And so into 2009
We've visited the owls twice so far this year, first over the New Year Holiday and more recently between 18 and 21 Jan. They are less responsive now to playback, and as a result I've heard Zoe but not so far as I know Sophie. So I was relieved to hear what I'm sure is Sophie calling in a recording made on the night of 20 Jan. Zoe, ever the more talkative owl, was picked up twice. Here they are:
Sophie at about 8.40 pm 1 Mb, 50s
Zoe at 11.15 and 12.15 300 kb, 14 s
To show how they can be distinguished, here's a direct comparison of their kewick calls. The pitch is much the same, but Sophie's kewicks are more defined, with an upflick at the end, while Zoe continues to "drawl" hers out so the call sounds more like a squeal. Sophie first, then Zoe:
Comparison of Sophie and Zoe 460 kb, 23s
Here's Zoe recorded in mid-September last year, when she was making her first attempts at kewicks:
Zoe 16 Sept 2008 580 kb, 29s
An interesting development is that they're taking food from two ledges we've put out in the middle of the wood. This is exciting, as it's the first time we've ever got owls to take food like this. Even better, it'll give an opportunity to film, allowing visual identification and confirmation that both girls really are there! We're also pretty sure now that all three (as I've heard the male there too) are roosting in some bigger oaks towards the northwestern corner of the wood. We've still not been able to spot them during the day though!
The weather's continued to be pretty grim, with temperatures seldom rising much above zero and long periods of rain, making the ground sodden. This must make hunting difficult for tawnies as the little creatures they sit listening for can walk around on the floor of the wood making much less noise than when the leaves are dry. Combine that with a new moon, which there's been during the period, and finding food must become quite difficult. It's little wonder that November and February are known to be the times of greatest mortality for tawnies, especially youngsters in their first year. In strict statistical terms our two owls have about a 50% chance of making it through to the better weather of April and May. Well, ok, Sophie's hardly a youngster (she's now nearly four), but all the same it's her first year out. Little Zoe's doing a great job as she had no training in mouse-catching before being set free.
When I think back to how I first saw Zoe — as an egg, and later as a tiny, underweight chick absorbing the fact that she wasn't going to get fed by her mother — how she's doing now seems like a little miracle. And Sophie — so many memories of course, but I shall never forget my first sight of her gazing at me from the crow's nest where she was born in April 2005, and just a few days later finding her on the ground behind a tree trunk. That was in the days before her mother used our nestbox.
Whatever, the dreadful weather has put them through a pretty stern test of their survival skills over the last two months. Despite it all they seem to be coping well and to be in fine fettle — to judge from the way they're calling — so barring unforeseen accidents my confidence is growing that we'll see them around next summer.
1 May — They're there!
I've just found them in a recording made on 21 April. Both females, and later on the male. Here's a brief clip (15 s) of the first calls recorded by the mics I left out overnight:
Sophie and Zoe 7.35 gmt 316 kb
That's Sophie, followed by Zoe "hooting". A great relief, as the last time I heard them was back in January, after a prolonged period of wind and rain but before we had quite a snowfall. As far as I know this makes them the longest tracked releasee tawnies on record — now eight months.
24 June — Heard again
I spent the first part of the night out with a camcorder trained on four chick corpses on one of the feeding ledges. The aim was to film anyone who turned up for a meal. But it was a new moon, and under the thick summer canopy of the oak and hornbeam wood it was probably just too dark for the owls to want to venture in.
So, sitting against a gatepost in a more open area, I was pleased to hear, first, two unmistakeable sets of "wick" calls from Zoe quite nearby, in a belt of trees between fields, and some time after midnight more distant calls by a male and female together who I have no reason to believe were not Sophie and her man. Zoe was calling from near their new wood, but Sophie and her mate were over in Tinker wood near a place where Sophie used to roost until she and Zoe moved to their new headquarters last autumn. There are no other owl pairs in this area, so it seems that our three may now be making use of both territories.
The moon is waxing and more than half full now, so I shall have another shot with the camcorder soon. I am quite hopeful as someone has been taking chicks from the ledges recently!
30 June — Mr and Mrs Owl cause a fracas
Not entirely relevant here, but it's nice to report that for the first time this year we have heard Sophie and Zoe's mum and dad (our main nestbox pair). In fact I suspect I've heard them from the house recently as they seem to have taken to calling on their neighbours, the house owl pair. But since to do this they have to travel quite a way from their main territory, it was impossible to be certain.
This time, however, we heard them very much in territory. We were taking a late walk around the wood, some time after 8 p.m., when we began to hear alarm twittings from some little bird. Then a male owl hooted quietly somewhere to the south (this is another neighbouring tawny). Suddenly our own Mr and Mrs Owl called from the block of wood next to us, and were promptly followed by an almighty hullaballoo by blackbirds and a pair of jays close to where they were. This went on for some time, and we have never heard jays screeching so loud and — it sounded — so disconsolately, as if one of their number had been taken.
Oh, and I've also heard what may have been the little female who was with them last year. I was puffing a last cigarette out of the bedroom window around midnight when a female called from quite nearby. As she did a hoot — which I've never heard our local house female doing — it's reasonable to assume that it's this other female as, being an unmarried maid, that's how she very frequently calls. To be certain, though, I would like to hear her further inside the territory. But all in all good news as all our gang of owls seem to be around!
28 July — Big bird roosting in the owls' territory!
During a daytime walk through the owls' quarters today we raised a largish bird that had been concealed in a belt of woodland that runs along a stream. We're sure we've been seeing buzzards recently (apparently they come from Hemsted Forest), but this was smaller and had narrower wings. Something over a month later we've been told by a knowledgeable local who has seen the bird that it is believed to be a Hen Harrier. Whatever, the bird gained considerable height rapidly and vanished from sight heading for Benenden. I have a pic of it making off, but it doesn't show very much. These large soaring birds are new to the area.
8/9 August — The owls have been out for a year!
In fact not quite a year — the release date was 11 August — but better weather and a full moon meant my latest check was on the night of 8/9 August. Zoe was roosting near the nestbox and greeted me with some of her characteristic high-pitched wicks when I arrived, and about an hour later Sophie spotted me emerging from the top of the wood and called continuously as I walked across a field towards her. She seems to have taken up roosting in a line of trees over a track as this is where she was the last time I visited. That last occasion, around full moon in July, was a good one as I was able to "talk" with both girls as they moved through the trees over the track — hearing them both at once I can be certain that they really are both around as I wouldn't swear to my ability to recognise Sophie's voice in particular, and the wretched little creatures play shy and refuse to show themselves! Zoe's voice remains instantly recognisable.
This night the activity, which seems to have included their male companion, moved down to a new area some way west of the wood, which points to new bits of territory I didn't know about. My impression was that down in that area they have come up against the owner(s) of an adjacent territory across a stream. I'm rather hoping that means I won't have to range much further than I do already to find them! New areas means exploring them by day so I can find my way around in the dark. But establishing exactly what is going on down there is going to need more time out — and not least, more fine weather.
But of course the most important thing is that they've now been out for one whole year and are obviously doing well. For example there's no evidence they need extra food. My attempts to film them at the ledges, baited with warmed-up hen chicks, have so far been a total failure!
This visit was delayed until slightly late in the moon cycle, so I found myself sitting in a field under a waning moon rising through a sky filled with stars. After hearing nothing in the first half hour or so, I called Zoe's name and was delighted to receive a quick and enthusisatic reply from the trees over the nearby path. She moved down the path towards me and screeched some more over the next ten minutes before moving on down to the strip of Nine Acre wood that follows the stream.
Sophie took longer to find, but eventually I heard what I took to be her man calling rather hoarsely from Tinker wood 300 yards or so to the north, and soon after heard Sophie kewicking from the same direction. She was in good voice, but I hope her mate gets over his croakiness — he was unable to complete more than a fragment of the last note of his hoot! This is the first I've heard of him for some time: I hope he hasn't been having some big health problem over the summer.
So it seems that Sophie and Zoe may not be keeping each other's company as much as they used to. Zoe's centre of activity remains near the nestbox, while Sophie and her man have migrated back to Tinker wood. My impression is that Sophie is roosting in trees at the top of a local topographic high that gives her magnificent views of the countryside around, and it's a short hop, or flight, from there to where I heard her in Tinker wood.
It also became clear that the owls I've been hearing over to the west, around a small property by Walkhurst lane, are a separate pair. Sometimes one can only be sure of these things after many nights' listening — on this occasion because both "my" owls were in other locations when these neighbours of theirs piped up.
The next day, with the grassy country track bone dry, we were able to drive almost to the nestbox with a ladder on top of the car to do an inspection. As usual there has been a squirrel in occupation, so all its carefully arranged bedding had to be thrown out! Unfortunately we've found it takes more than one such eviction to discourage the squatter. Even worse, in our other important nestbox belonging to Sophie and Zoe's mother, the occupying squirrel has pulled down the infrared light cable from the attic compartment and chewed the connectors off! As I can't fix the problem in the tree, that means the box will have to be taken down and the whole unit replaced, probably over Christmas.
Well, well! You may have read the story of Rudolph the seal, later renamed Gulliver, who was found in a garden in Benenden a few days ago. After wondering briefly how on earth she had managed to flounder 18 miles across country, we realised that to reach this Benenden garden she must have swum up a stream that we’ve walked several times over the last year because it flows right through Sophie and Zoe’s territory. The seal would have entered this stream system from the River Rother, into which our local Wealden basin drains, and indeed she had been spotted earlier in flooded fields near that river.
So, did Sophie and Zoe see this adventurous little seal? The answer is quite possibly yes, because I have heard them several times in trees down by the stream, which therefore seems to be a part of the territory they regularly visit. Though Gulliver would very likely have been curled up for the night. Even with extra water from all the recent rain and snow the stream is a small affair, cutting sharply down around steep bluffs of rock and with frequent obstructions in the form of rock ledges, shingle bars and fallen trees. It’s a real “gill”, and rather unusual for these parts.
27 December We put the two feeding ledges out yesterday afternoon — this time near the nestbox we hope Sophie will use to rear her first family — and left six defrosted chicken chicks on them. All were gone today! That's interesting because since we started feeding them last spring I’ve never seen so many go so quickly. First it suggests that all three owls are still around, and second of course it’s an indication that they aren’t finding as much food as they were clearly finding over the year up to now. We’ll have to put out more supplementary food while this difficult weather continues.
We walked round most of the territory this afternoon calling them, but no response — not unexpected for daytime. I’m planning to return this evening, with a further supply of chicks, to see who is around.
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