I joined the Priory in the summer of 2008 and since then, I have regularly heard the call of a male tawny owl. From late morning until I go home, the magical hoo-hoo of that owl has both delighted me and driven me nuts. I’ve stopped work, I’ve run for my camera and I’ve stalked him and his primeval sound. Early on, I learnt where he roosts – a tall leylandii conifer on the edge of the garden, with owl pellets scattered about its base. But even after countless minutes spent standing beneath that tree, peering up into the dark, gloomy branches I’ve never seen him. Not once. (I think of ‘him’ as one individual though of course ‘he’ may be several different birds. I like to think not).
Hoping to ingratiate myself, I made a tawny nest box.
Female mandarin duck – April 2011
Did he use it? He did not. Only wood-pigeon and mandarin ducks have found it acceptable.
And then, a couple of weeks ago, I called in the tree surgeons. Another leylandii – next to the ‘owl’ tree – had slumped forward during a fierce storm, its root-plate lifted and tilted by several inches. Clearly unsafe it was only a matter of time before it crashed down. Quite possibly on me.
Here’s a photo from January 2013. The ‘owl’ tree is on the far right, with its recently felled, smaller companion beside it. With the latter removed, I idly realised that it was far easier to see into the ‘owl’ tree. But only idly. However, yesterday when I heard the familiar but still startling hoot, I decided to go and have a look … without much expectation. I have looked up into that tree so very many times.
For long moments, standing at the foot of the trunk with my head craned back, I scanned the branches. Nothing. But, as I turned to walk away, a dark, round eye met mine. There he was. That damned elusive, infuriating, beautiful owl. I bolted for my camera.
With low cloud and little light, strong winds whipping the tree back and forth, drops of rain splattering the lens and a subject thirty feet above my head, I’m afraid these aren’t National Geographic quality photos.
But to gaze into the eyes of a bird I’ve been hunting for so long – and had given up hope of ever seeing – was a richly satisfying, personal moment. Hopefully, now that we’ve been introduced, he’ll allow me to take better photos in better light. Meanwhile, I am so chuffed to finally see ‘my’ owl. Why, it only took six and a half years.
If you’d like to hear an exact match of what has haunted and teased me all this time – and will forever remind me of sunny afternoons at the Priory – here it is. (With many thanks to Sean Townsend at Freesound.org).