Just before Christmas, when we went back to France for a long weekend, we discovered that we had some squatters. As we opened the gates, a series of large birds flew out from the trees near the lavoir (an old washing place, with a stone step at the side so the women could get closer to the water). We stopped the car and watched. Different national approaches to counting led to different estimates of numbers: I counted nine, Alex twelve. Whichever number was right, it was a high figure and the speed with which the birds flashed past us did make an accurate figure difficult.
We have had nesting falcons before, angry nesting redstarts, and at least one set of baby barn owls: spotted by tracing the crying sounds to some trees and finding, after some hard searching, a single small owl gazing mournfully at me in the fading light. I am not sure if it was actually gazing mournfully but it was certainly staring at me, a rather unnerving experience. The cry was painful: calling out to its mother desperately as if it had not eaten for several days. But I knew that every evening this crying stopped so one had to trust that the mother turned up at some point with a little mole or dormouse.
This time I stood by the lavoir and looked up into the trees. Branches. A few leaves still clinging on. Ivy. Fading light. Impossible to see the wood for the trees. And then there was a movement and I realised it was an owl, a large owl, looking at me. I took a few photos, one of which I include, but as you can see I am no nature photographer and this was the highest zoom level on my phone. I moved closer to get a better shot, and off he went. Not a barn owl, not a tawny owl, but an owl I had never seen before.
I followed his flight to the end of the garden, where some wild plum trees have rooted down for the duration, brushing branches with the odd walnut tree. I tiptoed over, absurdly, because the ground crunched with fallen twigs at every step, and the owls could have seen me in the field a mile away. And yet once I had adjusted my eyes I found they revealed themselves to me one by one. It was an incredible sight: a series of orange discs occasionally caught the light and once I had spotted these I was able to focus on the larger shape. At least six owls were sitting high up the trees. They had huge ears sticking up out of their heads and markings I hadn’t seen before. They weren’t particularly large when stationary but as soon as one flew, followed quickly by the others, I saw that the wing spans were enormous.
Midnight searching online confirmed me as a twitcher. For some reason, I was searching only in French and I quickly discovered that the word ‘hibou’ that I had learnt at school was not actually the generic term for owl, but refers to one group of owls – long-eared owls. And these are not even ears, but tufts of feathers which stick up when alert. ‘Chouette’ is the more commonly used word for owl, certainly in the south-west of France, but chouette refers to owls without ‘ears’: the ones we see more regularly in Britain like barn owls and tawny owls. My owls were long-eared – hiboux – and more specifically, as my French website told me, ‘moyenne duc’. It is apparently common for the moyenne duc to roost in groups, hence the large number hanging out together near our lavoir.
I never understood the fascination of birds when I was younger, despite spending hours trying to learn bird sound and recognise bird flight while working in an outdoor education centre in the Lakes. I somehow never managed to remember the sound, to let it embed in my brain. But I did become a little hooked on owls. I read ‘The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark’ when I was little, and when I was eleven I went on a voyage to ancient Greece with my mother and brother and encountered Bobo the wise owl messenger for the first time. Somewhere I have a little brass Bobo, keeping an eye on me.
Now, as someone older and perhaps more in touch with the cyclical state of the natural world, I do love watching my birds. I probably wouldn’t take some binoculars and sit in a bird hut in some marshes for any length of time, but I take huge pleasure in sharing my space with these enigmatic creatures who occasionally offer themselves up in the form of magical shifting glimpses or sounds.
Is my favourite. Who flies
like a nothing through the night,
who-whoing. Is a feather
duster in leafy corners ring-a-rosy-ing
boles of mice. Twice
you hear him call. Who
is he looking for? You hear
him hoovering over the floor
of the wood. O would you be gold
rings in the driving skull
if you could? Hooded and
vulnerable by the winter suns
owl looks. Is the grain of bark
in the dark. Round beaks are at
work in the pellety nest,
working. Owl is an eye
in the barn. For a hole
in the trunk owl's blood
is to blame. Black talons in the
petrified fur! Cold walnut hands
on the case of the brain! In the reign
of the chicken owl comes like
a god. Is a goad in
the rain to the pink eyes,
dripping. For a meal in the day
flew, killed, on the moor. Six
mouths are the seed of his
arc in the season. Torn meat
from the sky. Owl lives
by the claws of his brain. On the branch
in the sever of the hand's
twigs owl is a backward look.
Flown wind in the skin. Fine
Rain in the bones. Owl breaks
Like the day. Am an owl, am an owl.
Curiously on a search just now for my guardian angel in cyber reality, he does not exist. Athena did indeed have a little owl but he has no recorded name. Bubo, however, is the name given to this little owl in the film ‘The Clash of the Titans’ in 1981, which was the year I went to Greece. It is also the genus name of the horned owls who live in the Americas. I suppose that the word ‘Bobo’ must have come from me, then, despite my memory insisting it was the correct name for my little owl. 'Bobo' he will remain in my world.