The view from my study during these polar days  has been like an illustration from a Victorian book of moral parables. The magnificence of the frost suggests the beauty inherent in all of Creation, but there’s an undercurrent of unease, a dark lurking, as if to remind us of the sin of complacency. Just yards from the window is a pond, dug 400 years ago to provide the mud for building the house. For the first time its glassy surface is thick enough to skate on – if one ignored the ominous bubbles trapped in the ice. Behind it is a bird feeder we made from scrap metal in the form of a giant hogweed, where hunger is teaching birds like wrens and dunnocks to cling to nut bags, something unthinkable a decade ago. Our trees have gone beyond the delicate lacework of hoar-frost. They are like extravagant confections in spun-sugar, and redwings and fieldfares, thrushes which optimistically migrate to us from Scandinavia for warmth and food, perch briefly on their tops like brittle ornaments. And beyond them, just out of sight, is a tumbledown farm building, where for three previous years a barn owl spent the winter. Its enchanting and strangely companionable driftings about the hedgebanks and fields I know so well, changed the way I cope with winter and how I view our puzzling relationship with non-human beings.
So perhaps I should add that this prospect (to complete the Victorian motif) is viewed from a cosy room, with a lamp in the window – except that this isn’t some romantic lantern, but an Artificial Daylight lamp, to help me manage the winter blues. I don’t suffer from full-blown SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) but I don’t cope well with winter. It makes me anxious and claustrophobic, reminds me of parental illnesses, of a pre-central heating childhood when water often had to be collected in buckets from communal standpipes. Dazzling frostwork, beneath the surface, is as deadly as the interior of a firework. And the ambiguities of the view remind me, most painfully, of the great freeze-ups of the 1980s: dead wrens lying in the porch, mistakenly believing that light meant warmth; the afternoon when a violent blizzard blew thousands of those spun-sugar redwings onto the Norfolk coast, and they lay dying in the snow, russet underwings slowly blackening as their last shreds of body-warmth melted the snow into tiny grave-spaces.
I moved permanently to Norfolk eight years ago, after that predisposition to winter gloominess turned for a while into clinical depression, and I needed to start my life anew. One thing I longed for was to have barn owls as my companions again, as they had been when I was young. The memory of them beating past the poplar trees in the early spring – burnished golden wings against lime-green leaves in evening light – is one of few visual images of childhood I can recall with absolute clarity.
There were fewer and fewer to see over the next few decades. Poisoned by agricultural chemicals, flattened by cars, the rough pastures where they hunted voles ploughed up, their UK population dropped from about 30,000 pairs to no more than 5000 by the beginning of this century. Even now, recovering as they are, they’re no longer part of our everyday experience. The pale shawl floating across the hedge, caught in the car headlights, a startling glimpse of that heart-shaped face as the bird turns towards you on a post, are now local privileges, not part of ordinary parish experience. When I arrived in Norfolk, the species’ heartland, I didn’t see one for a year.
I was eventually tipped off by a friend, whose window cleaner reckoned he saw a white owl most evenings when he took the dog for a walk in a little valley at Botesdale, some three miles west of where I live. I knew the spot. Tucked under the village street, a tongue of rough grassland about a mile long edged both banks of a thin stream. There were patches of rush-studded swamp, solitary willows, half-hearted attempts at starting small plantations. I went there on a cloudless afternoon in early March, and settled down close to the stream by one of the willows. I sat stock still for an hour, becoming frozen and increasingly despondent. I watched a woodcock probing in the water, the stripes on its back wavering like the eddies on the surface of the water. Then, just before dusk, the owl materialised, simply rose up from the grass in front of me, as soft and buoyant as thistledown. It was flying against the western sky, and the last light shone through its wings, marking out the dense primary feathers from the almost translucent wing edges. For a moment it seemed to have four wings, two in the day and two in the dusk.
I was transfixed and went back home with a head full of images like this. I was writing about my move to East Anglia from the Chilterns at the time, and the encounter with the Botesdale owl went down immediately in extravagant phrases. “It took off, its head like a quite separate creature riding shotgun out front”. “It passed through the young saplings in the plantation, quickening its wing beats to negotiate the gaps. It was winnowing the grass, threshing it for food.” I was rather pleased with my poetic metaphors, and it was only when I first read this passage out in public that I realised its utter stupidity. Any owl that bashed the grass like a thresher would rapidly condemn itself to starvation. Their hunting success and therefore their survival is predicated on stealth and silence. I’d masked the real bird behind a veil of superficial word-painting.
A few months later the owner of the house I’d lodged in on my arrival in Norfolk told me she thought she had an owl roosting in her barn. I went to look and found the floor scattered with the pellets in which owls throw up the furry and bony debris of their prey. They looked as if they were coated in shellac, prepared for exhibition. I wished it had been around when I was living there. But some instinct nudged me, a sense that I knew exactly where it would hunt. The River Waveney runs close to the barn, through alderwoods and wet meadows and slaloms of scrubby dykes. That evening I went to the meadow nearest the road, the one most complicated with tree perches and bits of ditch, quite certain I would see the bird. It was perched on a hawthorn bush fifty yards away, looking directly towards me. When it flew out against the dry reeds at a dyke edge, it showed off a back and wings striped in resplendent ginger. That moment, forgive me, I nicknamed it Orlando, after the marmalade cat in Kathleen Hale’s children’s stories.
I watched Orlando all that winter. He (the name rather forced me into assuming it was a he) was an obliging bird, and a strict timekeeper. He kept to the same suite of meadows where I had first seen him, arrived there from the direction of the barn just after sunset and would fly close to me, as I stood in pilgrim reverence by the riverside. I began, dangerously, to believe I was becoming wise in the ways of owls. Then in mid-January something odd happened. I’d planned an afternoon stroll from our house on a clockwise route that passed between arable fields and medieval bank and ditch systems, and then turned for home amid a cluster of rough horse fields. A couple of hundred yards out I saw a white shape billow from a derelict farm building. It was a different barn owl, much paler than Orlando, and for the next hour I had the eerie experience of following it, fifty paces behind, as it wafted along the exact route I had mapped out before leaving the house. I felt absurdly empowered, as if I had not just predicted the owl’s flight path but was conjuring it on its way. Still recklessly sentimental, I assumed its creamy pallor meant it was a female, and dubbed it Angelica, after the princess that Orlando pursues in medieval romances.
For what remained of the winter I followed both owls obsessively, worrying about them in bad weather, and about what might have happened when they vanished for days on end. Most of all I wondered if they would get together, and one afternoon I did a mad dash in my car to see how far apart they were, and if I could glimpse them both in the time it took to do the drive. (It was a mile and a quarter. As I was starting out, I found myself gazing into the cab of a parked HGV, whose driver was also tracking Angelica. We exchanged knowing waves.)
The two birds had different personalities. Orlando was a sentinel, fond of perching in trees and peering for prey. Angelica was a stalker, a haunter of ditches and hedge bottoms. I once watched her fly down into a favourite meadow and lie (not perch) on the ground among a group of hares, all seeming to be comfortable with each other’s presence.
Orlando met a miserable death that spring. I found his mangled but unmistakable ginger body by the side of the fatefully named A1066, only a few hundred yards from the meadows where I’d watched him all winter. It was after that upsetting discovery that I learned, from colleagues who knew a lot more about barn owls than I did, that dark plumaged owls are more often female, and pale birds male. I’d got their sexes the wrong way round, a deserved rebuke for my sentimental namings. But the bird I’d dubbed Angelica returned in the autumn to the tumbledown roost where I’d first discovered it. I was watching one evening when it was driven into an oak tree by a group of tetchy crows. I crept up to the tree and leaned against the trunk. A few seconds later the owl flew slowly out across the field, but then veered back towards the tree, turned its head and stared straight at me before flying on. It seemed a gaze of curiosity, or annoyance maybe, about this creature that had been stalking its fields for nearly a year, but in truth I had no idea what it was seeing or feeling. The huge, jet-black, front-mounted orbs of barn owls mean that you can make eye-contact with them, but your gaze dissolves in the dark void. It is impossible to say if they are looking at your face or your feet, or that maybe even at a few yards distance they can take in your whole frame. I cannot say if this bird saw me as any different from other humans it had spotted, but that was unimportant. I realised something else then. I was beginning to see these owls as my neighbours. It was a revelation, not just for the melancholic in me, but for the writer. For much of my working life I have been trying to find way of talking about other organisms that neither reduces them to mechanical objects nor turns them into sentimentalised versions of ourselves. Neighbours are fellow creatures, but independent souls. You share their territory ( their parish) and often their fortunes, but you can care about them in full knowledge they may not even recognise you.
From then on I began to try to engineer encounters with barn owls across East Anglia. In winter I went out an hour or two before sunset. I love the dusk and find, maybe as a recovered depressive, something uplifting about the teeming life of imminent darkness. For a while I became an obsessive owl-prospector, poring over local maps for hints of the rough pastures and riverside grasslands that the birds haunt, and then allowing whatever I’ve intuited from their habits to guide me more precisely to where they might be flying. I struck lucky about once every two trips, which further boosted my sense of cockiness in being a dowser. I found them in the grassy corners of elegant landscape parks and in overgrown commons. Once I saw an owl hunting for mice inside an open barn. But it soon dawned on me that I wasn’t being especially clever. These are the places where barn owls should be, and in an owl-rich region like East Anglia, finding one every two trips was pretty average.
I once talked over my habit with a radio producer while we were recording a programme on barn owls, and he told me his own preferred owl-watching style. His favourite birds were those chanced on by accident, glimpsed in the corners of fields, surprised on perches, wavering across remote lanes. These birds affirmed to him something about the owl’s adventurousness and refusal to live according to our expectations. I felt mildly chastened. If I was honest with myself, I’d glimpsed more owls unexpectedly like this than I had on all my carefully planned prospecting. Owls on improbable roadside perches: one on a Men at Work sign; another on trellis work at the edge of an allotment; a small and respectful traffic jam as a sunset-lit bird gazed from the top of a village signpost during the afternoon school run. Many of these casual encounters happen at dusk or even in the dead of night. You begin to develop pattern recognition for odd protrusions on wayside branches or a sense of choppy pallor behind a hedge. But it’s never reliable. At a distance in the dark I’ve misidentified a tree-climbing white cat, a discarded trainer and most often the white gash of a freshly-broken branch stub.
I’ve tried to work out what holds me in thrall to these birds. I don’t watch them like an inquisitive naturalist, hoping to learn more about their tastes in prey or the survival chances of their young. I once watched a brood of nestlings being professionally ringed and was overwhelmed with anxiety for them as they were loaded into small sacks for ferrying to the ringing table. Nor is it entirely their soft, ethereal beauty, though this is indisputable, especially with the palest birds seen on the cusp of darkness. Their flight is eloquent and buoyant. Gilbert White remarked that “they seem to want ballast”. Yet much of the time they scarcely seem like creatures of the air. A high-flying owl (and I’ve seen a couple) looks ridiculous, like an escaped child’s balloon. Low-flying birds (and I’ve glimpsed them hawking in ditches below ground level) are more like emanations of the earth, will o’the wisps. Their nonchalant flight-paths, their pounces and sudden swerve-backs make no sense to our minds. I watch single birds quarter a patch of grass endlessly and fail to spot any orderly pattern in their progress. The same track is repeatedly beaten backwards and forwards, until the bird veers off, leaving acres of seemingly similar vegetation unsearched.
What I think fixes them in my heart is the powerful presence they generate, the sense of exactly belonging to the places where you find them. I’ve found they open up to me a countryside I barely knew existed: unnoticed weed strips between furrows, florid waste patches which have escaped the scorched-earth policies of agribusiness, grassy glades in stackyards. This is the owls’ own parish, an echo of an older landscape which exists inside the matrix of our own.
It is a hard-won belonging. There are years and seasons when they become scarce visions. Their breeding success depends partly on the density of voles, their favourite prey. Vole populations vary on a roughly four-year cycle, and in the year that follows the vole low point barn owl numbers can also crash. Then again when food is plentiful, they may abandon the more vulnerable and competitive environment of dusk and vanish into the obscurity of full darkness. They don’t like flying in rain, and can’t hunt easily in snow or high wind. In this merciless winter they have suffered badly, and emaciated corpses are being found all over the region. I come back from fruitless searchings with what my partner Polly calls Irritable Owl Syndrome. But they’re ancient British denizens, and have evolved ways of responding to our capricious climate.
So I go out on my ritual just a few days before Christmas, determined not to be pessimistic. I’ve come to a patch of marshland in a loop of the River Waveney. The temperature is hovering just above zero. The whole landscape is fading to pearl-grey, and grass and icy wallows are indistinguishable. I trudge along ditches of reedgrass blackened by the frost, peer through the opalescent air at tussock glades. I see flashes of white, but they’re sleeping farmyard ducks and tumps of unthawed snow. I give up, and am just climbing the fence to the car, when a woodcock rockets out of a ditch beside the fence. I follow it through my binoculars into a wood the other side of the marsh, and glimpse an amorphous lump of white deep in the tree. It is so still and featureless I assume it’s a windblown plastic bag, a common phantom in the lives of barn-owl seekers. But I felt I should make sure and walk down the lane towards it. Twenty yards away it is still a shapeless bag. Then, as I draw level, it tilts slightly forward. A small bow, whose message to me is quite clear: “I’m still here, thank you neighbour, but my existence is not dependent on your observation of me.” Then it spreads its white wings, astonishingly wide for such a hunched creature, drifts off through the black fretwork of the alder trees, and vanishes into an indecipherable tangle of swamp-patch and river-edge, its own winter retreat.
RICHARD MABEY is the author of more than 30 books, including The Unofficial Countryside (1973), Nature Cure (2005) and, most recently, The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the Imagination (2015). He lives in Norfolk.
Illustrations by Miriam Cocker.
This piece is the first in a series of essays and interviews commissioned and sponsored by the ‘Land Lines: Modern British Nature Writing, 1789-2014′ project, which is researching the history of nature writing in the UK. The project is a collaboration between the Universities of Leeds, Sussex and St Andrews, and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’.