John and I are standing next to the river Adur, close to the point where it breaks through the line of the South Downs. The river is tidal here, with embankments holding it to its sinuous shape, stopping the water from spreading over the flood-plain which surrounds us. The sun is minutes away from melting into the dark, wooded ridge of the downs, it hangs in an almost clear sky with only a few patches of isolated rosy clouds. Dense old hedgerows divide up the grassy fields on either side of the river, they are smothered in the heavy white blossom of the Blackthorn and tinged with the fresh pale green of Hawthorn leaves. Far to the west, rising up from the horizon, are three hot-air balloons making the most of the still, clear evening.
I grip John’s arm and point excitedly at the sky, a swiftly-moving shape composed mostly of sharp edges passes close above our heads, mirrored by a similar shape a little farther off. They are my first Swallows of the year, perhaps not making a summer but certainly making a spring.
The short, sharp one-note call of a bird directs my attention to the hedgerow closest to us. For a split second it looks as though someone has stuck a lemon in the top of a bush, but it is in fact a male Yellowhammer, joined not long after by his mate who perches with him in the dying rays of the sun. These attractive buntings are a quintessential feature of the British countryside, but are painfully lacking from much of it, it is a joy to see them in such a beautiful landscape.
As we stand on the embankment looking over the fields for our quarry I focus on the soundscape, specifically that created by the surrounding birds. Several Chiffchaffs are calling their names, sounding like squeaky swings, Robins and Blackbirds warble, a Stock Dove radiates out his throbbing call and every now and again a Cetti’s Warbler reveals his location with a typical explosion of high-pitched notes from deep within the hedge.
Then, quite unexpectedly, a large brown creature appears in the field as if from thin air. It has long, rounded wings with pale undersides that flap deep, slow flaps then stop in a glide. A streaky, cone-shaped body joins them together and at the front is a wide, round head with a flat face and big yellow eyes which scan the ground like headlights. It is a Short-eared Owl and not the species we were expecting this evening.
We have incredible views of this graceful but powerful bird as it hunts over the rough grass, occasionally diving with legs outstretched into the ground, but it is not successful. The length of the wings is striking, they have rounded tips and are quite wide, allowing for a slow, controlled flight with minimal effort and it glides with ease. We wonder whether this bird is a winter visitor from the continent, Scandinavia perhaps, or is a British breeder visiting Sussex from its home on the northern uplands.
The owl rises over the hedge and into the next field, it flushes a Buzzard from the ground and mobs it with low swoops, though this hardly seems necessary, the Buzzard is not up for a fight. The owl then perches in plain view atop a gate post further up the river, swiveling its huge head from side to side. The sun now merges with the high back of the downs, seemingly metres from the distinctive crown of trees that mark Chanctonbury ring.
The owl moves off, we head up the river and manage to get good views of it perched in the thick hedgerow, surrounded by Sloe blossom, its brown-streaked back merging with the branches. What must people have thought of these owls? Mysterious animals that appeared in winter from nowhere, floating over the misty marshes in the gloaming, vanishing into the trees as though they had been born from the woods themselves, then when life and warmth return they disappear once more, like winter itself.
A pale blue light still fills the sky, and is reflected in the gentle waters of the Adur, but shadows are growing and spreading across the fields and trees as though the night itself if reaching its cold hand out of the earth. We wander back along the river bank. At this dusk time human senses are enhanced, eyes widen to gather the light, a flash of moving, living white crosses my line of sight up ahead. Through my binoculars I can see, framed against the dark hedgerow, the ghostly form of a Barn Owl. I show John and together we watch this gorgeous creature, it flaps casually up onto a hanging branch, showing off its soft, pale wings. It pauses for a moment, balancing itself, then it hops up the branch, looks around it with those powerful black eyes and then it is lost into the hollow old tree.
Two species of owl, each meaning different things but each connected by a similar appearance and similar mythos. Owls seem to me to be as much a part of the landscape they inhabit as the trees or the rivers are, they seem so ancient yet are full of life and possess amazing hunting skill. Encounters such as this are few and far between, but treasured all the more for that, I love owls and every sighting of one thrills me to the core of my soul.