ON MY NEXT VISIT to Kent on 10-12 May I got material on two nights. The first was spent with the nestbox pair, and the second was spent partly under the pine tree nest, partly in the woods seeing who else was around, and the last part in another wood about two miles away recording a dawn chorus.
Night of 10-11 May -- Nestbox owls
It was a relief to hear Mrs Owl's mate back this time after what looked like a deliberate refusal last time to come near the nestbox while I was around. In fact on this particular night he visited a total of five times.
A regular pattern has become established. The female spends most or all of the night perched in various locations within 75 yards of the nestbox. When he turns up, which he did about every hour for the first four visits, he doesn't go to the nestbox but flies to wherever Mrs Owl is at that moment. He knows where she is because she calls sporadically -- quiet kewicks, which I think of as her waiting calls.
After the usual noisy meeting he flies off almost immediately; there's no evidence he stays around. She, however, does, spending the next 4-5 minutes calling softly before coming to the nestbox, appearing to feed the chicks with the catch he has brought in, and then flying off to perch again nearby. I can't be certain about the feeding as the camcorder hasn't yet caught her with a morsel in her beak, and these visits she makes to the chicks are over in half a minute or less. But it seems likely that this is what is happening as there would be no other reason for her to behave like this. The camcorder footage shows her briefly bending down towards the chicks, straightening up, looking around and then leaving. She does not go into the nestbox, and she only goes to it after the male's visits.
The chicks are growing fast and spend much of the night bobbing around in the box. They take no notice when their mother is making her waiting calls, but they certainly sit up and pay attention when the dad turns up. As soon as he hoots they start making hissing noises -- the noise baby tawnies make when they're hungry or expecting to be fed. During the day they tend to duck out of sight when humans are around, so I only have pics of them looking out of the nestbox at night. We should see more of them when they fledge in about 10 days time.
Below is a log of the night's events. All times are GMT, so add one hour for BST. All my recording equipment is on GMT to avoid confusion!
10.00 pm GMT Arrive and set up
10.18 Turn recorder and camera on.
10.20 See chicks -- they've grown a lot. Big fluffy things now!
10.21 Is it Mrs Owl's eyes staring at me? No, it's a chick -- the head is fluffy and it's to the right of the entrance. The mother always sits on the left. She's almost certainly in a tree nearby.
11.01 VISIT no 1 -- "Midnight meeting". Her mate turns up and there's a noisy reunion in the trees nearby, and then he's off again. See samples below.
11.05 Four minutes later she comes to the nestbox and appears to feed the chicks. Camcorder frames are about half a second apart, but from her position just before she disappears it seems she leaves soon after turning up rather than going into the nestbox.
11.09 Yelp calls nearby -- probably Mrs Owl as Sophie helpfully made the same noises while I was preparing this. One of the advantages of having an owl around!
11.28 More yelps. I wonder what she's saying as she doesn't usually make these calls.
Midnight meeting samples (11 pm GMT, midnight BST)
The male flew in just as I was about to put the camcorder on standby, so there's a bit of my voice in his first hoot. It's midnight BST and a church clock strikes in the distance. All the caterwauling rouses the chicks to join in enthusiastically. The dish is aimed at them and the two parents were in the oaks behind me, so a compression filter has been applied to suppress the chicks a bit and amplify the adults.
If you listen carefully, at about 18 seconds into the recording you'll hear the male doing an ocarina-like warble (short sample consisting of four repeats included below). And between 26 and 32 seconds he imitates her kewick call three times. The recording shows the amazing sounds these owls can make when meeting up. Even an hour's separation is enough to make them carry on as if they haven't seen each other for years!
Midnight meeting 1.2 Mb mp3, 160 b/s
Male tremolo 80 kb mp3, 160 b/s
VISIT 1: Left: The chicks react to their dad's noisy visit by peering out and bobbing around excitedly. The frame on the left was taken four minutes after his visit, and seconds later the mother arrives (right), possibly with prey the father has brought, but here it's impossible to tell as the quality of the nighttime images is not good enough.
Here's a clip of the mother's visit to the chicks four minutes after the male left. I can't hear any evidence for a feed -- in other recordings of fledged chicks being fed made two years ago it's often very obvious that one of them has had its maw completely stuffed! The second clip is Mrs Owl's "yelp" calls at 11.09. Included as I'm fairly certain it's her and they're an example of another female tawny call. These are the sounds she was making when calling her husband after he disappeared during my last visit.
Chick feed? at 11.05 700 kb mp3, 160 b/s
Yelps at 11.09 330 kb mp3, 160 b/s
Log of events continued . . .
00.13 am VISIT no 2. He turns up behind tent, hoots, and leaves almost immediately. She remains in trees for next five minutes, chicks bobbing around in eager anticipation, and then comes in to feed them. It looks like a feed but again impossible to tell from camcorder. She flies off in usual direction -- towards path to right.
00.25 Bird calls, possibly Guinea Fowl being kept in the wood.
00.30 Mrs Owl calls (kewicks) nearby.
00.40 Yikkering from a chick. The other one is probably treading on its toes. Sample below.
Chick yikkering 530 kb mp3. Recordings from 00.40 and 01.24 am. This is the standard complaint or protest sound, and is made in a very similar way by older tawnies, for example if you pick them up. The first yikker in the second part of the clip is quite emphatic.
00.52 VISIT no 3. Actually two meetings in one. After the first she remains lurking and calling. The second 7 minutes later is accompanied by crashing noises, and about a minute later she comes to the nestbox, presumably to give the chicks something the dad's brought in. Samples below.
Third visit and ?feed 1.3 Mb mp3. Three parts to this. First is when he first comes in at 00.52am. Second is 7 minutes later, when they meet up again with crashing in branches (tawnies are crazy), and third is 1 minute after that when she comes to nestbox. In the last part she sounds subdued and one suspects she had nothing to offer.
01.09 She calls sporadically from the path a little behind me. Chicks take no notice of these waiting calls from the mother.
01.22 Two calls from her and some yikkering from the chicks.
01.26 More chick yikkering but no female calls. The yikkering probably has nothing to do with her and everything to do with one of the chicks objecting to something the other is doing.
01.35 Three waiting calls from Mrs O over a couple of minutes show she's still around.
01.50 VISIT no 4. This one's over quickly, and from the recording it sounds as though she flies in front of the dish. He does two kewick-like calls, and then goes, leaving her calling. Same pattern as before: about four minutes later she comes to the chicks, stays briefly and flies off to resume her station near the path.
Visit 4 -- male kewicks 492 kb mp3. His kewick-like calls are the fourth and sixth after the loud call from her as she passes across the focus of the dish. They're easily distinguished from hers.
01.58 Occasional kewicks show she's still around, now directly down by the path in a line from the nestbox.
02.06 Three more waiting calls down by path.
02.36 Night-flying bird crashes into tree tops. I thought these things were ducks! They overfly frequently at night, both here and at the pine tree nest.
02.42 More calls from Mrs O.
02.49 Couple more calls from same place.
02.52 More waiting calls over next few minutes, but now she's in a tree half way down the pine stand, possibly one of the beeches opposite the pines, where she seems to like perching. It's now nearly 4 am BST and the first cockerels and a cuckoo are heard.
02.59 Single call from her. Edirol recorder has now done nearly 5 hours on one set of rechargeable batteries and it's time to switch.
There was little further worth noting on this night and the following morning. Occasional quiet calls from the female showed that she stayed in the vicinity most if not all of the time.
03.12 (4.12 am BST) First birds of dawn chorus at very first light.
04.49 VISIT no 5. Male meets up with female in pines beyond nestbox. Not an exuberant affair and (interestingly) she doesn't visit nestbox afterwards.
06.30 Great Tit buzzes nestbox. He knows what's inside!
End of log for the night of 10-11 May
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