After a depressing week of rain, cloud and generally messy weather, yesterday’s blue skies were a welcome change. Proper sunshine filled my office at home, and somehow the world didn’t seem quite so bad. It was also the day my friend Steve was coming over to put up the tawny owl nest box he’d made for my local owls.
Unfortunately the Scots Pine we chose for the box was in the middle of an enormous hedge of camelia and laurel, 15ft wide and the same height. Getting a ladder against the tree trunk was going to be tricky, to say the least. Eventually we battled our way right into the undergrowth and stood the ladder up inside the hedge, success – we hoped.
As Steve emerged from the jungle below he did an amazing job of dragging the box up the ladder and somehow (I’m still not quite sure how) wired the box to the tree single handedly, while I faffed around at the bottom of the ladder feeling (and, quite honestly, being) completely useless.
Now all we need are the tawny owls, who regularly hunt in the garden for voles and mice, to take a fancy to it. Personally I can’t see how they could resist such a des-res, although the jackdaws might take a fancy to it if the owls aren’t quick off the mark.
It was such a perfect evening I decided to walk across the valley to the jackdaw roost. I didn’t set off until 4pm, and as I walked down the hill into the valley, it felt as if I was off to roost as well. Jackdaws and rooks were flying in from all directions, slowly making their way to the pre-roost gathering site. There was no hurry, no rush, just slow determined wing flaps taking them to their meeting place. All roads led to the pre-roost.
Anyone walking nearby would instantly have known where the pre-roost was. The trees on the hill were like the hub of a wheel, with the straggly lines of flying birds as the spokes, arriving from all directions.
I had planned to watch the main roost site from my favourite vantage point, about a quarter mile further on at the top of a hill, but the noise at the pre-roost was building and I found myself rooted to the spot. Strangely mesmerised.
As the trees filled with the sound of jackdaws and rooks, I gradually started to make out individual families. Three, four or five birds following each other from tree branch to tree branch. Fights broke out, like any big gathering, as some birds chased each other; turning this way and that, trying to get away from their persistent pursuers. Had they landed on the wrong branch? Committed a grave corvid crime? It’s hard to tell, but punishment was swift and pretty violent. Pecks to the head and body if they were caught, and “sent to Coventry”. Loneliness must surely be the worse punishment for this gregarious bird?
Suddenly the general hubbub of the pre-roost changed as a ripple of calls moved from one tree to the next. As if as one, all five hundred birds lifted into the darkening sky. This time every bird was heading in the same direction, flying quite quietly, no more than a mile to the next valley where thousands more birds would already be waiting.
For a moment a strange silence fell on the wood, everything seemed to be breathing a huge sigh of relief at the exit of the jackdaws. Then the singing started. Beautiful singing, filling the darkness with eerie, echoing, woodland songs that wrapped themselves around the branches of the trees.
In the distance I could still hear the main jackdaw roost settling down for the night. A single mass sound, lifting and falling in volume as they made themselves comfortable.
Walking home the only sound came from the streams still trying to draw the water off the land after the rains. No birdsong, no foxes, no owls, just water.
Finally, walking up the hill towards civilisation, with street lamps glaring, the sound of cars and people spoiled the atmosphere. I’d been out for over two hours, on the edge of a busy urban village, and yet I realised hadn’t passed a single human being. I hope it stays like that, I’d selfishly like to keep this special time, when day turns to night, all to myself.
Tawny owl photo credit: johnmuk via photopin cc