of year – I assume because the long, cold nights leave birds with less energy for singing. Or perhaps they just have less they feel moved to sing about.

The dawn chorus itself is one of nature’s mysteries. We don’t really know why they do it. Unsubstantiated scientific-sounding explanations include using up any excess energy they didn’t need over night so as to be ready to fly – birds have to watch their weight. If that were so, you’d think a mild night in winter would provoke more of a chorus, but it doesn’t. There may be territorial aspects. There may be checking in to find out who survived the night and who didn’t.

I like to think they’re singing up the sun, but by the winter, fewer of them believe in the return of the sun and get miserable and don’t sing. I don’t sing when I’m depressed, perhaps birds are the same. Perhaps they are more inclined to sing in summer when life is better.

Curiously, owls do at night what other birds do in the morning. The first thing an owl does when it wakes up, is to have a bit of a sing. The sun has usually set by the time they get going – although in summer with the late sunsets and young to feed, they can run a bit earlier. What owls do in terms of signing isn’t sun orientated, that much is clear. I like to think they’re singing to the mice.

Why anything does anything can be quite mysterious. A lot of life isn’t directly focused on survival and reproduction. Rationalism has taught us to look at the natural world in terms of function and utility, as though life is no more than reproductive units maximising the chances of its genes. Even in the winter, the birds sing up the sun, and the blackbirds sing it down again, and the owls sing to the evening, serenading the mice. Nature is full of things that do not sit neatly alongside the current, allegedly rational understanding of what nature is supposed to be all about.