This article first appeared in the April 2023 edition of Birdwatching Magazine
“Every day with an owl in it, is a good day” as Hawkeye said to me the other day… that particular day had three Short-eared Owls quartering the dunes at our favourite birding patch. Scroll back a couple of weeks and she said the same after an obliging Little Owl sat in an accessible hedgerow ignoring our scope and a bunch of very annoyed passerines.
It put me in mind of another fabulous owl day… this one far away and long ago several years BC (before Covid). We were in southern Africa on a wonderful five-week trip with “Birding For All’ an access charity which has been fighting for better access for all birders to our healthy hobby for a couple of decades. Over the years our group have been lucky enough to visit five continents proving that travel is possible for wheelers and the ‘hard of walking’, even if a bit of a logistical nightmare.
So, somewhere near a mountain ridge in the north of South Africa, we were spending the last hour or so of sunlight birding right next to the dining hall we were about to stuff our faces in. There was a gulley to one side with thorny bushes on the far edge. Leaning against a brick wall, we had already been treated to a family of a dozen mongooses following the gulley in search of snakes. Our guide decided that a short cut to good birds was to play a tape of a Pearl-spotted Owlet – a charming guy not unlike that Little Owl (the owl, not the guide). As he played the tape the passerines poured in looking for the owl to mob it. Cordonblues were first in flashing their turquoise plumage as they looked for the owl. Soon there were half a dozen species from diminutive sunbirds to bully-boy weavers and even a normally shy thrush. Then the real thing hopped in – a Pearl-spotted Owlet braved the aggressive beaks and claws to see if there was a mate he could canoodle with or a rival he needed to see off.
I could share a dozen days with an owl in it, that have raised my spirits and delighted my wife, from a magnificent Pel’s Fishing Owl in a tree overlooking the Okavango River, to a Lesser Sooty Owl on a fence post as we drove back to our Queensland lodgings. From an elusive Scope owl in Majorca to half a dozen impossible-to-see Long-eared Owls in a bare hawthorn in Essex.
For us there are other good days… ones with a Kingfisher in or a Woodpecker, a hoopoe or booming bittern. I’m not sure what defines such birding high notes. Like the screaming swifts of summer or the beach flurry of snow buntings in winter, a migrating Redstart or those everyday charmers – a pair of Stonechats. Botanists have their favourite flowers no doubt, but it won’t always be the blousy blooms or the tallest trees, we each find charm in different measure. Just as well really, like the people we love are not always the most perfect of feature or have the widest breadth of intellect. If we are lucky we each find our own soul mate. Lucky for me Hawkeye has peculiar taste in rather shabby and craggy old blokes. She says, like that old comedy duo, “…you’ll do for me Tommy”
A pristine Lesser Whitethroat is virtually monochrome, but it does for me. A bundle of long-tailed tits, still family grouped when on the forage does it too. I’ve heard a dunnock song described as weak and unremarkable, just like its hues, but they do it for me too.