Visit no. 5, April 17th - 20th
I've managed to return to London without the Firewire connector for the camcorder — one of the hazards of trying to use too much gear! So there's some good stuff which'll have to wait until next time. In the meantime here's a written report.
Now nearly two weeks old, the two first-hatched chicks are about in the middle of the nestling stage, while the youngest was a week old at the beginning of the visit. Mother owl is still spending most of the time with them, though her sorties are becoming longer and more frequent. To my surprise she is coming back each time with a freshly caught rat. She must know where there's a colony as on two occasions she's taken a mere 15 minutes to bring one in. The Dad is either less expert or he feels the larder in the nestbox is already quite large enough as the interval between his visits is much longer. At the moment he's active mainly after midnight and didn't make a visit at dusk on the two nights I was out.
Night of 17/18th April
I'm going to have to check the video before writing this up. My memory is that the second night was more interesting. It was very cold (3°C) and I spent most of the time fighting off a desire to sleep!
Making the rounds of the nestboxes during the afternoon I was relieved to hear the unmistakeable call of the second female coming from a part of the wood between these owls and the house owls' territory. So she's not moved in with the hemlock owl — just keeping her distance for some reason. She's not visiting the nestbox at night. Nice to know she's around nevertheless.
Night of 19/20th April
Got some lovely video shots for this night, which was rather less cold than the previous night! I've also fixed up some neat little eight-AA-battery caddies to run the camera and light. These are much more convenient to clip on and give a more secure supply than the arrangement I'd cobbled together before. They also run for over 5 hours, which is wonderful.
When I switched on at dusk it seemed at first that Mrs Owl wasn't there, but as I peered at the tiny LCD screen I could see that she was in fact standing on the far side of the box. The camera angle isn't ideal and only her legs and lower parts were visible. After a while she went out and just 15 minutes later returned with a rat, which she gave to one of the older chicks. He or she swallowed this rat, which was pretty much the same size as himself, in profile and right in front of the camera, so some nice shots of that to come.
Later there was a hilarious incident when one of the unfed owlets — it may have been the youngest, I'm not sure —evidently decided that it wanted something too, and if Mum and Dad weren't going to feed it, it was going to feed itself! It appeared from beneath Mrs Owl's skirts and pulled a rat from the stash under the camera, hindquarters first. Oof! I was a bit worried as this isn't a good way to eat a rat because the fur goes down the wrong way. Anyway, over the next few minutes it managed to get the rat down, though I could hear it struggling to take breath between gulps and wondered what I (or Mrs Owl) could do if it started to asphyxiate.
At 1.40 am, after being out for 20 minutes, Mrs Owl came back with a small rat — or maybe it was a mouse . . whatever, it had a 2-inch tail. At first it looked as though Ugly was going to get it, as she dangled it in front of him for some time (top pic). But suddenly she slung it to her left, right in front of Baby, the youngest. Baby snapped it up as if her life depended on it. In the pic she's out of view behind Mrs Owl's head; that's Pretty behind Ugly.
In the first clip Mrs Owl stands in the door for some time before making a noise that alerts the chicks. After handing over the food she went out to meet up with Mr Owl, leaving Baby unsupervised with her enormous meal. Up to this point she'd been ripping food up to give to Baby. Well, too bad, she had another appointment, and when she flew to Mr Owl in a nearby tree they made the calls you can hear in a better recording below.
Parts 1 and 2 show Baby's struggle to swallow her prize. She was only about 10 days old at the time, and a whole rodent proved one hell of a challenge! Skip Part 2 if you don't want to see it through to the bitter end. She did eventually down the meal, without mishap, after 4 minutes or so. At the time it was very alarming to watch as I didn't know if she was going to make it!
In this sequence the tiny owlet is in back view, giving the clear impression that all these chicks really consist of is a two-inch tube (head and neck) with a belly at the bottom! Meals can be almost as large as the chick.
The third part shows Mrs Owl returning a few minutes later. Soon after coming in she picks out a rat from the stash under the camera. She didn't eat it herself, but we don't see which kiddy got it. Not long after she settled the chicks down by making the strange scratchy noises you'll hear at the end of the clip. They sound as if she's grinding her teeth (so to speak). It seems to calm the chicks and let them know it's time to go to sleep.
Clips are all mp4 (mpeg-4) format. Parts 1 and 2 are two minutes plus each and weigh in at 5.8 and 5.5 Mb. Part 3 is shorter at 1 min 40 s and 4.9 Mb. Long, but you get to see things in real time. There are no cuts in the three-part sequence except for one in the fade near the end of Part 3.
Part 1 — Delivery and feed
Part 2 — Feed cont.
Part 3 — Mrs Owl says it's bedtime
Watch movie on YouTube: Click on the logo to see the whole movie in one piece. Opens on a separate page or tab. Not so good in full-screen mode as I haven't upgraded the YouTube version to the larger mp4 format.
Three hours passed before Mr Owl's first visit (which happened during the clips above) and I was getting quite worried that he'd met with an accident — those electricity poles so close give me the heebie-jeebies. But turn up he did, and Mrs Owl went out to greet him.
It's been some time since I've heard them having a reunion in the trees nearby. These affairs are quite different from the almost silent food deliveries, with the parent owls greeting each other enthusiastically. My impression is that such meetings are less frequent than in 2006, when they happened almost every night. Also, Mrs Owl is vocally quite subdued this year — she's calling very little from the box. Maybe she's just getting used to success.
Mr and Mrs meet up 1.40 am 512 kb, 26 s
That's the meeting she was having while the tiniest chick was trying to down the rat in Part 1 of the movie sequence above. For comparison, here's a recording from 2006 of the kind of noises these two owls are capable of making when they have a reunion. The loud hissing is the chicks: the recording was made with a dish pointed at the nestbox and the parent owls were behind. The church clock (probably Biddenden) is about three miles away.
Midnight meeting 10 May 2006 1.2 Mb, 1 min
Later on that night Mrs Owl went out again and, skilled huntress that she is, returned after a short time with another rat.
Mrs Owl takes a peep at the video man
When the night was over I packed up the gear slowly and kept my back turned on Mrs Owl in the nestbox. I hoped in this way to encourage her to raise her head above the parapet — tawnies are shy but they are also very curious. Turning round when I'd finished I was rewarded by seeing her full face. She looked very funny as she had all her face feathers ruffled up the way tawnies do when they're embarrassed and she was keeping her eyes nearly closed so I wouldn't see her . . but she was having a darned good look all the same. It's the first time, including 2006, that I've been able to look at her openly in the nestbox. Nights, when I'm concealed, can be quite funny as she passes a lot of the time gazing at the tent, so with the video monitor it's a case of her looking at me watching her looking at me . . .
Does Mrs Owl know that a human made and put up her box? I very much doubt it. Tawny Owls are clever little creatures — by far the canniest in the wood in my view — but she just doesn't have the information to form a concept like that. She probably doesn't see the box as a natural object . . it's like other box-like objects that she associates with humans. But it probably doesn't go further than that apart from realising that our occasional presence is a price that goes with using the box to breed. Canniest? I've never known a creature so clever at sussing out whether you're around, however still you keep or well you conceal yourself. They'll fly and perch, fly and perch in circles round where you are, and even 100 yards away, with a line of sight obscured by branches and leaves, they unfailingly know that you're there. I just don't know how they do it. It's as if they bristled with extrasensory perceptions . . and a very acute brain. I'm absolutely not among those, and many there are, who think owls are stupid.
What I'm hoping is that by fledge time Mrs Owl will be so accustomed to my presence that I'll get some good footage of her and the chicks. The plus this year is that the chicks have a spread of ages, so after the first two are out branching she'll have to wait 3-5 days for the last one to fledge fully. In 2006 even Mr Owl got so used to me by fledging time that I was allowed to stand outside the tent watching them having a meet-up in nearby trees. That was in full daylight.
Currently I'm expecting the chicks to fledge from 3rd to 8th May. Let's hope the weather's nicer by then!
22nd April — London, and a curious Potter connection
I haven't read a Harry Potter book, or seen one of the movies, and I'm pretty unlikely to! Of course one couldn't be unaware of the enormous interest the books and films have stimulated in owls. (Or was it the owls that sold the books? Who knows!) Anyway, today we had a meeting with a long-time contact who's now working for Rowling's publishers to discuss a work project. Absolutely nothing to do with owls, sadly, but it's a long project and I was amused to think that none other than the Potter publishers will be contributing to the real owl project described on these pages. Their offices have a pleasant, old-style reception room that's lined from top to bottom with recent books they've published, and yes, you can't miss the Potter shelf, right in the middle at eye level, where I guess it should be.
Postscript — a confession
Since writing that I got so curious at whether I, as an imaginary publisher's reader, would have rejected Rowling's first book that I decided to read it. According to Wikipedia, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was submitted to twelve publishing houses and was rejected by every man jack of them before being accepted by Bloomsbury — not least, we are told, because the eight-year-old daughter of Bloomsbury’s chairman was enthusiastic about the first chapter and wanted to read more. Corinne and I have often wondered at the Rowling phenomenon (depending on publishers for our living as we do!). She thinks that some other writers of children's magic and fantasy books are better, and underrated by comparison. But you can't get away from the fact that each word Rowling has written has so far been worth around $1,000 to her personally, and that overall the Harry Potter industry represents a worth of around 15 times that — $15,000 for every word Rowling has written. What it's all been worth to Bloomsbury I don't know. But what it reflects and what is real is children's response to the books. Somehow no less than 12 publisher's readers — all presumably specialising in children's material — failed to spot the phenomenal appeal Philosopher's Stone would have.
To me, as an ex-geologist, that's about like the same number of professional prospectors walking over the Witwatersrand and failing to spot the gold, and then going on to Kimberley and missing the diamonds!
Well, I've been reading with hindsight, of course, and I'm only about one-third way through Philosopher's Stone, but no, I definitely would not have turned it down! I have no problem seeing the appeal. What does puzzle me is how 12 readers of manuscripts for children could have been so out of touch with their childish side — with what would have appealed to them as children. But then maybe I've just never really grown up . . as you can see from these pages!
I will say though that there are some hOWLers in the book — as in one place where the Snowy Owl is described as sleeping with its head under its wing. Oh dear oh dear. But little booboos like that wouldn't have made me reject the manuscript, for sure!
Another thing I can say for sure is that I would have had absolutely no inkling of the phenomenon to come.
powered by owls
Another pic of the nestbox going up on 13th February 2008. The tactic the owls seem to use to navigate this Larch stand with its tricky interleaving of fine branches is basically to overfly the lot until they reach a point where they can perch and then drop down safely. (Warning: big pic is 300 kb)