Saturday, 14 December 2019

The first owl

A few posts ago I mentioned, once again, the time that I saw my first Jay, an observation that kick-started my 'birding life'. I wrote about it more fully here. But as to why it was that particular bird that captured my mind, and not any earlier avian encounter, I'm not sure. Maybe it was the brightness of its plumage, or the fact that I could identify what it was - purely down to the fact that I had taken part in a recent discussion about that very species. There had, however, been an earlier set of observations that could just as easily have acted as the spark that ignited my interest in birds, encounters that still are fresh in my mind...

Sutton, Surrey. It's July 1971. John Newcombe and Evonne Goolagong have just won their respective tennis titles at Wimbledon, and both Pakistan and India are touring England playing test cricket. I'm 12-years old and sport mad. Being the school summer holidays, and with time to burn, I spend most of it at our local recreation park - known to all as 'The Rec' - playing football and cricket, or cycling miles in aimless direction, a juvenile Eddie Merckx. The summer is not a scorcher, but neither is it a wash-out.

As the evening starts to lose its light I've begun to sit out in the back-garden, on a swing, and take in the end of the day. Even us 12-year olds are partial to a bit of contemplation. As I sit on the narrow seat I kick at the strip of mud that has been worn into the lawn where my siblings feet have scuffed the grass as they swing back and forth. I idly pick at the paint that has started to flake away from the metal frame, tracing the pattern of rust that has been left. Smells of nearby grass cuttings and food that is wafting from a neighbour's open kitchen window reach me. It is calm and I await the owl’s arrival. Let me introduce you to the owl.

A few evenings previously I happened to be out in the garden when an owl appeared on top of a nearby fir tree. I froze out of both not wanting to frighten it and some buried fear or wariness. A creature of the night, a wizard’s familiar, a ghost and witch companion. It is my first. A hunched dwarf clothed in feathers. It stayed but briefly, falling from the tree top into a neighbouring garden. It was back the following evening, and after a week my vigil to welcome the owl was in place. It arrived at the same time, flying in - from where I had no idea - swooping to its perch in silence. No, it didn’t fly, it glided, it cut through the air with an ease that suggested it existed on another plane. Not of this world. Maybe not meant for my eyes.

And talking of eyes, it possessed big eyes, black deep pools that looked at me and sucked me in. It owned me. And then, with disdain, discarded me as it left, leaving just as silently as it had arrived. It was brown. I didn’t question as to what type of owl it was, that didn’t matter. In fact, the thought didn’t enter my head. But the bird had gripped me, made me spend a number of evenings sitting on a swing, summoning me to attend its majesty.

And yet, when it stopped visiting, so did my interest. After all, it wasn’t a Jay...

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