A wander at Holywell tonight produced one of the greatest wildlife experiences I've ever had, it felt like I almost entirely became part of my surroundings, and the ecosystem within it, connecting with the natural world on a whole new level. I've felt this feeling before, the feeling you get when your smell, shape, and sound all merge into the land, and the wildlife that roams it excepts you as an everyday part, no longer a threat, no longer something to be feared, and no longer something to avoid. This is what I strive for.
As regular readers might have realised, I have an affinity for Short-Eared Owls, and Holywell has had a recent influx of birds which have been showing well for over a week now.
Tonight as I wandered down to the Pond a single bird hunted the recently bailed field and the hedge line which surrounds it, a recognisably pale bird which has hunted this area since it arrived, presumably a male due to the paleness of the face. The pond itself was quiet, no Shorties hunting the meadows, and only a handful of Teal at the public shore. It wasn't long before I moved on, heading for the Cattle field.
The Cattle field is just over the Waggonway, this is where the bulk of the SEO action has been taking place, a favoured hunting ground, up to 4 Owls have been seen hunting the rough grass. Over the past week I've found the best time to visit is from 18:00 with activity dying off by 19:00. I'd arrive later than usual tonight, not reaching the fields until 19:30 ish. A single Owl could be seen hunting the edge closest to the Waggonway as I followed the footpath, although it had vanished by the time I had reached the red gate.
I continued to follow the footpath, scanning back I picked up a dark Owl sitting on a fence post. This bird had regularly gave good views earlier last week from the public hide, coming extremely close on occasions. As turned around a second paler bird was hunting further up, towards the top of the field. I slowly made some ground between myself and the Owl before it began to bank round, and fly straight towards me, still quartering the land. As it reached the 30-40 metre mark I dropped down and lay on the track, with my back against a gorse bush. Quartering the ground it dropped once or twice, unsuccessful in its dive, before landing on a nearby straining post.
From my low position I had brilliant binocular views of the bird sitting on the post, constantly turning its head, occasionally 'locking on' to something in the grass for a brief second, before becoming distracted once again. I sat for some time watching this beautiful bird, its bright yellow-orange eyes seemed extremely prominent against its pale plumage, and the darkening skies. It had not noticed my presence.
Looking ahead I marked an approach mentally, the lie of the land would allow me to get closer, but firstly I needed to make my way to the opposite side of the track. A check through the binoculars showed that the Owl was still unaware and I began to move, gently side ways, before stopping to see the Owls reactions. I couldn't believe what I seen, the Owl had seen those first movements, but instead of showing the stretched out, aware of my presence posture, it had locked on, frantically moving its head up and down, fixing its eyes on my position.
It took flight, I could feel the adrenaline pumping, my heart began to pound. The striking amber eyes were heading straight towards me, heading low but fast along the track. Time slowed and I realised the Owl was actually heading for me! Its eyes not leaving my position for a second. I lay solid, kept my binoculars just off my eyes and waited as the Owl gained ground.
Before I knew it the Owl was above me, hovering, less than a metre above my head. It banked round and began to head back, I let out a little squeak with my lips and it locked on and began to hover again, then flew round and hovered once more, before returning to the post it had originally left. My heart was racing, the best encounter I've ever had with a Short-Eared Owl, this was more than a close view, I was being hunted, for that brief moment I had some feeling of what it is to be a Short-Tailed Vole.
I sat in shock and wonderment, watching the Owl again on its post for sometime before I began my original idea of an approach. Sliding on my belly the 30-40 metres, I made my way slowly to the Owl on its perch, keeping within the tracks and the rough grass, breaking my outline and movement, constantly accessing the Owls behaviour. Not once did it see me, continuing to scan the field from its perch. Reaching the spot I had planned to stop, behind a large thistle clump, not more than 4-5 metres away I gently took off my binoculars and reached for my iPhone. Binoculars were no longer needed as I could see the body language of the owl with the naked eye.
The squeak was tried again, and I could see the Owl was interested, moving my body a little it again took flight ! This time it was above me in seconds, managing to capture a tiny amount of footage. It returned to its perch briefly before immediately returning hovering over me once, before heading off down the field quartering as it went. I had survived !
An encounter I'll never forget.