Hep Cairnswood: the winter watcher


I've always been an indoor person – an introvert wanting nothing more than to hibernate through the winter. Winter was something to get through, something inevitable that I'd dread each year. Before I started looking at birds on purpose there was nothing that would drag me from my homemade nest and fling me into the snow and horizontal rain with a ridiculous grin. 

Some of my most special birding memories have happened in winter. The sight of the peachy blush of a Eurasian Bullfinch against the snow is a beautiful thing, as is getting completely drenched to the point where all you can do is laugh. It turns out that all I needed was a passion for nature, my enthusiastic wader-loving wife, and a big coat. 

Winter in 2021 was an especially challenging one with the loss of my papa in October and my gran a couple of months later. As someone with depression that each year seemed to peak in the winter, losing both of my grandparents could've easily dimmed any light that winter had started to give me. But then came a Barn Owl.

The routine of the local Barn Owl helped Hep get through a tough period (Oliver Smart).

My wife Abi and I live in a built-up area just outside of Leeds and we're very lucky to have a small patch of woodland and some fields on our doorstep. We regularly bird there, with the star of winter usually being the occasional Redwing and, last year, the arrival of a Dipper. We'd heard that some dog walkers had spotted a Barn Owl, which we spent night after night not seeing, waiting in the cold staring blankly at an empty field next to a motorway. 

Owls are special because they transcend ability and interest in birding – everybody wants to see an owl, or remembers the first or last time they did. This Barn Owl had piqued the interest of every dog walker in the woods, with people asking us when it had last been seen, telling us when they had seen it, and many non-birders waiting patiently by the field hoping to see something wonderful.

The Barn Owl became a constant for me. Routine can be a wonderful thing when trying to manage mental health and I clung on to this tightly through the winter. We started seeing the owl when it was getting dark at 3 pm, quickly finishing work to scurry over to the woods and wait. There was a joy in being there before the owl arrived and feeling the nervous anticipation of whether or not it would appear, wondering if the weather was right or if it was raining a little bit too much. But then it would come. It would appear from the same direction almost every night, completing its circular route around the field, hovering and diving, back up, back down. Every time I watched that beautiful bird it had my full attention and I'd forget that I was grieving.

Time passed quickly and the owl would emerge at 4 pm, then 5 pm and so on, and then suddenly it wasn't winter anymore and spring was on its way. I had done it, I had enjoyed it, and realised that winter is something not to be endured but enjoyed, all thanks to one Barn Owl with no ambition other than to survive.


  • This column was published in the January 2023 edition of Birdwatch.
Written by: Hep Cairnswood