Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Owl Tree

One of the curiosities of recording TV programmes is the little time capsules of news that you catch at either end of the thing you want.  So it is that I have just watched a newsflash about Gatwick Airport being closed due to snow.   It caused me to reflect for a moment on Newton's Fourth Law, which states: the airtime given by BBC News to snow and ice dramas is directly proportional to the amount of snow that falls upon London and inversely proportional to that which falls upon Northumberland.

A few years ago now we were driving down a quiet road in North Northumberland when my daughter annouced that she had just seen two owls in a tree.  (By the way, there is a connnection to snow here if you stick with it).  As it was 11am on a bright hot sunny May day, I thought little owl, but my tyres were right when they screeched a passable barn owl impression on the tarmac.  We slowly reversed back up the hill to an old roadside ash to see four black eyes staring out of the hole in the bole.

We watched one fly out and disappear down the road.  That night we came back and sat nearby at dusk to listen to quiet hisses before a bird silently emerged and sat around in the branches until it became to dark to see it anymore.

Since then, each year I have gone back to the owl tree and enjoyed the sight and sound of these fabulous birds.  Last night, however, the owl tree was silent.  I was half expecting this, having heard from my mate who runs a barn owl nest box and ringing scheme on the northern edge of the nearby Cheviots that things were looking pretty bleak for barn owl numbers after the hard winter.  I fear 'my' birds have not survived either.

There has been a lot of press inches about the effect of prolonged snow cover on Barn Owl survival and given that their primary food source, voles, are inaccessible to a hunting owl in a snow covered landscape, this must be a significant factor.  As with most things though its more complicated than that.  The Barn Owl Trust has an interesting overview of winter survival here.

So with the gloom surrounding the Owl Tree this year it was all the more pleasing to have seen the owl at the top of the post fit and well on the Northumberland Wildlife Trust's Hauxley reserve.

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