Owl-lessness

IMG_3880With a flick of barred tail feathers the hawk shook off its grumbling corvid escort and accelerated, high to the north away over the playing fields and out of sight. And I stepped less rapidly away from my doorstep where I’d been watching, at the relaxed sort of pace that I’ve adopted of late, pleased at an auspicious start to an afternoon’s ramble. On Maiden Erleigh lake, the usual residents were out in force, some seven mandarin ducks keeping an eager eye out for bread. A dunnock, musing on spring, tried out a few different song perches for size, repeating his refrain from twig after twig before retreating back into the shade of some ivy. As for me, I was out on my latest form of listing foolishness, in pursuit of as many birds as possible seen whilst travelling by foot power alone from my own front door.

In theory, proceeding at walking pace is the best way to see anything. The slower you go and the more you look, the more the world can keep up and comes to meet you: beasts, birds, plants, the steady march of the clouds and the play of the waves on a small lake, all the occupants and elements of nature. Walking puts us in our place in more ways than one, in that we cease bossing the landscape about by traversing it at great speed whilst simultaneously re-engaging with our immediate surroundings. Not skating across the surface but plunging in at the deep end, not invading visitors from outer space, but creatures properly embedded in our ecosystem. Homo sapiens, the upright grasping ape.

The only drawbacks are the time and energy that must be invested. The ‘Foot It’ challenge, which has seen close to 100 birders across the UK sign up to go in search of a target list of birds within walking distance of our houses, provides the competitive spur which, for some reason, I and others often find is required to give us a boot out the door.

IMG_3871I arrived at Whiteknights Park (home of Reading University) as dusk was already closing in. Which was fine, as I hoped the creatures I was looking for would be good and active in the half-light: little owls. I must be one of the last birders in Reading to know for sure which is the ‘usual oak’, and to therefore have unlocked the secret of the Whiteknights little owls, but I’m nonetheless delighted to hear that this diminutive-yet-doughty species has now enjoyed two successful breeding seasons at what would seem an unlikely site, ringed as the campus is by suburbs. I have a few clues – not least the few times I did manage to see the pair around campus during their first few months on site – but despite repeated visits since to what I think is the vicinity of the nesting hole, and indeed a good bit of staring from a respectable distance* at my best guess at a candidate for the usual oak, I haven’t seen them since July of the year before last. And nor did I this week.

IMG_3884Two days later, with even greater levels of ambition, I set off on a seven-mile round trip up the Loddon valley to Dinton Pastures Country Park. Travelling on foot was revelatory as ever. The path tags alongside the river, cutting through the flyovers, commuter lines, housing estates and car parks of east Reading by a more direct route than is possible by car. The reserve proved closer to the town when approached on foot, in a way. Approaching directly from the south, I came up to the southern end of White Swan Lake with the A329 very much still in earshot, transitioning from suburbia to country park with just a few minutes’ stroll.

IMG_3885This new perspective places the bittern firmly in the category of Reading resident: a rare and curious bird which most Reading-ites would be astonished to learn they share a postcode with. So far this year one is being seen intermittently in the large reed bed at the north end of White Swan Lake. I curved round to the lake’s eastern shore, enjoying a rare bit of sunshine and the gentle contact call of an unseen chiffchaff on the way, and settled in for a spot of bittern watching – incredibly frustrating and yet one of my favourite winter birding activities. By frustrating I mean waiting for fully one hour and twenty-five minutes in the finger-biting cold until at last the bird’s outline appeared almost at once halfway up a thick clump of phragmites, its ghostly presence simply fading in as if from whatever other dimension it is that bitterns occupy the rest of the time. Even once I’d seen it turn its head a few times, preening at its breast feathers, I would keep losing it, and have to wait for movement to convince myself all over again that I wasn’t just watching an artfully arranged stand of reeds. The camouflage of a bittern has to be experienced to be believed: now you see it, now you don’t.

IMG_3889The bittern having waited until after sunset to give itself up, I had just enough time to get to the barn owl box, ticking off pochard and goldeneye for my ‘Foot It’ list on Sandford Lake on the way, before it got too dark to see. The box is sometimes occupied by nesting jackdaws in the summer rather than by barn owls, but owls do use it as a winter roost. Two years ago I wrote about a grand Dinton finish to a Reading big day: kingfisher, bittern, barn owl. I was eager to repeat the experience, having had good if distant views of a kingfisher whilst awaiting His Bittern-ic Majesty. But it was not to be. Another day, another owl no-show.

IMG_3893So here I am, still in a state of owl-lessness for the year. Yet somewhere, two miles away or less from where I’m writing, there the little owls undoubtedly are, catching things and roosting and keeping a watchful owlish eye out as students and visitors and lecturers and cleaners and caterers and administrators and joggers and dog-walkers dash and ramble past without ever knowing they’re under observation. Similarly, there may well be a barn owl in the box as I type, resting up before another night in pursuit of voles as commuters roar past along the lane on the other side of the field. That such wild birds persist mostly unseen in the midst of our human bustle continues to be an uplifting thought, and in a way I hope that I don’t get to my target of 80 species by the end of the month. I neither own nor control the birds I’m seeking – owls especially – and it would seem fitting if it was they, not I, that had the final victory. That won’t stop me from trying, though: if blog updates come sporadically, it’s probably because I’m out for another walk.** I’ll see you on foot.

Pictures, from top to bottom: Dusk in ‘The Wilderness’ on Whiteknights Campus; the former ‘Innovation Centre’, now the Lyle building and part of the Biology School; the A329 (M); the Bader Way; the River Loddon; White Swan Lake.

*Part of the reason I’ve never quite figured out where the nest is: it’s not the kind of information that people tend to throw around the internet, and for very good reasons. There are, alas, a few irresponsible types in the world and whilst little owls are not uncommon enough to attract the attention (I would think) of the dwindling band of egg collectors out there, it wouldn’t do to have half of Reading standing right at the bottom of the tree and gawping. That said, I’m responsible! So consider this an open call to let me in on the secret, if you are one of its keepers.

**This also has something to do with the fact that my car, the beloved-ish ‘Hatmobile II’ has broken down, an even more pressing encouragement to go for a walk than any birding challenge as I don’t actually have a choice!

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