We’re having a heatwave. The doors of Bishops Sutton Village Hall are flung open to allow a welcome breeze to refresh a dozen women attempting to follow a lively Zumba routine. On such a beautiful evening the view over the meadow is enticing, but we’re here to get fit, not to gaze at the Hampshire countryside. Our ever-patient, instructor, Sue, has her back to us, making it easier to copy her steps as we attempt to master the choreography. It also means that she can’t always see what we’re up to! Halfway through another tricky Latin American number, several of our troupe make an unexpected lurch to the right, eyes no longer on Sue, but fixed on something outside. A barn owl!
It’s not unusual to see this beautiful bird at the edge of a village, and rough, open grassland bisected by a stream is perfect territory. Meadows offer a plentiful supply of voles which are the barn owl’s preferred food, but it will also make a meal of mice, small rats and birds. Widespread they may be, but it’s still a heart-warming moment to see one just metres away.
We drag ourselves back into line and carry on, catching up just as the song comes to an end. There’s no respite in which to indulge in another burst of bird-watching, so we launch into the next number, craning our necks to catch a glimpse through the village hall windows. The owl is unruffled; unperturbed by the music or by the proximity of humans. It sweeps past the open doors again, closer this time, powerful tawny-grey wings beating a far more graceful rhythm than that of most of our arms and legs. Its underparts are pristine, snowy white and that iconic, heart-shaped face is tilted ever so slightly in our direction. On the hunt for prey, it’s also keeping a soulful eye on us.
“Where are you going?”
We’ve made a dash for the doors to get a better look, leaving poor Sue, hands on hips, at the front of the class. But she’s quick to follow, and we crowd outside to watch as the owl ploughs leisurely circuits of the meadow. It flies with its white face toward the grass, making use not only of its phenomenal eyesight, but also of its superb hearing. The feathers on its disc-shaped face act like a satellite dish, catching sounds and directing them back to the owl’s large ear-holes. Even in the pitch dark, no vole is safe. And the barn owl’s flight is silent, thanks to fringed feathers which allow the wings to beat the air without a sound. When the bird flies towards us, those wings seem massive in comparison to its compact body. With the females having a broader wing-span than the males, up to 90cm, perhaps this is a female. Taloned feet are held low, like an aircraft with landing gear engaged, ready to drop on unsuspecting prey scuttling in the dense grass.
It’s only 8.30pm, and dusk is only just creeping over the sky, but the owl probably has young to feed and cannot wait. If food supplies are plentiful, it may well have a second brood by summer’s end. The nest is a rather minimalist affair, usually in a tree hollow or a convenient hole in an old building, but man-made nest boxes are also proving successful. In my own garden, I’ve heard the haunting shriek of a barn owl at night, and found tell-tale pellets of regurgitated food at the base of an old beech tree, but I’ve yet to see a barn owl in my own backyard.
Luckily for me, I’ve had a close-up view of this wonderful bird when I least expected it. Standing by the fence, we watch as across the meadow the owl dips suddenly, then takes to the air with a defenceless rodent in its grasp. Dinner is served.
Written by Claire Thurlow