If you’re still looking for a last minute gift, you can’t go wrong with Daniel Butler’s new book The Owl House. This pastoral exploration of mid-Wales is beautifully observed, full of evocative observations that can only have been lived to have been accrued. Here is a wintry extract from the chapter ‘Weather’.
Daniel Butler has lived in the Cambrian Mountains near Rhayader for twenty-five years, absorbing the world around him and charting its changes slow and rapid. His passion for the natural world was compounded when two wild birds, barn owls, nested at his farm. Through charting his relationship with the birds, he embarks on a pastoral exploration of his locale, rich as it is in wildlife of all kinds. His new book The Owl House is a rich and vivid portrait of one of the most remote and sparsely populated areas of Britain, broad in its horizons yet full of fascinating detail. The perfect gift for any lover of the natural world and mid-Wales.
Winter bird activity is not just about survival. I used to think the breeding season was a spring phenomenon, but for many creatures the concept seems to lurk as a constant background urge.
Even in the depths of winter there are signs of what’s to come. Mistle thrushes start to gang up towards the end of August in family groups which later join together to form small flocks. They give off their instantly recognisable football rattle calls as they bounce through the air above the fields, but by the end of the year these groups have disbanded. Instead of looking for the security of a flock to evade predators, the males are beginning to get a head start on next year’s breeding season. They do this by searching for a berry-laden food source. Indeed, the bird’s name comes from its fondness for mistletoe, that strange shrub, a living green sphere that hangs in bunches from the apparently lifeless limbs of oaks and apple trees. A glance at its fleshy white berries and strange green leaves and it isn’t difficult to see why the druids apparently venerated it as a sign of life in the depths of winter. The oak or crab apple host would be no more than a black skeleton, yet its passenger would appear the embodiment of life. Mistletoe is rare in Radnorshire, although it is common enough a few miles away in the acres of Herefordshire cider orchards.
My mistle thrushes are drawn mainly by the lure of another tree beloved by pagans and one which is, if anything, even more associated with Christmas. There is a particularly splendid and always well-endowed holly halfway down the lane. The berries grow slowly all autumn, green and hard and invisible among the glossy spiked leaves until they burst into view by turning red seemingly overnight.
By the time I go to collect a few decorative sprigs in early December, there will already be a resident mistle thrush. His favourite perch is near the crown to gain a good vantage point. He sits here like a miser crouched over his hoard, jealously watching for thieves or rivals which may try to steal his crown. At my approach he flies off giving his characteristic rattling calls of alarm towards the row of neighbouring pines. He perches there and with binoculars I can just make him out staring warily at me, filled with terrors that his jewelled kingdom might be raided in his absence.
He is not always in the holly, however, sometimes he is lurking among the ‘sallies’ (goat willows) that straggle along the banks of the nearby stream. This probably indicates the proximity of a sparrowhawk or goshawk, and he’s waiting for the danger to pass. Normally he’s a pugnacious fellow, fiercely defending his scarlet treasure from a host of increasingly hungry thieves. His greatest ire is reserved for sexual rivals, but he will defend his prize from smaller redwings and fieldfares, doves and even wood pigeons. He does this by intimidation rather than actual violence, flying at them only to veer off at the last second. At stake is not just a precious food supply at the leanest time of year, but the implications this has for the breeding season ahead. The fatter and fitter he is at winter’s end, the better his chances of attracting the best mate, for any bird that can finish the lean months in good condition is clearly a good breeding prospect. So he spends the winter fighting for food and sex.
By Christmas tawny owls are also beginning to stake out breeding territories, hooting out their instantly recognisable ‘toowhit, too-woo’ calls and at about the same point the garden robins become increasingly evident. The clichéd seasonal card image of a robin on a snow-covered spade handle as a representation of the season of goodwill and peace couldn’t be further from the truth. These are testosterone-pumped pugilists, determined to fight all rivals. At first they are driven by the need to protect their food supplies and territories and will pick fights with any other robin – even potential future mates. Once, after a heavy snow fall, I was looking at the crowds of finches, tits and nuthatches hanging on the feeders outside the kitchen window when my eye was caught by flying puffs of snow on the back lawn. Two robins were scrapping in the soft powder, bouncing into view as they pecked and kicked in fury, only to sink almost out of sight whenever they paused. No sooner had the last tiny crystals fallen back, however, than the furious tussle would resume.
The Owl House is available on the Seren website £12.99 or can be found in bookshops nationwide. Find your nearest independent bookshop using the Books Council of Wales or Bookseller Association shop finders.
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