22 April -- The nestbox chicks have hatched

ARRIVED AT HOUSE in Kent about 7.45 pm and flew out to woods with first load of gear -- mic stands and sleeping bag. After bolting supper, was out on station beneath nestbox a bit before 10 pm and had gear ready about 15 minutes later. This time it's two recorders, one to take two Rode NT1A mics on stands out in front of the tent, the other to record from the Telinga dish microphone. It's a bit like setting up a small studio in the woods! Getting it all ready causes a lot of disturbance, but wonderful Mrs Owl is back by 10.45, if she wasn't there earlier.

The very first thing I hear after turning on the dish mic at about 10 past ten is the unmistakable sound of chicks. Here they are below, from a slightly better recording about 30 min later. It's a Saturday evening, so the traffic's not too bad, but the mic is pointing at what sounds like air conditioning plant at the Benenden Chest Hospital. The amplification used in this excerpt makes it seem right next door; in fact it's half a mile away! But you can hear the chicks -- they sound pretty young to me . . .

Owl chicks 435 kb

Next here's a short excerpt of mother and chicks at quarter to eleven:

Mother and chicks 460 kb

The first part of the next track is quite funny.

Owl or train? 1.2 Mb

Of course it's not Mrs Owl being taken in by a steam train! That's the Kent & East Sussex Railway shunting stuff around, but the hoot is her mate announcing from some way off that he's about to pay a visit. Yes, male tawnies do sound rather like the old steam engine whistles.

That runs for 23 seconds. The next excerpt in the track is just to show that there seem to be two chicks (at least). I can definitely hear two here -- listen to the first three squeaks. This is about a minute after the start of the steam train excerpt, and Mr Owl is still on his way over. The quiet rustlings are probably Mrs Owl.

Finally, two and a half minutes after his first hoot, Mr Owl turns up, hoots briefly, but then for some reason immediately flies off. Is he put off by the new furniture around the nestbox? Quite possibly, because the next morning he came and had a long peer at me through the open door of the tent before leaving in disgust. It seems he doesn't approve of all the changes around the nursery. In this excerpt he seems to be saying "What's going on here? I'm off!"

Soon after that I listened to a playback of the visit through headphones. Mrs Owl, with her acute owl ears, heard and responded. It's a problem I have when Sophie's around -- the recordings, even played through headphones, set her off, making it difficult sometimes to tell what's going on! And when Chirrup the budgie chips in it can be bedlam.


Off to the Pine nest owls

My next port of call, at about midnight, was the pine tree behind the house to check on progress there. Leaving one recorder running under the nestbox, I took the Telinga dish mic with me and tramped through the dark along the rides back to the house. I think it's about new moon now, so it's not light like when I was last down.

One thing was fairly clear. The eggs in this nest have not hatched. With only sporadic traffic by now I was able to turn the gain right up. If there had been chicks I'm sure I would have heard them at some point during the 40 minutes before the male turned up.

At 20 to one the male hooted in the far distance. Unlike Mrs Owl's mate, this one takes his time. Hoot, listen to wife replying, fly a little closer, hoot again and so on. It almost seems he likes winding her up! On this occasion he took 5 minutes over it. There was then what sounded like a long, three-minute conversation at the nest. Neither sounded particularly enthusiastic about seeing each other. Don't want to get too anthropomorphic, but you can almost hear this mate asking "What are you up to woman? I'm bringing you all this food. Why haven't the damn things hatched yet?"

Anyway, have a listen. It's in three clips.

Male in distance First male calls in distance. 700 kb

Preparing these excerpts is really getting Sophie going. She listens to the conversations and joins in loudly -- far too loudly as it's late at night and neighbours will be disturbed!

In the next excerpt, two and a half minutes after the first call, he's closer. She sounds a bit croaky, possibly something to do with all the damp, cold weather? I don't know.

Coming nearer 900 kb

Suddenly, 5 minutes after the first call, he turns up. Here's the complete conversation -- and a conversation it certainly seems to be.

Conversation at nest 3.2 Mb


Back to the Nestbox owls

Here's something a little different -- tawnies backed by a full dawn chorus. This is the nestbox pair at 5.40 am, just before sunrise. He comes in for a visit, making funny little noises, and it seems they settle down together in the box. I think the crackling noises are them rather than me, and the hospital air conditioning can be heard in the background. It's Sunday morning and wonderfully traffic-free. It shows how all these exchanges between tawny pairs vary . . no two are ever quite the same.

Nestbox owls with dawn chorus 1.2 Mb

Some time later, when it was completely light, I heard Mrs Owl come in and moved so I could see the nestbox through the door of the tent. Normally when I'm working the recording gear my head's up at one end of the tent and I can't actually see what's going on. I think I'll have to change this!

Anyway, there she was, perched on a branch just right of the box, but my sudden movement alarmed her and she flew off into the pines behind and settled not far off. I wasn't expecting to see her outside and so was careless about the way I moved. Hoping she'd return if I stayed stock still I propped my chin in an uncomfortable position and managed to hold still for the next 40 minutes or so. I couldn't see her and wasn't even sure she was around -- after the first few mild protesting mews she had gone quiet.

Then her husband turned up, and she piped up -- she'd been in the pines all the time. But what was curious was that as she mewed he went to a branch some way right of the nestbox from which he could look straight into the tent. This is hardly a branch that could be used as a short hop to the box -- it's a nondescript affair about 20 feet away. I was left with the impression that she'd somehow told him he should take a look inside the tent!

Anyway, for about 40 seconds that's exactly what he did. This wild-looking brown owl stared at me with his piercing, twin-shotgun barrel dark eyes, and I stared back. His stare was hard, direct and hostile. He looked like a landowner who'd spotted a poacher.

After a while I blinked, and blinked again, and the owl flew off.

What the heck am I doing here without a camera? was my instant thought. The reason is that so far these efforts have been entirely focused on night recording. I was actually under the impression that during the nesting season tawny traffic ended at about 3 am. This is a relict from days when I used to leave small portable recorders hanging on a tree near the nests. These could at best record for five and a half hours, so a machine started at 10 pm might just make it through until 3.30 am, and my impression from the recordings was that things were busy up til about 1 am after which activity ceased.

So, I'm riding up a learning curve! This is all good stuff. Next time I'll take the out camcorder with its x2 extension lens. This gives and optical telephoto of x20. The tent is much closer than where the previous camcorder pics were taken (page 4), so at max mag it should be possible to fill the frame with the nestbox and/or an owl. I'm particularly keen to photograph her as our impression is that she's unusually large, but we've never had more than fleeting glimpses of her off the nest.

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