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Dark Night, New Morning (Fenland Owls)

I’m heading deep into the Lincolnshire fens, and I can just make out the tail lights of Tom’s pick up through the dust as I follow him along a long and narrow fenland road. The fields around me seem to stretch for miles, and are crisscrossed by surprisingly lush margins and ditches with tall grasses gently swaying with the wind. There are alarmingly deep ditches on either side of the road, I mustn’t get too distracted. The buildings here have a dilapidated charm with some seeming to sink into the unbridled undergrowth. Despite being so intensively cultivated, the area seems wild and forgotten.

The road ends at some tumbledown farm buildings. It really is out in the sticks. I had been expecting a small wooded copse or a particularly gnarled oak, but I know little owls love a good barn just as much as their pale cousins do. So, I’m expecting a night in a barn, but the nest is a surprise. It is in fact a purpose build nest box on a platform of palettes at about waist height, with a knotted chunk of tree ingeniously attached to the entrance. It’s an illusion of wildness in the wild.

My home for the night is a raised scaffold platform covered with camouflaged tarpaulin. After going through a few camera and flash settings I’m left on my own, free to stay until midnight or dawn. It isn’t comfortable, and although it’s been hot during the day, I’m glad I bought along numerous extra layers, a flask of hot tea, and a blanket.

The light fades and the low sun against the warm red brick of the courtyard is sublime. My sphere of vision reduces to a bubble of a few metres courtesy of the soft light from the LED lights. All else is darkness and the sounds of the night begin to seep in.

A barn owl repeatedly coasts through the courtyard screeching loudly, doors rattle, undergrowth rustles, and a lone dog barks angrily in the distance. It’s somewhat unnerving and I find it difficult to stifle my imagination, which is going through all manner of possible ghostly companions. Yet the most alarming sound comes late into the night. It is the distant pop of firearms and the baying yelps of several dogs. They sound closer than I would like. I know that hare coursing is a huge problem in these remote fenland areas, and it’s easy to understand how such barbarity can happen unnoticed and go unpunished.

The little owlets are wonderful, hissing impatiently for food, and the adults seem to be on a conveyer belt of fast food deliveries. The photography settles my mind and I begin to enjoy the company of owls. They are quick at the nest, flying in, perching, squeezing through the entrance, then up they come and they’re off again. I soon learn that the adult perches on the rusting skeleton of a redundant piece of farm machinery before flying in, so I pick a spot, pre focus, and watch carefully. I have the camera on its slower repeated firing setting, and press the shutter as soon as the owl flies in the hope of catching an in-flight shot. I try different compositions, portrait, landscape, tight crops, and wider views, and the night goes by quickly.

Of course, there is a lull in proceedings, tiredness takes over and I consider heading back to the car to warm up. I feel my eyelids becoming heavy, my vision blurs and I drift off to sleep. The owls of course have other ideas and I’m woken by a flurry of wings, the hissing of owlets, and a scrabbling of talons on timber. And, I’m glad I decided to stick out the night because I’m treated to a few short glimpses of a disheveled and rather grumpy looking youngster clambering up to see outside of the nest. It seems to see me in my hide, and glowers at me disapprovingly.

I stay until dawn, the light floods back into the courtyard and the morning sun banishes the ghosts of the night. After one final hunting foray, the adult owl returns, disappears into its nest and is quiet. The jackdaws are the noisy neighbours now, with their own raucous youngsters to raise. It’s a wonder the little owls get any peace during the day.

I take my time driving along through the empty fenland. I see young hares lolloping along the roadside, gangly legged, it’s as if their feet are just a little too big, and their legs just a little too long. I’m treated to one last owl encounter. A beautiful barn owl quarters a wide grassy margin in the dawn sunlight, and I stop and stare for a while until it disappears into the brightness of a new morning.


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