I am standing in a field, the grass and rushes at my feet form uneven tussocks but a narrow trail is worn through them ahead of me. This is a wild field; rough and surrounded by hedgerows, clumps of young willow and hawthorn sprout randomly across it and water-filled ditches bisect the path ahead. I gaze south to the black mass of chalk which dominates this otherwise flat landscape, that mass is the Downs and they are cast into inky shadow by the sinking sun which will at any moment be lost behind them. The last light of the day is being thrown out across the heavens – at first a fiery orange, it cools into peachy shades then pale, watery blue before it freezes into a deep midnight azure directly overhead. Diaphanous cobwebs of Cirrostratus cloud are draped around the edges of the dome of the sky, in the fading sunlight they glow a warm white like the centre of a candle flame.
As I walk on towards the river that I cannot yet see, a Snipe whizzes overhead on sharp, flicking wings with its bill held out before it like a spear – then another and another, darting this way and that across the autumn sky. Something of the deepest, jewel-like blue is hovering perfectly over a wide ditch of water – I notice a spot of white and a belly of orange and I know it is a Kingfisher. Small flocks of duck fly in V-formation at regular intervals over the floodplain, most of them heading to the small, open lake in the next field to roost.
I walk up onto the earth-wall that traps the river in its place, before me is the Arun; wide and wild and ancient, its banks thick with reeds, weeping willows and long grass – a few Water Rails squeal their ugly note out from the shore. Away ahead of me I notice a flash of white in amongst the willow scrub, through my binoculars I see it again for the briefest second, just long enough to know it was an owl. Of the few species it could be I hope against hope that it is the one I long to see – the Barn Owl.
I rush on along the bank to get closer, for ten long minutes I stand there looking into the close group of bushes that form a copse in the middle of the field, but nothing appears. Then as I am about to move on a pale bird comes into view, flying close to the ground on long, broad wings, there can be no mistake – it is a Barn Owl. For the next few minutes I watch with mouth hanging open as the owl swoops in and out of view through the willows, occasionally pouncing into grass but coming up with nothing.
For a moment I lose it, then it comes out of the trees and flies straight at me over the field, I can see its dark eyes set into the over-sized head shaped like a radar dish to pick up the merest rustle of a rodent in the grass. It turns and heads away over the open field toward the river, the light is now dim and golden and mist is beginning to form just above the surface of the earth. I watch the owl in profile; its flight is leisurely, the wings beat stiffly and are barely raised above the body – which is somewhat cone-shaped, as though all the wings and body were just there to support the great sonar-detecting head.
Despite appearing to fly lazily the owl was moving at quite a pace and it soon swooped over the earth-wall and across the river, it then did a perfect U-turn and headed right along the bank towards me, flying at about chest-height over the tall grass. With my face frozen in what I imagine was an expression of immense awe and joy, my mind was nearly exploding with disbelief and excitement as the Barn Owl flew past me no more than a few metres in front of my face and at head height, apparently oblivious to my presence. It was a beautiful, graceful bird the colour of double-cream underneath and a light butterscotch on top with flecks of darker brown, easily one of the most gorgeous birds in Britain. As this ghost-like, ethereal form went by I recall being quite struck by the fact that it was totally and utterly silent – not a swoosh of air was made audible by those wings.
Just as it passed me, without any prior change in direction or flight-pattern it performed a remarkable curve in the air, wings fluttering to brake and direct the body, then it plunged into the grass and disappeared. After a short while it came up again with a small brown object in its claws, it headed out across the river and finally settled in a distant ivy-covered tree to consume its meal. A large group of Starlings were trying to settle down for the night with some agitation in a dense patch of reeds on the far bank, talking to each other constantly and rising into the air every now and then with a chatter.
As I carried on walking along the river, now in gloom and with the whole landscape around me wreathed in a ground-hugging mist that settled in the hollows like water but flowed over the bushes and banks like a cloud, I could think of nothing else but the incredible experience I had just had with an animal I had only seen twice in my life. I was quite struck by the grace of the bird and how brightly it stood out from its surroundings – the opposite of camouflage really. Its wings were so long and rounded and beat the air so gently, it was in total mastery of its environment and fitted so perfectly with the beautiful rural landscape that I came to think that this place would be quite hollow and lacking without it. Neither Barn or Screech Owl are names befitting of such a wondrous creature, it really is unique in our fauna – it is quite distinct even from our other owl species.
I came away feeling that I had been close to something that was somehow more than just a bird, more than an animal. Barn Owls have such a deep and rich connection with our rural landscape, they crop up frequently in folklore and fairy-tales and appear in a lot of British art and literature. They are so very wild and lonely and special, yet they nest in our buildings and hay-lofts and still remain separate and mysterious – so very different from sparrows that do the same. I do not think I will ever forget that evening.