24 March (cont.) -- Another pair near the house!

At quarter to nine that evening I parked next to the oil tank after arriving back from a second visit to the care home. Even inside the car I could hear a female tawny kewicking in the pines almost overhead. Slightly further off a male was responding quietly. This must be the pair we think are our first chick, Owly, found in 2003, and his wife. But I was a little surprised to hear them so early -- they're usually around later in the night, perhaps after 11pm and until dawn, talking to each other during a quick visit to a corner of their territory. They rarely stay in one place for more than a couple of minutes.

I kewicked back through the open window. Rather pointless, but it's difficult to resist saying hello! There was a silence, and then the female resumed calling, quietly. When I got out of the car she continued to call. This too surprised me -- why didn't she fly off? Her mate had flown off and was hooting more distantly. Why didn't she follow?

Half an hour or so later she was still there, calling quietly from the same place.


Later that night

At 11.10pm, before going to bed, I listened from my bedroom window. There's a block of the house in the way, but I could still just hear her calling quietly at intervals. Then silence. After some minutes an owl hooted in the far distance, from somewhere deep within their usual haunts, and she responded keenly.

So, I can hardly believe it. Not only is our magnificent mother owl nesting in the nestbox, but we have a couple nesting right by the house. And it is very possible that the male of this couple is none other than Owly. Owly is Sophie's brother, born and released in 2003, and also the brother of the two chicks we lost in 2004. This means we'll have a chance to get a positive ID at last.

25 March -- Return to London

EVENING, and I'm driving back to London with my menagerie -- Chirrup the budgie in his cage on the front seat and a Tawny Owl in a pet carrier in the back. If I'm travelling very late at night to avoid traffic the owl is allowed on my shoulder, but she accepts the confinement stoically. At least my jersey will stay clean!

The owl of course is Sophie. I reflect on the curious fact that in my car is a daughter of the magnificent wild mother owl in the woods. The mother knows only the woods and the fields in which she hunts. Sophie, by contrast, loves roaring along motorways. She has seen the acres of asphalt and concrete lit by street lights and rushing headlamps, the centres of busy towns, the huge electrical transformer stations with their attendant skeins of power lines strung from gigantic pylons. Everything is examined intently. Overtaking juggernauts no longer alarm her. She has been through the Blackwall tunnel under the Thames, and across the huge Dartford suspension bridge. She understands the acceleration and braking movements of a car, and anticipates them by leaning forward or back. She probably even understands traffic lights -- that we brake when the lights are red and accelerate when they go green, as she's always ready for the change in motion. She has been almost into the heart of the great city whose suburban tentacles are reaching inexorably towards the woods through which her kith and kin swoop and flutter like huge, delicate moths.

I also think of the mother. It rains all the way to London, covering the roads with water which sprays up on to the windscreen. I think of her snug in her nestbox, listening to the rain dripping on to the roof above her in the silence of the wood. Her back will be dry, and there'll be no cold draught blowing up through damp twigs over the eggs between her feet. I imagine she may be thinking, in some owlish way, that this is just perfection, much, much nicer than a crow's nest. It is easy to think forward to her raising the young chicks without mishap, going out hunting for them, bringing them food when they leave the nestbox and beg in nearby trees, and after that revelling in them as they mature into young adults over the rest of the summer. It is quite possible that this will be the first time she has ever successfully raised a brood -- the first time she'll be spared the trauma of returning to the nest with food to find it suddenly empty, the chicks on the ground and beyond hope.

I know from recordings how happy she is when on the nest brooding her eggs -- anyone could hear the joy in her voice. I also have a recording of her the night she lost Tubby and Tiny tot. Her soft, folorn keening is heartbreaking.


26 March -- London

SITTING HERE IN LONDON at my computer doing this diary makes me wonder at it all. Sixty miles away to the southeast is an owl in a nestbox. I scribble and prepare pictures which go to a server setup in California, who knows how many thousand miles away. From there anyone in the world with a hooked-up computer will be able to hear about how the two families fare over the next few months, and with luck see some recently taken pics to show the real thing. Who knows, maybe one day I'll be able to watch the tawnies in their wood right here from my desk. It's a wonderful thought, but it makes my head spin a bit!

I've just managed to add the code for the weather thingy that shows up at the bottom of each page of the diary [Postscript: since removed]. Unfortunately I can't see the code that specifies its position on the page, so it sort of appears wherever it likes. No matter. Tonight it's telling me that it is 14C in the woods and partly cloudy, with 77% humidity and a SSW wind blowing at about 25 km/h. That's useful information and gives a good idea what it feels like to be there. Quite nice conditions -- you could walk about and not get too chilled.

Earlier my sister phoned to say our mother is having complications and is back in hospital. I'll have to return to the country for Wednesday, sooner than planned. So that's when the next posting on our two pairs of owls will be.

Sophie is hungry and watches impatiently as I munch through a tagliatelli. She knows there's a frozen chick warming up over a pan of hot water. The kitchen door is firmly shut so she can't come to harm -- she knows very well where the chick is! Having an owl around the house can be amusing. A couple of weeks ago I had to work overnight to get a piece of work in. Sophie's developing her voice and is proud of it. On two occasions during the night she let forth the most piercing, ear-shattering volley of kewicks at a volume that must have been audible through several walls. Have you heard a female tawny call nearby? Imagine that in a small room at dead of night! I nearly jumped out of my skin.

Later, some time before dawn, she was spotted by a crow. She was sitting innocently on a wooden shelf I have fixed across the window for my birds, looking at the street. The crow went beserk, and for the next 20 minutes mobbed her from the other side of the pane. Uttering the coarsest, harshest, most disconcerting crow cries he could muster, he wheeled and dashed at her, only pausing to perch in a nearby tree to consider his next move. But owls play cool, and Sophie sat out the whole episode watching him unperturbed with her big dark eyes. Not easy to imagine what the person trying to sleep in the room next door made of it all.

Sophie tucking into supper a few nights ago. The pics I just took of her with the chick are too out of focus to be usable. She consumes these poor little corpses with such a loving expression on her face . . The mouse was finished off in one gulp. Tonight's chick was taken to the top of a bookshelf and torn apart morsel by morsel,throwing bloodstains over my nice white wall. Sophie's an expert mouser and has no problem catching and dispatching the occasional live one she's given to hone her skills.

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