18 May -- Fledgling (cont.)
The Cheshire cat appears
These pics are from early on in the camcorder footage I took of Mrs Owl.
TOP: At first I was so worried she'd fly off that I settled for what I could get of her partly hidden behind oak leaves. Here she's just turned from looking down at me to look across at the chick.
LOWER LEFT: Encouraged by this I moved a little until I could see more of her. Still she doesn't fly off!
BELOW: To get this view a little later I had to walk off the path onto dry autumn leaves and snapping twigs AND she would have been well aware she was no longer hidden behind foliage. In the end she stayed for another hour, only moving slightly to her left down the branch.
What a releif! Now we can look ahead. Here's a sound sample of what we'll be listening out for from the fledged chicks. With the unaided ear these hoarse squeaks can be heard up to 80 yards away, making it quite easy to locate fledglings waiting to be fed. This pair was recorded on the night of 7-8 June 2004 with my first microphones and the recording has had to be amplified 20 times! So it's a bit noisy, but the calls they make can be heard very clearly. You can hear that one chick gets fed while the other doesn't! No sound from a parent though. This family lives about 600 yards to the east of the nestbox owls.
Fledgling feed June 2004 944kb mp3, 128 kb/s, 22.050 kHz. Visivox mics + Xclef recorder
(A later note: Frustratingly, at this point I had to go back to London. I didn't note why at the time, but it was almost certainly work! For anyone's who's just dipped into the Diary, we both live in London and have to travel to Kent to keep tabs on the owls.)
20th May -- The nestbox family has flown
ARRIVED BACK IN KENT at 7.20 pm yesterday after a record three and a half hours covering the 60 miles from London! At my regular pitstop a guy in the loo said "It's a nightmare out there. Starts at 3 o'clock. If there's an accident, that's it." He was talking about the A2/M2 out of London. I resolve never to travel in the afternoon again!
In the woods soon after I found no sign of owls, either parents or chicks. Of course this was because the second chick had fledged and the mother had taken her little family elsewhere. Another big search within 100 yards of the nestbox and path area this morning turned up no owls, and the fledging of the second chick was confirmed this evening by climbing up to the nestbox again and finding it empty.
After checking the nestbox we took a long walk through the fields round the perimeter of the oak wood but didn't see or hear anything. Not altogether surprising as it's been a rough day: windy, rainy and cold. Derek at the owl rescue centre -- who I was taking some wine as a thank you for housing Sophie for the week -- said all his birds were half asleep. Sophie herself was huddled against the chill and damp in the sleeping box in her run and looked soporific. Only one European Eagle Owl was hooting determinedly.
So there it is. The chicks have fledged successfully, the dramas at the nestbox are over for the year, and it just remains to locate the owl family wherever they have gone. The forecast for tonight is clear skies with no rain, with further heavy rain from midday tomorrow. So I shall go out after about 9.30 pm (BST) with the dish and see if there's anything squeaking for a meal. This couple of chicks seem to be rather quiet, but maybe now they have to compete for attention they'll set up the usual wheezing chorus that should make it easy to locate them.
Big cat in Bedgebury Pinetum!
Off the subject of owls completely, there's some extraordinary news from Bedgebury Pinetum about five miles west of here. Corinne is a member of a group that does limbering-up exercises in local woods. She wasn't in the group doing their keep-fit stuff last Monday 15th. Pity, because they all saw, quite clearly, a big black cat. Or, I should say, a black big cat. Big cat in the sense of a puma or panther. This labrador plus sized creature was no oversized domestic moggie! We're intrigued, to say the least, because about two years ago we found a huge paw mark in the mud in a ditch in Hemsted Forest. Clear traces of enormous claws could be seen going deep down into the mud. I took photos, but of course the photos just don't show all the detail you can see by looking at different angles with good old human stereo vision. I checked out what big cat paw marks should look like on some big cat sites, but opinions differed on whether such marks should show signs of claws or not (cat's claws are retractable), so it wasn't too much help and we (sort of!) forgot about the whole thing. And now a big cat's been spotted just five miles away in a large tract of forest that's connected to our local wood here and Hemsted Forest by quite a lot of intervening woodland.
Back to the owls. With luck and fair weather we should find them fairly soon and will post news when we have it.
21st May -- The search begins
HORRIBLE WEATHER! Last night (20/21) I walked around the woods and the margins of the bordering fields listening with the dish but heard nothing above the amplified roar of a breeze constantly in the tree tops. I was out for an hour and a half. This time there's no cause for concern as one can be sure the whole family is safe and well, though probably going a bit hungry because of the unfavourable weather. I didn't hear other owls either during a circuit of about a mile and a half.
The reason for the earlier worries about the "disappeared" chick is simply that we weren't expecting fledging to happen as early as it did. My estimate for when the nestbox eggs were laid was March 20th. In fact, counting back 60 days from when the first chick fledged, he or she must have been laid as early as March 14th, with the next egg laid four or five days later. In other words, the nestbox was definitely not empty during that first visit of ours on March 17th!
When I mentioned the abandoned pine tree nest to Derek at the owl rescue centre he immediately said "squirrels". Hmm, interesting. I've not heard of squirrels eating birds' eggs, although they certainly harass nesting owls. Will have to check that one out. There are loads of crows around though.
Did a dawn chorus this morning in the place where the Backtilt wood nightingale sings, but even he seemed unable to summon the enthusiasm to sing before the other birds started. Within an hour the rain which has been sweeping over us intermittently set in with a vengeance and I retreated back to house and bed.
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In the afternoon I went out in a gap in the rain to clean out the nestbox. At first I was pleased to find it wasn't quite as wet as I had imagined from checking it when the second chick was still there. It was just damp. But lifting out handfuls of the inch and a half deep semi-composted debris there was one dominant, oh so pungent smell: ammonia! No wonder the second chick gave the impression it didn't feel too good. This won't do, of course, and ideas are in the air to revamp the nestbox floor. Simple drainage holes probably won't be enough. On the other hand, some comfort comes from reading that the stench in tawnies' nests in tree holes is simply awful! So as these are their natural nesting sites one assumes that the chicks may have developed some tolerance for ammonia. Perhaps that's the reason why in photographs of unfledged owlets they're always poking their heads out of their home in the tree!
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