Storm

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The wind ripped over the rocks and bore the trees away. Needles birled in the yard, and our grand old pine was pulled to her knees. We are left with splintering shafts of yellow wood and red bark like scabs of rust; the pigs wrestle with the wreckage and munch the bristling tips with gulps of sappy spittle.

The owls nested in a tall ash tree which burst like a cracker in the storm. I did not notice this disaster at first – I was preoccupied with cylinders of beechwood and sawdust; the rush to lift the first pick of firewood which had fallen on the roads. But then there were owls in broad daylight; a group of three youngsters hunting along the dykes at noon. One flew almost within arm’s reach and tried to land on the tip of a dead foxglove. Of course the stem bent double like a sweep’s brush and the bird fell like a fool on the grass. Owls are not born wise.

It was only later that I realised why these birds had become bold day-things. They had not chosen to leave their nest; the wind had cracked them out the trunk like a second hatching. Now black streaks of hollow heartwood show where the nest used to be, and I run my hands over the fallen bough where the owlets clambered like oafish kids in August. The young birds were “out” because they had lost their “in”. A disaster like this might have killed these owls a month ago, but they are almost strong enough to try the world without help. Even as I stared at the broken bark, another youngster wobbled past and turned into the wind.

I stood and watched the birds fly as evening came and they moved in a loose pattern onto the moor where they hunted in long draws like a team of setters. They wandered  into the wind, frowning downwards in steady concentration. I went to join them, and I found the three birds milling like moths above dank beds of cranberry and myrtle. Sometimes they would flare up at a glimpse of something mouseish. They would paddle for a moment in thin air, trailing long shanks and black feet like bait below them. The pounce would come with all the passive certainty of falling; the birds dropped flat-faced into deep grass. But they are novices, and they seldom killed anything I saw.

Crows came to rattle at them as the sun sank, and the owls caught the failing light in their hoods, red as apple jelly. Their steady, innocent beauty was pathetically fragile. This would not be the first year I find inexperienced owls wrecked by hawks or buzzards. But now there is now more darkness than daylight, and safety will come when the young birds learn to ply their trade in the dusk.

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