Country diary: Storm Arwen battered the valley, but the barn owl survives

Allendale, Northumberland: It is small relief that, for all the damage done, the owl is still gliding

It was back in September at dusk, a time of uncertain light, that I thought I saw a white bird. In that fine autumn, there followed other evenings of gardening late, but it was several weeks before I saw it again. A barn owl flying low across the field, working the ground with efficiency as it quartered the long grass; I hadn’t imagined it.

The variety of habitats in the valley makes for good hunting, a mixture of wood pasture, tufty grasses and marsh. This rough land provides cover for small mammals and in particular field voles, a barn owl’s main diet. Since that first time, the owl has become a regular, recorded in my notebook morning and evening, a pale floating shape, backlit as dawn comes over the hill, wings tinged apricot as the sun sets.

Barn owls are crepuscular birds, so the short winter days give a greater chance of seeing one. Their soft, silent feathers have little waterproofing and they rely on hearing to locate their prey; on wet, windy nights they go hungry. One ear set higher than the other enables them to pinpoint sound.

The owl hovered low, feathered legs dangling, claws folded, before dropping into the long grass by the river. It lifted off again, gripping a vole, and took it to a half hidden spot in the lee of a conifer wood. Mantling its prey, it tugged for five minutes before peering round with a ruffle of feathers and flying into the dark trees. One morning there were two barn owls circling each other, hinting at possibilities for next year.

Storm Arwen damage in Northumberland.
Storm Arwen damage in Northumberland. Photograph: National Trust/PA

I looked for the owl the day after Storm Arwen. All around the valley, roads were blocked by fallen trees and many people had no electricity or water. Gales of nearly 100mph had been recorded in Northumberland. I hoped it had hunkered down in some barn or hollow tree.

A relief, then, to see it glide over a field patchy with snow, its cream and golden-buff wings matching a landscape now white with straw-coloured grasses. I stood under the crook of a hawthorn watching. The barn owl had survived the first major storm of winter.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Susie White

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Country diary: wood workshop provides shelter from the storm
North Eggardon, Dorset: Bridport has been a centre for cordage and net-making since Saxon times, and there are about 10 firms still active in the area

Sara Hudston

21, Dec, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: Barn owls make the best listeners | Anita Roy
Smeatharpe, Devon: Pristine plumage, with a beak like rose marble – to be so close to this bird is astonishing

Anita Roy

30, Nov, 2022 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: rain transforms the marsh into a haven for birds
Claxton, Norfolk: Separate sheets of water have become a pearly lake, home to gulls, wildfowl and waders in their thousands

Mark Cocker

05, Jan, 2021 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: on the site of a drowned town
Dunwich, Suffolk: We’re buffeted past anglers huddled in tents, backed to the wind

Amy-Jane Beer

22, Jun, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: A well-hidden secret in a well-wooded valley
West Dipton Burn, Northumberland: The ravine is waking to the sound of blue tits and jays. Somewhere here is a cave of local legend

Susie White

31, Jan, 2022 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: quiet eye of the urban storm
Gosforth Park nature reserve, Newcastle: Among the calling of birds and the swishing of reeds, only the sound of an ice-cream van reminds me how close to the city I am

Susie White

13, Apr, 2018 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: a beacon of light before a long winter night
Aberystwyth, Ceredigion: ‘God rays’ cut across the bay, adding colour to the dull vegetation and wet rock

John Gilbey

24, Dec, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: An ocean of cloud obscures the valley and villages | Carey Davies
Beamsley Beacon, Wharfedale: The legacy of vast ice leviathans is still vividly evident

Carey Davies

27, Dec, 2022 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: for most of my walk I have the valley to myself
Cilgerran, Pembrokeshire: The thick undergrowth beyond the river path is an ideal spot for otters to lie inconspicuously

John Gilbey

22, Apr, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: riveting ravens in silhouette
Buxton, Derbyshire: The deep black of their outline was a true measure of this strangely undark night

Mark Cocker

15, Dec, 2020 @5:30 AM