Visit no. 3, April 1st - 3rd

I put the recorder out for the night of 1/2 April, pressed the pause switch but then never pressed the record switch. Duh! Too much driving.


Night of 2/3 April, camping out with the owls

This was the long-awaited, eagerly anticipated first night out in the tent. I went out at dusk (7.30pm BST) with what seemed like a ton of gear, and as I walked down the electricity line Mr Owl was already making his first calls.

If I was apprehensive about Mrs Owl's reaction to my setting up camp beneath her, I needn't have been. Despite all the disturbance she behaved like a trouper. There was a long wait of about two hours before the other two owls came in, but she must have given them the all-clear and the night went without a hitch. So I learnt a lot and was able to confirm the picture I've painted so far, as well as fill in extra details.

On this particular night Mr Owl and his second lady companion appear to have been doing border patrol duty, for neighbours were shrieked at in the distance and even Mrs Owl was called out to help. In fact this may be the reason the two parent owls are active in such a different area this year — because the threat of encroachment is now along their eastern frontier, through the middle wood, rather than in their fields to the north and west.

A total of five tawnies are active along this half-mile-long eastern border: the single "hemlock grove" owl in the north, our two house owls in the middle, and another pair at the south end of this long border. All were hooting and kewicking last night, and clearly Mr Owl viewed this as a threat that must be seen off. As far as I know the little female tagged along with him all night, apart from one quick solo visit to the nestbox. Otherwise she always flew in with him.

Mrs Owl spent almost all her time in the nestbox (I can spy on her with the supernightshot (infrared) setting on the camcorder), but twice the threat must have been so dire that Mr Owl perched about 50 yards away — he wouldn't come nearer — and hooted demandingly. He wanted her to come, it seems. Mrs Owl peered out, her eyes glowing like coals in the IR, and flew off to join the fracas on both occasions. 15 minutes or so later she'd be back.


Mrs Owl is summoned to battle

Here's a short movie where you can hear Mrs Owl being summoned by her mate. He's calling off to the left and behind the camera, about 50-60 yards away. Somehow she knows he's not announcing one of his visits but wants her to come and help. Her usual response when he calls is to call back but stay put in the nestbox.

Click on the pic for the mpeg-4 movie (the controls below don't work — they're just part of the pic). File is 3.8 Mb and plays for 1 min. I've cut about 15 seconds from between the first two hoots. Sound is from the (poor) camera mic.

The lines of battle

Tawny Owl numbers in our local wood have increased recently, and the inevitable result is squabbles along borders. This map (240kb) shows the four main territories around the nestbox (Mr and Mrs Owl's interests are shown in yellow), with the big arrows showing where they've extended their terrirtory this year. In 2006 Mr Owl would usually fly in from the fields at top and left; this year I'm not sure where he's hunting. Anyway, the result of having neighbouring owls to the right and below can be quite a lot of squawking anywhere along the respective boundary lines. The "north wood" owl is the hemlock owl, so called because he roosts in a stand of thick Western Hemlock, a kind of conifer.

This is fascinating as in 2006 I saw the female of the other of our nesting pairs fly off to join her husband in a distant screaming match with neighbours, but here Mr Owl actually came in to enlist his wife's aid! In the 2006 case the female left the nest simply because she heard her mate involved in a brawl and presumably felt he needed backup. Her mate didn't come and ask for help like Mr Owl did. So it would seem that hoots can convey specific information, like "I'm coming to see you" or "Please come".

There's still no evidence of anything other than a platonic relationship between Mr Owl and female no. 2. I didn't see this female going to the nestbox (or of course entering it). Mrs Owl doesn't respond to her when in the nestbox. The second female is continuing to use her girly hoots when near the box — for all I know she may have kewicked during brawls but it'd be difficult to be sure such calls weren't another female's. I haven't seen her yet.

Mrs Owl was brought little or no food during the night, and I doubt the few forays she went on were long enough for her to have found anything. She was almost completely silent all night, which I guess was an indication she wasn't hungry. It certainly didn't seem to be because I was around (see below). With her egg-brooding duties she is very inactive, and Tawny Owls can go for several days without feeding. Food deliveries will doubtless move into higher gear once the chicks hatch. I can't wait to see if Little Miss contributes to the dinner service!

Mrs Owl is also being an absolute brick! It's impossible to keep silent or still for 10 hours, and indeed I only try to when I know a visit by Mr Owl is in the offing. Just like in 2006 she takes it all in her stride and just gets on with the job of looking after her eggs — I can see and hear her getting up and turning them quite frequently. She flew from and returned to the nestbox with little apparent concern about me. In all the checking I did with the camcorder (which doubles as invaluable night vision gear) I was amazed to see that the only time she peered down at the tent was in the clip above.

One little addendum. As they've been so active up in this corner of their territory it's almost inconceivable that Mrs Owl didn't spot the nestbox well before she laid. I suggested earlier (on page 1) that she was still looking for it only a couple of days before she started. In fact I'd completely forgotten that 2-3 weeks before we'd found cat litter below the nestbox, probably because I'd written it off as the result of squirrel activity. In the light of events it's much more likely that it was Mrs Owl making a scrape. And yes, she's on cat litter (Fuller's earth) covered by a layer of forest litter. I never got round to drilling drainage holes in the floor and so resorted to putting in a thickish bottom layer of cat litter to absorb the torrent of liquid poo that'll be produced by the chicks.

So what was she up to that night I recorded her spending so much time going round the wood? My best guess now is that she was looking to see if the box was in its old position near her traditional nesting area. This she may have felt compelled to do before finally accepting that she'd have to use it where she'd actually found it some 80 yards to the east.

Finally, Mr Owl is definitely roosting nearby. This is a big change and probably reflects the local garden fence disputes rather than the new location of the nestbox. I don't know where he's hunting. In 2006 he hunted out in the fields some way to the north and west. If he's switched to the wood this is a big change too, and one wonders what he's doing about holding all that other prime territory they normally use. Of all the owls in the area they have the biggest and best territory.

I'll put up one or two recordings in a day or two. Tomorrow (4th) it's Corinne's turn to be recorded — she's doing more French songs.


Future agenda

There's going to be a gap in the reporting I'm afraid as I'm doing more nights down in Kent soon (can't do website from there), then we have to go to Belgium for a couple of days, and when we come back the chicks are likely to have hatched, so there will be more nights out before I can return to London to write things up.

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