28 March -- Watching owls in London

LONDON. WHAT A HOOT! Corinne has just seen this diary, so she phoned and we ended up watching the Great Horned Owl webcam from Bakersville, California. She said it was worth having broadband just for that alone, and it was indeed rather a novel experience to be able to watch the same scenes and talk over the phone about what the mother and chicks were up to at the same time. Well, I was in the middle of saying I thought, from the wings and tail development, and the now open eyes, that the chicks were about 3 weeks old. Suddenly WHOOSH, a huge draught of turbulence around my head and there's an owl -- a real owl -- flying straight for my screen with legs and claws extended. Crash! Scratch! Scrabble!

Sophie of course. She'd been watching intently from the top of the door until it was too much to bear. Strangers! Into the attack . . clear them out! I wonder what she'd do if she saw her mum on the screen.

The weather thingy has been telling me it's been windy in the wood -- up to 45 km/h -- but remaining mild. Humidity going up and down like a yo-yo. We're going down tomorrow.


29 March -- First recordings at nestbox

DRIVING DOWN TO KENT, only about a mile from the house and on the road next to a wood that's on our map, I pass a poor little crushed body. No matter how flattened, these relics of a tawny life are now instantly recognisable to me and I find them infinitely depressing.

As soon as I'd parked behind the house I rifled through my baggage for camcorder and tripod and set off for the nestbox. Mrs Owl was there, and this time her white head markings were clearly visible through binos. I had a x2 supplementary lens screwed on to my Sony camcorder, giving x20 optical magnification at full telephoto. On a tripod the camcorder gives good, steady shots, and it focuses much more competently than the wretched Nikon Coolpix. So, here are a couple of screenshots from about 60 yards away and from two slightly different angles. Her head markings look like great white eyebrows.

5.30 pm, and the female doesn't turn a . . feather as I arrive and set up on the path 60 yards away. Looking at the video two days later I see that the only movement she made during the 8 minutes of film was to slightly rearrange the eggs beneath her. She's well aware I'm there as I talked to her in an attempt to get her to show more of herself. In previous years she used to fly from the nest when we turned up, but now she doesn't think we're worth the effort.

When on the nest female tawnies start calling to distant husbands at about 9.30 pm, so after a hurried pizza I went out with the Telinga dish microphone to try my luck. As soon as I was on the small lawn behind the house I heard the female in the pine calling -- kewick . . . kewick. That was wonderful news and confirmation that she is nesting up there. However, despite walking all around the small group of pines on two days I've been unable to find an angle from which anything can be seen on the two crows' nests up there.

I listened for a while, but she went silent and I pressed on to the nestbox in the woods. It was a foul night, with a strengthening wind bringing a light but penetrating drizzle by the time I was half way there. With the recording gear unprotected I wouldn't have long. But Mrs Owl obliged magnificently -- she is talkative on the nest at night -- and here she is at 10pm. In the long version for broadbanders she's not moving around -- I twice turned the dish to try and pinpoint where her mate was. He can just be heard in the distance, against the wind and rain, in the fields that slope down to the farm. The broadband excerpt is quite long because it's a first -- the first time I have got a really good recording of her with a good microphone.

Broadband version 2min 44s, 3.1 Mb mp3 (16/44.1 sampled at 160 kb/s)

56k version 30s, 590 kb mp3 (other details as broadband version).

I don't think the male is in the short clip, but he's only just audible anyway. With the recording in the bag I returned to the house and bed.


30 March -- Kent, Colchester, London

Mrs Owl is there when I do an after breakfast check. Nothing further to report as, frankly, very little happens during the day at this stage. The owl sits immobile for long periods of time, very occasionally changing position or shifting the eggs. And the five-inch drop to the floor has its disadvantages as she can keep low and show very little of herself while still able to spy out the land. She's sitting on about an inch of mixed wood shavings and forest litter we put in 14 months ago. These were in good condition when I climbed up to remove old beech sprays a squirrel dragged in last summer. The squirrel had been remarkably industrious -- the box was packed, stuffed tightly, to the ceiling!

In the afternoon budgie, owl and I set off for Colchester to pick up a pair of hire microphones for a recording session in London tomorrow. On the way I briefly visited the care home. The resonances are strange. Last time I had to feed my mother yoghurt. Really very little different from feeding a baby owl, except that they are at opposite ends of their lives.

Thundering fast (but legally) up the A12 to reach the hire place by 5 pm I couldn't but be struck by the number of corpses in and by the road. Hedgehogs, squirrels and pheasants were readily identifiable, but there were also other largish birds with variegated brownish markings that were new to me. Along some stretches of the lovely rolling countryside there seemed to be at least one freshly mashed bird every mile orso. At that rate how will anything survive near these ribbons of death, as someone has called them?


31 March -- Recording session in London

LONDON. At our recording session the microphones -- a pair of Sennheiser MKH 20s -- perform unexpectedly badly. I am interested in them because they are highly regarded by other nature recordists, and bird recordings I have heard made with them are outstanding. Luckily we are using other microphones to do the real work and as usual they perform flawlessly. (As it turned out, the reason for the MKH 20 problems seems to have been the Edirol R-4 recorder I was using them with as they performed perfectly when hitched up to another recorder -- see page 6.)


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