Early birds:

the Cambridgeshire Tawny Owls January-March 2007

Page 3 (concludes)

THIS PAGE STARTS with the first appearance of the owlets at the entrance of the nestbox. I begin it with mixed feelings as, although fortune has smiled on the parents this year, it'll soon be time to say farewell to the three owlets. We almost certainly won't see them once they've left, and study after study shows that their chances of surviving beyond the first month are only about 50/50.

Anyway, as of 21 March the immediate future is one of gradually improving weather conditions after a cold and windy snap that set in just as the owlets started to appear in the door of the nestbox. The mother has proved extraordinarily resourceful in preventing them from jumping out during these unfavourable conditions.

19 March

3 pm: How nice. Mum's with the chicks, and seems to have been for some time. A distinctly chilly day, with some thunder here in London from cumulus that threatens hail and snow.

Left: At about 1.25 pm I was surprised to find the mother in with the chicks, and at 3 pm she was still there (right), now looking at things rather lazily from the door.

3.30 pm: Oh my golly. One of the chicks is with her at the door. Just too cute. Pic coming... (times are reversed on two last small pics)

4 pm: Squally snowstorm, with the tree rocking again. The mother's still in the doorway but one can't tell if the chick is back inside as her tail hides things below. 4.15 pm: She's still there. I now have to take a break from watching. More later. Oldest chick now 26 days old. Time for a reminder perhaps that we're looking at owlets that'll be fledging about the time many tawny females will just be starting to lay. 5 pm: It's nice to have such a chance to see the mum in colour for so long. She has a pronounced brown bar from the centre of her head down to her beak, and other pale feathers sprinkled over her head. She appears not to have the V of white feathers going back from her brow that's quite commonly seen. Otherwise she's a brown tawny with a predominantly pale chest laced with dark brown streaks.

6 pm: Quick peek to see what's going on! Mother still in door, seemingly blocking attempts by a jumping chick in the box below. But then one little face appears, clinging by its beak to the entrance on her right -- and then a second to her left. Just now it's a real scene, with the two chicks on either side of her surveying what's a rather chilly looking world outside.

6 pm: Chick on left is probably the oldest at 26 days, one on right is one of the 25 day-old-chicks. Today (as far as I know) is their first day up in the door, with mother taking care that things don't get out of hand.

7.35 pm: Mother has gone at last (I don't know when she left), and all three chicks are present in the box in a cosy huddle. Local temperature is 1C, with a slight wind from the northwest. Nights forecast to be near-zero for the rest of the week, with daytime temps milder at 6-10C.

Today's events interesting because it seems pretty plain to me that the female stayed around much of the time to make sure that there were no accidents now that chicks are leaping up to the door. She remained guarding that exit for at least three hours.

01.00 am (20 March): Final check. All tucked up and snug, no doubt pondering the day's adventures. Female not in.


Meanwhile, some info from Kauzcam . .

Fascinating information just in from Thomas Blodau, who looks after Kauzcam, the tawny webcam already mentioned in these pages. He writes:

"The [Kauzcam] female did lay 3 eggs in february, but left them alone in the box for about one week! Then - after one week - some daytime visits followed and another week later she started laying - a new clutch ? - two more eggs. This behaviour is completely new as I did not find similar behaviour mentioned in any books and last year she started incubating after laying the frist egg!"

What is one to make of it all? Throw away the reference works for a start? This seems part of the delayed incubation theme that's running through these pages. We shall just have to wait and see what happens -- will all the eggs hatch? Or just two? Thomas also has lots to say on nestbox design which I hope to make use of elsewhere on the Nestbox pages. Here I'll just say that they've tried various designs, but the tawnies show a marked preference for the new barrel nestbox. "A lot of work goes into these boxes, but the owls almost instantly take over a box like this if put in a - for them - suitable location!" he says.


20 March

12.05 pm: The female's in there with them. What a squash! She gives them little attentions, "scissoring" around their beaks. It's 3C, sunny intervals with a strongish north wind (29 mph according to BBC), but this week's forecasts are now looking better -- the forecasters are nudging the temperatures up a little. 12.20: She's back up in the door, having a good look round. It's grey at the moment and the tree is swaying in what looks like quite a fresh wind. It'll be interesting to see if she stays in the door again today to mark the limits of where the chicks can venture. It wouldn't be a good idea for them to be out on a day when they could easily lose their balance in a gust of wind. I didn't see our nestbox female doing this -- at this stage she would always be on her watching perch some distance away.

12.08 pm: Mother fussing a chick. First she did the one on the left, then the one shown here. Time on pic is some minutes ahead of real time.

1.30 pm: Mother in door, chicks on floor. One wonders when she gets a wink of sleep, as this is normally owl deep-sleep time.

3 pm: She's still blocking that door! Don't know about the sunny intervals -- looks pretty grey to me. The chicks have got the message and are staying down. (I can only check infrequently as I'm trying to work!). 3.30 pm: At last some sun to warm her, but quite blowy too. No rest -- she constantly has to keep her balance on the swaying door base. What a stalwart mum! This is a marvellous thing to watch.

4.20 pm: There's a chick up with her, who she's made room for. Looks like the oldest, now 27 days. Weather still blowy and sunny. A few minutes later a second chick makes determined efforts to clamber up and at 4.28 appears in the door, but it's a tight squeeze! Mother seems unconcerned and gazes out to her right. They're obedient little things and unlikely to venture out beyond the doorway as long as she stays there. Have grabs, will put up later. It's snowing outside my window here in London! 4.37: Second chick plops back into the box. 5.05: Oldest owlet still up there with mum, being good as gold.

5.12: Whooops! He nearly fell out -- had to use wings to stay put. Seems to have frightened him so much he more or less immediately dropped back into the box. Mum didn't attempt to do anything -- there's little she could have done to stop him falling. With luck he'd have ended up on a branch ... but there's that wind. A close call.

5.45 pm: With the sun setting to her right, she's now been guarding the door for over 5 hours. And that's since I clocked on. For all I know she started at dawn.

6.05 pm: Mother's gone for a break. Two chicks in door, but their body pose is static. Doesn't look as if they're inclined to start leaping away from the box. Maybe tomorrow, when wind is forecast to drop -- it's already calmer. Third chick is stuck in the box, sometimes peering up with interest, but seemingly content to stay put. 6.20: Only one chick in door now, other back in box. Light is fading. Mother still away, though of course she may be out of view nearby. 6.23: Second chick has bounced back up. 6.33: Dusk: all chicks safely back in. End of high jinks for today.

00.45 am (21 March): Last check. Chicks on their own, all's well. How they've grown. Temperature is 1C, wind is light from NW. Tomorrow's going to be sunny and 9C, with a light wind. Oldest chick will be 28 days old in the evening. Will the mother let him out or will she bar the door again?


21 March

12 midday: She's on station again! With a chick beside her. While I watched a second chick managed to scramble up and pop a head out (see pic). Weather looks quite nice, cloudier than forecast, and a slight rocking and movement of branch shadows across the scene shows that there's still a breeze. The latest BBC report is for 9 am, so not current. My impression is that she's looking weary, standing motionless with her eyes 3/4 closed. By this stage females have usually lost weight and are out of sorts.

So, will she let the two adventurous chicks out today, or keep them in the door as she has for the past two days? It's still their 28th and 27th day, respectively, so it would be a little early. Whatever happens, let's hope we see them all back in the box by dusk.

1.30 pm: Site counter isn't loading so no checks possible. Today is the spring equinox. In Iran it's Noruz, New Year's Day, when the weather changes from being wintry and starts racking up through a brief spring towards the summer heat. And yes, there are tawnies there, mainly in the Zagros, the northwest and on the northern slopes of the Alborz. So, eide noruz mobarak, little birds. Happy New Year, and may you prosper.

3 pm: Hello webstats4u.com. Please get your counter server up and running!! 3.35: Problem reported to their support staff.

4.15 pm: Counter working. Female is away, the three chicks are in a huddle at the bottom of the box. I wonder what the story is .. we've missed out on nearly 4 hours. 4.40: Looks to me as if they're all tired out and having a nap. 5 pm: Sound asleep, flat out in a little circle and heads buried in the rump in front. Have they been up to something this morning that I missed? I'm a bit of a nite owl and get up late. 5.30: No change, all in same position. Temp (3 pm) is 6C, wind is 10 mph from north. One is tempted to speculate that mum has said, "Look, I need some kip. You behave yourselves while I get some" !!

6.15 pm: Two chicks in door again, third looking anxiously up and now making efforts to join them (click on pic at right to see all three). Mother not in view -- she may be nearby. Oldest is spying out possible perches in the tree. Further developments unlikely as it's late in the day. 6.23: No. 1 back in box with no. 3, leaving no. 2 doing wing stretches in the door. (This is where it helps to have a ledge on your box.) 6.35: one chick has been back up in door for some minutes having a good peer around.

7 pm: Two still in door and it's almost dark! This is new. Must be trying out their night vision! Chicks have now started their 29th and 28th days. 7.34: Last chick in door has just dropped back in. Ineresting to see it making use of the side batten and rungs to descend -- the rungs are a good feature of this box.

7.35 pm: Everyone safely back inside (middle right) . . for the time being?!

9.10 pm: Yes . . .

10.15 pm: No! This little chick nearly came to grief. This is a shot showing his attempt to regain his balance. Not sure what he was trying to do. He's looking in the direction his mum sometimes looks at night (see 6th March).

10.35: He or she is back in the box. Let's hope that's it for the day. This little creature is going to be out soon!

00.35 am (22 March): Last check, all quiet.


22 March

11.15 am: Clocked on to see all three faces at the door. Reported weather at 9 am doesn't sound very nice: 1C, light rain and very light wind (7 mph). Top of box in pic is dry, so rain is not a problem. But it's coooold. Temp forecast to reach 6C. 11.45: no. 3 back in box, other two looking out gloomily, not looking as though they're going to make a move.

It's worth mentioning that if it was now mid-May, which is when they should be reaching this stage, conditions would be a lot nicer and, as our US observer points out, leafing would be well under way. These chicks are in a very exposed and somewhat isolated tree, and the mother's early-laying strategy will be tested to the full. Food shouldn't be a problem as the parents will continue to deal with that for some months, and so far they've clearly found enough for five. That in itself is interesting as February (along with November) is supposed to be a high-mortality time for yearlings due to scarcity of food. Where the strategy could pay off is that the chicks will have an extra two months of fair-weather conditions, very possibly all with the parents, to learn the ropes. In other words, by Sept/Oct, when the parents move them on, they'll be more experienced than other, later-born owlets.

12.10 pm: No change. No. 3, and sometimes no. 2, is still in the box. The problem with staying inside is that you have up to two owlet bums poised above you, and even with the slowish refresh rate one can see poo dropping down the box. Someone is arriving on the website with a search on owl poo. I could write an essay on the subject! Enough to say that the atmosphere in the nestbox will be strongly ammoniacal. Such a stench that one wonders how anyone (meaning owlets) can stand it.

12.25: Good heavens, the mother's just crashed in! She's down in the box with two chicks, with no.1 still in the door. Room is minimal -- there's a solid melee of owls as they move around trying to find a way to fit round each other. 12.34: At one point only the mother was left in the box when the third owlet jumped off her back and briefly made it to the door!

Melee after the mother entered the box. In the right pic no.3 jumps off her back to join the other two in the door.

12.54 pm: Mother has won possession of the door and is surveying the scene outside through half-closed eyes. Is she wondering if she can give the go-ahead to come out? Does a mother owl give some signal? This one seems to have things under tight control, with the chicks having some understanding that they should stay put. There's a large branch quite near the box -- it can be seen in the outside camera pics -- but as far as I know no chick yet has attempted to jump to it. It's easily reachable. So either they don't feel confident enough to make that first jump or they know that just now mum wants them to stay put.

1.25 pm: She left while I was updating my browser. I need to do some work. Two chicks are in door still looking as if they're not intending to go further. Mother is probably nearby. Temp at 12 was 5C, wind 7 mph. Will check and update.

2.20 pm: All three tucked up in box, and have been for some time. Look as if they're having a nap.

4.45 pm: First check in over an hour. They're still in the box, looking .. well, not terribly inclined to actiivty, though one is looking up. Others look as though still resting. At the moment this doesn't have the feel of a fledging day for anyone. This is all to the good as the eldest will complete his 29th day in the world at about 6 pm, and the average tawny chick fledges at 32 days. 5.00 pm: No. 1 (probably) is at the door. And it all depends what you mean by fledging, and what gets reported as fledging, and even to some extent on how people report a chick's age. 5.02: Two oldest chicks back in door.

Latest weather report (3 pm): Drizzle, 6C, wind 9 mph NE. Not very favourable. Temperatures are forecast to pick up between tomorrow and Monday (26th), rising gradually to 14C but mostly overcast with some light rain.

6.20, dusk: One, then two in door. I wish I knew if the mother was in the tree. It's the one important piece of information I need to help complete the picture. I'm assuming she is, or at least somewhere visible nearby.

6.25 pm: End of the day?

7 pm: Some of the scenes are beginning to remind of me the OwlCam DVD. Two chicks do things together, while the third is left looking on. In this case, looking up at the two bums in the door! Anyway, that's how it is at the moment. 7.35: I wouldn't want to put too much on that, though: no. 2 nestles up to no. 3 when they're both in, and possibly even makes affectionate gestures (beak to face).

8.30 pm: Still two in door, one inside. An interesting point occurs to me about nestbox design as, with our shallow box, which allows the chicks to see out from inside, we never saw the chicks even standing in the door, and I was there all night and visited during the afternoons. They stayed inside until they fledged. Having seen two near falls with these owlets, I can't help feeling that a ledge reduces the risk of falling.

Right: Our 2006 chicks never used the ledge or stood in the door. They seemed content to stay inside because they could see out.

10.30 pm: Variously one and two owlets in door all the time. 12 am (23 March): No. 1 (I assume 'tis he) has been in the door all the time, even at times appearing to be asleep, standing on one leg. Casual young (wo)man. Other two are looking like little hedgehogs at the bottom of the box, rolled up in owlet dreams. I wish I could catch a feed. 00.05 am: Writing things like that is a recipe for stirring up activity! Now two chicks in door, with no. 3 peering up as usual. They are becoming night owls.

00.15 am (23 March): Right: Whoops. No. 2 nearly loses its footing! There are hair-raising moments like this from time to time. Usually it's no. 1, who's on the right..

One thousand cusses! There's just been a feed as I was doing this pic. Didn't get the parent, but no. 1 got a mouse! Pic in a few minutes . . . see below

00.30 am (23 March): Dinner is served. The lucky owlet is no. 1. That's no. 2 peering down on the left. No. 3 is in the box.


That's it for me tonight.


23 March

1.15 pm: All well, no. 1 in door, others inside. At 6 pm today no. 1 will be 30 days and some time later nos 2 and 3 will 29 days old. As things seem to be settling into a routine I'll only report if I catch something interesting. It looks as though everyone's being sensible and holding on until the right moment. So if things run as expected that's a Sunday or Monday fledge. As long as no one loses their footing!

Owly, my first orphaned owl, made his maiden flight on his 31st day. It was no more than a short hop from a table to a nearby desk, and he only just managed it. This had been preceded by several days of vigorous wing-flapping. His first flights were little more than wing-assisted jumps, and it was about a week before he could really sustain level flight, let alone gain height. So the wings of these chicks may look fairly impressive, but if they missed their footing they would only be able to fly downwards. If they didn't make it to a branch, they'd end up on the ground.

Weather: Improving. Bright intervals just now, 6C, forecast to clear this afternoon. Drizzle reported, but box is dry. Wind 15 mph northerly. Five-day forecast continues to show a marked temperature rise, now to 17C on Tuesday 27th.

Right: 2 pm Old hands, settling into a routine and almost looking bored with the world already. It's now 4 days since the first chick appeared at the door.

3.30 pm: Two older chicks snoozing in the door! No. 3 napping in the box.

4.40 pm: All back in cosy huddle in box. Just too chilly outside? (7C)

6 pm: Nos 1 and 2 back in door. Wind of 20 mph reported for 3 pm, but no movement of tree visible now. 6.11: No. 3 struggles into the door. It's now a tight fit as they're all so big, and it's the situation in which there could be a fall as a chick that lost it's footing would find it difficult to get back into the gap. Anyway, nice to see the little one getting some fresh air.

6.21 pm: It's happened. No. 3 is out on the branch under the camera (lower pic). I didn't see how it happened as I was writing the previous note. 6.38: Chick no. 1 has also left and is out of view. Chick no. 2, the one remaining in the door, spends much of the time with its back to the camera looking into the strangely empty box. Refresh rate has slowed almost to a standstill. 7 pm: No. 3 still in front of camera and no. 2 in door. Think I have chicks right: no. 1 has quite a fierce face, no. 2 has a darker head, and no. 3 just looks innocent and sweet.

This isn't a totally brilliant time to start jumping out as owls' night vision isn't that good. And it's why I favour ledges on nestboxes as they increase the chances of chicks that are out a bit early getting back in.

Pic immediately above shows quite well how different their faces are. That's no. 3 near the camera. No. 1, the oldest, is at the front in the door, with no. 2 behind. No. 1 jumped soon after no. 3 and has been out of view ever since.

7.30 pm: No change. No. 1 is out of sight, the other two where they were half an hour ago. 8 pm: Still same.

9 pm: No change. The two in view have been alternately napping or looking around or preening and stretching. No. 3 in front of the camera has been doing some wing testing and seems happy with its lot. No sign of no. 1. Feeds could start about now.

10 pm: Realise I haven't seen the mother in any of my rather infrequent checks. No. 3 is looking more and more like a little round ball as it fluffs up its feathers against the cold. At the moment it's a sleepy picture.

11 pm: No feed yet as far as I know, and have been checking in the last hour. No. 2 has just nearly toppled out of the door as the result of doing an overhead wing stretch! Both visible chicks have been doing quite a bit of preening in the last few minutes. 11.20: After well over 9 hours in the door, no. 2 has dropped back into the box. No. 3 doesn't seem to have noticed . . it could now re-enter quite easily.

00.00 am: Watching for signs of an imminent feed -- signs that the chicks have heard a parent approaching. Increased alertness and activity, no. 3's beak opening slightly as it squeaks. No. 3 is definitely squeakng -- I've seen its beak open many times, and so much so that at 00.11 no. 2, who was listening attentively in the box, came back up into the door. But no sign yet of a parent. In fact the complete non-appearance of the mother this evening suggests that she may, surprisingly, be away. 00.25: no. 3 is squeaking constantly -- the little thing is hungry! It's possible of course that a parent has been in and fed no. 1, who's out of view. No. 2 seems not to be squeaking. Here's what hungry owlets sound like soon after fledging. These two are being fed in a tree.

Fledgling feed June 2004 944kb mp3.

1.00 am (24 March): Looks as though it's going to be a hungry night! Our chicks, and both females when brooding, were always fed by midnight, and usually well before. I need a feed, and so does my owl, who's calling from near the kitchen, making matters somewhat confused. So catching these owlets being fed is going to have to be postponed until tomorrow.

No. 3, the chick that jumped (or was pushed!) first, having a good old flap at 9.20 pm. The branch it's on is broad and it's at little risk as long as it stays put. No. 2 iis in the door. As of 2 am it's the one owlet that hasn't yet left the box -- in fact it's inside right now sitting quietly. Not a bad place to be as the temperature is just 3C.


24 March -- they've flown!

Email from the owner to say that all the owls have fledged (out of the box and safe) and the family left the tree early this morning. At 6.30 am the mother was still near the garden, presumably watching the chicks, which weren't seen. The camera is no longer running.

Here's the latest info, kindly provided by the nestbox owner.

No. 3, the first one out shown in the b/w photo above, didn't get its supper until 5.10 am, which is when the mother made her first recorded appearance. (Whether she was away hunting or keeping watch nearby during the night we shall never know.) Two minutes later no. 3 moved to another part of the tree.

After feeding no. 3 the mother went to the top of the box and enticed no. 2, who was still inside, out on to the branch in front of the camera. How she enticed it out is not described (in a previous year she used food to entice a reluctant youngster out). About 20 minutes later, at 5.36 am, no. 2 also fluttered off into another part of the tree.

At some time between then and 6.30 am, when the owner went into the garden to see what was happening (all birds were out of view of the camera now), mother and owlets left the nestbox tree. He saw the female in a lime tree at the side of the garden but no sign of the owlets, which it can be assumed were somewhere nearby.

And what of no. 1, who was the second to leave the box (at 6.35 pm) and disappeared from view? Apparently he or she made it safely to a branch to the right of the nestbox.

There may be further news if the family is spotted again.



So, that's very interesting, as it appears to be quite an early fledge, with one chick in its 30th day and the other two just 29 days old. I would love to know whether they have made it across to another tree or are concealed somewhere low down near the ground. Neither of my owlets were capable of sustained flight at this stage. I am pretty sure about Owly's age when he made his first very tentative flights (1 day), though much less sure about when Sophie first flew and how she managed as I was not around when she began. But I do know that I didn't have to put jesses on her until later as there was no risk of her making height if she jumped off the hand. In The First Hundred Days sequence there are pics of her on Day 34 in an open window. I remember taking those pics well and feeling no worry that she would be able to make it beyond the fenced yard immediately outside.


Final update

Three undated pics posted on the Nestbox site show two of the fledglings when they returned to the tree during the day some days later. It's sad not to see all three as -- and this is pure gut feeling -- it adds to my impression that the youngest bird, with its sweet, innocent expression and slightly early shove out of the nestbox, wasn't destined to remain long in this harsh world.



Nestbox activities 2008

For our own owl pair's nesting activities see the Tawny Owl Nesting Diary 2008. The female started about 12 March.

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The female laid a clutch of three eggs between 20 and 27 January. The first egg to hatch did so on 21 February, and the first chick appeared at the door on 19 March.

(Photo taken 27 January 2007 nestbox site owner)