Up beyond the scarp of the Wolds, there is still some snow. And despite a clear, pearly blue and apricot dawn, by noon the light has gone flat under hazy cloud – a soft white sun illuminating a muted Eric Ravilious-style landscape. Dappled snow picks out north-facing slopes and the slight reliefs of the tracks and trails, the fencelines and earthworks. Hedges and trees are etched in charcoal.
In the trees, owl boxes have been installed by another artist, my friend Robert Fuller. Beneath the most popular perches there are pellets and blobs of white paste. Rubbed between the fingers, these chalky droppings are as smooth as a cosmetic cream. I wonder if they’ve ever been used as pigment, and resist an urge to run a streak across my nose, like Adam Ant.
It would take more than facepaint for me to blend in today, but others have no such trouble. The shagpile coat of that hare is a perfect match for last year’s grass, and a covey of mottled grey partridge is barely distinguishable from the grubby chalk in thawed fields. Those tree sparrows wear warm browns borrowed from last year’s hedge regrowth, and a pair of buzzards have lifted more sombre hues from the shadows of a hawthorn thicket. In the silhouetted branches of an oak there is ample charcoal for the jackdaws, whose calls twang like rails flexing under an approaching train. In a scattering of haws dropped by thrushes and trampled into the snow, there is just enough crimson for the breast of that male bullfinch, tweaking the last few seeds from leafless docks.
A final conjuring trick presents first as a thickening of light between my eyes and the sun. The witchery of barn owl flight, aside from its silence, is that it doesn’t look like flying at all. It is more like the rise and flutter of ash from a bonfire or the swoop of a distant skier. The bird surfs invisible slopes of air as though gravity can’t quite get a grip on it.
The apparition slips into a tree and, when I find it in my binoculars, it is staring directly at me. A male, I think. He has the countenance of a geisha, cool and aloof as the moon, and I feel conspicuous and disapproved. I should have painted my face after all.
• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary
• For livestreams of the barn owls of Fotherdale and Thixen Dale, visit the YouTube channel of local wildlife artist Robert Fuller