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WITHIN AN HOUR OF
HAUNTS OF THE FERN OWL.
OFTEN heard, but little seen, is the strong-winged, large-eyed, wide-mouthed night-swallow, or fern owl. Here and there you will see him in the course of your evening rambles; but to find his stronghold and hunting-ground you must range far afield.
Out of the town of Dorking along green lanes, a good walk will bring you to Leith Hill, and thence to the common. The sun is high up yet, and as we wish to find our owl in his night haunts first, we have plenty of time to look about us. Skirt the bog covered with cotton - grass and rushes.
“Gock,” “Gock - whir,” there goes a blackcock; they breed here near water-pools on the highest part of the land in the hot summer weather. Wild ducks rear their young here also; the cottagers find the mother and ducklings in the dipholes sometimes when they go for water in the early morning. Poultry they keep on the hills, but not ducks. “ Snakes?" Yes, large ones too. No fear of treading on one, they are off like a flash; any one not accustomed to them would wonder what that shining streak meant. Butterflies of many kinds are flitting about here and there and everywhere. Prominent from the others by their flight are the strong-winged fritillaries.
Now, from the common through the woods, we reach the moor. Up through firs, their trunks blazing red in the sunlight, another mile, and we are on the camp ground, rightly so named, for on it are the traces of a Roman fortress. In a line from this is Farleigh, dearly beloved by the antiquarian community for the treasures it has given them.
Fern owls, not Roman coins or vases, are what we have come in search of. But look round, before the light leaves, at the firs, mile after mile of them ; rough ground and heather of two kinds - pale pink and purple. Furze, ferns, and whortleberry bushes, knee-high. Bushels of fruit have the children gathered; the birds, too, have their bills stained deep purple. Plenty there are for all, and to spare.
We near our resting-place, the low mounds in front, which are the refuse from stone quarries that have been worked and left many years ago. Summer and winter have done their work in crumbling the stones. The dew blackberry, mixed with tufts of wiry grass, covers the surface. Exposed to the full blaze of the sun all day, you can feel a warmth from them at night, hot as this evening is. Moths congregate here, with other flying things; the fern owls also. Our feet touch something on the green sheep-track, the remains of a blackcock: and up from the ferns a few steps further on springs a large grey bird, which has just finished his supper. He looks like a gull, but is the full-plumaged male hen-harrier.
Chur, chur, chur-chur. The first rattling of the fern owl. It is answered from twenty different quarters. It is their dinner signal; they have fashionable customs, and dine late. Here they come, the whole place is alive with them. With the exception of the hitting of the back of the wings together at times, like a pigeon, their flight is noiseless. “Chur” and “squeak,” they are in full work now. The different flights of the moths cause the bird to tumble and dart in a very peculiar way. Some moths fly straightly, others archwise; the skip-jacks vandyke about; that clip of the owl's wing when he seems to tumble hits the moth down; the return stroke from the other wing brings him alive into his enemy's mouth.
We do not intend going home before morning breaks. The heather makes a good couch on a pinch ; and if you want a pillow pull up a good armful of the frieze moss, which is all round about. It is light enough to read, almost, and it is warm; what more could any one want? The scent from the fir-trees is enough to make you feel glad to be alive; the heather gives its share, so do other small things. We doze a little but wake up with a start, for the ground seems to shake. Two or three of the fern owls have settled close to us, and are having a