Two minutes of magic

owl1Magic is rare. In its rarity is its value, a value that can inspire for days, months and years into the future. But this magic struck, early one summer’s evening, on the allotments at Shipton.

I was on watering duty, a forlorn activity during the 2018 heatwave. Hope sprung eternal for a healthy crop but doubts were already well established, sown among the wizened growth. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a glide of cream and mottled brown wings. It was low and silent – a barn owl. Such a sighting is always a privilege but it was what happened next that made it so memorable. Swooping down, it settled on top of a post in the neighbouring plot, not ten metres away. And there it stayed. Watchful. Alert and yet apparently relaxed. This was his world more so than it was mine. Delicate and almost virginal in its whiteness. Only its head moved, swivelling round in a totally unhurried way, eyes unblinking, completely unconcerned by my watching gaze. I watched him, motionless, musing on the old hymn words, ‘Lost in wonder, love and praise.’ Those two minutes lasted a lifetime before, without warning and soundlessly, it rose over the allotments and headed for fresh hunting grounds.

Would that such occasions happened more often, but as Pat Wixey, life-long volunteer with the Oxfordshire Ornithological Society notes, they are increasingly few and far between. He coordinates the efforts in West Oxfordshire to raise the profile and number of this iconic and beautiful bird, efforts that include keeping a watching brief over around 200 nesting boxes. In an average year, 100 nestlings are ringed; in 2018, after one of the hottest summers on record, just 23 were recorded, and of these, at least three have subsequently died.

The reason? Starvation. The population of voles has crashed and as such creatures comprise the owls’ favourite prey, the owls in turn have suffered. Unless the adult birds reach a certain weight, they do not breed; they go hungry and so do any nestlings that are born. Survival is a struggle in which the elements usually win. Other barn owls fall foul of road traffic.

If survival really is a struggle, it is one that only looks to become harder. While the OOS is always on the lookout for new nesting sites, building and road development take a toll on opportunities; meanwhile barn conversions also reduce the number of possible sites.

So what of the future? Pat refers to ‘enormous pressure’ caused by the factors listed above but while there are people who treasure those moments of magic, there is hope.

Bob Forster

February – March 2019