By Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

As I began to write this column, I was startled by a loud thud on the window beside me. A wood pigeon, misled by the sky and trees reflected in the glass, had flown into the pane. Fortunately this bird was robust and escaped with bruises and, no doubt, shocked surprise. Others are not so lucky. We have hawk cut-outs on several windows but still do not escape the occasional fatal accident: always sad – but offering a rare chance to hold a wild bird in your hand and marvel at its lightness and the detail of its plumage. I remember a much-mourned casualty, a blackcap, the only time I’ve seen one of these delightful warblers in close up, its clear grey plumage and that sooty black cap.

Occasionally we are required to do more than grieve. Most of us will have had the disturbing experience of finding a bird trapped in the house. We have to capture and release the frantic prisoner – who often mistakes our good intentions for aggression. I once had to get a willow warbler out of my bedroom. Presumably it had got through the open window and was dashing against the glass in a panic. I did manage to catch it unharmed and had the double pleasure of holding that tiny olive and yellow bundle of feathers warm in my hands, marvelling at how such a frail creature had flown all the way from sub-Saharan Africa, and then of releasing it into the Yorkshire sunlight.

Startling and disturbing – that doesn’t come anywhere near the experience of a friend of ours a couple of weeks ago. She lives on the north side of the valley in an old stone house. She walked into her bathroom to find a barn owl crouched down, apparently roosting, in a corner. What a shock!

Barn owls are beautiful birds – white, heart-shaped face, white breast and under wings and the rest soft golden-brown, the colour of perfectly made toast. However, they have the characteristic hooked beak and powerful talons of a formidable hunter. How to get it out of its bathroom roost? Our friend bravely donned her Aga gloves, picked the bird up and carried it outside to release. (Don’t try this at home!) It was surprisingly docile – perhaps already exhausted, perhaps sleepy, perhaps a young, inexperienced bird. Who knows?

Barn owls are still rare around here, though having a bit of a recovery. Let’s hope this one survives the winter and will be seen on summer evenings floating, like a big white moth, over the darkening moor.