Thursday, 6 May 2010

An hour in a ditch

The African safari experience is something I've never had. Quite apart from the fact that I couldn't even begin to afford it, I've always thought that there is an artificiality about game reserves where, once an animal is reported, a dozen vehicles packed with tourists sporting long lenses attached to the latest digital cameras turn up and surround it.

I prefer my wildlife encounters a bit more on the 'raw' side and the humble countryside surrounding my home can provide plenty of that. It's a darn sight cheaper than Africa too!

As part of the drive out to the Elmley reserve I use a road that passes along the edge of the Medway Estuary, mud flats and marsh to one side of the road and livery stables, orchards and fields on the other. I have often caught glimpses of barn owls hunting by the sides of this road. A couple of weeks ago, as I drove along my usual route, I saw the ghostly shape of a barn owl softly sliding along about six feet off the ground with the intense stare down into the grass that only comes when an owl is hunting. He passed by the car and switched direction to glide across the rough grass of the fallow field beyond the row of leafless polplars that act as a windbreak to the winds that sweep in off the estuary. I stopped the car in the next layby and quickly clambered out hoping to find a viewpoint between the trees where I could watch him quartering the field.

The wind was dragging the temperatures all the way back to November and the grey clouds darkened the sky, stopping the sun greeting the day with any touch of a warm spring welcome. I was well prepared though in layers of clothing culminating in an outer shell of army surplus camoflage. Even so the tips of my fingers instantly felt the temperature's bite and the cheeks of my exposed face became unresponsive and numb, something like the hours after a dental operation.

Just behind the line of poplars runs a ditch, it's not a wildlife filled streamlet with frogs and newts hiding amongst the lush green of well established water plants. At least not yet. Perhaps one day it may become so, but for now it is a recently dug, grey/brown gash in the ground with a foot or so of muddy, stinking water lurking unpleasantly in the bottom. It has a small bank beyond, where the detritus from the ditch has been unceremoniously dumped. I crouched and pushed my way through the poplars before kneeling down at the edge of the ditch where I had a view over the two adjacent fields only slightly obscured by the twigs of the trees to either side of me.

I could see the owl quartering the back of the field so I ignored the stinging of the nettles that I'd knelt on and the scratching of the thistle that had found its way between my calf and thigh. I trained my binoculars on the distant bird, clear against the slowly lightening, purple sky. His soft, rounded wings scooped up great gulps of the cold morning air and he floated on them like a giant moth. I watched and stayed stock still, kneeling in the mud and caring not one bit for the state of my trousers and boots. The owl had turned again and was working his way along the line of trees toward my hiding place. As he approached his features became clearer in the gloom and my heart beat faster until he passed within a metre or so taking my breath away with him. He followed the tree line again and vanished from view but I had a hunch that he would be back and five minutes later my hunch was proven correct when he reappeared at the top end of the field, once more along the treeline. I stayed in the ditch for just about an hour, my legs cramped and my face and knees froze. The stinging nettles continued to irritate but I knew that to move would be to risk breaking the spell and losing the moment. So there I stayed.

After a magic filled hour the owl dived down into the grass, swinging his legs forward at the last moment and he reappeared with prey in his talons. He made off in the direction of a group of farm buildings where I suspect he is nesting and at that point my knees could take no more and I decided that as my owl had finally been rewarded for all his efforts and the sky was at last light it was time for me to move on.

It's not glamorous or comfortable kneeling in a vile smelling ditch but the reward for me was an hour spent with a wild creature as he went about the everyday business of survival. I don't think that I would swap that glorious hour spent in the ditch for a moment of 'safari'. Time spent that way is far too precious.


Jo said...

What were the comments about the state of your clothes when you got home?

We have a safari park close by (MW worked there for a while) and we find it fascinating to see animals in a fairly natural habitat which we would never, otherwise, see.

Mike Woodcock said...

They're my 'outdoor' clothes so they're rarely clean anyway!

Chrissy said...

Lovely account, I was along side you in that smelly ditch, lol.I did smile at your thistles and stinging nettles too, the pesky things always seem to be where you least need them to be :-) I never seem to see owls and yet we have one locally, I listen to it most nights and sometimes early mornings. A wonderful array of sketches to accompany "a special hour".

Mike Woodcock said...

Thanks Chrissy. The good thing about owls is that they are creatures of habit, so once you find your owl you can pretty much rely on it to be back to the same spot on a regular basis.