The Owl Unmasked

Phantoms of Pegwell

Final Part: The Owl Unmasked

The next day was Friday- the last one in April. It was getting late for the owl to be around this part of the coast. The wind had changed direction during the night and ocean-scented southerlies were now pushing north, up from the continent. It was time for her to be heading off. Back up to Yorkshire, or Scotland, or much more likely- Scandinavia. The latter seems a fitting destination, given the history of Pegwell. After all, this is where Hengist and Horsa landed 1500 years ago.

Today, a replica longship stands guard a few hundred yards from where I first saw the owl.

This was to be my last evening with her, although I didn’t know that when I got to the bay in the mid-afternoon. But as the spring blue skies grew fainter- and the owl was later than usual in rising- I began to think she’d gone with the wind.

The last of the kite and wind surfers left the bay at just gone six ‘o’ clock, leaving me alone with that desolate feeling I’d experienced when the whale washed up. The wardens must have known how I felt. For some time, they’ve allowed a solitary television set to remain where it was dumped by some fly-tippers. All else was cleared away but the telly remains and has become a kind of surreal landmark. Wry joke as it may be, to me it only accentuates the abandonment of this far corner of England.

I passed it at just gone half past six and walked until I reached the northern corner of the bay, where I was parallel to a creek and and a huge jungle of scrubland. There are no televisions here; instead there are other, more chilling landmarks. In the distance, beyond the creek, I could make out a series of bollards and low standing concrete blocks. I’ll return another time to get some better photographs but you can just about see some of these structures in the picture below; they’re just beyond the head of the creek.

Distant WW2 defences visible at head of the creek.

These old stones litter the place; they’re the fortifications that were installed to repel ‘Operation Sea Lion’- the Nazis’ planned invasion of southern England.

The land here doesn’t easily forget the past. The sands are home to scores of sunken fighter planes, both German and British.

I once met a man who was stationed here in the war; he gave a talk at a school where I taught. One night in the summer of 1940, the threat-alert was raised to its highest level- ‘Invasion Imminent’. Of course, it was a false alarm; but the soldiers didn’t know this and for a while, they sat around Pegwell Bay bracing for war.

These days, the only invaders have feathers. But it remains an eerie place. The birds know this and usually stick together, in flocks or pairs. The sky was now a faint blue and the dusk flights were beginning. I was still down near the old war defences when a pair of shelducks flew in like a pair of Lancaster Bombers.

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Shelducks mate for life. A wise move, given the kind of barren places where they thrive. These two seemed made for each other; as you can see from the photos, they mirrored one another’s every move. I watched until I felt a little warmer then tracked back down toward the abandoned port. It was almost twilight when I saw the owl, rising from the rushes opposite what used to be ‘The Sportsman’ public house.

The next hour was to be one of the most fascinating of all the hours I’ve spent in the English countryside. To begin with, the owl followed its nightly routine of flying west up the bay and disappearing. But this time, she only stayed gone for a few minutes before quartering back out onto the saltmarshes in front of the old service station. I’d ‘dug in’ here, so to speak. Dressed in a camouflage coat and with my flat cap pulled down, I’d crouched next to the footpath and had my camera pointing directly out across a series of wooden stakes. Having swung low and taken a vole, she ate it in a bush near to the stakes. This took her at least several minutes; I was beginning to imagine she’d left via a secret underground tunnel, when she levitated out from the scrub and landed straight onto one of the poles. I suppose she must have been about 50 yards away from me. Still crouching, I took a series of shots, pausing at one stage when I felt that she was ‘on to me’.

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Once she’d relaxed back into some preening, I continued to shoot until she leapt off and started hunting the rushes again. What came next was surprising. Having failed to capture a second vole, she landed again on the posts- but this time only about 25 yards away from me. I filled my boots, taking shot after shot, until I noticed that she was looking straight down the lens.

I took a few more shots and then stopped to lower my face, so as to take the anomalous bit of ‘pink’ out of the owl’s line of view. In most cases, this doesn’t work. I waited thirty seconds before I dared a peek; when I did so, the owl had flown from its pole. I’m so used to this that I wasn’t particularly disappointed; to be honest, I was over the moon with the shots that I’d already got.

But as I lowered my gaze, I saw that the owl had merely switched poles. She was now twenty yards closer and was perching on the stake closest to the walking path- about five yards from my postion.

I was frozen at first but after twenty seconds or so I raised my camera up and took a photo. The owl was looking back and forth, acting as though I wasn’t there. But a short-eared owl has total awareness of its environment… I was merely being tolerated.

But only for so long. After a while, the owl seemed to challenge me. It looked directly at me and once again I lowered the camera. Only this time, I didn’t lower my face. Instead, I stood slowly up and held the bird’s gaze. It showed not an ounce of fear but instead curiously returned my look. After thirty seconds, the situation felt calm enough for me to chance some more photos. I must have taken another fifty before the owl casually departed. And even then, she only flew a few yards away, down onto a nearby bit of scrub to toy with some branches.

I walked back to my car and drove home. When I got in, I didn’t upload the photos right away. Instead I sat in the darkness and thought about the owl’s eyes and wondered, just as I had with the whale, what she must have seen out there, in the wider world beyond Pegwell.

I know that owls (and all birds) often mistake humans for cattle. Especially birders and anglers, when we’re camouflaged up and only moving at a shuffling pace. But I wondered that night whether this owl knew exactly what I was- and was just as curious about me as I was about her. Eventually I went to bed, telling myself that a warm armchair indulges all kinds of silly thoughts.

But later that night, I found myself back in Pegwell. Only this time again in my dreams. I was ten years old and we’d not long moved to Downs Road, near the top of the hill that leads up from old Chilton Farmhouse. My mind took me back to a February night in 1989. The whole family was sat watching television when I noticed a fox at the rear window. Its nose was touching the pane and it was staring directly at my mother, who was sitting one yard away, on the other side of the glass. My mother turned and met its gaze for a full ten seconds or so before it walked off into the snow. It was visible for only five yards or so before it entered total darkness and disappeared. But its gaze never left us.

I returned to the bay for the next three dusks but the owl never returned. She must have left not long after seeing me on the Friday, hitching a ride on those southerlies, flying way back up north.

I’m writing this entry a full two months later. It’s two days until the coarse angling season opens and I’ve already been out several times to investigate some fresh tench marks. I’m hoping to get out on this Sunday, the sixteenth of June; the first day of the new fishing year.

Seasons change. But the hunter remains.

12 thoughts on “The Owl Unmasked

    1. Thank you, Tim- So glad you enjoyed it, mate.

      Wasn’t she a beauty? She seemed to get used to me. Shorties can come close but no wild owl usually comes this near. This last night was electric. One of the English outback’s most precious gifts…

      And now for a tench. Good luck to you too, mucka!

      Best Regards, Gazza

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  1. Best pics yet Gareth.. absolutely fabulous. Close encounters like that must be extremely rare and will remain in your memory always.

    I hope the 16th goes well for you and that the tinca’s oblige. I’m not sure I’ll be up to it tomorrow as we are having a family get together today and over indulgence is on the cards. Perhaps a couple of hours late in the day, we’ll see!!

    Best wishes,
    Malcolm

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello mate- nice one! Yes, I got lucky for sure this time. And to think I’d almost given up hope on seeing one this year.

      I’ll be out tomorrow- a tench hunt beckons… At least for a fortnight or so. I don’t go after tench for a long time period- a bit strange of me but I usually only give it a few weeks after June 16th and that’s it. I went to a pond in April this year and caught one but it wasn’t the same.

      While I’m out there, I really want a decent photo of a hobby this year, too; there seem to be more than ever coming to Kent in the summers- amazing things…

      Speak soon and Happy June 16th! Gazza

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  2. Gazza,
    Fabulous words and photos, encounters like that are to be savoured, for sure.
    The tench are out there and waiting your attentions. Saw a decent fish roll, yesterday evening, as I was introducing some freebies into the “Black Dyke”!
    There are several other anglers looking at the flatlands, so keep low and off the beaten tracks. I’ll be out at mid-night, all being well, but have a funeral in Watford to attend at mid-day, today, so it might be a bit of a problem?
    Take care & tight lines – Dyl

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    1. Hello mate- Wasn’t she a beauty? I’m after a decent photo of a hobby now.

      Yes, we may have company… What a pain! I’ll be doing short, mobile trips this year and am hoping to do most of them in the weekday evenings, so that should negate some of it. The RG won’t have many other guests, I don’t think. But BD is more accessible; a shame as it’s my main target… Oh well. We shall see.

      Hey, I got those pictures of the more recent whale to wash up on the bay! They were lovely and I’m late in replying. I missed that second whale entirely. I may still have been working up in London. Where I could only dream of such things… I’ll email shortly with some tactical talk…

      Best Regards, Gazza

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    1. Thanks, Matt- Yes; I was in shock!

      It was incredible that this happened on the last night. I honestly thought the game was up and that she’d already left. But then she got closer and closer… Until she was looking me right in the eye. It was as though the whole bay had narrowed to just the few yards between us. The kind of experience an owl-nut dreams of!

      Now it’s time for tench, which I like at this time of the year. I’m hoping to see/perhaps photo some barn owls while I’m at it. But my big dream for this summer is to get a decent shot of a hobby…

      Best Regards, Gazza

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  3. Another enchanting tale and such wonderful shots Gazza. I was also lucky enough to have a Short eared Owl in my view this winter, albeit briefly as it hunted the meadows, though it took some patience to spot and many trips. Such beautiful creatures – in fact all Owls fascinate me. So locally we have Little , Tawny, Barn and seasonally the Shorty too now. Also cannot wait for the first session out next week with a bit of Cane and a pin.. Have a glorious season!

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    1. Hello David- Cheers, mate- Glad you enjoyed it.

      I’m with you 100% on owls- I adore them! I’ve never seen a Little Owl, despite the fact that we have a fair few locally. Funnily enough, I was in the pub the other night when my mate Ray told me about coming face to face with one over at North Foreland, I think he said. Kent is very much little owl country so I must be unlucky…

      Good Luck with the new season, mate; I’ve started with tench but I’m not feeling the magic, yet. I think it’s my approach. Bait and wait. I’m getting a little bored with that, if I’m honest. I’m fishing one of the few locations in England where tench don’t respond to ground bait. The only thing that gets them feeding is raking up the bottom and chucking a worm in. I learned this two seasons ago but yet I still appear every mid-June with a bucket of bait and sit in the same spot until I remember the drill (!) Hence my total sense of failure when I got in last night… I shall return with some walking boots and a stalking hat (!)

      Best Regards, Gazza

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    2. Hello David, I’d thought I’d send a second reply to tell you that I saw my first Little Owl tonight, only a day after telling you I’d never seen one. Amazing. All in all, I think I’ve had three conversations about them this week, and then I see one for the first time ever. I wasn’t far from Sandwich Bay in Kent and I saw it first on a riverside tree, and then two hours later on a street sign not far from there. Got a really good look the second time round- what an amazing bird. I followed it along the stream and got a couple of barks for my trouble. Absolutely beautiful creature…

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      1. Wow that’s brilliant ! I’m sure we’ll all hope to see and read more at sometime in the future if he / she becomes a regular on your travels. Aren’t they the funniest little things? My first ever sighting was accidental while I was staking out a willow tree for the afternoon emergence of a Barn owl i’d disturbed from its hole once while Chub fishing one early January . Thinking I’d missed the 3pm magic window, I started to scan other trees and there, hopping and bouncing
        along, was a 6” miniature ball of feathers in broad daylight right before me. We never see until we really see 😏 very pleased for you mate 👍

        Liked by 1 person

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