Visit no. 6, April 23rd - 27th

Just back from this visit, and I do have the Firewire connector for the camcorder this time! Everything's going well with the owls, and there are some interesting things to report. The older chicks were 18 days old or so at the start of the visit and 23 at the end. The third chick tails by about five days. They're starting to look out and take an interest in the world, but no attempts to leave the box yet. Mrs Owl is allowing me to observe and film her on her watching perches in some nearby larches, and I've seen the Dad and young Ms Owl, or so I believe! At dusk one evening I was able to follow the three owls as they conducted a very aggressive foray into the house owls' territory.

Full report coming soon.

Meanwhile, here's one of the older chicks looking at the world (well, me!). His mother's watching perch is about 40 yards away up beyond the top right corner. The design of this box, with its low entry barrier, still has to prove itself over the next few days as the chicks become more boisterous and curious, but it does seem that the fact that they can see out without leaving the box encourages them to stay safely inside for the time being. (Photo taken 27 April)

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ABOVE LEFT: View looking over tent showing the nestbox, night recording equipment (Fostex + mics), and the camcorder position. There's about 65 ft of cable linking the nestbox camera to the camcorder. ABOVE RIGHT: The camcorder taking video feed from the nestbox camera. By now the owls appear to be happy with me sitting out like this.

BELOW LEFT: Connections and power for the nestbox camera and light (pic is mislabeled . . red and black are + and - power). BELOW RIGHT: The camcorder showing a view of the chicks. Fortunately my model has an audiovisual (A/V) in connection or this wouldn't be possible.

Flying displays by the owls

This was the real treat during the early evening's viewing. In fact I was so surprised by how freely they flew around that I was totally unready each time it happened and have no film record. Simply, bold flying like this when one or both of us is in open view has almost never happened before, and I'm geared up mentally and equipment-wise to recording events at the box. Also, an owl tends to make its flypasts without warning, you don't know where it's going to appear from, and camcorders take a few seconds to start running, so there are major difficulties catching these sudden events on anything.

The biggest surprise of the evening was when an owl suddenly flew in and perched at eye level on low branches just beyond the Fostex recorder (shown in the first pic above). It sat facing me and was close enough for me to see its face clearly with the unaided eye. Worse, it was sitting directly in the aim of the camcorder — which was connected to the nestbox camera!

Now Mrs Owl never perches this low, and it wasn't the ginger-faced Mr Owl we know from 2004, but without really thinking about it I assumed it was Mrs Owl: "Hello, Mrs Owl" . . . I always have a word with her if she's looking at me. But during the few seconds this equally surprised owl stayed perched I realised that she wasn't Mrs owl either — her face was altogether too pale and the expression was different. As the owl flew over to a dense thicket to the left it dawned on me that I'd been lucky enough to see the second female.

But all too soon a question mark appeared over this identification. For a while later, maybe 10 minutes, a hoot sounded from exactly the place in the thicket the pale-faced owl had flown to, and Mrs Owl — who'd been all the while on her watching perch — flew over to have a meet-up with an owl that was undeniably male and hubby. She flew low and slow across my field of view to where he was just 50 yards away and they greeted each other enthusiastically. I got binos onto them quickly but he'd already gone, so I was unable to see whether he was the Mr Owl we know from earlier years.

For the time being I'm inclined to believe that the pale-faced owl is the second female and that she flew to where the male is now roosting (he's moved from the pines he slept in earlier to this position much closer to the nestbox). The reason for believing this is that in all respects his behaviour and calls are similar to those I know from the 2006 nesting season. If I'd heard a female call from the pale-faced owl there'd be no doubt, but she didn't call, and so some doubt must remain until I can get a good view of the male. There's absolutely no doubt however that the second female is around and taking a very active part in the affairs of our two main owls, as you'll see.

At other times during the evening it was Mrs Owl who flew around, circling the box and taking up different perches, and the last visit was by Mr Owl, who I think was bringing her something to eat but didn't find her as by then she'd left the area. Two days later I saw him flying to her with something clearly visible in his beak or claws, so there's no doubt he does bring her catches during the day.

Anyway, it's been quite wonderful to have these owls flying so openly and fearlessly during the day and so close. All took place from 30 to 70 yards away, often at a leisurely pace and as low as 6 feet from the ground, so I was able to enjoy breathtaking views of these beautiful birds. As he's now roosting nearby Mr Owl couldn't possibly not have known that I was around, so it's nice to see that he's lost his initial reserve. The only bird that was probably taken by surprise was the second female — if indeed it was her.

 

9 pm — A rowdy expedition into the house owls' territory

As if the flying show wasn't enough there was an extraordinary event later that evening. It began just as I was switching on the night recording gear. Mrs Owl was kewicking from over by the Guinea Fowl pens about 80 yards to the northeast, and Mr Owl and the second female joined in from somewhere to the east. All this is on the boundary of their territory with their neighbours, the house owls. As I walked back to the house it became clear that all three were moving rapidly deep into the house owls' area. Mrs and Ms Owl were the most vocal and so most easily traced. I could hardly believe my ears when eventually I heard young Ms Owl bawling her head off (repeated female hoots) right in the poor house owls' backyard just behind the house. This is where I've put a nestbox out for them, just next to where they nested in 2006. Little Missy Owl went on so persistently that I was able to confirm her position by taking a path that goes along the back of this patch of wood, which belongs to Corinne's mother. Mrs Owl meanwhile kewicked away a little more distantly in a stand of Scots Pines that up to now I've also regarded as in the house owls' territory. Mr Owl wasn't vocal at this stage so I can't be sure he accompanied the two females so deep into the neighbouring owls' territory. The whole affair was done so quickly and so determinedly it was like a Panzer division making a deep thrust into enemy territory — a real tawny owl blitzkrieg!

Well, this is all wonderful stuff as it clarifies the somewhat fuzzy picture I've had up to now. First, simply that there is a second female who, although she's taking no part in the nesting efforts, most certainly is taking a very active part in our owls' territorial concerns. She is doing this as an accepted member of the group. (It can't be entirely ruled out that Mr and Mrs Owl were chasing her out of their area, but, well, at the moment it doesn't feel that way. The evidence is that she's always somewhere nearby, but I've heard nothing at all to suggest that she's being challenged by either of the parent owls. They would certainly know where she was.) Similar expeditions are obviously happening on a regular basis — I was just lucky enough to be present and mobile as one was starting — and are the explanation for some of the ruckuses I've so far been hearing indistinctly in recordings.

And, of course, it tends to confirm that Ms Owl is a family member and not a second breeding partner. If this were true it would be highly unusual. I'm not aware of a reported case of a former owlet being allowed to stay on in the parents' territory — the accepted position is that youngsters are invariably kicked out in their first autumn.

How the poor house owls are taking it I don't know at the moment. We haven't heard them recently, probably because the focus has been so much on our nesting pair. I do hope they're still around.

Google photomap showing the two females' excursion deep into the house owls' territory. Mr Owl took part, but as he stopped calling I don't know his route or how far he went. I didn't hear any response from the house owls — the invasion of their territory seems to have gone unopposed.

We are wondering if the explanation for the behaviour of the nestbox owls is a recent explosion in the number of rats around a garbage disposal area behind the house. These may be dispersing into the wood and may also account for the number of rats that are being brought to the nestbox.

And the chicks . . . ?

The chicks are just fine. They're a quiet lot, and are very well behaved! They're still spending a lot of the time, both during the day and at night, dozing or sleeping in a huddle partly out of view of the camera. At other times they do what owl chicks do — scratch, sneeze, stretch, yikker, shuffle around, do poos, look at flies, look through the door. The world outside is beginning to interest them, even the youngest one, though I'm quite surprised that they show little response when the parents call near the box. Of the two older chicks I've formed the possibly unfair impression that one's ugly and the other's pretty (all tawnies grow up to be beautiful!), while the little one's just sweet but has a way to catch up — he or she's about five days behind. Mrs Owl looks to have done some delayed incubation to have the first two hatch at the same time as it's likely they started life 3-5 days apart.

(1st May: I've added a rather alarming clip on the previous page showing the youngest chick, then 10 days old, gulping down a rat. At 6 minutes it's a long clip but quite interesting viewing! Click here to go direct.)

So we're now waiting for fledging, which may start on 1st or 2nd May but is more likely a couple of days later. The problem here is we're not absolutely sure when the family was started, and I find their ages difficult to be sure of on the infared camera as developing colour — increasing amounts of brown in the feathers — is an important indicator. But a chick that can make it to a nearby branch will be on its 29th day, give or take a day.

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Mrs Owl now spends most of her time on a watching perch near the nestbox. If she's lucky Mr Owl brings her tidbits during the day. Photo taken 27 April just before 2 pm. Click for larger version.

Nesting Diary 2008

Page 8

25th April

I've switched to daytime viewing as a night spent out on 23/24 April showed that things inside the box were fairly uneventful. Mrs Owl was out for much of the time and the chicks remained in a huddle in the one corner that's largely out of view. The camera and lighting setup is definitely going to have to be rethought for next year!

On the 25th I visited the nestbox three times — first over lunch, again between 5.30 and 8 pm, and finally at about 9 pm to put recording equipment out.

One of the main reasons for switching to daytime visits is that Mrs Owl has now left the box more or less permanently to take up a watching position in trees nearby. This means that I can get photos/film of her — provided, of course, that she feels confident enough to stay where she is while I try to get a better angle through the tangle of branches that she usually makes sure is between me and her! I'm now sitting outside the tent on a fishing stool — sitting is both more comfortable and makes one look less of a threat. The camcorder is usually on a tripod, hitched to the feed from the nestbox. There were wonderful owl flying displays today by, as far as I could make out, all three owls, and I'm feeling the need for a second camcorder acutely!

Since it's all now in the open, here are some shots of my rather simple setup taken in ths afternoon's gloomy light, when it also managed to spit light rain from time to time. Some might be interested in how it's done. Certainly Mrs Owl, on her perch off to the right, watches with mild curiosity when she's around. Mr Owl seems to have overcome his reservations and if he's found a rat he comes straight in and gives it to her...