barn owl

Poetry Day – 4 of my poems

Pipistrelles
In the uncertainty of dusk
pipistrelles gather invisible sound
picking up echoes of warmth
from old stone walls
winding in the whirr
of insects’ wings
darting closer
in faltering light
weaving me into their loom
of silence –
netting thoughts.

I hear my daughter indoors
practising her scales,
notes swooping
dipping –

roosting even now
in my mind
undisturbed by time.

Chalk Ghost
Chalk ghost on the windowpane –
a barn owl drawn by its own reflection
flew into the moonlit glass last night,
left its outline etched in flight dust.

Swooping Narcissus-like
on its rippling image
left the imprint of each feather –
whirlpools of dust for eyes,
emptiness where the beak should be.
How the glass must have screeched
when the talons flexed.
closing on that wraith-like prey.

published by Poetry Wales

Written in Chalk
Beneath this swaying field of flax
a sea bed swarms with coiled creatures
tiny ammonites
cochlea echoing with Jurassic surf,
snails curling round pebbles
imprinted with the cicatrice
of fallen petals.

Below the keel of plough
fossil fish spawn in salt-white sponge
swim through ancient coral
brittle as bone.

When the moon brims over Knowle Hill
a tide still turns beneath the earth.
Moths move in shoals
through scented waves.

Close layers lie undisturbed –
memory written in chalk.

September
This evening
picking beans after a thunder shower,
shed blossoms cling like drab insects
to my fingers.
Late sun, yellow as pumpkin flowers.

Now, with my colander
by the open kitchen door,
the sun makes a square on the red lino.
Outside hens peck at shreds of light.

Soon bats will draw down the dark,
But I’ll leave the door open,
breathe in the honeysuckle air
while moths circle the lampshade
dizzy from touching the moon.

published by Poetry Wales

Poetry by Jennifer Hunt (copyright applies)
Photo by Brian L Hunt

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Fern Owls and the full moon

Another full moon and another trip to the South Dorset Ridgeway – a mystical place even by day. This time I was in search of the elusive Nightjar or Fern Owl – a bird of myth and mystery. Dusk was falling as I climbed through narrow lanes towards Hardy’s monument at the top of the Ridgeway. Swathes of cow parsley glowed along the verges, seeming to have kept a little of the sun to light the way. The setting sun skimmed across the contours of the hills showing up tumuli, strip lynchets and other traces of prehistory.

In ancient times, the slopes would have been forested so all dwellings and monuments were created on the barer summit. I stopped on the landward side of the Ridgeway before reaching Hardy’s monument and set off through darkening woodland with the sun disappearing between the branches. Black slugs were slithering out of the ferny borders onto the heathy path and I picked my way between them listening to the sound of birds settling down for the night.

As the sun dipped to the western horizon a huge pink moon appeared in the east. I can easily imagine how primitive people would have seen this as a portent. It rose quickly above the Ridgeway and suddenly there were strange sounds among the trees. A whirring of insects, a rustling and fluster of moths. The air was full of the whispers of dusk – a language only heard in remote places after sunset. Then the sound I’d been waiting for – a soft rhythmic chirring and the silhouette of a bird overhead – swooping with staccato movements, bat-like – a nightjar, sometimes call the eve-jar. Then there were three dipping down low into the trees looking for moths.

In the distance on a high branch was one of these mysterious birds keeping lookout. It was joined by another and they stayed there long enough for a photo in which its eye shone like a tiny moon. I waited for a while seeing glimpses of dark shapes flitting among the trees and listening to the distinctive whirring and chirring of their calls in the shadow of the Ridgeway.

I drove home towing a huge golden moon behind me. A barn owl drifted low over the road and I heard myself say ‘wow’ – a totally inadequate word for such a special moment.

Owl-light

Mid January when daylight is compressed to a wedge of silver between charcoal dawn and the twilight of late afternoon. It was the third anniversary of my mother’s death and I was trying to walk off my gloom before the children finished school. Even the two dogs seemed depressed, padding along silently – no pulling or wayward sniffing. As I approached the gate to the house I saw a white shape from the corner of my eye drifting along. I thought it was a carrier bag caught in the nettles, but when I turned to pick it up I saw a barn owl. It flew slowly in front of me only a few feet above the ground gleaming in the gathering dusk. I followed its ghostly light. It didn’t seem alarmed by the dogs or by my presence. Then it settled on a fence post hunched like a shawl of leaves. Slowly it turned its head towards me. I shall never forget that heart-shaped face and the look from those fathomless eyes. Every year on 15th January I think about that owl.
Track Valley Hse

Something of the night …

If it be in the dusk, when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,

The dewfall hawk comes crossing the shades to alight

Upon the wind-warped upland thorn.

(Thomas Hardy)

 The nightjar is a bird of myth and legend. It is a crepuscular creature, feeding at dawn and dusk and sleeping by day. I read Richard Mabey’s fascinating description in his Birds Britannica of the nightjar as a bird which has been persecuted in the past as a result of superstition and fears associated with nocturnal creatures, and decided I had to see it.

I signed up at the last minute to a walk organised by the RSPB at the Arne Nature Reserve in East Dorset. The group assembled at 8pm with a near-solstice sun casting a dark gold light over the heath. After a short but impassioned speech by the group leader telling us we should see barn owls and nightjars as dusk fell, he declared birds were his life, and we set off at a brisk pace to see how many other species we could spot before the sun went down.

The air was thick with clouds of midges spinning like gold-dust around our heads so we all applied insect repellent before plunging into a boggy area and standing by a stagnant pool, where we saw a raft spider on the margins of the water.

We walked up over the heath on a path of soft white sand, printed with the soles of walking boots. In the distance Corfe Castle stood high above the landscape. Glimpses of Poole Harbour showed in slivers of blue to the East. In the valley below us a spoonbill was foraging on a mud bank in the middle of a large lake. Curlews and Shell ducks made the most of the last scales of sun on the water.

In the distance a fox was skimming through the long shadows and a herd of deer grazed on the mustard-coloured grass. Stonechats and Long-tailed tits entertained the group before we set off to the farm hoping for barn owls.

Unfortunately the barn owls didn’t show and all we heard was a lonely peacock who apparently has fallen in love with his reflection in puddles, in the absence of a mate – a sad story.

By now the sun was teetering – an intense red ball on the edge of the world. We headed for the heath, our ears straining for the sound of the nightjar. This bird has many names. It was called the Fern Owl by John Clare and Gilbert White as its habitat is bracken-covered heathland and woodland. It has also been called Churn Owl and Eve-jarr because of its call.

Then I heard it – a difficult noise to locate, one minute it seemed close, then further away. It sounded like a giant cricket or even a muted football rattle. Another name for the nightjar is the Wheel bird – after the mechanical nature of its call which sounds like a spinning wheel. In the distance I heard the revving of motorbikes at a rally – these two throaty rattles meshing in a weird symphony.

The sandy white path we were treading through the dusk was scattered with white pebbles – markers through the dark. I remembered the moths we had seen earlier flitting among the heather and bracken – airborne plankton to the whale-wide gape of the nightjars.

Suddenly I saw a bird darting erratically, silhouetted against the dusk-mauve sky, heard a wing-clap and it was gone. Others appeared at the corner of your eye shape-shifting in the insubstantial world between day and night. The rest of the group had moved on, hoping for more over the next hill. I stood watching silently with my sister who suddenly took out a white handkerchief and started waving it like a giant moth above her head. At this tacit sign of surrender a nightjar batted out of the dark, its wingtips nearly brushing our hair, before it vanished. I was left with an image of splayed feathers edged with the last remnants of daylight – a bird half moth, half bat, wholly myth and legend.