EARLY MAY 2006, and in an orchard in Croatia, as in uncounted secret places all over Europe, three tawny chicks are approaching the moment when they will leave the safety of the nest and make their first flight into the world outside. The pics on these pages were taken by Darkec, who lives in Hrsovo, near Bjelovar, in northern Croatia.

The parents chose an old apple tree whose top was brought down by a storm last summer. The orchard, which belongs to Darkec, is surrounded by fields of wheat and corn and old woods, and nearby there is a small river that floods each year. With its owl-friendly owner it sounds the perfect place for three young tawnies to come into the world!

This is the apple tree. The entrance to the hollow interior can be seen near the top.

What a place for a nest! The inside of the trunk is cavernous, and the bottom is very dark. The pic on the left is the one that caught my attention when I first saw this set -- it's a great owl photo. The young owls look surprisingly similar in age -- Darkec suggests they range from 3 to 4 weeks, but from the facial disks and colouration I'd say they were closer in age and at least 4 weeks old.

He says the mother wasn't with them during the day. Hmm. I think she'd have been sitting nearby keeping guard -- Darkec was lucky not to have been scalped when he leaned inside the apple trunk! At night, though, both adults were around.

Just three days later all the young owls have fledged! In the pic on the left one sits blinking in the morning sun. It's still in the apple tree. A pic of the same fledgling in the afternoon (right) shows its developing flight feathers nicely.

Above left: View of the apple tree looking towards the house. Right: In this view of the orchard taken further from the house the trunk of the apple tree can just be made out about one-third of the way in from the right, behind the car. As the nearest woods are several hundred yards away it's interesting to speculate why the owls should have come so far to nest. The answer is probably a combination of an unusually good nesting site and the availability of prey. But it also makes one wonder why they didn't nest in the woods. Possibly the answer is the same as here in England -- a lack of very old trees with suitable sites, i.e. holes or cavities of some kind.

Continues on next page (4b)

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