16 May -- Back to Kent

DRIVE DOWN TO KENT late afternoon. An evening of complications as this week I'm deputising for my sister who's looking after our very ancient mother. I'd arranged to drop Sophie, Mrs Owl's daughter from last year, into the local owl sanctuary, but missed the slot because of heavy traffic out of London. When I called in at the care home where my mother is she was away at the hospital for a check-up on her broken arm and hadn't been brought back. People had to be phoned, and an owl and a budgie had to be catered for. Our wild owls had to be given a miss today.


17 May

LEFT SOPHIE at the owl centre before lunch. She's in the "holiday cage" next to a couple of Ferruginous Hawks. They are huge rangy birds that bang and bounce energetically around their aviary, and half an hour after she was put into her run I found her looking quite bewildered, like a child on its first day in school (left photo below).

A couple of baby tawnies have been brought in and were lying on their tummies on the grass in a temporary cage with a Bengal Eagle Owl chick. The usual story: one had been found by a lady out for a walk in a local wood, and the other was in somebody's garden at Goudhurst, some way from the tree where the nest was. Both were injured, though fortunately not badly. The one at Goudhurst was thought to have been injured and tipped from its nest by an attacking crow. Well, maybe, but I think it's fallen for the usual reason. The new arrivals in the rescue centre looked as though they'd been lucky.

In temporary quarters next to the hawks Sophie shows her unease by widening the band of feathers between her eyes. She was in a sort of trance -- I couldn't get any response out of her.

Cautiously watching those big Ferruginous Hawks next door.

Orphaned within three weeks of coming into the world, two tawny chicks from different parents find comfort in each other. Behind is a Bengal Eagle Owl chick born at the rescue centre.

A later pic of the orphaned tawnies taken on 12 June. They're a bit younger than our nestbox pair. The one on the left is a calm bird, while the other is excitable and jumpy. They're going to be released locally, with food left out in case they need it.

17 May (cont.) -- A nestbox chick goes missing

EARLY THAT AFTERNOON, when I'd got back from a visit to the care home, Corinne and I at last had time to get out into the woods to see how things were at the nestbox.

After being there for a short time both of us had a feeling that all might not be well. There was no sign of the normally bouncy chicks. We retreated way back to get as shallow an angle as possible into the nestbox. Still nothing -- not even the very top of a fluffy back. I've had this feeling at nests before. It's inexplicable, but there's just a feeling that something has changed. Could the chicks possibly have jumped out ... and perished? We weren't sure, but as far as we knew it was still too early for even the older chick to have fledged.

This feeling became so strong that I decided to do the unthinkable -- climb up and break the sanctity of the nestbox. I simply had to find out whether that silent box was empty or not. Having no protective gear, I asked Corinne to keep a watch for the approach of an angry mother owl.

I found one chick cowering on the floor of the box. And to my dismay, the litter was sodden. As it couldn't be rain I realised I'd made a big mistake in underestimating the sheer wetness of owl chicks' poo and not providing drainage in the base. I'd relied too much on the litter, which included absorbent pet bird cage material made from wood shavings, to absorb a month's worth of doings by two growing owlets. Well, that's easy enough to fix and we can put in new litter tomorrow.

But where was the missing chick? If it had fledged successfully and made it into the safety of a nearby tree we couldn't see or hear it. I started searching around the beech for the familiar small fluffy shape huddled on the ground, or worse, for the leftovers from a fox meal.

After a short while we had to give up as there were other things to do. I abandonded my original intention to sleep until 3 am and go out for a dawn chorus and decided instead to keep a vigil in the tent for the first part of the night. That way I could see if the mother was around and hopefully hear the fledged chick hissing for food. Corinne asked me to phone her at 11.30 pm with any news.


That night . . . still no sign of the missing chick

It was the most depressing night. I plugged the Telinga into a recorder and turned the gain up high. I held the dish in my hand and turned it to all points of the compass repeatedly, hoping to hear just one faint hoarse hiss that would tell me the little chick was safe. But against the amplified roar of the wind and the angry crackle of raindrops I heard nothing. Nor did I hear the mother. Normally she pipes up within minutes of my arrival, but this time there was nothing even from her. Could this be possible, I wondered. Had she really lost heart and abandoned the one remaining chick because the other had disappeared? At 11.20, well over an hour after setting up in the tent, I phoned Corinne with the gloomy news. It was a brief call. There was no point in discussing how depressed we felt.

When the call was over I went out with a torch to scour the ground under the trees for some sign. I crossed and recrossed the area under the beech, and then behind it in the pines towards where the mother usually takes up her waiting station as I felt the chick would surely have tried to make its way over to her. There was nothing.

Twenty minutes later, as I made my way back to the tent, I heard her. Just a quiet wick, wick, wick -- the impatient call. She was on station. A few moments later came an answering hoot. I scrambled back into the tent.

They had a brief meet-up and he left. But she didn't visit the nestbox afterwards, and still there was no hissing from a fledged chick that I could hear.

And that was how it continued until I had to leave at 2.15 am (GMT). The father didn't return, and there were just a few subdued calls from the mother. From the nestbox there was only the silence of the tomb. When I finally climbed into bed at 4 am I felt we'd hit rock bottom. One nest, the pine pair's nest, abandoned, and now one chick lost from the nestbox. And the other chick ... well, what was going on was unguessable. The nestbox design was a failure and it would have to be re-engineered literally from the bottom up. We'd not been around to rescue the vanished chick. And I might have to look after yet another unfortunate orphan -- the one left cowering on sodden litter -- for the next few months. The Owl Nesting Diary would come to a premature and ignominious end. Things seemed to have hit the rocks.

Continued on next page (p.20)

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