Sunday, April 6, 2008

owls in fog

St Anthony's lighthouse, CornwallFalmouth, Friday 4th April 2008: It was foggy this morning. Just foggy, no cloud cover above. People-sounds were stifled. The diminutive foghorn across the bay was muffled and barely audible. Birds didn’t seem really bothered about being heard. But the fog was burned away by mid-morning and all got back to normal. It was only the previous evening that a BBC programme (Coast) had informed the world that British foghorns had become silent. It’s a shame they hadn’t checked this out with Trinity House really, as they would have found some interesting facts...

I lived in Loughborough for a year as a student – a town blessed with dense winter fogs and operatic summer thunder. At the time, some lowlife had fly-tipped an old slate quarry in the town with a large amount of something that was decaying alarmingly. Trains arriving from the south were welcomed with the polite graffiti, “Lufbra smells!” Loughborough's local meteorology was largely due to its lying under the mass of Charnwood Forest to the west, on the large plain that stretches east from Leicestershire to the North Sea. Good and bad weather (and smells) just sit there...

Kaz also lived in a town like Loughborough, and she recalled - one Autumn evening I pulled back the curtain and rubbed the misty condensation from the window only to see that the fog had thickened to a dull grey-orange glow that took over after just a few metres from the building, blotting out everything beyond. A magpie moth emerged heavy-winged from the fog, flirted with the illuminated window and returned into the greyness, apparently disappointed with the unproductive encounter. The trees that hosted the irritating huh-hoo-huh calls of collared doves by day and chatty owls by night were cloaked and silent. ‘I wonder what the owls do on foggy nights when even they cannot see their way about; how can they find their way home if they're caught out by a sudden fog? Do they get stressed and incapable of sleep away from the security of their roosts? Do they get grumpy if they cannot hunt for food? What do they think about - can they think at all?’

Gilbert White wrote, "the white owl does indeed snore and hiss in a tremendous manner; and these menaces will answer the intention of intimidating: for I have known a whole village up in arms on such an occasion, imagining the church-yard to be full of goblins and spectres. White owls also often scream horribly as they fly along; from this screaming probably arose the common people's imaginary species of screech-owl, which they superstitiously think attends the windows of dying persons." (The Natural History of Selborne, 1788)

Earlier that same evening, Kaz had taken a safe short cut back home through a largely empty car park. She found herself in a bewildering world of dancing sprites as spectral entities scattered from the ground as she stepped towards them, descending in undulating flight just metres away. The evening light was breaking down her vision into a bittiness that only seemed to support values of grey to black - there was no colour and no white. The initial shock of the sprites, which still had her heart beating fast, was not diminished when their twittering and bobbing in flight and on the ground gave them away as wagtails, in fact it became all the more fascinating to cohabit their secret evening world; and like a child absorbed in kicking her way through fragrant piles of crisp autumn leaves she ambled slowly through the car park putting up wagtails until, en masse and without any obvious signal, they departed to their evening roosts: so, smiling and curiously refreshed from her sojourn with the birds, she resumed her journey, albeit from a distant corner of the car park.

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