Barn Owl

As I left the house this morning, the street was eerily quiet, writes John Traynor. No gaggles of schoolkids scootering along, laughing and shouting; no traffic. In fact, nobody. A sea fret billowed around making the atmosphere quite creepy.

It was in sharp contrast to the previous evening when the street rang with clapping and cheering as part of the national round of applause in appreciation of the NHS, carers and key workers helping all of us.

It surprised me how emotional I felt and that sense of solidarity seemed to have had an effect already. It was ten minutes before another person appeared out of the mist. Passing many metres apart, we exchanged smiles and the now universal, “Stay safe!”

As the fret lifted, so did my mood. We live in a town but on the edge of open country. The hedgerows and trees were full of birds and their song rang out. It took a while to realise how much of it could be heard. Without the background of the urban hum, the variety was clear.

Golden Eagle

Sadly, which bird was singing out remained a mystery as being a birder has never been a driver in my outdoor adventures. It gave me the idea to use this time to learn the difference between birds and to recognise them. Not to brag, of course, but to add another layer of enjoyment to being outdoors.

Back home, the RSPB website was a goldmine of learning material. From ‘Identify a bird’ to ‘Boredom-busting nature activities’, it’s wonderful and set me off on another train of thought. Whilst not being a birder, birds have featured in many of my most vivid memories of being in the moment outdoors.

On a field edge in Suffolk, a barn owl swept to and fro across the ground, focused on hunting. It covered every inch and was fascinating to watch. As a lesson in patience, resilience and application, it was exceptional.

Whilst camping on Barra, a short walk up a low hill to gain a better view of Castlebay ended with me sitting on my backside. As I crested the rise, a golden eagle lifted effortlessly off a sheep carcass just a few feet from me. The shock and noise sent me reeling backwards.


A few days later, a friendly fisherman dropped me off on the uninhabited island of Mingulay. Climbing up the steep slope to the far side, I lay on my stomach for hours watching the aerobatics of thousands and thousands of seabirds. The noise was stunning. It was only matched, years later, bobbing along in a small boat under Faroese sea cliffs.

And so the memories unfold. Looking down on soaring vultures in the Pyrenees, cheeky wagtails in Cape Town. Once the box was opened, it was surprising the part birds had played in my life.

Happily, the countryside will still be there when this crisis is over. So will the birds. Until then – stay home, stay safe, walk local.