Sophie on my camera tripod shortly before release. She showed little inclination to leave and had to be pushed into the air! Here she's shown with her jesses still on. In the bigger version you can see the tag aerial. Although she'd had this on since the previous evening, once free she took it off in no time. So much for Superglue!

AT LAST, AFTER A THREE-YEAR DELAY, we've been able to release Sophie. She should have been returned to the wild the year I found her, 2005, but events conspired and it wasn't possible. One big problem was that very early on she broke many of her primary flight feathers playing in a box. The stubs remained, so the feathers refused to regrow until her second moult in autumn 2007. At one stage last summer she wasn't even able to fly!

 

The release area

We chose a small wood on a friendly landowner's property for the release. The wood is surrounded by fields and connects with other woods nearby. I checked it thoroughly for evidence that it might be on other tawnies' territory — which it seemed not to be alhough it was occasionally visited by the female of a pair with a territory to the north. In fact I felt this was an advantage as, if Sophie tried to head north, towards the only busy road in the area, she was likely to be turned back south where there are no dangerous roads.

 

An unexpected companion for Sophie

Another advantage of the delay was that I was able to release her with another young female I'd rescued in spring 2007. This was Zoe, who was abandoned in our nestbox after the first two fledglings made it out into the tree tops. As the third chick and the runt of the litter, this underweight baby had become an insurance policy the mother didn't need to call in. On top of that, she was five days behind the others. So she was simply forgotten and left to starve.

First I had watched on the video monitor how one older chick remaining in the box with her was fed, but not her. Then came a period when the mother tried to force the older chick to leave by bringing nothing to the box, so neither of them was fed. After the little one had had nothing brought to her for several days, and with 4-5 days to go before she could fledge, I intervened and took her back to join Sophie, her elder sister by three years. A tiny, panicky chick, and seemingly traumatised by being abandoned by her mother, by July she'd strengthened up and gained hugely in confidence. The two owls took to each other in a very positive way and it was obvious that releasing them together would be a good thing — they'd have each other as companions and allies in facing the wild. Also Zoe could learn from Sophie, who knows how to catch mice, how to find food for herself.

The two owls, with radio tags attached to their tails, were released on 11 August. The tags were a disaster — more about that later — and within two days we were trying to find tawnies by eye and by calls, which is difficult at the best of times! Zoe I did find a day later while her tag was still attached, but the signal from Sophie's tag disappeared within the first 40 minutes.

 

A big search

The result was a huge, systematic search for the missing owl. Could Sophie really have flown out of radio range so quickly? But there was no choice, and for the next 5 days I drove and walked around the whole area for up to 4 km from the wood. Every 500 m or so I stopped and swung the aerial through 360, hoping to catch the bleeping signal from Sophie's tag. Each stopping point was marked on a map, and when I returned to base I drew a 500 m circle round all the points I'd done that day until I'd covered every likely place Sophie might have settled in. From tracking Zoe's tag I'd found that 500 m was about the maximum I could reliably count on picking up the signal from one of these tags.

There was nothing — total radio silence apart from occasional chirps from other sources, quite unlike the regular bleeps I could expect to hear from Sophie's tag. I began to wonder if she wasn't still with Zoe, and that the simple reason I wasn't finding her was that she'd crushed the tag's electronic innards while ripping it off with her strong beak. Sophie's a bit of a lazy, laid-back customer, and I was finding it increasingly hard to believe she had flown off so far so quickly. Owls just don't do that. She'd shown so little inclination to leave when I removed her jesses that in the end I'd had to push her into the air! So, if they were both still somewhere near the release point, the only way to find them was to spend a night out in the hope of hearing them.

 

Finding our owls — I think!

That's what I did, and I was probably very lucky to hear exactly what I most hoped to hear as it was a damp night with intermittent showers. At 11.20 pm, about a week after the release, I was sitting where I'd found Zoe's tag when I heard two females hooting to the south. They were together, and not two owls that had run into each other having an argy-bargy. (There are sound clips of the distinctive female hoot on the next page.) A pair of fledglings I'd heard distantly some weeks before were possible candidates, but all in all I decided that the pair I heard on this occasion were most likely Sophie and Zoe.

They were too far away for me to recognise Sophie by voice, and as they didn't call again I couldn't track them down. However, they sounded in good shape, and as this was six days after the release it seemed they must be feeding themselves successfully. Chicks and mice left out on feeding ledges in different parts of the wood had been ignored. When I'd seen her 24 hours after release Zoe had shown no sign of hunger — I was carrying food, but she just looked nonchalantly down at me from her perch in the top of a tall hornbeam and showed no inclination to come down for the chick I was holding. When living with me she would scream for food and fly straight to the hand to get her evening meal.

Nevertheless, the only positive proof will be a visual sighting of the two birds. For the moment I am stuck in London working (bah!), but some time in September I shall be back to get the evidence I need. More news as and when.

Sophie and Zoe's intended home in summer 2007. The wood where we released them is in the right half of the photo. As of November they've moved out of this area altogether and gone to live with a male who owns another wood way off to the right.

14 September

At last, work out of the way and I'm able to return and resume the search. I won't say I'm not worried. It's three weeks since I was last down and the weather's been none too good.

By the way, Zoe's the flying owl shown at the bottom of the home page. At one stage I was quite concerned at her lack of common sense when flying — she'd make mistakes landing, and I even wondered if she could see properly — but three weeks leaving her free to fly at night made all the difference. She turned out to be a completely wild little thing, unapproachable, and very hard if not impossible to handle. So much for the stories about imprinting! More on this on the next page.

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Sophie's release

 

along with her little sister

Zo