A trip out, even to a familiar place, can never be entirely disappointing. Someone once said ‘If you would see something new, walk the same path every day’. I know what they meant. I visit the reserve at Elmley virtually every week, I travel there by virtually the same route every time and walk the same paths to the same hides every week too. But that doesn’t mean that the experience is the same every time, in fact no two trips are ever the same. The season, the weather, the light, the time of day the speed that I travel or the length of time I spend in any one spot, all these things make every trip unique.
Sometimes a trip is made special by seeing an unusual bird or animal, perhaps even one that I’ve never seen before. I see marsh harriers regularly on Elmley and on one occasion when I stopped to look at what I thought at first was a marsh harrier it turned out to be a passing osprey! I’d never seen a wild osprey up to that point and my heart certainly beat a little faster when I identified my first one flying overhead being pursued by a lapwing and a crow. In some places osprey are common birds, but not here, not on Elmley, and it was thrilling to me to be seeing such a special bird in such a familiar place.
Other times perhaps the sight of a bird that is returning to the reserve for the Winter or Summer or one that is passing through on passage, might pique my excitement. I always look forward to seeing my first swallow of Summer for example, or hearing the song of the first yellow wagtail of the year. Sometimes it’s the absence of something that’s an indicator of the change of season; The background noise of wigeon whistling is a constant during the Winter but at some time I will have a trip out where the absence of that sound means that most of the wigeon are gone and Spring is on the way. Wheatears are a favourite bird of mine and each year from mid-March I look out for the smartly plumaged Spring males as they pass through on their way to breed in Northern and Western Britain, and later in the year I look for the youngsters moving through on migration to sub-Saharan Africa.
Sometimes it’s not that a bird is new or unusual, it could be simply that a particular species is always a thrill to see, even if it is just a glimpse. Merlins always excite me, as do sparrowhawks and peregrines. Other birds are perhaps not so thrilling or dramatic but are simply beautiful to watch. Lapwings flying in a huge flock, flickering light and dark as they twist as one showing first belly then back.
Dramatic events and behaviours can materialise in front of your eyes, a helpless chick being taken by a heron or a gull for example. Or a peregrine chasing prey through the sky in a stoop from a height, or a merlin splitting a starling flock perhaps.
This Sunday it was a familiar bird that made the day special; A little owl. They are full of character, delightful and feisty and have always been one of my favourites. Last year I had a glimpse of a little owl as it vanished into the void between two big old chunks of concrete which are used as part of the sea defences down by the River Medway. I stopped to look but the owl didn’t re-emerge and I suspected that there may be a nest somewhere amongst the crevices. The following week I saw an adult owl perched on a signpost not far from the site and that pretty much cemented my belief that the nest was there in the sea wall. I drew up a painting with the little owl perched on the rubble because I liked the shapes angles and textures. I continued to see the owl(s) around the area but not often on the sea wall itself and by the Winter my sightings had dropped away.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed the owls around the wall again but conditions have been awful and I’ve not had the opportunity to stay and watch for any length of time. This week was different though, it was Father’s day so I felt it was okay to stay longer and the sun had at last managed to make itself known between scudding clouds. The owl was perched in his spot on the wall as I passed him on my way out to the reserve and I made a mental note to look for him on the way back when the light would be better. Sure enough after a fairly uneventful reserve visit my little owl was still in place on his perch. I stopped the car and set up my scope in the window, I felt that if I left the car then he’d probably fly off or disappear into the nest. Then I simply watched. He didn’t get up to much really, he just sat there enjoying the warmth of the sun when it appeared from between the increasing cloud. His attention was drawn by various things and he’d bob his head up and down a bit, preen a few feathers, scratch an itch or stretch a wing. At one point he scratched at his head and loostened a feather which got stuck upright so he looked like an Indian brave from a 1960’s movie. I could tell it was irritating him, especially when it caught the wind and blew down to hang in front of his face. Eventually he turned his head upside down and scratched furiously until the errant feather gave up the game and took flight with the wind.
Despite my position being a bit awkward I got the sketchpad out and sketched away happily, losing track of time. After half an hour or so he did begin to get a little more animated and hopped about from one point to another but it seemed that he’d always almost instantly settle back down and start to drop off for a snooze. One of the more endearing things about little owls is that they have eyelids like ours and it gives them a very human looking face.
I spent about an hour and a half with my owl until finally he was disturbed when a pair of cyclists, chatting loudly, came by and he jumped down into a crevice again. It was an intimate encounter, sharing time and watching him relaxing.
Little owl is not an unusual bird for me to see, they are common enough hereabouts, neither is it a particularly dramatic bird to watch, if it makes a kill it’s pretty likely to be a beetle or a worm! It’s not a great harbinger of the seasons, it’s small, unobtrusive and mostly brown.
But a bird doesn’t have to be special to be something special. There is beauty to be found in the everyday if only we take the time to see it.