Six Weeks Later — A Summary

The account on the previous two pages is a little disorganised, so here's a summary of the main findings. The two owls were released in Pump wood on 11 August 2008. Sophie was 3 1/2 years old, and Zoe was 5 months old at the time of release. Zoe's adult calls, kewicks, developed since she was released, confirm that she is a female. Monitoring has been rather sporadic, comprising the week after release, most of it spent scouring the countryside for Sophie, and 15-20 Sept, which was spent monitoring in the territory they have established near the release point.

What we've learnt so far . . .

1. The owls have survived their first weeks in the wild and appear to be thriving.

2. Food (chicks, mice) put out on feeding ledges in the first days was not taken, showing that they were finding food for themselves from the start.

3. So far they have not moved more than about 500 m from the release point.

4. They have established a narrow territory about 1 km long in a belt of woodland along a stream. The territory includes the release site.

5. They no longer roost in the small wood where they were released, prefering to use a wood 250 m to the west. They have probably moved because of incursions by a neighbouring owl, the Pympne female, who appears to look on the release wood as hers. Her mate takes no part in these incursions. Our owl pair still enter and use the release wood.

6. Other than the Pympne pair to the north, there are few owls in the area to disturb or compete with our owls. Neighbourly relations appear to be quite friendly.

7. Both owls have been recorded talking with a lone male who lives to the south. The male appeared to be courting Sophie, who responded in a friendly way.

8. At night they are active and move around a lot, some of the time in each other's company. Sophie has been recorded calling Zoe to come and accompany her to another part of the territory.

9. Captivity appears to have had no effect on their ability to manage in the wild. In fact in every respect they have behaved like wild owls from day one. This is especially interesting in Sophie's case as she's a tame, friendly bird who has spent over three years in human company.

10. Sophie had some experience of catching mice, but Zoe had none at all. It seems therefore that knowledge of how to listen for and catch mice is innate.

Sophie during a walk in Pump Wood in July 2008.

Some more pics of the owls . . .

. . especially as Zoe hasn't been featured much yet.

First, that's Sophie on the left, another pic taken on one of our walks. A total sweetie, with the nicest temperament, and such a calm bird.

Zoe, below, is a much wilder owl. She fought and screamed pitifully when we tried to put jesses on her, so she was bundled around her new home just once, held firmly against my side with a thickly gloved hand! She's a tiny bird, about two-thirds the size of Sophie, but so feisty and very, very determined. When she was younger she was also rather panicky and lacking in self-confidence, but thankfully she seems to have got through that.


After the September visit I was stuck in London with a large work project and was unable to check on the two owls until November . . .


November: Finding the owls — again!

12th November

On 12th November we did a complete circuit of the territory in the hour before nightfall, now about 5.15 pm. We called the two owls' names and played calls, the method we'd used successfully back in September to get them to show up. But this time there was no response, and I left feeling that they were no longer in the strip of territory they were using then.

Either that, or they had perished. A worrying factor is that Woodpigeons are carrying a rather nasty parasite (Trichomonas gallinae) which, if it establishes itself, can make it impossible for birds to swallow. Owls, unfortunately, can pick this up too. On top of that no less than two pigeons — a woody and one of a pair of Collared doves that've been roosting in the garden — were seen floundering around in the backyard on the same day making disoriented attempts to fly. This may have been something I've encountered with feral pigeons, cause unknown, but treatable by antibiotic, and so possibly an inner ear infection. All in all, then, a slighly worrying time to have a couple of one's favourite birds out in the wild!


14th November

Two evenings later I returned to Sophie and Zoe's former roosting area to have another go with playback and calling their names, only to convince myself after 15 minutes that they certainly weren't there. Back in September Zoe would almost always reply from her roost during the day when I called her by name, and Sophie's invariably roused into action by playback of her own hoots!

So I followed a growing hunch that during my long absence Sophie might have fallen for the charms of the lone neighbouring male to the south, the one whose home is in the woods the other side of the big apple orchard. Maybe she'd moved in with him, and her little sister had followed. The recording I made of all three on 15 September (see previous page) certainly suggested that she would listen to his wooing with a sympathetic ear!

And that's where 20 minutes later I found our two owls — with him in his wood, and apparently quite pleased to see me. In fact I'd stood at an entrance to the wood for some time playing calls and was about to give up when suddenly the male responded, from quite nearby. It was now almost dark, too dark to see an owl unless it flew against the sky. Then I heard Zoe's unmistakeable shrieking, and soon after that what sounded like another female, hooting. The male did some warbles before falling silent and taking no part in the next half an hour's interchanges. He must have been absolutely bewildered by what he heard!

It was another 10 minutes before I could be sure that there were indeed two females as they'd both taken to hooting, and of course I needed to hear them either calling at the same time or calling from different places, which eventually they did. Zoe then went off and the next 20 minutes I spent talking to Sophie. As I was playing her own calls to make her respond, as well as calling her name and talking to her, I could compare the calls and be certain it was her. I couldn't see her because it was now quite dark, and I rarely use a torch on an owl, especially if it's flying around. We had a delightful conversation, by far the longest I've had with any owl, tame or wild.

Well, I wish I could say that she came and perched on my shoulder! But she preferred to flit to and fro, hooting, through the trees in front of me, and only once settled briefly nearby. I called her in the most persuasive tones . . but that's the way it is with tawnies. She probably reckons I'd capture her and her wonderful life in the wild would come to an end. Later, as I walked back across the huge orchard I could hear her calling, all the way across until I slid down the muddy path to a stream that marks the southern boundary of their first, and now seemingly abandonded, territory.

This is great news. There's now the prospect that Sophie — a nearly four-year-old ex-rescuee tawny — will have her first family next year. Now that was something I hadn't expected to happen so soon.

Where are they?

I haven't yet marked it on the map, but their new home starts in Nine Acre wood, partly visible at the bottom left of the full-size map — click on the thumbnail to see. This is the start of a more extensive area of woodland that's far from roads and is also uninhabited, so it's altogether a good area for tawnies. The apple orchard, by the way, appears not to have been planted when these aerial photos were taken.


12-16 December

The two owls are well and still in the male's territory (Nine Acre Wood). Some horrible weather, but I managed to call them in on two better nights of calmer, if cold weather (14 and 15 December). No interest in the food (chicks) I took along and left out. No sign of the male this time — maybe I'll pick him up in monitoring recordings planned for the Christmas break. Both females turn up together when called, so they seem to be keeping each other good company through this so far rather unpleasant winter.

The first evening I went out, Friday 12th soon after arriving from London, was blowing almost a gale and there'd been intermittent rain during the day. I walked round much of the wood, reduced to calling the owls by name because the batteries for the iPod hadn't taken a charge. Not surprisingly there was no response! The next night was even worse weather, with continuous heavier rain, so I stayed in and helped with the cooking. What this means is I open and warm the wine as Corinne's mother has forbidden me to cook in her kitchen!

The next evening the weather had calmed down and the owls showed up quickly, so they must be roosting somewhere within earshot of where I call them from. We had a 5-6 minute conversation, with the two of them flitting about in the dark kewicking before they got bored and left. I was holding out a couple of warmed up chicks in case they felt hungry, lit by a torch so they could see, but there was no interest. I put the little yellow bodies on a branch while the owls were still around to see, but the chicks hadn't been taken when I went back the next evening.

The next evening's was a shorter encounter, but this time they turned up in response to my calling their names. Some cheap batteries from Tesco proved insufficient to power the iPod for more than half a minute, so after trying from the usual place I walked along one side of the wood calling them. Again they showed up fairly quickly, but, silly birds, they flew to where I'd been at the top of the wood, hooting enthusiastically, and by the time I made it back there they'd gone. During this and the previous evening's encounters it was nice to hear both owls calling clearly.

So, there we are! It's a relief to know that they seem to be faring well even after some nasty wintery weather and that they're in no need of supplementary feeding. And of course nice to find that they're still doing things together after the move to their new wood. Whether the male's still around remains to be discovered.

I now have two nestboxes back in London for cleaning and fitting out with proper camera compartments. Sophie's box has been made filthy by a Woodpigeon who raised at least two broods in it this autumn. This nestbox was in the wood behind the house, but will be put out for Sophie in the New Year. Both boxes get cleaned and thoroughly disinfected in the bath!

Next visits are planned for the gap between Boxing Day and New Year — if we can tear ourselves away from a set of Michael Wood history DVDs and a new Yamaha keyboard!


26-30 December

A high-pressure system has settled over the country, and as a result we're having continuous cold weather with temperatures hovering at or just above zero during the day and dipping to -4C at night. We managed to call the two owls in just once, at about 7.50 pm on Sunday 28th. Sophie sounded well, but didn't stay long before retreating back to the depths of the wood. Zoe I have to say sounded a little subdued, ending her greeting with a diminishing series of squeaks, the last almost inaudible. I do hope she's alright — her problem is her tiny bulk, which makes her less able to resist the cold than Sophie. We left food (chicks) out every night, but so far, as usual, it's never been taken, so one must conclude that they don't need it. As up to six chicks have been left in the bottom, middle and top of the wood at any one time this seems a reasonable conclusion!

Below is a 2.5-min recording of the encounter. In the first 20 seconds you hear the owl yelps we played using the iPod. This is a recording of Sophie's mother, and yelps are a female owl's way of saying "I want you to come here." One of our owls — I think it may be Sophie because we heard her first — begins to respond 8 seconds into the clip with yelps of her own. Then at 30 seconds Zoe suddenly starts making kewick calls quite close to the recorder I'd put up in the wood about an hour earlier, and she's the owl who's heard in the rest of the clip. I think the yelping at 1:40 and a female hoot after that must be playback from the iPod. Now I've heard this recording I don't think Zoe sounds in too bad shape! We didn't hear her as close as this.

Owls called in at 7.50 pm 2.9 Mb, 2 min 32 s

In fact I decided it was best not to disturb them further by playback as they need every ounce of food to keep warm and find the energy to rouse themselves in the fearsome cold to catch their next meal. We did however quarter the wood very thoroughly on Monday and Tuesday when leaving food, but, well, have you ever tried looking for owls during the day?! Needless to say, despite the fact that there may be as many as three tawnies roosting in the wood, we didn't spot one of them. One never does!

I managed to worry myself so much about tiny Zoe that on my last day down, in fact on my way back up to town, I dropped into the local Tesco for a pack of steak strips and two torches! The torches I tied to the trunks above the two feeding ledges that are now positioned in the centre of the wood. The reason for doing this is that it's been a new moon, so the nights are very dark. As the owls hunt primarily by sound, listening for the rustling on the wood floor as a mouse or rat forages, there's the possibility that the silent chicks don't catch their attention. The torches of course would only have lasted a few hours into the night, but they certainly should have drawn the owls' attention to the smorgasbord of two chicks and six steak strips on each white-painted ledge! As this cold spell is forecast to last for the next 10 days or so I'll be returning to Kent on Friday 2nd January to check on the two girls, put out fresh food — and change the batteries every night!

So, all in all, it's a bit of an anxious time. They've shown they can cope with several days of wet, cold, windy weather. If they make it through this prolonged freezing spell, they should be able to make it through almost anything.

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Panorama showing the eastern end of the owls' territory. Here there are some curious barrel-shaped hills between streams, along which run wooded belts. This is where Zoe, the younger owl, seems to find amusement talking to the Pympne female, apparently quite amicably.