Words and pictures: Mat Bingham
Like the scene from the film The Lost Boys, as the sun goes down he leaves the roost, out for a nights hunting. Every night a Barn Owl takes the same route, flying along a row of fence posts scanning the long grass using both sight and sound. Any noise or movement attracts his attention causing him to hover and get a fix on the prey below. His eyesight is much more acute than mine and the heart shaped face made of small downy feathers funnels sound to his ears. Mind made up he spills the air from his wings, dropping like a stone disappearing into the long grass. It’s all slightly surreal. I cannot believe I’m stood here watching this drama unfold right in front of me. So silent is his flight that it feels like I’m watching a David Attenborough documentary with the sound turned off.
The hunt is unsuccessful, as lethal as he is more often than not he misses the voles hiding below him. His flightpath is determined by hunting success, continuing along the same route each night until he catches something, he will return to the barn when his appetite is sated. I have been watching him at dawn and dusk now for several months.
I wake early and leave the house approaching the spot where I usually watch from, I can clearly hear hissing coming from the barn which is some distance away from me. It’s not me that is irritating him; the wind is blowing from the barn towards me so he cannot hear my approach. Agitated and as the sun starts to appear over the horizon he leave the barn, diving over the hedge and then the road, heading west across ploughed fields. I watch him disappear from view as my eye catches movement; a second owl has just left the barn. I spot a ring on its foot and the bird is definitely much bigger. My owl is sharing his home with a female barn owl. She heads off to hunt taking a different route to him. She flies across the fields south, following the line of a dyke towards the next village.
I stay a while but the owls are long gone and don’t look like they will be heading back anytime soon. I retrace my earlier steps looking for pellets at the foot of posts I have seen them use but I don’t find any. Focussed on trying to spot the plum sized regurgitated bones and fur, glancing up, the post right in front of me is occupied, the female barn owl is sat watching me. She must have double backed and flown right past me when I had my eyes to the ground.
She takes to the air and flies across a field towards a row of bungalows, landing on top of a rotary dryer in a back garden. She rests there for a few minutes and then heads off. I return to my mum’s house, it’s time for my breakfast as well.
I plan to leave mums later in the day and drive home but I decide to delay my journey long enough to see if the barn owls are about at dusk. Walking along the track towards the fields where they hunt, there is a wren singing its final rendition of a familiar tune. I pause for a short while to listen to the beautiful and complex song. Finally moving off I spook a blackbird which flies away from me low to the ground and into a hedge sounding a warning call as it goes. It is then that I notice one of the owls is already out of the barn and is sat in a tree watching my approach.
It looks like the male. He takes flight and leisurely takes a route back to the barn, which cuts across someone’s garden past a kitchen window. The light is on and I wonder if he is spotted gliding past as the evenings dinner plates are washed up.
Eventually it gets too dark to see so I leave the owls to the night and head home.