We came in search of quail – surely one of Britain’s most elusive birds – and, although we failed to see, or even hear our quarry, we did enjoy a midsummer’s evening to remember.
My companions and I had ventured south of the Polden Hills, that long, low ridge that passes for the highlands above the flatlands of the Somerset Levels. On the broad, open moor, we were serenaded by the chaotic trilling of countless sedge warblers, the ponderous notes of reed buntings, and the urgent chacking call of a male stonechat, carefully shepherding his brood of half a dozen newly fledged youngsters, like a proud dad collecting the kids from school.
But the highlight came from an unexpected quarter: not low, in the fields around us, but high above. A barn owl (Tyto alba), glowing white in the setting sun, passing straight over our heads. For the next half hour we watched not just one, but two barn owls – presumably a breeding pair – heading low over the fields to hunt, each then flying back to the nest site carrying a vole in its talons. In a summer when, for me at least, sightings of this charismatic hunter have been few and far between, it gladdened the heart to see them thriving.