Noises off

PUBLISHED: 05:21 01 December 2014

Barn Owl in flight, credit David Tipling

Barn Owl in flight, credit David Tipling

Please credit David Tipling (

Stand outside on a clear night in November and let your mind reach into the doings and beings of the wild world. Overhead in the vastness and blackness of the sky are the sounds of thrushes on the move, birds retreating from the Scandinavian and Siberian cold as winter grips the boreal forests in which they bred. The night flight call of the redwings above you is a fine fizzling lisp, striping through the dark sky like a shooting star. The fieldfares with them have a choppier flight and a choppy call to go with it, a squelchy chuck-chuck like wellies sprung from wet mud. Listen carefully and you may hear the bright tick of a song thrush too, southbound in the night on wings from the forests of the north.

Nearby, the local tawny owls are shouting their claim to the woods, stating their intention to breed here in late winter and to raise their round-eyed but steel-taloned chicks over the spring and summer. In the male’s gentle fluting and the female’s impetuous double-shriek the message is clear: Let no other tawny encroach our patch. Perhaps, if you live close to a common or a vole-tunnelled meadow, you may also hear the breathy, insistent call of a barn owl, like a dropped can of cola being opened just a crack.

If the air is mild, the woods’ edge may yet be criss-crossed by a million calls too high for human ears to hear. British bats begin their hibernation now – putting themselves on standby through the harsh, insect-scarce middle winter – but may still be on the wing and feeding in November. The cobweb of sound they cast across the night may only be heard by us with the help of a bat detector, which translates their too-high talk into sound we can hear; each species of bat with a distinctive purr, trill or rattle in the sounds the machine makes.

The other mammals in Norfolk’s night may only roam where their legs will take them and are guided more than any other sense by scent. We primates, with our forward-pointing eyes, dulled noses and half-dulled ears, are designed for the day (we even say “Oh I see”, when we mean we understand.) Most mammals though, especially those active at night, navigate the cobweb of meaning spun over woods and fields by smell. Simon Barnes expresses this magnificently in his How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher: “If you were to write a novel for a dog, it would have to be written not in sound symbols, like the words you are reading now, but in smell symbols”.

So in your November night, you may hear the garden snuffling of a not-quite-hibernating hedgehog sniffing his prickled way around the world, or his enthusiastic crunching as he crushes a slug in his teeth. Or you may imagine the trail of scent drawing a quick-eyed stoat through the dark in suit of his prey, or delighting the rubbery nose of a stripe-faced badger as he trots peaceably through a paddock hoping to find worms.

As you retreat to your warm bed beneath the eaves and beneath the covers, take with you this wild November night and the creatures which inhabit it. For over your roof the thrushes stroke the starred sky, down the lane the male owl’s muted hoots lay claim to a territory of trees, and in the twitch of a stoat’s nose is life lived and life lost.

Find out more about Norfolk’s wildlife online at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s wildlife information service is here to answer any questions or identify your species pictures; 01603 598333.

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