Visit to Kent no. 2, 25-29 March

I should explain that Corinne and I live and work in London, and all the owl watching has to be done during visits to Corinne's mother's home near Biddenden in Kent. I also have to do these web write-ups at my computer in London. In any case I'm finding that trawling through 8 or so hours of night recording — which I can do in Kent — takes an age!

Our second stay was marked by cold night temperatures (3C), frequent rain and some wind — the last two not favourable for owl activity. However I got recordings for three of the four nights we were down. In fact activity on the second night was so interesting that I was tempted to spend the last night in the tent we pitched under the nestbox on the second day. But it was too windy and darned cold to make it worthwhile — if there's one thing that does seem to immobilise tawnies, it's wind. They just don't bother and sit tight for the night.


25th March — first day

As soon as I arrived at about 3 pm we jessed up Sophie and went to inspect the nestboxes. There are four in all. A couple are in oak trees in the wood immediately behind the house. These are up for a pair that roost nearby — we call them the "house owls". They tried to start a family in 2006, using a crow's nest in a pine tree over the chicken run, but it seems the eggs were infertile. At any rate the female abandoned the nest some time after hatching should have happened. In 2007 there was no breeding attempt. So far this year they're ignoring their two boxes, or maybe they've simply missed them. This means we have to keep an ear out for the female in case she's using an open nest somewhere else in their rather small territory. Anyway, a routine check on these boxes showed the usual absence of evidence of use by an owl.

We drew a blank too at another nestbox — a large letterbox — which I've put out for another owl pair who live up in the north parts of the main wood. This wood is contiguous with the small wood behind the house and is where the other owls who feature here live (I'll get round to a map one day!). In fact I'm worried that the male here has lost his wife as I haven't heard her for some time. We know they successfully raised a two-chick fanily in 2005. Unfortunately they live near a dangerous road. He leaves lots of evidence of his presence in a dense grove of Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) — meals of woodpigeons and a poor Jay, and lots of white messes.

Then a longer walk along the woodland tracks and the electricity line brought us to Mrs Owl's nestbox. So far she's been there every time we've visited, though she can be very difficult to see as the light has been poor and she hides by ducking her head. To see her we have to stand back about 30 yards and peer through binos until we can make out the prominent white V that goes back from the top of her facial disk. What marked this occasion is that it's the first time Sophie has been near her mother since she fell from the nest. But although she knows very well what nestboxes are she refused to look up, and anyway wouldn't have seen her mum as she was out of sight. But I do wonder whether her mum saw her when we turned into the strip of larch trees where the nestbox now is. (Sophie's due for release later this year on a property about two miles away. She'll have a radio tag on her tail and will be carefully monitored during her first weeks out.)


Night recording 25/26 March, 10.20 pm to 6.20 am

This wasn't the greatest night's recording and doesn't have much worth putting up here. When I placed the recording gear on its tree some time after 10 pm it was overcast, very dark and cold. There was light rain intermittently throughout the night.

Nevertheless, at about 11.30 pm there was a distant dispute between males but also involving a female. Mrs Owl heard this and left the box, so it's likely that her mate was one of the males involved. She returned to the box about 7 minutes later. She didn't actually go to wherever the dispute was as it seems it was almost over by the time she made up her mind to leave. Instead Mr Owl came part way back to the nestbox, they met up and there was an excited conversation lasting several minutes. The second female was also briefly involved in this exchange. Mrs Owl could then be heard kewicking as she made her way back alone to the box, and exactly 8 minutes after the dispute began loud clunks signal her return. Leaving the nest to give moral support to a husband during a dispute seems to be quite usual behaviour.

After that the night was really very uneventful, passing in silence apart from occasional noises as Mrs Owl rearranged herself and the eggs in the box. She does this fairly regularly. The soft patter of rain, frequent through the night, was good enough reason for her not to go out more, and for Mr Owl not to visit.

But, at 2.07 am, who do we have here?

Female 2 visit 200 kb, 10 s

Mrs Owl's only response to this was to shuffle around quietly in the nestbox. Sometimes there are more vigorous shuffling noises, accompanied by mews, as here half an hour later:

Mrs Owl rearranges things 415 kb, 15 s

I said last time I wasn't hearing Grey Herons passing overhead at night . . .

Heron passes over 500 kb, 25 s

If you listen carefully just after the bird's loudest calls you'll hear its wing beats. That was at 3 am.

Just under an hour later Mrs Owl was heard distantly with the second female, unfortunately in a recording too poor to use here. A perfectly amicable-sounding encounter, with Mrs Owl kewicking and the other female responding in her usual way. Useful for me as it confirms that there really are two females — I still haven't heard them calling simultaneously (i.e. superimposed calls). About four minutes later Mrs Owl returned to the box alone.

Finally, at 4.39 am, Mrs Owl was at last treated to a visit by her mate. On this occasion he signalled his approach from some way off. Here's an edited version to show the rather charming "little" noises made by these owls when they meet up. The second female wasn't around — she'd almost certainy have piped up if she was! There was a pheasant nearby, though, and he must have seen Mr Owl arrive as he squawks over the hoot Mr Owl makes on arriving at the ledge.

Male visit 4.39 am 2.6 Mb, 2 min 18 s

As usual, fades indicate cuts. The whole episode lasted 5 minutes. In this edited clip you hear the male calling from some distance to announce he's coming in, and Mrs Owl responds immediately. Females don't respond to other males like this. He took about 50 seconds after his hoot to fly to the box, during which Mrs Owl called but he didn't; some of that is cut. Then there's a long bit running from when he turns up, and towards the end I've added shorter clips that were separated by quite long silences. Some of these show how Mrs Owl can modulate her voice, and the little squeaks he sometimes makes in reply.

Forty minutes later, at 5.23 am, Mr Owl hooted twice from I'd guess about 50 yards but he didn't come in. Possibly the slightly mournful tone of his voice was meant to indicate that he hadn't had any luck hunting. A dawn chorus, mainly of robins, had been underway for 15 minutes or so. Here's a short clip.

Mr Owl calls in dawn chorus 700 kb, 35 s

Nothing was heard from the second female after her meet-up with Mrs Owl some way from the nestbox at 3.55 am, and the recording ends at 6.21 am. The little girl put that right the next night I recorded, however!

26th March — Tent gets pitched

The main job the next day was to put up the tent near Mrs Owl's tree. Three visits by vandals starting in the summer of 2007 had forced us to remove both nestbox and tent from their old site on Boxing Day. At first the damage done was minor, but on the third visit a determined and forceful attempt was made to yank audiovisual equipment out of the box by pulling on the cable. The disadvantage of that site was that it was all too visible from a public footpath through the wood. So we found another site about 100 yards to the east that's completely invisible from the footpath. The box is also higher up, at about 18 ft, to minimise the effects of little boys hurling missiles or wielding branches. We hope, of course, that the little b-gg-rs simply won't find it.

ABOVE RIGHT: The tent on a nicer day than when we put it up! Mrs Owl's tree is just to the right, out of sight. BELOW: The tent in 2006 showing how neatly the little porch shelters the Telinga mic dish from rain. I hide back in the tent working sound gear and a camcorder. (Warning! Because of the leaves the big popup versions are largish files. Not recommended for dial-up users.)

The tent is essential because Mr Owl can object strongly to my presence. Mrs Owl gets very used to me being around, but Mr has been known to flee, howling loudly, if he spots so much as a finger move behind an opening. They both know when I'm in the tent, but as long as I remain hidden Mr Owl doesn't mind. This doesn't stop him glaring fiercely at the tent every time he turns up at the nestbox though!

The tent is also essential because I need to be out there to tell where all these calls are coming from. This'll help me judge better who's around and how they're interacting, something that's quite difficult from a recording. Crucially, I want to see whether the little female stays outside or goes into the box — at the moment I think she stays out. Not going into the box will be a further indication that she's one of this pair's former owlets and not an unrelated female who's jointly brooding with Mrs Owl. And being able to use a dish mic rather than omnidirectional mics will give better, less traffic-dominated recordings, whether of what's going on in the nestbox or of activities further afield.

Today was also marked by finding a male owl roosting in his big dutch-style letterbox in the hemlock grove. We were doing a routine visit, not expecting anything, when he suddenly appeared on the ledge and flew off over our heads. Nice surprise, but it'd be even better if he does turn out to have a wife. It's the only time we saw him during this stay in Kent.


Night of 26/27 March — No recordings

The tent was more of a problem to put up than we'd expected — we just couldn't remember how the fibre supports went — and what with the onset of rain almost the moment we'd finished along with a forecast of a wet night I gave recording a miss.

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Mrs Owl in her box in May 2006. So far this year she's not shown her face, keeping her head well down when we're around. This pic shows the box in its old location.