The Tawny Owl

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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37 thoughts on “The Tawny Owl

  1. A wonderful story David. You were incredibly blessed to actually find the owl! It’s always a joy to hear them, but I can only imagine the excitement of witnessing these beautiful creatures in person. I hope you have many more encounters with your new friend 🙂

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    • Thank you Sean. Since I wrote the above, I haven’t seen the owl again though I hear his call a couple of times a week. There are a huge amount of vole tunnels under grass so he shouldn’t go hungry and hopefully will remain a regular visitor. Dave

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  2. Hi Dave, I completely understand your excitement. Last Saturday I saw a kingfisher for the first time ever. It came into our garden, caught a goldfish from the pond and then proceeded to kill it by whacking it on a branch and eat it whole. Such a beautiful bird, can’t believe my luck! Helen

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    • Hello Helen, great luck for you but perhaps not so much for the goldfish. I see kingfishers occasionally at the Priory but never when I’ve got my camera to hand. Not that it matters much – they’re so darn zippy. A couple of years ago I watched one whizz around the island on one of the ponds three times. Which probably has some folk-lore meaning. Like something that would happen in a Grimms Fairy Tale. Dave

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  3. Hurrah! Nicely done, sir, and I am sure this is just the first of many meetings of lens and owl, now that you know the secret… I’ve never heard owls here, but the cottage we used to holiday in down on Trevose Head in Cornwall was evidently in the center of an owl flight path, we regularly used to see and hear them ghosting over us as we meandered back from the beach or cliffs of an evening. A magical sound.

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    • Hello Janet, Cornwall was great to see barn owls for us. They are my next project at the Priory. I know they’re about but I’ve never seen one there. If I can attract them, I might even forgive the tawnies for not nesting. I heard the tawny again today – so I’m pleased my intrusive lens hasn’t frightened him off. Dave

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  4. It is lovely to see something you’ve only heard before like I was in summer with the Golden Oriels (but I didn’t get any photographs of them. Our resident Little Owls roost in a tree just outside the garden during the day and so I often see them but I have only rarely managed to get an image and not a good one. It is great to share your joy; isn’t that what blogging is all about?

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    • Hi Christina, yes it is what blogging is about. I did wonder whether anyone would be as interested in my sighting as I was and whether or not to publish. I remember seeing a little owl a year or so ago – nice that you have them resident. Something about owls! D

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  5. Wonderful to finally see your owl. I have heard male and female owls in our garden, but never managed to see more than the shadow of one flying off. And that is despite putting my wellies on and going out in the middle of the night!

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    • Hi Annette, not that surprised you didn’t see one at night i- even n your wellies. Especially, as haven’t been able to see this beggar in broad daylight. But the call does get to you doesn’t it? How could you not want to go and see the bird that makes such a fantastic sound? Dave

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  6. Ha ha! At last you got your glimpse. I love those beady eyes staring out of the tree. We occasionally hear them in the village – it’s such a fantastic sound. I think they roost in the large copper beech of the big house across the road but we’ve never seen any here. We used to live in a village in Berkshire which was amazing for wildlife – muntjac deers, little owls, a merlin, kites, woodpeckers. One night in June whilst on a walk we came across a tawny owl nest with the babies inside. We couldn’t see them but could hear their calls. Then another night we stalked a tawny owl as it flew from tree to tree along a quiet lane. Every time we got a little too close it would swoop and fly off to a tree another 100 yards or so further away. We did this for a good 30 minutes before it flew off into the woods. Moments like this stick with you. Hopefully now you have a better vantage point you’ll get more magic moments with your tawny owl, there might even be chicks next year. 🙂

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    • Hi Lou, we’ve followed a tawny like you did in Cornwall – from one tree to the next in a wood. We were staying in a cottage on a NT farm which also had barn owls nesting in a er, barn. Each night we’d all sit outside and watch them hunt. That was special. I assumed I’d see the tawny again yesterday, back at work, but no luck. Perfect light this time as well. Sigh. D

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    • Hi, I’ve not consciously heard a female but in future I shall listen out for one. They are quite common in this part of Sussex – but I’ve only seen one on the South Downs and one in Cornwall before now. Dave

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  7. Oh, what beautiful eyes and feathers! And those claws gripping the branch! I’m so glad you finally got to “meet” your owl, even if it was at the cost of a tree. After all, you’ve plenty of trees to spare, and only the one owl. (Is this the one whose pellets you dissected for us once?)

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    • Hi Stacy, I didn’t mind about the tree – I’m not very fond of leylandiis. Though the missing one has revealed plenty of bare branches which don’t tend to re-green. It is unsightly but good for owl observation. The owl pellet dissection was one I found a few metres away beneath an oak. There are so many voles in the garden and it is them that keep the owls coming, I think. Dave

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    • Hi Pauline, when we lived on the hill above the Priory, our cottage faced a wood and we too would hear males and females call as we drifted off to sleep. But this is only the second or third tawny I’ve ever seen. D

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  8. Love this! I knew from the start of your story you were going to see your owl. I can imagine the excitement and joy at finally meeting and your pictures capture the search and meeting each other’s eyes perfectly.

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    • Hi Amelia, sad about your nest box. At least mine is used every year – if not by tawnies. I plan on making a barn owl box this winter. Now that would be cool – to have barn owls hunting over the meadow. I can dream, I suppose. Dave

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    • Hi Sue, I do wonder whether I’ll ever see him again. But perhaps I’ll become as blasé at seeing the owl as I now am at seeing great spotted woodpeckers and even the occasional kingfisher. Haven’t been able to photo the latter – yet. D

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      • Back in the 80’s when my mum was alive, she had a family of owls in a tree.My daughter was only about 5 at the time and her and her friend would go out with my mum and find the pellets and take great pleasure in breaking these up and investigating the contents much to my daughter’s friend’s mum’s disgust, the baby owls also really did hang upside down… 🙂

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