Wednesday, 21 October 2009

'The owls are not what they seem...'

Yes, the giant warned Agent Cooper in early 90s cult classic Twin Peaks, and I'm here to tell you that he was right.

Last night, I was driving home from Nottingham, at about 11.30pm. It was rainy and windy, and I’d got about two miles from home, on a straight, downhill stretch, when I saw a Tawny Owl standing upright at the side of the road.

I slowed right down and managed to avoid it, and pulled to a halt a little way further on, hazard warning lights blazing, before going back with a torch. To my surprise, it was still there, and didn’t fly away even when I got to within almost touching distance.

Now I was worried. I assumed it must be injured, so I started trying to work out ways to pick it up without hurting it, and without suffering severe injury myself (the wildlife photographer Eric Hosking famously lost an eye to a Tawny Owl). Quite where I’d have taken it, I’m not sure, there not being any all-night owl surgeries in the vicinity. I went back to the car, found a padded photographer’s case to put it in, donned gloves, and prepared for the difficult part.

It had gone, thankfully. I had a good look around the area, drove back up and down three or four times, but it had clearly flown away rather than just hopping into the ditch.

Thing is, this is the third time something like this has happened to me. The first, ten years ago, was on a similarly lonely stretch of road near Bourne, where I was living at the time. That time it was a Long-eared Owl, which was stood in the centre of the road, stock still. I only saw it late and was terrified that I’d hit it, but when I got out to walk back, it watched me part of the way, then flew easily away.

Just a couple of months after that, the same thing happened with another Long-eared Owl (odd because I don’t know of any breeding locally) just about a mile from where I saw last night’s bird.

So, I’m baffled. Roads must be great places to catch voles, etc, as they emerge from cover, but I can only assume the owls get rather dazzled by headlights and are unable to fly away from approaching cars. I’m trying to get an owl expert to explain more, but I'd love to know if anyone has had a similar experience.

PS: I incorporated one of the above incidents, very fictionalised and with some extra drama added, into a poem, The Mad Mile, which appears in Troy Town (the road’s known as the Mad Mile because it’s long, very straight, and includes one rollercoaster-style dip).


Tony Williams said...

Must have been terrific to encounter the owls so closely, Matt. We were once walking, in daylight, in Derbyshire – pasture and wooded valleys – and took a wrong turn off the footpath. As we were going through a gate, an owl (tawny I think) exploded from a branch just above our heads – probably not within touching distance, but almost. I assume that the place was usually deserted since there wasn't a footpath, and that's why we surprised it.

Then there was the time when the dogs and, on our mid-morning walk, bumped into a badger coming the other way...

The thing is, I know we share the landscape with all these creatures, but somehow it's only when you meet them that you feel the full wonder of that fact. [/wide-eyed]

Matt Merritt said...

Absolutely, Tony. I do occasionally see a tawny on a telegraph pole on this stretch of road, but otherwise I know them only from their distant hooting.

I've been thinking about it, though, and a lot of the barn owls I've seen hunting can be incredibly oblivious to humans, so maybe this was on some prey, and then got a bit dazzled by the lights.

I'm envious, though. I don't think I've ever seen a live badger.

Jane Commane said...

Same thing happened to me too Matt, on the way out to Northampton along country roads about a month ago. Except this Tawny Owl was sitting bolt upright on the white line in the middle of the road as we passed - and was still there in the rear view mirror as we looked back!

It seemed a pretty odd place for it to be, that's for sure! And it didn't even flinch as we passed it.

Matt Merritt said...

Ah, that's exactly what the Long-eared Owl near Bourne did years ago. It was right on the white line, and I was sure I must have hit it, but when I went back it was fine.

Strange birds!

Caroline Gill said...

What an interesting owl encounter, Matt. I feel a poem will come out of this for you at some point. I have been working (on and off) for ages, trying to get a Bodmin Moor owl poem right...

I have seen a friend's picture of an owl print on a glass window (where the bird had flown in to the glass and left a dusty, shadowy dander image - like the one here). Soon afterwards I stumbled across a poem - rather a good one, I seem to remember - about someone else's similar experience. I wish I had noted the poem at the time: can anyone out there help?

As for badgers, well, I have seen a few live ones. I watched a sett for hours (three generations) on an organised watch here in Wales. I also accompanied a naturalist on one of his badger watching expeditions in Northumbria. We had to sneak downwind - and wear camouflaged clothing. The badgers were most obliging on that occasion. I suspect they may have been used to our guide and knew that he would not make sudden movements etc.

Caroline Gill said...

P.S. Have just come across Nabokov's character, John Shane, and his poem in 'Pale Fire' about the waxwing in the 'false azure of the windowpane'... but it wasn't actually the poem I had in mind.

It's actually a miserable subject (I hate to think of the injuries inflicted by glass) - but there is a certain otherworldly beauty in the image.

Kevin Rea said...

I had a very similar experience with a Tawny Owl tonight. I was driving home along a country B road near Hereford when I spotted something in the road ahead. As I got near I saw it was a beautiful Tawny Owl stood in the middle of the other side of the road, bolt upright and looking straight at me. Those big eyes were unmistakable but the bird appeared rooted to the spot. I was worried that it might be injured and there was another car in the distance behind me, so I turned around and headed back up the road at a slow pace. However, the Tawny was nowhere to be seen, so I hope that he flew off safely.

But it brings us back to the point of whether the headlights confuse or daze the owl, because it did not flinch at all as I headed towards it. It was lucky that nothing was coming from the opposite direction. What a beautiful sight though, I was really stunned and so amazed to have seen it. I had an owl experience earlier in the year at a Owl centre, and handled a Barn Owl and a huge European Eagle Owl - such amazing and lovely creatures.