owl encounter

Alice Fox owl sketch

Sunny, bright blue sky. Light wind. We walk across the beck and up the steep road, following the Cleveland Way. Fenced-off cliff-tops and a road that disappears into the void beyond the cliff edge. We follow ‘a line made by walking’ through a field of winter wheat, then on up the hill, climbing all the time, past cottages precariously positioned near the cliff edge. Last year’s bracken is bright, singing in the sunshine, contrasting against sparkling blue sea and sky. Up a steep bank with wind-sculpted hawthorn and a robin. Round the back of a dis-used quarry and up to a trig point, then on past noisy, shaggy cows and a communications mast. Turning down a steep lane with a pond to the side, an owl appears silently, flying low over the pond. We stand absolutely still, breath held. It turns and flies towards us, then suddenly off across fields to the right, and it’s gone. A flock of lapwings swirl around then disappear too. On we go, enlivened by our encounter, down the steep lane, past interesting farm houses and out-buildings. Back onto the footpath and we join the muddy line through the field. An owl pellet lies on a rock by the path: A perfect waste disposal package of hair and bones with jaws and pairs of teeth protruding from the tightly packed mass, not unlike the fossils embedded in stone down under the nearby cliffs. The shape and darkness of the pellet is similar to some of the pebbles I collected on the beach earlier in the week. We are almost back at the village and the owl re-appears and I see clearly now that it is a barn owl. A bonus second sight, this time prolonged as it flies low over a patch of rough cliff-top grassland. It cruises up and down, around, back and forth, hunting for quite some time. Suddenly it turns and comes too close, our eyes meeting for a split second, then it thinks better of it and flies off towards the sun setting behind the smoking potash works. Light fading. It occurs to me that the pellet I found was probably from this very same bird and the whole encounter feels very special indeed.

Alice Fox barn owl pellet drawing

A long time ago I was taught how to dissect pellets and identify all the different small mammals, amphibians etc. that the owl had eaten. I haven’t decided yet whether to do that with this one. It is tempting to investigate all those tiny little jaw bones and skulls but there is something rather wonderful about this tightly bound bundle as it is.

7 thoughts on “owl encounter

  1. Beautiful description of your owl encounter. On the weekend my husband & I were helping our son build a decking at his home. In a tree overlooking the decking area, were 2 Tawny Frogmouth owls. They stayed in the tree all afternoon, even thou we were using power tools and making lots of noise. The owls have been in that tree for the last week, and due to their colouring they look almost like a tree branch. (Melbourne, Australia)

    • No, they just have mouths that are huge! They are nocturnal and make a “woom…woom…woom” sounds that’s distinctive and repetitive.

    • Hi Alice, your question re: do they eat frogs, made me do a little research. The first thing I read was ‘with their nocturnal habit & owl-like appearance, they are often confused for owls, they are more closely related to Nightjars. (then I had to look up Nightjars!) Anyway in answer to your question, they do eat frogs, nocturnal insects, worms, slugs, snails, small mammals, reptiles and birds. So now I have learnt more about them too.

    • Hi Jenny, how interesting! We have nightjars in the UK but I’ve never seen one. I have seen them in Africa though, feeding at dusk.

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