THE NESTING DIARY is in fact about two pairs of owls that bred in spring 2006. One pair, shown in the oval portraits above, used our nestbox in the woods, and the other used a crow's nest in a pine tree near the house.
The nestbox pair are the parents of our orphan owls. In 2003-05 they too used old crows' nests in pine trees, and as a result lost all their chicks in those three years. The chicks are lost because they're at risk of falling from these unprotected platforms of twigs as soon as they become active at about two weeks of age. In 2006 the mother used the nestbox to successfully rear two chicks. It's possible they are the first youngsters this pair have ever brought to fledging. I pitched a tent not far from the box and between work stints in London I followed events with sound recording equipment and, later, a camcorder.
The "pine nest" owls came as a surprise bonus as we weren't aware that a female we'd often heard around the house for a couple of years had now acquired a husband. However, they were less fortunate and the nest was abandoned when, it seems, the eggs turned out to be infertile.
The Diary starts on the next page. Below on this page is some background information about the nestbox owls and their previous attempts to breed.
At the bottom of each page of the Diary there's a navigation panel to make it easier to find things. Near the bottom of this intro page there's a clickable Index. Return to the Index from anywhere in the Diary by clicking on the "Diary Index" anchor link in the green navigation panel down the side of each page. (Jump to Index now)
We wish to express our thanks to the owners of the wood for kind permission to put up the nestbox, and to Dick Hoare of UPM Tilhill Forest Management, South East England district office, for his helpful cooperation.
Latest news March 2008
After a year off, Mrs Owl has just returned to her nest box. So, as of March 19th we have a new diary, Tawny Owl Nesting Diary 2008. (There are no further links in this section as they take far too long to do!)
The box for these owls is one made to my own plans. It's designed to provide plenty of room for a mother and chicks, and also to allow recording and limited filming through a low door.
Although the nestbox wasn't put up until November 2004, the diary really started when we found the first tawny chick on the ground in 2003. Eyes tightly shut, he was sitting beneath the Scots Pines where his mother used one or other of half a dozen old crow's nests in her attempts to raise a family. We have no idea how many years this had been going on. Anyway, the little silvery ball of fluff was Owly, and he began our adventures with owls. Indeed, he began this website! Owly was released into the wood behind the house in mid-July, and we think he may be the male of the "pine nest" pair who also feature in this diary.
The next year, 2004, the mother was there again, this time with two delightful little chicks on a nearby nest. This time too we saw the dad doing his turn on the nest. So it was with horror that some days later we found both chicks on the ground, in a terrible state and far too young to fly even if they hadn't been injured. Sadly they died not long after. We called them Tubby and Tiny tot.
A nestbox is made
Thus it was that in autumn 2004 I came to spend a month making a nestbox in my livingroom in London. It was intended to be pleasant for the mother, and to allow me to film and record, but the main element in the design was an enclosed space at the bottom to stop the chicks falling out. We had realised that chicks fall off the nest when, with their instinct for hygiene, they walk backwards to poo at the side of the nest. This had become obvious from the behaviour of the first little owl. Even on quite a large table, when that call from nature came he'd just walk on backwards until he came to the edge and dropped to the floor. Plop! Safely supervised it was quite funny, and in a tree hole it would be safe, but on an open nest it was obviously a recipe for disaster. Chicks of this age are growing plum puddings with no wings to speak of, so they plummet downwards with a high chance of suffering nasty injuries both from branches and when they hit the ground.
We put the nestbox up in early November 2004 about 60 yards from the crows' nests. Tawny Owls take readily to boxes, so we were confident they'd find and use it. It was a disappointment when in spring 2005 I spotted yet another chick on one of the crows' nests. The inevitable result was another little tawny, Sophie, on the ground, and very probably a second that fell unnoticed and was snapped up by a fox. Sophie was saved from injury because I'd sawn branches off the trunk of the nest tree and prepared a soft landing some days before.
Owly and Sophie's birthplace
Near the top of this pine is the old crow's nest where Owly and Sophie were born in 2003 and 2005, respectively. (Two more chicks were raised in another nest nearby in 2004.)
In the large version you can see where, a few days before she fell, I cut off the rings of dead lower branches to prevent injury to Sophie. Owly was lucky I guess in ending up on the ground with a painful but non-fatal injury to the stomach. The nestbox is about 50 yards behind the camera.
The next year, 2006, the story was different. The mother used the nestbox and successfully raised two chicks. It's possible they are the first youngsters this pair have ever brought to fledging. I pitched a tent nearby and managed to get sound recordings and a few pics charting their progress. The Diary's about this successful breeding attempt.
The nestbox parents
The mother owl is a beautiful creature with what appears to be a large wingspan and a very pleasant, gentle expression, making her look altogether the ideal mother. Her plumage is a little pale in appearance, though she's not what is known as a "grey morph". Her painful, depressed keening the night she lost the 2004 owlets, recorded by a simple machine I'd attached to a tree for the night, was a big stimulus in making me want to help these owls. The dad is a fierce-looking and thoroughly foxy-coloured bird. We think he looks a bit like a lion! We saw quite a bit of him in 2004 when, surprisingly, he did daytime duty on the nest, but during the breeding season described in this diary I only saw him at night and never got a photo of him by daylight.
Right: Our lovely mother owl in May 2006.
Both pairs of parent owls made it through the winter, but neither is breeding this year. As of April a big surprise is that a second female is going around with the Nestbox owls. For more on this, see page 25.
Basically we're now having to wait until the 2008 breeding season for further developments.
She's back! See the Tawny Owl Nesting Diary 2008.
Page has: P = Pics; R = Recordings
There's a compact clickable index at the bottom of each diary page -- for example see below
Introduction (this page) P
Waiting P R
March 28-April 1
April 30-May 2
May 31-June 14
You'll find this navigation panel at the bottom of every page.
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Left: It was a real pleasure to have chicks survive through to fledging after three years of nesting disasters. Above: mother (left), and father (right).
Tawny Owl Nesting Diary 2006
An account of a pair of owls who had success in a nestbox after losing three previous broods from open nests