Weird Norfolk: The mysterious glow of a silent hunter of the skies

Barn owl quartering a meadow on the kessingland levels. Picture: iWitness24/Robert McKenna

Barn owl quartering a meadow on the kessingland levels. Picture: iWitness24/Robert McKenna - Credit:

Long before The Giant in Twin Peaks told Agent Dale Cooper, Norfolk knew that the owls were not as they seem. For more than a century, there have been reports of glowing owls streaking across county skies in the dark of night, luminous birds that appear like flying spectres, feathered ghosts causing those that see them to believe they had seen something truly other-worldly.

In West Bilney near King's Lynn in 1897, gamekeeper Frederick Rolfe was out late at night when he saw a bright blue light fly close to his face. The object appeared several more times that night and he returned on subsequent nights with his gun to try to discover what it was. 'At last I saw the light skimming over the ground,' he explained, 'I waited until it was within a few yards of me, then fired at the light. It being dark, you might fancy my surprise when I found…a barn owl dead on the ground.' Walter Rye, who wrote about a similar creature in Foulsham in February 1907, wrote more than 80 works about Norfolk including one which he wrote about 'strange lights and luminous owls' in the county. He was desperate to spot a glowing owl himself, spending nights with his friend RJW Purdy in the hope of spotting one: 'If I didn't see the luminous owl myself, I certainly caught the worst cold I have ever had while waiting to do so,' he wrote.

A year later, the EDP reported another glowing owl. Edward Cannell of Lower Hellesdon caught the luminous owl in darkness at around 6am which later died 'from purely natural causes' minutes later.'I saw something shining on the grass bank, which for the moment startled me,' said Mr Cannell. It fluttered down, crossed the path and got up against the grape vine. I had no trouble in catching it, and I did not hurt it in any way. It was an owl, and it was bright and luminous. I carried it indoors, and put it on a stool, and went in the garden again. When I came back into the house the bird was dying. It was still luminous, but perhaps the glow was not as strong as when I first saw it. When I came into breakfast, the bird was quite dead. Its light had gone out.'It should be pointed out that Mr Cannell worked at the place where he describes seeing owls rather than being a patient: 'I have no doubt at all that the bird was luminous when I saw it first…There are a number of owls that fly about among the trees at the asylum every night, but I have never seen a luminous one before.'

In 1921, a luminous barn owl was spotted over the marshes at Haddiscoe in February and almost a year later in January, at Rushall near Harleston, a glowing barn own was spotted by three witnesses, one of whom described it as being 'like a pale star'.The Ornithological Notes from Norfolk for 1922 by J H Gurney said: 'No better theory has been suggested than that originally advanced, which ascribed it to contact with the luminous touchwood supposed to be produced by certain mycelium-forming fungi. Phosphorescent bacteria are liable to exist in any seat of decay and putrefaction and a bird living in a hollow tree might be expected to rub against fungus growth.'

In addition to glowing barn owls, tree-nesting ducks have also been seen to glow after roosting in tree stumps covered in light-emitting fungi which glow to attract night-flying insects which can disperse spores to spread the fungi over a greater area: of 85,000 species of fungi, only 65 species glow. Many believe that it is the fungi that accounts for glowing owls, although if you're keen to capture a Will o' the Wisp yourself, head to a deep, dark area of Norfolk woodland and try your luck lifting sections of rotten wood in the dark: if you're lucky, you'll catch a glow and a hint of a truly magic mushroom: if you're fortunate, the Log Lady might be available to point you in the right direction.

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