12 chicks have been taken from the ledges over two nights, so all seems well. Hopefully that means all three (Sophie, Zoe and the man) have made it through the worst weather of the winter, which includes two falls of at least six inches of snow. We haven’t been able — as usual — to find them during the day, and I haven’t yet mustered the will power to face the cold at night, so I can’t be sure that all three really are still around, but the number of chicks taken makes me feel optimistic. As usual now the food we put out is taken the same night.
These owls really do have a wonderful territory. Yesterday (18th) we went into the top, or west end, of Tinker wood. For some reason I’ve never entered it from this end before, and we found it to be much broader than we’d thought. This top end has enough room for a large area of ponds dug for clay or iron in times long past, all covered in summer by a canopy of mainly oak so that the ponds are invisible on Google Maps. We thought Tinker wood was just a strip of trees along a single stream, but in fact the stream divides, and it’s over this fork that the wood widens quite considerably. So our owls can range through substantial parts of three really rather different woods (different tree types) and all with long prospective fringes at the edges of the fields they border. They can hardly fail to find enough food, one feels! Also, there’s good shelter from cold winds down in the stream valleys.
The actual reason for this foray into Tinker wood, where I suspect that Sophie and her man spend most of their time, was to check for possible nesting sites that she might end up using rather than the nestbox she is supposed to use over in Nine Acre wood. We are now less than a month off egg-laying time for tawnies, and we have to be prepared for all eventualities! One of these, unfortunately, is that tawnies are known to be less likely to start families after hard winters.
Now we know for sure that both girls have made it through the horrible long winter! Tonight I sat on a fallen tree near the nestbox and within a few minutes one female — Zoe as it later turned out — started kewicking excitedly and flying around the wood. About five minutes later another, lower female voice called several times from the edge of the wood, quite nearby. I called them both by name but only Zoe came anywhere close — probably to have a quick check — before moving off and continuing to call excitedly for at least the next 10 minutes. So, nice greetings, and very welcome news. Later I may have heard the male, 150 yards away near a lane that marks the edge of the territory, where he was discussing boundaries with a neighbouring male. The reason for the slight doubt is that I’m not absolutely sure yet that our owls’ territory extends down there, although indications are that it does.
The not so good news was finding a few days ago that a squirrel pair are (or were) in possession of the nestbox. So earlier today I loaded the ladder on to the car and took it over to the wood, which is a mile or so from the house. The female squirrel has been very canny and only taken dried leaves up to the box. Usually they take up neatly nipped off twigs, making squirrel activity easy to spot as owls never bring nesting material to a box. Mrs squirrel had made a deep hole, nicely squirrel sized, in the enormous mass of leaves she’d patiently carried up. All this had to be cleared out as I found that squirrels piss in their dreys, making the lower layers very damp and turning them into compost. There was a long job chucking handfuls of leaves out of the box, clearing all the drainage holes with a stick, leaving the box roof and side door open to dry it out and then replacing the spoiled litter with a much shallower bed of new dry leaves from the ground. To my relief, when I returned for my night visit the squirrels were not back in residence.
Our two released owls have now been out for around 20 months. Of course we had fairly good indications that all three owls have made it through the winter because of the amount of food taken from the feeding ledges, but there’s nothing like actually hearing them! (There have been a few feeds I haven’t reported on, and always the chicks and a few remaining mice I had left in my freezer have gone the same night.)
The $64k question remains: Will Sophie breed this year? The worry was that with squirrels in her box she’d lay elsewhere, but my impression tonight was that she was calling from a roost. To confirm that we’ll have to search the big trees down the side of the wood where I heard her for signs of a nest or hole. We have examined those trees in the past and I don’t recall anything that might interest a family-minded tawny!
Oh, and Sophie’s mum, our magnificent Mrs Owl, is nesting this year, the eighth breeding season we’ve known her. She laid two eggs in her box around the beginning of March — the earliest we’ve known her start. Sophie (born 2005) is now nearing her fifth birthday, and Zoe her second.
Delighted to report that after a long gap in the monitoring, an overnight recording on 15/16 November found the three owls in apparently good shape. In fact we knew that Zoe was still in the area as she has responded to her name twice during the intervening period. The type of call she was making — the unmarried female hoot — gave some assurance that Sophie and her mate were still around too. In fact hoot isn’t quite the right word — more like a sleepy and barely audible acknowledgment after lots of calling her name while on afternoon walks in the area. But it’s amazing what you can tell from a single tiny noise from a wood across a field.
The main reason for the difficulty in monitoring has been that the rechargeable battery for my recorder finally gave up last year. We only got a new one recently as Corinne wanted to do some recording for YouTube! Out in the woods the new battery managed over 11 hours — almost until dawn — wonderful after the pitiful 4.5 hours the previous battery sank to before it was abandoned.
I did two overnight recordings. First off are two excerpts from the night of 15/16 Nov.
It’s nearly 5 am, in the wood under Sophie’s nestbox. (The owls have visited before — in fact they first turned up some eight minutes after I left the previous evening, suggesting that they heard me putting up the equipment and came to investigate.) First, in mid-distance, you hear the male hoot, followed by Zoe with her female hoot. There is then about a minute’s cut, after which Zoe and the male arrive in the nestbox clearing. Zoe took up a place somewhere near the recording equipment, where she stayed for the next 20 minutes. Here’s a 2-minute chunk:
Male and Zoe arrive (2 min, 1.9Mb)
Sophie only showed up some minutes later, and here’s a shorter clip in which all three owls can be heard distinctly. Sophie, as the married female, does the kewicks and junior sister Zoe continues her long series of warbles.
All three owls (45 sec, 930kb)
From a preliminary listen to the whole night’s recording, they still apear to be going around together much of the time.
On the next night, 16/17 November, the owls turned up to investigate less than a minute after I tramped off — in fact I heard them as I was leaving along the path that skirts the nestbox area. It’s rather touching that after such a long absence on my part they are still so ready to come and say hello.
Some quite nice recordings here. First, one of Zoe and Sophie 3 minutes after I left at 8.15 p.m. Once again, Zoe obligingly took up a perch close to the south-pointing microphone, where she warbled while Sophie kewicked a little further off:
Zoe and Sophie at 8.18 pm (01:24, 1.4Mb)
This time the male lost interest and left after 4 minutes, but Sophie and Zoe stayed around for another quarter of an hour.
Later on, approaching midnight, Zoe recorded a nice couple of hoots. She was in the company of the male, and they had been moving around some way off but briefly came closer during this part of the recording. Sophie was probably with them, but she’s much less vocal than Zoe. You can hear the male doing partial hoots. I have cut about 20 seconds of short male hoots out of this excerpt.
Zoe hoots with male 11.55pm (39 sec, 800kb)
Two minutes later I got one of my more curious recordings of owls. In fact if there weren’t other recognisable calls along with these strange wailing or yelping calls you’d never guess they were made by a Tawny Owl! But a mystery remains — was the owl making these calls the male or Sophie? At first it sounds as if it was the male, but if you listen carefully you’ll see why it’s so difficult to be sure. That’s definitely Sophie kewicking at the end. Possibly they were both calling in this way. There’s quite heavy filtering on this recording as the wind was getting up, and after this episode there was no audible owl activity.
Strange owl calls 11.57pm (01:06, 1.3Mb)
The two females have now been out for two years and three months.
With all the recent snow and icy weather I was keen to feed the owls but couldn’t safely order a new supply of frozen chicks because of the holdups on the roads. So we went out with steak slivers and shrimps (or prawns) on a bitterly cold, clear evening. We took them out warm in the hope that the owls would turn up before they froze hard on the feeding ledges. Also in the hope that they wouldn’t turn up their dainty noses at supermarket food, which they always have in the past!
Well, we stood there and called and, blow me down, within a few minutes we heard first a croaky call from Zoe and almost immediately after a hoot from the male. They were coming up from the lower part of the wood. We stayed for about five minutes trying to entice them closer, into view, but as they stayed beyond the reach of our torch and I was worried they might leave and not take the still warm food, we took our leave. Walking along the nearby path we heard kewicks — Sophie had arrived too.
We returned until a couple of days later — this time a daytime visit with more food — and found all the Xmas day morsels gone. The next day we checked on the second dinner, and that too had gone. This is the first time they have accepted anything that isn’t frozen chicks, so it seems they’re pretty hungry!
It was really quite a magical experience to stand out in a frozen, bleak wood under a clear sky peppered with stars and to have three “wild” owls come and greet one when called by name. It’s the first time all three have done that too (before now we had to resort to playing owl calls, and even that stopped working after a while). Of course the male doesn’t have a name and has no idea who we are, but he must realise by now that his two consorts have some strange relationship with us humans and is happy to come and join in the fun — and the food!
We’ll be putting more food out tonight. Also taking the chance to wash down the ledges, which have got pretty ucky.
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