Visit no. 4, April 8th - 14th

This visit was interrupted by our trip to Belgium — we were away from the 9th to the 11th.


8th April: we get the nestbox IR camera running

The nestbox has an infrared camera setup, but I hadn't connected it up because I wasn't at all sure the owls would use the box this year, and video cables hanging down the tree and snaking across the ground are an invitation to tiresome little boys to "have a go". So while Mrs Owl was away for a time in the early evening of 8th April I popped the camera in and connected the 25 yards or so of cable that stretch to the tent. I was relieved to find that the camera and its infrared light will work happily on a small 12 volt caddy I have for a recorder rather than a thumping great car battery!

Up at the box to drop the camera into its slot I could hardly believe what I saw. Over on the far side was a huge stash of mice and, I guess from their size, rats. I counted seven, but from the photo above it looks as though there may be as many as ten! Food is obviously plentiful this year, and Mr Owl must be a good mouser. In fact Mrs Owl is bringing things in too, as will be reported later. She's doing this despite the fact that she's still doing almost 24/7 brooding.

And there were not the usual two chicks but three — or at least two chicks and one egg. The chicks both look about 2-3 days old in the pic. So maybe an indication that Mrs Owl's pleased with her box . . or simply that there's lots of food.

Mrs Owl returned before we'd quite finished and waited patiently in a nearby tree. A couple of minutes after we'd left the area — and the camcorder running — she returned to the nestbox and settled down happily, though not without a curious glance or two at the tent. The next movie starts with the scene in the wood before switching to the nestbox cam to show the chicks and Mrs Owl's return.

Caution: It can be very dangerous indeed to approach a box occupied by a mother Tawny Owl as they are renowned for the ferocity with which they will fly in and attack an intruder's face. I wore protective headgear (a welder's helmet) as a precaution even though this female is well used to us and I've gone close to one of her nests before without her objecting. That was in 2005, when it became necessary to saw off branches below a twig nest to reduce the risk of injury to a chick when it fell, as I think I've mentioned already.

Movie: Mrs Owl returns to her chicks

Click on the pic for a 1 minute QuickTime movie (mp4 format, 4 Mb) showing our very first view of Mrs Owl on the nestbox camera. It shows her returning to the nestbox after we'd popped the camera into its slot. Image size is 384 x 288 px; to view at a larger size download the file, open in the QT application and view at double size. Keep the volume down a bit as the camera mic is sensitive to rumble, and there's quite a lot of this in the second half. iMovie is turning out to be a bummer — it has sound filters, but if you apply them to part of a clip the sound gets offset from where it should be by several seconds!


Having an in-box camera has transformed the way I can observe Mrs Owl, and I've probably learned as much about her behaviour in the first two nights I was able to watch her as I have in all the previous years of listening and watching remotely. It is simply amazing to be able to see a mother owl like this as she goes about her business through the long hours of the night.

As for that amazing stash of food — which I never would have known about but for fixing the camera — it's tempting to speculate that such meat larders and some owl species' habit of delayed incubation are the reasons they tend to start laying early, as both are more easily done when the weather's still cold. (Here's a link to an article on this website on delayed incubation by owls and the outcome, synchronised hatching.)


Night (sound) recording

I didn't spend the night of the 8th out as we had to make an early start for Dover the next day, so the recorder was left out instead. Nothing much to report except that the second female put in a single brief appearance in the wee hours, only notable as she didn't turn up on the two nights I spent under the nestbox after our return. I wonder what she's up to. Maybe she's found the poor old hemlock owl!


9th - 11th April: Belgium (skip this if you want owls!)

The trip was an eye-opener for me as I had no idea Belgium was so big and contained so much semi-wild space. Corinne's half Belgian, so it came as no surprise to her! Our first night was spent in a tiny place called Moxhe, interesting for me because although it was very out of the way and therefore traffic-free, it's under the same flight paths (overflights and to and from Gatwick) that we're under in south Kent, and all night long we could hear the high-up roar of jets. Now acutely sensitive to it, I find it a very depressing sound, needless to say.

The next day we drove across the Ardennes, a huge massif covered by forestry and some farmland. There seemed to be Buzzards everywhere — soaring on huge wings, perched at the tops of trees, or on one occasion on the verge ripping up some just caught poor little prey creature. The size of this forest is astonishing, and I found myself wondering whether in part it's the inspiration for the new Midland forest in England. It's clearly the basis of a large and very active timber industry. And one would imagine, because of its sheer size and relatively undisturbed nature, a huge safe haven for wildlife.

The second night we spent in Dinant on the Meuse — for geologists out there Dinant as in the Dinantian and Stephanian divisions of the Coal Measures. The town is built along a gorge that looks as if it's the result of antecedent drainage cutting down through a part of the Ardennes massif (must check that one day!). But oh!, although we were in the centre of town right next to the river, in the wee hours I heard a couple of tawnies hooting in the wood on the opposite bank. Otherwise all was completely silent during the night as (1) people spend their nights in bed rather than in a car, unlike in England, and (2) there's no flight path overhead. What bliss.

The next day, bombing up the autoroute to Dunkirk (Auchan!) and Calais, we were treated to the extraordinary spectacle of a Kestrel weaving and darting after some bird and catching it just as they disappeared above the windscreen. It was a brilliant feat of aerobatics by the Kestrel, but we both thought for a long time about the poor little bird that had been snatched in mid-air almost in front of our eyes. If we'd been a truck neither might have survived.

The sham of — or at least a coach-and-horse-sized hole in — Europe's commitment to reducing emissions is nowhere more evident than in the speed at which one is allowed to drive on the autoroutes. Sticking like good Britishers to a sedate 65-70 mph, we were constantly overtaken by streams of traffic doing 80-90 and even 100 mph (130-160 km/h). If Americans and their economy can manage quite happily on a (to us) draconian limit of 55 mph (90 km/h), why can't we? At a stroke CO2 emissions would be reduced by dramatic amounts. But then why aren't we all made to use economy light bulbs, build houses with better insulation, and so on? Instead, like Gadarene swine, we all sweep on to the abyss.


Night of 12th - 13th April: Under the nestbox

We got back late on the 11th and I couldn't face camping out until I'd had a good night's rest! We're going through a long spell of cold nights (temperatures falling regularly to a bone-chilling 2-3C), and battery charging is a major operation that goes on all day. I guess I go out with as many as 32 AA batteries, plus the big Fostex model car battery and Sony camcorder battery have to be charged up. A caddy with eight AA batteries runs the nestbox camera and light for a little over four hours — pretty good.

Anyway, on the night of the 12th/13th I was able to enjoy my first ever continuous view of Mrs Owl and her chicks via the nestbox camera. What a thrill. It's like being just 6 inches from her head — so close I can almost see what's going on inside! In fact the lighting and camera setup aren't ideal, but fixing that will have to wait another year. The installation was done assuming she'd lie the other way, like she did in 2006. This year she seems to have positioned herself to best hear her mate in his new roosting (and possibly hunting) area. So her head tends to be the main thing in view, blocking off sight of the chicks. Well, never mind, I'll settle for that quite happily!

I'm still working up this and the next night. Meanwhile, here's a short movie.

Movie: Mouse delivery by Mr Owl at 1.30 am

This is actually a combination of two visits as I can't film inside and outside the box at the same time — I'd need two camcorders. The outside shots are of a visit Mr Owl made 3 hours earlier. No big deal as all food deliveries are very similar!

First you hear Mrs Owl kewick as she hears him thump on the ledge. It's interesting that when he turns up with food he makes no announcing hoots — just turns up, hands over his catch, stares at the tent and leaves. You can just see him out there from inside the box until a short outside shot showng him flying off to the right.

Again, a movie that's been upgraded to mpeg-4 (mp4). It's 3.5 Mb and 1 min 10 s long. Earlier problems with the sound have been fixed.


Watch movie on YouTube: Click on the logo to see this movie. The advantage of watching on YouTube is you can view in full-screen mode, which works quite well for these black and white movies. Comes up in a separate page or tab. Recommended!

Night of 13th - 14th April: Under the nestbox

Just one clip here for the moment. Making movies at the same time as nesting is going on is turning out to be a completely impractical proposition — it takes too long! This year's diary will have to be finished off when everything's calmed down. Computers are still far too slow to make movies easily.

So here's a movie of a slightly unexpected event. Despite having very young chicks to look after, Mrs Owl goes out to hunt for them too. Is it because she doesn't think her mate's bringing in enough? I don't know. It's certainly nothing to do with the state of the larder, which still seems pretty well stocked. Maybe she feels they should have freshly caught prey. It may in fact simply be to do with the fact that she often goes out for a break in the wee hours, so quite possibly she just catches something for the heck of it.

Anyway, this time she went out around 4.30 am, and returned not long after with a mouse! She gave it to one of the chicks and then went out again. This time she probably had the good scratch she'd been holding off all night. 10 minutes later she came back and settled down for the rest of the night/day.

So it's not entirely true that father tawnies do all the hunting. Mum does some too. The next movie shows her coming back with the mouse.


Movie: Mrs Owl catches things too . .

Here's another feed where as far as I know Mrs Owl did the catching herself. The third chick was already hatched the previous night, and in the clip it's best seen after she has gone back out — its head is the middle one facing the camera during the feed. One of the older chicks got this morsel.

So what does Mrs Owl do all night? Basically — apart from the occasional foray — not all that much! Just at the moment the chicks get a big feed, lasting up to half an hour, from the stash at around 10 pm. Mrs Owl feeds herself later. These feeds are accompanied by loud ripping noises as the tough little rats are torn up. Otherwise she keeps the chicks warm while trying to get some rest. This can be difficult as they're very restless now, pushing around beneath her and forcing her to shift her weight constantly.

(mp4 movie, 1 min 35 s, 5.5 Mb)

Watch movie on YouTube: Click on the logo to see this movie. Opens on a separate page or tab. The YouTube version has an extra bit at the beginning showing Mrs Owl on a hunting perch in a nearby tree. View in full-screen mode.

There are also new chick noises I haven't heard before, and Mrs Owl makes some pretty interesting noises herself. One is a sort of scraping grunt that she makes to tell the chicks to settle down after a meal, when she tends to settle down herself for a rest. These can be heard in Part 3 of the feed movie on the next page.

On this particular night she seemed quite alert (the previous night she'd been sleepy), and she spent a lot of the time looking at the tent. Every now and again Mr Owl turns up, always unannounced if he's got food. Mrs Owl pecked him on the beak once, I imagine out of affection rather than annoyance or to tell him to keep out of the nestbox! That's another clip I should put up. And the food stash just seems to grow and grow, and now has an extension on the far side of the box. Of course it could be that Mrs Owl has just rearranged the old pile — I can't tell as it's not in view on the camera.

I'm off back down for another couple of nights' recording. Should be back over the weekend.

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Nesting Diary 2008

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This is the astonishing scene that greeted my eyes when I connected the nestbox camera on 8th April (click pic for big version). There may be as many as 10 mice and rats in that stash, and there were more to the left. All to feed two lovely little chicks — and a third when the egg hatches!