Owl hunt

The lat­est book from Miriam Dar­ling­ton sees the na­ture writer at­tempt to track down all 13 species of owl in Europe

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - She talks to John Miles

Au­thor Miriam Dar­ling­ton on her lat­est book

Ileft Cum­bria shrouded in a cold fog, and made my way to Hexham, via the Mil­i­tary Road par­al­lel with Hadrian’s Wall and the great bird­ing site of Grindon Lough. Star bird there was a sum­mer plumaged Long-billed Dow­itcher with a sup­port­ing cast of sev­eral waders, such as Whim­brel, Dun­lin, Red­shank, Oys­ter­catcher and Lap­wing. But the real star was Miriam Dar­ling­ton, who was giv­ing a lec­ture at the Hexham Book Fes­ti­val about her new book, Owl Sense. She was joined on stage there by Joe Shute, read­ing from his book on Ravens, A Shadow Above, and com­pere Adrian Pitches from BBC Look North. After the book sign­ing, I took Miriam on a 10-minute walk to the River Tyne to see her first Sal­mon leap­ing. She had missed them be­fore on her lo­cal river, the Dart in Devon; but here, the Tyne is now Bri­tain’s best Sal­mon river. In­cred­i­ble when you con­sider that like so many Bri­tish rivers, it was once so pol­luted that Sal­mon didn’t even en­ter its tidal reaches. Miriam’s last book was Ot­ter Coun­try, so why a book on owls next? She wants to en­cour­age peo­ple to con­nect with wildlife, she said, and owls re­ally af­fect peo­ple, adding: They are easily an­thro­po­mor­phised be­cause of their two-legged, up­right stance, their rounded, tubby shape, flat faces and big round eyes. They ap­pear to be so ap­peal­ing. But with the steady rap­to­rial gaze, the ap­par­ently mag­i­cal abil­ity to

see in the dark, the ex­tra­or­di­nary hear­ing, other-worldly cries and silent flight, they ap­pear un­set­tling, as well. “They have been fa­mil­iarised in chil­dren’s sto­ries: Old Brown in Beatrix Pot­ter, the (dyslexic) Wol in AA Milne’s books, and the won­der­ful mes­sen­ger Hed­wig in JK Rowl­ing’s Harry Pot­ter. But they also play a darker sym­bolic role in many of the world’s myths and le­gends. ‘The fa­tal bell­man’ in Shake­speare’s most brood­ing, mur­der­ous and dis­turb­ing of plays, Mac­beth, is just one ex­am­ple. One of the para­doxes in the cul­tural his­tory of owls is how they can be the prover­bial ‘wise owl’ em­blem in­vented for the an­cient Greek God­dess of wis­dom Athena, and also be the dread por­tent of death and dis­as­ter!”

Su­perb preda­tors

Miriam added: “For me, it is their remarkable bi­o­log­i­cal adap­ta­tions that are so spe­cial – they’re nei­ther wise nor omi­nous, but they are su­perb preda­tory equip­ment. The Great Grey Owl has a

huge radar-like fa­cial disc to fun­nel the faintest sound, and it can hear ro­dents un­der snow from 150ft away; a Tawny Owl has an ex­cep­tional spa­tial me­mory to en­able it to nav­i­gate through fa­mil­iar wood­lands in al­most pitch dark­ness; their eyes are so large that they have to be fixed in the eye-sock­ets. “Owls can­not swivel their eyes but com­pen­sate by ro­tat­ing their heads up to 270°. Their flight feath­ers have ‘fim­briae’ – comb-like si­lencers at the for­ward edge to muf­fle their flight, and science has at­tempted to mimic this when cre­at­ing qui­etened blades for wind tur­bines and stream­lined si­lencers for stealth jet planes. “They also, fas­ci­nat­ingly, have a re­versible toe that gives them a prodi­gious grasp – zy­go­dactyl talons. All this pre­ci­sion is as­ton­ish­ing. So, this book sought to en­counter the owls in the

Their flight feath­ers have comb-like si­lencers at the for­ward edge to muf­fle their flight, and science has at­tempted to mimic this... for wind tur­bines and stream­lined si­lencers for stealth jet planes

He died when I was about 12. His house and gar­dens were an Aladdin’s cave for me and I feel very lucky to have seen it all

wild, to know them bet­ter. I wanted to find as many as pos­si­ble of the 13-owl species in Bri­tain and Europe, in their nat­u­ral sur­round­ings, rather than through the prism of our hu­man imag­in­ings, and learn more about their ac­tual lives and how they sur­vive in a busy, ever-en­croach­ing, hu­man world.” At this point I should point out that Miriam is a lec­turer in English and Creative Writ­ing at Ply­mouth Univer­sity, liv­ing in Totnes. She loves teach­ing, es­pe­cially to PHD stu­dents, as it is one to one. She’d al­ready gained a BA Hons in Mod­ern Lan­guages and after that pro­ceeded to study for an MA in Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture at the Roe­hamp­ton In­sti­tute. She later gained a PGCE and taught English and French in sec­ondary schools for 12 years. In 2008, her first po­etry col­lec­tion, Wind­fall, was pub­lished by Over­steps Books, and in 2009 she be­gan a Creative and Crit­i­cal PHD at Ex­eter Univer­sity. She can also be found in The Times, as a con­trib­u­tor to Na­ture Notes. Five of those teach­ing years were on the Isles of Scilly, some­thing to make many a birder (and me!) jeal­ous. Miriam learned a huge amount about seabirds and mi­gra­tion liv­ing there with her teacher hus­band Rick and son Benji, as well as giv­ing birth to her sec­ond child, Jenny. Miriam’s grand­fa­ther, Cyril Dean Dar­ling­ton FRS, was an English bi­ol­o­gist, ge­neti­cist and eu­geni­cist, who dis­cov­ered the me­chan­ics of chro­mo­so­mal cross­over, its role in in­her­i­tance, and there­fore its im­por­tance to evo­lu­tion. He was a huge in­flu­ence on her. Ev­ery sum­mer the fam­ily would go to stay with him in his Ox­ford home, and be­fore they were even al­lowed in his house they would have a botan­i­cal tour of his gar­den. They would find snake skins and look at the bird and in­sect life (his gar­dens bor­dered on to woods). Once in­side the house, they would be shown the col­lec­tions of fos­sils and hu­man arte­facts, and of course, the books. Miriam never felt any aca­demic pres­sure to do well. Quite the re­verse – be­ing a girl, she was un­der­es­ti­mated! “I don’t know if he knew how much in­spi­ra­tion and im­pe­tus he was pro­vid­ing, but it has never left me”, she said. “He died when I was about 12. His house and gar­dens were an Aladdin’s cave for me and I feel very lucky to have seen it all.” Miriam’s grand­mother took them out to look for wildlife away from the gar­den. She was a sci­en­tist as well, hav­ing stud­ied Botany and Zool­ogy. She was left by him to bring up a fam­ily of five chil­dren, so didn’t achieve what he did. She used to visit them and would

en­cour­age them to pay at­ten­tion to ev­ery de­tail of what was around them. “It was per­haps more her in­flu­ence as well that was im­por­tant to me,” said Miriam. “I was closer to her (Cyril Dar­ling­ton was quite dis­tant) and later in life, I saw how she had never had the op­por­tu­nity he had, and it made me de­ter­mined to write.” Owl Sense gave Miriam the chance to travel to sev­eral coun­tries in search of owls, but her favourite place to visit is Ex­tremadura in Spain. “This is truly a bird­watch­ers’ par­adise, specif­i­cally the Mon­frague Bio­sphere Re­serve and its sur­round­ing area; the Cork and Holm Oak forests are a won­der to be­hold, un­spoiled and re­sound­ing with bird sound. The world’s largest pop­u­la­tion of Black Vul­tures lives there.” Miriam does not have a favourite bird, but per­haps one is the Lap­wing, and its pop­u­la­tion de­cline pains her. “I hope and pray we can seize the op­por­tu­nity to be­gin pro­tect­ing their habi­tat more ro­bustly. With­out this com­mit­ment, many of th­ese won­der­ful species will dis­ap­pear.” Po­etry is a big part of Miriam’s life, with her book Wind­fall and the po­ems at the start of each chap­ter in her fol­low­ing books. She wants to en­cour­age our read­ers to pick up a pen and just be­gin scrib­bling, free­hand, no rules. Back to the river, and even with low wa­ter lev­els the weir at Hexham was not just pro­duc­ing jump­ing Sal­mon, but also sev­eral birds. A pair of Her­ring Gulls were wait­ing for any small fish jump­ing one of the lad­ders, while a Grey Heron flew in to try its luck. Miriam spot­ted a pair of Dip­pers div­ing off con­crete into what looked deep and fast wa­ter. A Com­mon Sand­piper was feed­ing along one of the gravel is­lands, but Miriam had her eyes on the wa­ter want­ing one of those big fish to leap, and so they did, even in May! A group of girls came down to sit close to the weir check­ing their phones in case of a text, which brought up the ques­tion of how to get young­sters into birds and na­ture. “Just take them out and al­low them to muck about, get muddy, have ad­ven­tures, look at things, and learn to name the birds and plants, recog­nise them. We can’t re­ally re­spect and cher­ish what we don’t have a word for. Chil­dren should be al­lowed to col­lect things, or draw them. Robert Mac­far­lane’s book The Lost Words with the artist Jackie Mor­ris en­cap­su­lates that, for me.”

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Ea­gle Owl The largest Euro­pean owl, wide­spread on the Con­ti­nent, with a few in the UK. Most are es­caped fal­con­ers’ birds, but some may be gen­uinely wild

An oc­ca­sional vis­i­tor from the far north to the UK, its white plumage makes it un­mis­tak­able Snowy Owl

More of­ten heard than seen, as it is noc­tur­nal – ‘kewick’ call an­swered by hoot­ing adds up to the tra­di­tional ‘tu-whit, tu-whooo’ Tawny Owl

Great Grey Owl A species of the far north-east of Europe, with a dis­tinc­tively large fa­cial ‘disc’

Can ap­pear all-white, when glimpsed hunt­ing along road verges with its buoy­ant flight Barn Owl

So-called be­cause of its barred chest and rather pointed wings – found in north-east Europe Hawk Owl

Found in eastern Europe, this large, pale owl will fiercely at­tack hu­mans who ap­proach its nest Ural Owl

Noc­tur­nal, and a wood­land dweller, but eas­ier to see at win­ter roosts Long-eared Owl

Star­ling-sized, this is found in the forests of eastern and cen­tral Europe Teng­malm’s Owl

Small and noc­tur­nal, so usu­ally found be­cause of its repet­i­tive, whistling call Scops Owl

Hunts moor­land (or fens and marshes in win­ter) with a low, ‘quar­ter­ing’ flight Short-eared Owl

This tiny preda­tor of eastern and cen­tral Europe at­tacks birds larger than it­self Pygmy Owl

Of­ten basks in sunny spots in late af­ter­noon or evening, or perches on fen­ce­posts Lit­tle Owl

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