Archangels and Owls

Barn owl hunting (9)

My home is close to the Marriott Way, a disused railway line that has been converted into a cycleway / footpath that stretches between Norwich city centre and Aylsham. The path passes through some of the most attractive farmland in Norfolk, including some of my shooting permissions. Much of it cuts along the valley of the River Wensum, a winding chalk-stream rich in kingfishers, otters and trout. Though it can be a busy cycling thoroughfare, if you pick your times you can see much of this fauna. Which is why I picked the hour before dusk to give Dylan, my lurcher, a good run and enjoy some recreational exercise myself.

The late afternoon January sunshine had injected some friskiness into the winter lethargy of bird and beast. Though nowhere near Spring, titmice and chaffinches flirted among the still naked boughs of the beech and hazel lining the wide sandy track. It’s as though the sun blew the whistle and the mating game is on. Out along the distant fence bordering a sheep pasture, rabbits chased amorously. A lively warren, on the wrong side of my permission boundary. No matter. They will ensure, through their creep and incursion, that my presence will still be welcome beyond the wire this summer.

This late in the day, with the mist rising lightly from the flood meadows and the rooks thronging homeward overhead, the temperature was already on the wane. The pale moon which had hung in the blue sky all day promised a hoar frost tonight. It was no surprise then, when I stepped out onto the iron bridge, to see a barn owl hunting keenly. She sailed up and down the fringes of the meadow like a huge moth, following the bends of the river. I watched … and snapped with the camera … as she made her feints into the sedges and came up with nothing. Then, she struck gold. A vole, carried out into the meadow, into the shorter cattle-grazed turf. I watched her toy with the tiny mammal before lifting it with her beak and then swallowing it, as a kingfisher does when eating a minnow, in two gagging gulps.

As she cast off again, I noticed a snow white form perched on a tree limb beyond where the owl had fed. Totally out of synch with its surroundings. A little egret, becoming a common sight hereabouts now though certainly not a native. A tiny, slender cousin to the grey heron but with the plumage of an archangel .. pure white. Its black gaiters and yellow slippers make it look slightly Bohemian but that sharp black bill is as deadly as the herons. A keenly honed fish or frog spear. It took off, perhaps sensing my vigil, then courted danger as it floated across the power lines and out of sight.

A sonorous, rhythmic noise made me jump and made the lurcher leap up to look over the bridge parapet. My camera swung up like a shotgun. A mute swan beat up and over the bridge just yards above us and I could feel the downdraft from its powerful wings as I focused and consigned its image to my collection. On the walk home, a robin stopped to serenade us from a fence post, backlit by the setting sun. Ahead, that full moon was shining brighter now. A reminder to man, bird and beast that tonight would be as cold as a warlocks heart.

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