In the far corner of Ruth’s orchard, there is an old shed where her late husband stored some of his work materials. It’s become a little run down and there is a large pane of glass missing from the door, but there is something appealing about this old shed in the orchard with long grass and cow parsley growing around it. Ruth’s son had asked about clearing it out, but Ruth had heard movement in there and suspected that a bird was nesting inside, possibly an owl. She asked me to check and find out.
Intruding on an owl, or any bird, during breeding season isn’t a good idea and I had some misgivings, but said I would check, very quickly, as it would be better than Ruth’s son entering without knowing if there really was an owl. Not without precautions, though, for as soon as she made the request, an image came to mind of a nesting box I’d photographed some years ago. It was a box for owls and on the front of it, in big red capital letters, was the stark warning ‘Goggles must be worn’, probably alluding to the experience of bird photographer Eric Hosking, who lost an eye after being attacked by an angry owl.
With the image of ‘Goggles must be worn’ flashing in my mind, I wondered how to approach the shed safely without becoming the target of an owl’s talons. I had on a thick waxed waistcoat and there was a pair of heavier gloves in my bag, but what of my head and face? Inspiration struck and I asked Ruth if she had a compost sieve. She did, so we brushed it off and it became my owl armour, held at an angle in front of my face and over the top of my head.
Thus protected, I crept towards the door with the missing window pane. At around 1.5m from the door, there was a whoosh and a large bird erupted through the window, flew over my head and sped towards some nearby conifers. It was a Tawny owl (Strix aluco) and its appearance during daylight hours set off alarm calls from every bird in the vicinity. I was expecting something like this, but the experience left me trembling and I returned a little unsteadily to where Ruth was waiting at the edge of the orchard. ‘You have a tawny owl’, I said. ‘Oh good’ she said, ‘Let’s stay away from it and keep it secret’. The location will remain unspoken and no one will be allowed near that shed until August, when the young ones will certainly have fledged and, left in peace, the owl should sort out the garden’s rabbit problem.