The weather wasn’t up to much on Saturday, despite what the weather man had promised. On Saturday evening under murky skies I decided to take a walk down to the edgeland not expecting to see much at all. Luckily for me, nature isn’t always as weather dependant as we think.
There was nothing to report on my trudge across the fields from the rail bridge to the canal, heightening my suspicions that nature had already turned in for the day, snubbing the grey skies, limp drizzle and October chill for the warmth and comfort of dens, burrows and hedgerows. In fact, the silence was deafening with only the Crows call from the old farmhouse in the next field splicing through the still air every few minutes or so. That was until I reached the river Sence and put my heavy feet to the footbridge sending a female Mallard and lone Moorhen scurrying downstream. A Wrens angry trill barraged me from a young willow tree before making off into the undergrowth. That will teach me not to announce my arrival so obviously and instead tread a little lighter next time.
Deserted by the waterfowl and Wren I stand a while, staring down at the water and watching as it ripples and breaks gently over a few clumsily placed boulders then flowing freely downstream before narrowing at an overgrown bend of willow and elder entwined in bind weed and nettle and out of view.
Darting from bank to bank and hedge to hedge I spot what I think is a meadow pipit but it doesn’t perch still enough for me to focus my binoculars and get a positive ID. I have seen Pipits further along in a patch of scrub by the side of the sewage words before but in brighter weather and full song making it far easier to identify. Then, another breach of the silence. A strange high-pitched miow not to dissimilar to a domestic cat but louder, rawer and more distressed. A Little Owl.
The Midlands is a hot bed for Little Owls. The area around my own patch and wider south Leicestershire has been well documented by another local naturalist and his blog Owls About That Then on which his galleries show literally dozens upon dozens of local Little Owls. I have never actually seen one though, well not in the wild at least. The closest I’ve come was a local falconers charity displaying birds, including ‘Bob’ the little Owl at Leicester Market in the City Centre.
I scan around with my binoculars trying to pinpoint the sound but to no avail. Instead, at the far end of the river meadow I notice a single, lightning struck and decaying Oak, weathered and gnarled into something from a scene in a Count Dracula movie. About half way up the trunk is the perfect hole and accompanying decaying perch which scream ‘Little Owl’ but nobody is home. I scramble for my notebook and mark the spot on a loosely scribbled map. Further investigations to follow.
With the heavy cloud the light is really starting to fade now as night draws in and I turn on my heels and head back to the footbridge across the Sence avoiding relatively fresh fox scat as I tread. A Pheasant call echos behind me from the sewage works woods and like a conductor’s baton signals the beginning of an orchestra of noise as suddenly, in contrast to just an hour ago, the evening air is awash with birdsong. A dusk chorus.
Green Woodpeckers cackle and laugh like Batman’s Joker. His Robins are in full swing too, singing for territory even this late in the year. A song that unlike most will not stop for winter, adding moments of cheer and warmth to those freezing, desolate winter walks. The urgent, underrated and quite beautiful Blackbird song rings out from a-top a bramble hedge. Another, startled by the metallic prang of a shifting gate as I step through into the next field dives into the undergrowth with that tell-tale crescendo alarm call. Each and every one of my senses is at work and in delight now. Calls, many of which I do not recognise echo all around, my eyes dashing from hedge to tree to field in search of the culprit. There is a citrus scent in the air now too, a down-trodden plant releasing its essential oils into the membrane of the still twilight but again, in the half-light as I feel for leaves and stem and smell my fingers I can’t find the culprit.
Then, it is there. The highlight of my walk and only 100 metres from its end. Fox.
Emerging from the hedge lining the gravel pit by the railway he clocks me straight away and stops dead in his tracks. I risk raising my arms to draw my binoculars towards my face and still he doesn’t move. He stares down the lens of my bins no longer a red blotch in a blue-green distance but imprinted on my very retina. Every detail, the blending of black hair to red at the foot of his legs, the Gibson Les Paul sunburst colours of his coat, the contour lines of his snout, his cheeks, his brow. His eyes. Those golden eyes.
Suddenly, as if to the clap of a starting pistol he sprints and doesn’t stop, passing the entire width of the field in front of me. Ahead of him the metal gate that leads to the grounds of the old farm-house where he pauses and scrambles underneath. Once on the other side he stops, turns and looks back at me, checking my position. Those eyes catch mine again and a seconds moment seems minutes. Then he ducks down, beyond the field ridge and out of sight. Pure Magic.
The Moral of this story: Expect the unexpected. Don’t be put off by weather conditions or pre-conception. Nature doesn’t play by our rules.