18 May -- the chick is found

TODAY THE OWLS TOOK PRECEDENCE over my mother. I slept in late and gave her a miss. After grabbing a breakfast and light lunch in one I went out to scour the ground round the nestbox by daylight. Despite the heavy rain I felt there must be some trace. At nearly four weeks the chick wouldn't be passive when approached by a fox. And young birds' wings are hardly edible -- they're like the wings of early planes, all structure and cover with little flesh. When stretched out you can almost see through them, like an x-ray pic. There's just skin, bones and feathers with straps of connective tissue between the feather stems so that when the wing opens the feathers are correctly spaced. I thought I must find something.

As I walked down the path next to the pines I looked up into the beeches and oaks on the left to see if the mother was there. She was, on a short dead branch on an oak trunk, quite low down, right next to the path, so I could see her well. I felt relieved, and greeted her, as one does. After a few moments she flew off west into the oak wood and settled somewhere not far off, but too far to find her with binoculars because of the profusion of young green leaves. Although it was quite the closest I've seen her out in the wood I hardly gave it a thought and got on with the unhappy task I'd come to do. But at least it meant she hadn't abandoned the one remaining chick.

For half an hour I searched the ground between the nestbox and the path. I looked behind the trunk of each Scots Pine, under the tangles of old brambles, fallen branches and sprouting fern, at the ants' heaps for feathers that might have been brought in, and over the carpet of autumn leaves that covers the ground between.

I was near the place where we found Owly in 2003 when suddenly I heard three tiny noises above and to the right, over the path. I looked up, and found myself staring right at the fledged chick. It was standing on a branch half way up one of the pines. So that was why the mother was there. After calling Corinne with the wonderful news (she was on one of her photo walks) I returned to the house to get the camcorder.

Back at the path I got some nice shots of the chick despite some backlighting problems. I tried all angles to minimise this and to get the chick front, side and back. There was a wind and the trees were rocking, and from time to time the chick was nearly knocked off its perch, but it clambered gamely back. It had rather a poor foothold as it was on a very small twig-sized branch a couple of inches above a more substantial branch, and this was giving its large feet problems getting a good grip on the swaying perch.

LEFT: What you see if you come across a newly fledged Tawny Owl chick in the woods! The mother's somewhere near the top of the mass of foliage on the left. RIGHT: The chick was precariously perched on a slender twig just above a bigger branch. When the wind shook the Sots Pine too vigorously it would lose its grip and nearly tumble off backwards. But as it's about 20 feet up and some way from the nestbox there's no doubt this chick can sustain level flight, so it's quite safe.

As I was trying to get a view of the chick's back I heard the mother making noises right above me. And there she was, partially hidden behind leaves high up in a youngish oak, looking down at me but showing no signs of making off. And so it was that for the next hour or so I was able to get some wonderful shots of her from every possible angle. She appeared not to mind me moving around below her waving tripod and camera, and in fact she spent as much time proudly watching her chick as she spent inspecting me! She looked completely relaxed, with her eyes holding me in a calm gaze and then turning slowly to the chick. Once in a while she looked in the direction of the fields where her mate was probably roosting. Towards the end a neighbour came along the path, and Mrs Owl didn't leave even when we both positioned ourselves in full view to have a good look at her.

I'd guess it's the first time she's brought a chick to this stage. Until an hour or so before I felt I'd failed her, and couldn't stop myself wondering whether she associated our appearance on the scene three years ago with a succession of nest failures. Now as I stood beneath her I couldn't help wondering if she had some inkling of the connection between us, the nestbox, and her happiness. I'm sure not, but for both of us on that warm, windy afternoon it was like a dream come true.

The first fledged chick -- and one pleased mother, filmed this afternoon, 18th May. To my surprise the mother stayed put while I walked around underneath filming for one whole hour! This is a real first -- she has never allowed us so close while out in the open. The fledged chick is 30-40 feet to her left. The other, younger chick is still in the nestbox about 75 yards away.

Left, the chick from behind, and right, the mother looks down at me with mild curiosity as I manoeuvre for yet another angle on her. The movie's quite good as the tree tops were swinging back and forth in the wind and sometimes Mrs Owl would be swung right out of view! These pics of the mum represent something of a historic moment as she is the mother of four chicks we have looked after and it has taken three years to get to the stage where she will stay and pose like this.

More pics on next page (p.21)

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