A Woodland murder
Plumamque nocturnae strigis. (Hor)
As you remember how we always made a point of stopping far later up the river on the longest day, ever since that memorable occasion when you caught the four pound three ounce peal at half past ten, you will be interested in hearing of a small adventure - or rather experience- -that befel me a few nights ago.
Having tried all the morning the dark still water under the red rock and only succeeded m pricking two tidy fish by the folly of striking too soon, I did not feel much inclined to continue all day. Fortunately however after a lazy afternoon there seemed something in the look of the weather at tea time which aroused all the old keenness for that walk which you and I know so well; and I set out by myself up the water blank or no blank.
I will not describe the tramp along the marshes and the regret felt at being alone. I saw nothing of consequence either of bird or fish life, and was fairly hot - in rubber boots-- before 1 reached the footbridge and looked over at the small but rich preserve above, with the familiar Naboth-like longing. The river was as still as a pond, and not a fish was moving although there were clouds of fly in evidence. As the sun sank behind the fir clump, the whole air turned into one of those evenings we have often remarked on, when the atmosphere seems filled with golden dust. And indeed, as far as fishing went, it proved just as unfavourable.
Wading over to the patch of watercress above salmon pool I peeped through the dry reeds into ' the pocket,' and was pleased to notice a good fish rise three or four times. It is a poor •chance to do much with a dry fly down stream, but for a wonder he took it just before it began to drag: and I had him. He was thirteen ounces as it turned out, and fought well, bolting right under the sycamore and obliging mp to cross the river - of course playing him from above all the time. Well, not another thing could I touch. The flies we<*e literally in myriads but what the fish were taking during all the evening rise they would not tell, and the result was that by the time I finished up at ivy pool it was well past ten.
The moon was up, and a fine brown owl flew out of the trees and circled close over my head - and then its mate. I was so startled for a moment that I stopped throwing and watched to see them alight, and could just make out one sitting on a broad lateral branch exactly opposite. They both passed again, and a few seconds afterwards there was a furious rustling in a dense ivy clad stump and screams from two blackbirds, which scolded and cried louder than I have ever heard them before. I saw one owl pass against the light sky, and, from the dreadful noise the poor blackbirds were making, I could tell that one of their nearly fledged young ones had been taken out of the nest by the owls. Standing in the water in the dark like that it made me feel almost frightened, and although an occasional rise took place, it quite put me off fishing.
After perhaps five minutes of crying and commotion all was quiet again, and I supposed the poor birds had got over their trouble. I was just thinking of coming out of the water to reel up when, again, just the shadow of an owl's wings and the same horrible rustling at the blackbirds' nest. This time it seemed worse. I could hear the young birds cheeping between the frantic calls of the two parents. Both the owls passed up to the taller trees on the left, and the wretched blackbirds quieted down. I was determined to try and stop the owls if they came again, but the trees were too high for a stone to do much good, and before I had decided how even to try they were back at the nest. This time the blackhirds appeared more dazed or frightened, as they cried in now a despairing manner, and from the tearing and scuffling of wings that took place in the ivy I think that the remaining young birds were taken.
One it seemed fell down out of the nest to the foot of the stump as the parents were making their continuous noise almost on the ground among the high grass of the steep bank. It all appeared such a dastardly and cowardly murder that it made me long for a gun to shoot the owls.
After the final visit it must have been getting on for eleven, as it was past twelve by the time I reached home and weighed the one trout in the kitchen. The whole way back I felt exactly as though I had really witnessed a murder. You know the feelings walking home alone when the river looks and sounds so deep and all one's sins rise up out of the water, like amorphous ghosts, and make you afraid to step into what you know is only a shallow lest it prove the bottomless pit: - when the quiet stretch of two foot water, embordered by the dark fringe of rushes, becomes the tarn of the House of Usher; and the gurgle of the stream, and of the nightjar, blend into the suggested sound of those huge winged mysterious dragon flies that flutter up in a cloud out of the earth and then sink back again, in the crescendoes and cadences of Wagner's music.
This pair of owls were not here last year. Whether their species are always such marauders I do not know, but am pretty sure the white owl, which heats over the meadow precisely at sunset, is not in the habit of tearing young- roosting birds out of their nest under the eyes and wings of their distracted parents. Nature is cruel indeed. One would not mind so much in the day time, and with adult animals, the one preying upon the other. Even the heron and the trout cannot but be justified by any angler seeing that he is doing the same thing. Fish however do not look after their young unless it be to eat them; but for these blackbirds to have had their home destroyed does seem unnecessarily hard. Yet it must take place nightly somewhere, and in the present instance I am fairly sure from the way the two owls returned to the large oak tree on which I first saw them that they were accompanied by their own young ones, especially as there was a slight metallic noise which probably came from a hungry family.
Both' parent owls were noiseless. They uttered none of their Hoo-Hoo-Hoots recalling to memory a winter night in the New Forest when I went out after supper to gather moss for a wreath we were making for my uncle's grave. The constant hoots of the brown owl alternating with the scream of the barn owl could be heard all around us in the forest, and more than once we saw them pass among the giant oaks. Their cries were a fitting dirge.
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I remember finding the nest of the Brown owl some years ago in a rabbit burrow on the edge of the red Cliff, half a mile lower down the river, in that patch of brushwood near the cart bridge. They were large eggs, white and smooth and round--two of them the first day and three the next. This was in the first week of April 1898.
One of the fishermen, who nets the river, told me he has seen a brown owl try to take fish and had watched them gliding close to the water; so it would seem that trout may have other enemies besides you and I, the heron and the otter, to keep them wary at night. Of course a close inspection of their regurgitated pellets would soon settle the point. Gilbert White says the young will eat any carrion or offal that may be brought, and are therefore not exacting - like barn owlets - as to their food being freshly killed.