Alba

January 13, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Regular visitors to my blog might jusssst about remember the time last June when I discovered a roosting barn owl on my daily runs through the countryside.

Well.... my health seems to be getting better and better and although my dobby (doctor) suggests I should build up to running three miles again (rather than dive straight in again), I am still pounding the countryside where owls be, albeit at a more leisurely rate at present - and still looking out for barn owls as well as this year's family of little owls.

I was looking out for barn owls anyway (as I've seen "our" little owls return now)

This week I found one.

To be fair - it found me - I was driving back from my acupuncturist, feeling like a battered old pincushion when Tyto alba (the barn owl) leaped from a roadside ditch and flew across my car headlamps, over a bare hedge and into a field.

I'd found alba* without even trying!

Since that evening last week, I have established exactly where this individual owl roosts - not in its old hollow tree but a more substantial tree about 1/4 mile away -and have established exactly when it prefers to leave its roost each dusk and returns each dawn. It has been a delight for me to welcome this stunning creature back to the countryside so close to our house.

Barn owls are notoriously transient during the traditional non-breeding season - they go where they can find suitable food (voles mainly) and suitable weather conditions (often) to find that food - so I have no idea just how long this particular owl will stay in this particular tree. I obviously hope it continues for some time as it is a glorious sight to watch this white owl take to the air for a night's hawking or silently fly back to its roost for its daily slumber.

"Silently" is the operative word in the paragraph above. All barn owls (and tawnies) seem to make no sound at all when flying. It's really quite eerie. (That's eerie, not eyrie). Jackdaws will be flying by in huge flocks at this time of year, making a racket with their wings if not with their "tchacking" en masse, blackbirds will be doing their normal hysterical crepuscular cartwheels, pigeons will be wing-clapping and magpies will be cackling on telegraph poles.

But the barn owl will be silent. At least (generally) at this time of year and when (like this one seems to be) it's on its own.

"Magical" is an oft-used and overused adjective in wildlife-watching circles. I'm as guilty of that as most (if not more so).

But watching a silent barn owl at dusk or dawn, for me at least, truly is magical and I feel very privileged to be able to do so at present.

 

 

*Tyto alba is (indeed) the scientific name for the barn owl.

Tyto is derived from "Tuto" (Greek for "owl"). I assume the fact that the Latin word "Tutor" meaning "watcher" or "protector" (rather than a "wise" person, like an owl is often thought to be in folklore) is merely a coincidence.... but maybe not.

Alba on the other hand does dip its feet in Latin - and is derived from "Albus"- meaning "white".

 

The word "Alba" first appears in classical texts (Ptolemy - Greek - "Alba" and then later in Latin translations, "Albus") - and often referred to as the British Isles as a whole, but based on the Indo-European stem for "white". Whether those swarthy Greeks and Romans thought of us Brits as pallid and therefore "white" is a question that will remain unanswered I guess (at least by me). Maybe ancient Britain was covered in snow for long periods of time? Who knows?

After about 900AD, Gaelic-speakers used "Alba" to refer to the Kingdom of Scotland, or the Picts originally - Rìoghachd na h-Alba actually means "Kingdom of Scotland" - so this is why you may see Scottish (car) bumper stickers with a Lion Rampant on them and the word "Alba" proudly written underneath.  Incidentally, I think (I may be wrong) that the SFA have "Alba" printed on shirts these days, although the SRU are still being persuaded that might be a good idea.

Anyhoo. Tyto alba does not really mean the "Scottish owl", but more like the "White owl" (although you could strongly argue that the snowy owl, Bubo scandiacus (which means the "Scandinavian (eagle) owl") is more obviously white.

 

 

The barn owl (or "white owl") here in the UK is at the most northerly edge of its (comfortable) range.

Populations crash when there is lying snow or there are long periods of bad weather.

I've had the pleasure of seeing the most northerly pair of barn owls in the world (at the time) outside Inverness many years ago, but truth be told, they're far happier on the warmer continent.

Do keep your eyes peeled for the "white owl" this winter. They're not common but quite widespread and I defy anyone not to be entranced if they do happen across this ghostly, pale, moth-like bird hawk and dance silently over a tussocky field near them.

 

Please note.

Barn owls (like kingfishers and MANY other species) are schedule 1 birds. (Read the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act).

I am constantly amazed by the sheer number of photographs of schedule 1 birds appearing on online fora - where the photographer clearly has no specific schedule 1 licence - images that seemingly go unpunished most of the time (if not virtually all of the time). I should take this opportunity to point out that if "the authorities" prove a reckless disturbance of a schedule 1 species, the offender will be fined several thyzand pyndz or find themselves in prison for a few months.

If you have no schedule 1 licence - it is ILLEGAL (or ill-owl?!) to recklessly disturb (deliberately or accidentally) the bird(s) at their nest or near a nest site at ANY TIME of the year - by photographing them (or by any other activity).

If you have no schedule 1 licence, you very probably have no (or not enough) idea what effect your bid for a good photograph of this bird will have on your "quarry" - will it leave its roost or nest or nest site and not find another (and not breed or worse, die), will it abandon its eggs? You probably won't know.

 

Now, there will be a few reading this that will wring their hands and profess their innocence (or supposed "knowledge" and "love" for the birds) and explain, with wide-eyed certainty, that the photographs they took with their noisy DSLR will have had no effect on the schedule 1 bird they photographed. 

Sometimes that will be the case, but many more times, the photographer will have disturbed the bird without even knowing it.

In the case of kingfishers (for example) most people won't have  clue where the bird that they're chasing up and down the river is nesting or where it might intend to (the nest hole itself may well be hidden by an overhanging river bank).

Some photographers won't even know what a nesting bird behaves like or when it nests, where or how often in a year.

 

Your best bet by far is to leave well alone and leave your camera at home.

Do the bird a favour, watch from a large distance and don't even risk accidentally disturbing the bird you are so delighted by.

This is true for all schedule 1 birds and especially for barn owls; which in theory can nest (and have nested) in most months of the year if conditions are right.

 

Whilst it seems clear that this particular owl is not nesting at present (they rarely do before May)... I care not. It may find a mate and choose to nest at the site of its winter roost. That would be fantastic!

So I (STILL) do all that I can to avoid disturbing this barn owl - I watch from a distance and take no photographs.

I'm not even convinced the barn owl even notices I'm even watching it silently from afar, with freezing hands and misty-lensed binoculars.

Do the same.

Please.

 

 

 

Please click here to discover how our barn owl population did last year in the UK.

Please click here to learn about schedule 1 species and what steps you'll need to take (via Natural England) to obtain a specific schedule 1 licence to photograph a species of schedule 1 birds.


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