Country diary: from over my shoulder, a barn owl in broad daylight
Sandy, Bedfordshire: The brightness of day illuminates the darkness in barn owls, most of all those deep, sun-averse eyes
By no stretch of the imagination could the boundary between the potato and barley fields be called a hedge. The blackthorn thicket that might once have been maintained to separate the sheep and the oats runs out after a few short metres. Thereafter, the border, unmarked by animal hooves for decades, consists only of the narrowest of footpaths, a dry ditch and a few irregular stunted trees, survivors braced against the north wind.
They offer some shelter and corn bunting perches, though they are continuously pruned back to stop them overshadowing the crops. Such taming gives these tree-bushes a two-dimensional, espaliered look, but without the support. Even the low crowns have more chinks than leaves, especially when late morning sunbeams pierce the gaps.
In the barely concealing foliage of a crown halfway along, a big bird was sitting less than tight. Unwise, or more likely inexperienced, it was possibly a youngster driven out of its parental territory, and it had made an ill-judged choice of roost.
By a quirk of fate, my wife, Sarah, had twisted her ankle, so we forsook the uneven path in favour of even, bare soil on the other side of the ditch. Were we now in the bird’s line of sight? It was so unnerved by us that it broke cover from just past my shoulder. “Kestrel” was my first snatched, doubtful thought, as long, narrow wings extended from a retreating back, flecked more gold than chestnut. As it rose and tilted, that narrowness proved an illusion of perspective. Broad wings swept upwards, the head turned, and a barn owl’s face looked back to scrutinise what had disturbed it.
The brightness of daylight illuminates the darkness in barn owls. I saw a smile of black dots around the bottom of its facial disc and sooty smokiness in its supposedly white face. And blackest of all, those deep, sun-averse eyes.
For a couple of seconds, the owl flew out towards the open fields, then appeared to change its mind and cut back to flit from tree to tree, looking again for a place to find its night in day.