21 Oct 2011

I didn’t expect that today

Life has a way of occasionally presenting you with a variety of unexpected experiences – some very welcome, others not so much.

Often it’s those innocuous ordinary days that can turn up something quite different. Perhaps it’s their very ordinary-ness that makes the unexpected turn out all the more delightful.

Thus it was last Friday. We were away in the English Lake District in our favourite spot for a long weekend and because we’d decided to go away at the very last minute, we hadn’t really planned it very well. So we needed to spend our first morning doing some food shopping and headed off to an out of town shopping area with several adjacent supermarkets. One of the things on our list that we’d been unsuccessful with in the supermarket was bird food – there is a small bird table outside the caravan and we enjoy seeing the visiting birds, so we headed across the car park to a couple of more likely stores for supplies for our feathered neighbours.

Please click on any of the photographs for a larger view.

Elmo, a fabulously striking Bengali Owl

One of the stores was a large pet superstore and outside the main entrance was a chap with 4 owls on perches, talking to the public and collecting money and raising awareness for his owl rescue sanctuary; Wise Owl World based in Barrow in Furness. He does this on a regular basis to educate people about owls and give them a wonderful hands-on experience of these gorgeous raptors. All of the birds are rescues and have a variety of problems or injuries that would prevent them returning to the wild.

They looked well cared for and in good health and obviously experienced at this meeting the public set up and when put back onto their perches were chilled enough to start to fall asleep – he clearly circulated the birds that were handled so that they all got some peace between times.

The largest owl was Elmo, a Bengali Owl.

He gave me a leather gauntlet so that I could hold one and he handed me Sky, a gorgeous 12 year old barn owl. I didn’t hear the full story that he’d been telling someone else, but she’s obviously been rescued from the jaws of a large dog and was missing a portion of one wing. He described how he’d been called in when someone had found her and she was clearly badly hurt and he said that “we looked at each other quietly for a while and then I gently talked to her and told her how I was going to make her better and we gradually made friends.” The way he interacts with them, they clearly are all friends and they certainly trust him. The Tawny owl Cuddles even allowed him to part her feathers to show me inside her ear – I was totally unfamiliar with the structure of an owl ear before last Friday.

Cuddles – a Tawny Owl – who kindly let me look inside his ear.

I was surprised at how light Sky was, I’d held my arm slightly upwards as he placed her, expecting it to drop to level under her weight – but she was deceptively light. I stroked her gently and was very surprised to find that the bulk of the roundness of her head was predominantly fluffy feathers – her skull underneath the plumage is quite small, the fullness of her head largely consists of the downy soft feathers she uses to dampen any sound in flight and to help direct even the tiniest sound into her super-sensitive ears.

Sky, a 12 year old Barn Owl – deceptively light and incredibly fluffy

There were 4 owls with him, ranging in size, from the tiny 8″ tall Tropical Screech Owl (who don’t actually screech apparently, but he did chatter at things that annoyed him – like passing dogs and crows) called Olly, Sky the barn owl, Cuddles a Tawny Owl and the largest Bengali Owl called Elmo. I asked if I could take a few photographs and he said yes, which was such a joy to have the opportunity of getting so close. Unfortunately, they were outside the main entrance of a modern-built out of town superstore, which was plastered with signs, posters and a burglar alarm – so the background was somewhat unnatural and distracting, so I’ve largely framed in very tight on their faces.

The beautiful Barn Owl that I got to hold called Sky.

Cuddles was clearly distracted by something above him, he periodically looked skywards and turned his head around, as though being vigilant about some perceived threat from above – I asked if it was the car park crows that concerned him, but apparently, the burglar alarm box above them on the wall periodically emitted a high pitched sound that we humans couldn’t hear, but clearly Cuddles, with his super-efficient hearing (Tawny’s have the best hearing of our domestic owls, hence the ear-demo) could hear it and wasn’t sure what to make of it or quite where it was coming from.

Olly, a tiny Tropical Screech Owl – just as he was starting to be irritated by the nearby crows.

It was the tiny wee Olly that was troubled by the crows – at one point they noisily passed, gathering in a small murder on a roof-line nearby, squabbling noisily amongst themselves. Olly first narrowed one eye and looked in their direction with a disapproving eye, then as they continued making more fuss, his demeanour changed somewhat and he apparently took on what the chap referred to as his “angry face”. And by golly jingo was it one angry face. He drew his cheeks in and raised various feathers to take on his most fearsome “don’t mess with me” expression.

Olly wearing his ‘angry face’ – which despite his diminutive size, was quite intimidating.

I learned several things that morning – what an owl’s ear looks like, how light and fluffy a barn owl is, that you can tell a daylight owl from a nocturnal one from their eye colour; coloured eyes like Elmo’s are daylight owls, Cuddles’ dark eyes prove that he’s nocturnal. And I now know what a truly pissed off owl looks like!

What a truly fabulous and special privilege it was to meet them and to learn more about these fabulous and efficient creatures in such close proximity.