A snowy owl, which has been delighting birdwatchers around the village of Zennor, near St Ives in Cornwall, is about 1,000 miles off course. As inhabitants of the tundra above the Arctic circle for most of the year, snowy owls do wander south in winter, but they usually get no nearer St Ives than the far north of Scotland.
This one – a young female – had help. It landed on a transatlantic cargo ship off the Cornish coast, having been clearly blown very far off course, and then flew ashore for a rest to St Mary's, one of the Isles of Scilly, before making the crossing to the Cornish mainland. It has been attracting observers in the Zennor area for the past fortnight – and astonishing them.
"I have seen snowy owls in zoos but nothing prepared me for what truly wonderful birds they are when you see them in the wild," said Jon Evans, a birdwatcher who drove through the night from Suffolk to catch sight of it.
"I took a lot of shots of it sitting there with its big yellow eyes. But only when it took off with those broad, white wings did I appreciate that the snowy owl is a truly majestic bird."
One local birdwatcher, John Chapple, said he was "exhilarated and excited" when he heard about the owl. "I just had to go and see it," he said. "It's a fantastic record for Cornwall. The chance of a snowy owl landing here is once in a blue moon. It seems happy and content. It must be finding plenty of food."
In recent times, snowy owls were briefly British birds: between 1967 and 1975 a pair bred on Fetlar, the Shetland island which is the nearest part of Britain to Norway. They managed to raise at least 16 young but despite careful protection and monitoring, in 1976 the male bird disappeared, and although females continued to visit Fetlar, no more males appeared as suitable mates, and the last birds were seen in 1993.
The rarity, therefore, is one of the great attractions of a snowy owl to anyone who loves the natural world in Britain. So too is the beauty – if you think this female is beautiful, you should see the males, which lack the black barring and are virtually all-white, and quite breathtaking.
But perhaps at the heart of the attraction is what we might call the owl experience itself, for owls hold more fascination for people than perhaps any other family of birds. JK Rowling knew exactly what she was doing when she made them the omnipresent messengers of the magical world of Harry Potter. For thousands of years, humans have attributed a wide range of characteristics to owls, from wisdom to malevolence to mystery. No doubt because they were creatures of the night, and once symbolised the dark forces that the night might contain, they were often thought of as creatures of ill-omen. But in recent times as we have lost our fear of the dark, their air of mystery has come to seem more attractive, as JK Rowling understood. The snowy owl, for its combination of size and rarity and beauty, probably represents the supreme owl experience but any owl encounter can be memorable, especially with our own nearest equivalent, the barn owl, which is all-white underneath. Anyone who has stood at the edge of a field in the dusk of a warm May evening and watched a barn owl hunt, gliding and fluttering soundlessly over the grass like a huge white moth, has witnessed something quite unforgettable.
We have four more regularly breeding owl species in Britain and all are fascinating, although not all are easy to observe. The hardest to see is the long-eared owl, which is strictly nocturnal and spends most of the day roosting in deep cover such as conifer plantations. The commonest is the tawny owl, which is also nocturnal but best known for its two call-notes, which have entered into folklore: the screech of the female ("tu-whit"), and the musical hoot of the male ("tu-whoo"). Like magpies and foxes, tawny owls now can be found in cities: a pair often breeds in the gardens of Buckingham Palace.
The other two species can often be seen during the day (if you go to the trouble of searching them out): the short-eared owl, which majestically quarters the ground low over moorlands and marshes, and the little owl, not much bigger than a blackbird, which can be seen perching on a tree branch or a gatepost. It is the little owl which is the original wise old owl, being long celebrated in Greece as the symbol of Pallas Athene, the goddess of wisdom; it was introduced to Britain in the 19th century.
Britain now may – or may not – have a sixth regularly breeding owl species. Several pair of eagle owls, enormous birds from eastern Europe with 6ft wingspans, have bred here in the past 15 years but as they are all believed to have escaped from captivity, they are not considered British birds – although the situation may change if a regular breeding population establishes itself.
Splendid though the eagle owl is, it is the snowy owl which is the most magnificent of the family. A century ago T S Eliot, the modernist poet now remembered principally for the obscurity of The Waste Land, captured something of it in a wonderful song he wrote as a young man in New England:
The moonflower opens to the moth,
The mist crawls in from sea,
A great white bird, a snowy owl,
Slips from the alder tree ...
The great white bird is alive and well, and currently living in Cornwall.