27th March

Today was mainly taken up logging the previous recording. It takes a very long time!

 

Night of 27/28 March, recording from 6.40 pm to 2.40 am

This night's recording, along with my remaining out until about 7.45 pm, proved very productive. For a start the weather cleared up during the day and the night promised to be clear, windless and filled with stars — ideal conditions.

I put the recorder up much earlier than the previous night — at dusk at 6.40 pm. This has drawbacks as the traffic roars away until long after midnight, but I wanted to see what was going on in the first part of the night. I'd realised from the previous visit to Kent that Mr Owl was making his first visit about then, and I hoped there'd be more activity after that than in the quiet wee hours. Oddly, in 2006 I'd never been out just after dusk, always turning up for the night's recording at about 10 pm. Supper had to be had before these long vigils, and that set the pattern for my nights.

Mr Owl did attempt to come in, and once again my presence deterred him from visiting the nestbox. This time I was "hiding" behind the transparent panels of the tent porch when he first hooted ten minutes after I'd finished setting up the recorder. Interestingly, he had evidently been roosting quite nearby but in the middle wood behind me, which as I said earlier wasn't in their territory in 2006. He repeated his hooting as he came nearer but received no all-clear from Mrs Owl. Suddenly I saw him swooping in to settle on a branch just beyond the nestbox. Canny owl! He wanted to take a close look at the tent before doing anything else. I stayed stock still for about five minutes while he peered at the tent. It was no good — as I was only behind the see-through porch panels and not inside the tent I'm sure he could see me clearly enough in the fading dusk light, and after a long silent consideration of the situation he left. Not least, of course, Mrs Owl had given no welcoming signal this time as she knew jolly well where I was.

It's going to be interesting to see how long she takes to settle down with me around as she had no problems in 2006. My last resort if there are problems — as when Mr Owl fled howling and refused to return that night and the next — is simply to leave them alone for a time. In 2006 I was eventually rewarded by seeing them play in the tops of the oaks quite close by while I stood in full view. This was at the end of the breeding season, around fledging time, when it seems even Mr Owl had lost his reserve! By contrast the house owl pair — who are probably more used to humans — paid almost no attention when I sat out nights recording under their nest with no concealment whatsoever. I just sat on a garden chair surrounded by paraphernalia!

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On my way in with the recording gear I passed the hemlock owl's patch and heard him warbling. As I've heard him doing this several times before this year I'm wondering whether in his case it's to do with not having a companion. An owl that's been used to having a spouse at his side to shriek at trespassing neighbours must feel very lonely and exposed when his companion disappears. However, there seems to be a lot of warbling going on this year, and different owls are probably doing it for different reasons.

 

6.51 pm — Mr Owl starts a visit but calls it off

This is the visit described above. He kept his distance for some time before swooping into view, so there's little worth hearing. After he'd gone I waited before leaving at 7.20 pm, half an hour or so after turning up.

 

7.30 — Lots of warbling . . but by who?

I returned the way I'd come, via the hemlock owl's grove. This is a slightly circuitous route that takes one round the back of the middle wood (from our main owls' persepective). Thus this 200-metre block of wood was between me and them when I heard the start of a prolonged (at least 5 min) series of warbles made by somebody in their direction. Calls by other owls suggested some sort of local disturbance. I checked through the recording eagerly next day but found very little trace of the warbling in the roar of the traffic. Whoever it was must have been closer to me than to the mics. I knew exactly where to look in the recording as I'd noted the time — 7.30 pm. Not to worry as there should be more to come. There are so many owls this year (have been for about two years!), and interactions in our main owls' area are more complicated than in 2006!

 

8.12 pm — Mr Owl turns up . . and finds only female no. 2 at the box!

Between 7.35 and the next event soon after 8 pm there was little but some pheasant rackets and distant dogs barking. Then, at 8.07 pm, an owl hoots in the middle distance. It's clearly Mr Owl as he's answered quietly . . by female no. 2, who seems to have been lurking silently at the nestbox up to this point. He calls again, and she responds, again quietly with a half hoot. Nothing is heard from Mrs Owl. This goes on intermittently until he arrives at the nestbox five minutes later with the usual annunciatory hoot. Again the only reply is a muted one from female no. 2. As this goes on for several minutes it has to be concluded that Mrs Owl was away. Finally, with a loud hoot, Mr Owl departed (I guess), followed some time later by quiet mews from the female which end the clip. Here's an edited sequence. The little female is very demure, and Mr Owl is surprisingly gentle with her. There is no evidence of physical interaction between them of any kind. The clip is edited down from a 3-minute sequence in which there were long silences — for example the second cut represents a 50 second silence. Everything the two said while he was at the box is preserved in the clip.

Mr Owl visits but no Mrs Owl 1 Mb, 53 s

I wasn't aware Mrs Owl had left (usually there's some noise to indicate she's kicked off, though there's a lot more noise when she comes back!). If she had been there it's inconceivable she wouldn't have said anything. By now I hope listeners will be able to distinguish between Mr Owl's quiet sounds and those of the second female.

Prime Suspect?

This is a camcorder still from May 2006 of the chicks born that year. I can't help wondering if, two years later, the curious little creature on the right is our second female. (It could just as well be the one on the left.)

Evidence for: Second female is a non-breeding, non-brooding participant. Tolerated by main pair in some sort of "junior" capacity. First heard in spring 2007, not present in night recordings made under nest in 2004.

Evidence against: It's not supposed to happen! Kiddies get kicked out of parents' territory in first autumn.

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More on this night's activities will have to wait until I have time! We're due back in Kent, and I've been making a microphone cradle to try and get better recordings. Result: not enough time to finish this report.

 

(Below is a clip of a visit which I put up when I got back to London a couple of days ago, so I'll leave it here until I can fill out the rest of the night. It's from about five hours into the recording.)

The second female continues to spend time hanging around the nestbox. Some time before the next clip she and Mrs Owl had returned to the nestbox area. The clip starts with Mr Owl announcing his approach. When he arrives he sounds as if he may be giving this female a mild ticking off, though no more. Mrs Owl, in the box, can just be heard mewing quietly. She's heard most clearly when, near the end, Mr Owl goes to her, though the second female gives her tuppence-worth too! It's interesting that she's so talkative on this occasion and Mrs Owl seems subdued.

There are two versions of the clip. One is full-length, with no cuts, for those who want to hear the original as it happened. In the second, for the impatient, I've shortened the silent pauses; cuts are indicated by fades. This clip is also about 1.4 Mb smaller!

Mr Owl and second female (full) 4.1Mb, 4.5min

Mr Owl and second female (cut) 2.7Mb, 3min

It's possible there may be a second male around. I heard him not in a recording but when doing that detour 200 yards away beyond the middle wood, so it wouldn't be wise to say more at the moment.

During the next visit, beginning 1st April, I shall be out in the tent where I hope it'll be possible to make a bit more sense of all the goings-on!

 

Night of 28/29 March, recording from 6.43 pm to 2.32 am

This was a rather windy night, which damps down owl activities considerably. They probably find it difficult to hear prey and would also be buffeted when dropping down on a mouse or making their way through a wood. How they avoid all the small obstructions like twigs at the best of times I don't know. It's supposed to be done by a combination of sight and memory. The flight paths to the nestbox are liberally crossed by thin larch twigs, and the owls' ability to navigate through these — even on the darkest nights — as they fly to and from the box leaves me full of wonderment.

Despite the wind, both Mr Owl and Junior made courtesy calls on Mrs Owl. They made them separately — the two owls appear to have been going around on their own on this night. Mr Owl visited twice, first at about 8 pm and then early in the morning. These were subdued affairs, with very low-key greetings between the pair. Female no. 2 called by three times, announcing her presence with a single hoot each time. Here she is sounding distinctly wheezy against the wind a little before midnight:

Female 2 visits 180kb, 9 sec

Mrs Owl didn't reply. Other than that there's little worth hearing. But it's interesting to know that the owls do still move around even on quite a windy night.

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