Winged wonder: Young snowy owl lands in Cornwall

Birdwatchers were astonished when a rare species of owl, used to the frozen wastes of the Arctic, landed in Cornwall

A A A

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.

Life and Style
Social media users in Mexico who commented on cartel violence have been killed in the past
techTweets not showing up or loading this morning, users say
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Sport
Torquay United mascot Gilbert the Gull
football
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker