IT was a magical sight and a magical experience. And it’s available totally free for anyone who wants it – you just need a little courage to take to our hills with no sun to guide you. Late on Tuesday afternoon as the light was beginning to fade, Dúlra headed towards Belfast Castle with a pal (no matter how brave you might be, you’ll not want to do this alone!).
We had heard that long-eared owls were roosting in trees further up the Cave Hill and, if you were lucky, you might see them when they wake up and stretch their wings in the twilight as they head out for their breakfast.
We used the well-worn paths through the forest until they petered out, then cut across some scrubland. Just below a row of fir trees, we found a hollow that allowed us to rest our backs against grass while still having a wide view of the landscape. It looked like perfect owl territory – trees to give them security and open land for them to hunt. If the owls were here, they’d surely take off across the mini-valley below us in the direction of the setting sun. With our low vantage point, we should see them against the sky. And so we waited for darkness to fall, talking only in whispers while staying ever-vigilant, scanning the vista before us for any sign of movement.
Twilight is a funny thing. At around half four, the sun seemed to finally disappear behind Colin Mountain, yet its afterglow gave the land an orange hue like the reflection from burning embers. The sun was gone, but for a time the land seemed even brighter than during daylight. The whin bushes glowed gloriously and the mountain looked like it was caught between two worlds – unable or unwilling to relinquish the daytime.
But relent it must. Slowly, imperceptibly, the light ebbed away. A new world was dawning, the wild nocturnal world that we rarely see nowadays.
Birds darted all around us, bedding down for the night. Blackbirds chuckled, wrens clicked, while a tiny goldcrest – Europe's smallest bird – was the most musical of them all, filling the glen with melody. In the sky above, battalions of hooded crows circled, their eerie calls echoing across the hillside. There were three flocks with about 50 birds in each – we wondered if their evening calls were like a 'morning' alarm clock for the dozing owls.
Our eyes fought to make out shapes – but we had our bins to help. We thought every big bird was an owl – our hearts missed a beat as one raptor appeared over the hill and darted down into the trees. We managed to focus our binoculars just in time – it wasn’t an owl, but something equally stunning. But this story and this night was about the owls, so Dúlra will save its identity to the end.
In the dusk, another large bird flew low over our heads and fell like a stone into the heather and whin. This was another peculiarity, its stubby wings beating as much like an insect as a bird. Even the binoculars couldn’t pick out any markings in the dying light, but Dúlra had seen this bird once before on Black Mountain. He was sure it was a woodcock, a rare bird that must also be attracted to this remote corner of Cavehill.
The wait went on. Then suddenly it appeared like a ghost before us, gliding from the trees right along the glen. Its body was a light colour from below, allowing it to stand out from the almost black hillside. With its large wings open, it was truly impressive. Dúlra checked his phone: it had appeared at exactly 5.21pm.
Thankfully, the clouds had begun to break, revealing patches of lighter sky. And so we caught our breath and waited. Then, just a few feet above us, another owl swept by, this time in the direction of the fir trees.
And then we noticed the most spooky thing of all about these birds – they seemed to surround themselves in silence. Owls have sound-dampening feathers so their prey can’t hear them coming. And it's only when you experience an owl flying up close that you realise that other birds are noisy fliers. Owls, on the other hand, cut through the air like a yacht through water.
And as total darkness fell, a third owl glided down through the glen – probably the first owl returning to the trees to eat a breakfast of freshly caught mouse.
It was time to go home. In the now total darkness, we stumbled over invisible rocks and through ditches until we reached the path through the forest again. We’d been on the hill for two hours, but we’d packed a year’s birdwatching into it.
The owls were breathtaking, uplifting. Oh, and the other raptor that had earlier powered across the old quarry and disappeared into the trees? Well, that was a peregrine falcon, the world’s fastest bird. All those on one evening on the Belfast hills. Even Netflix couldn't compete with that.
• If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.