I saw a barn owl tonight

REPORT FROM Froize Uncovered – Nightjar Walk, June 27, 2024 By John Grant, walk co-leader with Brian Small

Waiting for dusk to deepen, to reach the exact light level that triggers the Nightjar’s first unearthly ‘churrr’ is always a period in which to consider the passing of time. Time seems to pass slowly as the sun’s last lingering rays subside in the western sky. Indeed, I recall writing about the poignancy of pondering the passing of time in such moments after last year’s Froize heathland foray in search of what is perhaps the most charismatic of all the UK’s bird species. This time, however, it was more poignant than ever. It was a time to ponder the passing not simply of time, but the passing of a friend.

Grief was still raw. The loss felt deeply still. Steve Piotrowski, with whom David and I established the Froize nature walks several years ago, was not just a great friend to us. He was a great friend to nature. His monumental achievements in wildlife conservation are legendary – diverse and deeply effective. The driving force of his life was his love of nature and his inherent desire to help other people enjoy wildlife to the same exalted level as he did. To educate. To inspire.

His passing just a few days before our Nightjar walk left those who had the honour and privilege of knowing him, and of calling him a close friend, in a wounded state of hollowness, of emptiness.

We trod the very same sandy path that Steve and I had trod together so many times before, and we gathered at the open heathland we’d watched together so many times before.

In the sunset, the rakish silhouette of a Hobby falcon streaked across the burnished sky. A few moths, mostly a species called Brown Silver-lines, flitted in the half-light as Muntjac deer barked distantly, accompanied by a Tawny Owl’s familiar far-off hoots.

At last, the dry, mechanical, other-worldly ‘churr’ of the first Nightjar wafted to us across the darkening heath. Then another. And another. A chill breeze kept the Nightjars’ flights low – without breaking the treeline – and so glimpses were just that, fleeting and tantalising.

It had been a poignant enough evening already, but I admit, tears welled in my eyes as a beautiful Barn Owl glided across the heather in front of us. Steve will forever be associated with the species as he instigated, inspired and then led the amazingly successful Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project for many years. 

I had never seen Barn Owl on this heath before – even though it was my local patch for several years when I lived in the adjacent village and even though I have visited it literally hundreds of times in my life. Goosebumps rippled. Steve was with us in spirit, wishing us well, as he always did. Helping us enjoy nature, as he always did. 

A Glow-worm glowed brightly along the track as we left the heath, and I pondered the light that Steve had shone on my life, and on the lives of so many others.

John Grant, walk co-leader with Brian Small

Guest bloggers

Steve and Granty – having a beer in Sweffling White Horse