13 April -- Another night out

Because I'm worried that we may be disturbing the nestbox female I've decided to stay in Kent and spend another night out. Sounds perverse, but what I mean is I'd like to check what's happening. With no tent to pitch I'll be able to sneak in quickly and keep a low profile. First and foremost, I'll find out whether or not she's showing signs of being disturbed by my presence. Second, it might give an indication whether these excursions by the female, for whatever purpose, are a regular pattern. Finally, if she stays in I may get some recordings of visits by her mate.


There are humorous aspects to being confined to a tent on a chilly night if one is careless. The worst is an inconveniently frequent need to . . er, take a walk. I'd had tea and wine before going out, and in the tent I savoured two delicious cups of coffee before the inevitable reminder from mother nature. A big problem is when to take the plunge and stumble outside -- the thing has to be done, but how to circumvent Sod's Law? Twice I evaded the dread law by the narrowest of margins, for hardly was I back than an owl turned up at the box. The third time Sod caught me out (literally!). As soon as I emerged from the tent both owls called some hundred yards off -- clearly they were on their way back. Mother nature took a long time to pay her dues, and all the while the owls were calling. Back in the tent, as I manoeuvred the dish on its tripod to focus on them, the flimsy adapter that holds it slipped off its screw thread, forcing me to continue with the gear supported in one hand.

These marvellous modern "high-gain" microphones let you hear things you might not hear otherwise. All night I could hear the wind roaring in the tree tops. It sounded like a gale! In fact there was only a light wind at ground level. This brushed the tops of the pines with a gentle swish that could barely be heard with unaided ears. I could hear the Guinea Fowl calling perhaps 300 yards away, a new and strange call in these woods. They sound like someone with a hacksaw sawing at a metal pipe -- a quick stroke one way followed by a longer reverse stroke. Or like some squeaking hand pump in a yard. Then there's a mysterious pair of birds that fly around this and adjacent areas. I wonder if they're Little Owls, but I can't be sure as the calls are unlike those I've heard elsewhere. If they are Little Owls, they are clearly tolerated by the local pair of tawnies whose territory it is. (Postscript: The birds are in fact Moorhens,which apparently can be quite active at night, making calls that have mystified others too.) The downside is that you also hear the swishing roar of rubber on tarmac from miles around. This now seems to go on far into the wee hours.

Before dawn this morning there was a wake-up call, literally, as a loud and enthusiastic dawn chorus got under way. On this occasion it was mainly robins and blackbirds. I'm hoping to get out to record some dawn choruses in the lanes as they are a delight to listen to while working -- but how to fit it all in?! The nightingales will be arriving soon, if they haven't already. And then the Nightjars and our local Hobbies. Heck.


Back to the nestbox owls -- night of 13/14 April

The night turned out to be well worth staying for. An excellent night of owling was followed by an amazing dawn chorus with the first cuckoo. The nestbox female was clearly not put out by the activities below her, even by my arrival at 9.45 pm with all my accoutrements. As I walked in her mate was hooting nearby and she was calling back. I waited nearby until there was a lull during which I could nip into the tent. She stayed on the eggs most of night apart from two brief excursions, one apparently initiated by her mate who appears to have hustled her out by hooting loudly (recording below). Soon after he was involved in a brief scrap with another male some way from the nestbox. He made just two visits, the last at about half past eleven. After dawn a strange male tawny flew through the wood unchallenged. The nestbox female did not respond to his calls and by this time her mate was probably away roosting in a tree belt down in the fields.

The dawn chorus swelled in waves in the distance and finally washed over the wood in what felt like a tsunami of hundreds of little bird voices. I have never heard so many birds singing at once, and this time when it reached the wood it was not just robins and blackbirds like yesterday. It was simply anything and everything that had feathers, wings and a throat to sing. I wouldn't have a hope of identifying more than a fraction of the birds on whose massed voices the dawn rode in this morning. And there was that first cuckoo.

Below are excerpts from a recording made shortly before midnight. There's a long version for those with broadband and a short version for 56 k-ers. The short version is the main part of the visit by the male.

Male visit long 2.4 Mb mp3, 160 kb/s, 44.1/16

Male visit short 550 kb mp3, 128 kb/s, 44.1/16

The long version consists of three excerpts from a six-minute recording starting at 11.34 pm. The nestbox female heard her mate approaching and began to call. This was his second or third visit, and as it turned out the last he made on this particular night.

As soon as she heard him she started a long series of kewick calls. The first excerpt in the long clip starts 48 seconds from the first of these calls and just before he arrived at the nestbox. It ends with her last squeaks, nearly two and a half minutes after the beginning of the encounter. Both owls then fell silent, the male apparently still in the nestbox.

He stayed for a little under 4 minutes and then left, making an audible scratch as he kicked off. That's the noise in the second, short excerpt 1 min 44 s into this clip. It's often the only way I know if an owl has arrived at or left the nestbox. Sometimes I can only tell if Mrs Owl's been out because she makes a very loud noise when she lands!

About a minute later he was involved in a territorial altercation with a male which had intruded into their territory. This is the third excerpt at 1 min 49 s into the track. The dish was not pointing in their direction, so it's amplified and the quality is not the best. The other male may be the owl that crossed the territory after dawn. It's one I was not previously aware of.

A few minutes later, at 11.43 pm, there's a recording (not given here) which shows that she too left the nestbox after her mate's visit (I didn't hear her leave). In this recording she can be heard calling from some way behind me.

Six minutes after that, at 11.49, she began to call nearby. A minute later there was a loud scratch as she returned to the nestbox and settled on the eggs. As far as I know she stayed put for the rest of the night -- there are five recordings at various times before dawn of noises she made while changing position or rearranging the eggs. Interestingly I haven't yet heard her having a good scratch!


14 April


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