MY OH MY, who could this be? Click on the thumbnail to see more of the scene.
It is, of course, Mrs Owl, Sophie's mother, photographed (sort of!) in her nestbox on 19th March. We first suspected she might have moved in on the 14th, when Corinne spotted "something" in the box. I'd known Mrs Owl might be looking for a nest site four days earlier from a night recording made with equipment left on a tree. This showed she'd been into the part of the wood where she usually nests and was, from her movements and the time she spent, looking for her box — which wasn't where it used to be as we'd had to move it.
Well, clever little owl, she did eventually spot it, and so after a gap of two years (she didn't nest in 2007) I hope we'll have a story to tell. I'll put some more up soon. This is just to announce the good news.
(If you're after nestbox movies, they start on page 5. They've been upgraded to a reasonable viewing size since they were first put up.)
Finding her this early in her nesting attempt and the night recording mean we may have things rather better bracketed than usual. If she really was still looking for the nestbox on the night of the 10th/11th, and if she was brooding when Corinne thought she saw her on the morning of the 14th, she must have begun laying on the 11th, 12th or 13th. That's mildly interesting as it's a bit earlier than she's started in the four previous nesting seasons.
If we say it was 12 March (my birthday!), hatching would start any time from the night of 10/11 April (28 days), and the chicks will fledge around 30 days after that, let's say 10th May. This is all five days earlier than she did things last time she used the nestbox, and a lot earlier than 2004, when she had Tubby and Tiny tot on an open nest.
A note about the recordings
One thing that's guaranteed if you have owls on a nest (and a recorder) is that you'll get some pretty nice owl recordings almost any time you like! The night after we found her (19/20 March) I put a new machine out, a Fostex FR-2LE, with a couple of AudioTechnica AT3032 omni mics strapped either side of the tree trunk. The recorder was about 5 feet off the ground and 20-25 feet from the nestbox. A Tamiya-type RC model car battery with a lot of mAh runs it for 8 hours, so I was able to start it about 8.15 pm and it shut off sometime around 4.45 am — right in the middle of one of Mr Owl's visits! It's Sod's Law of recording, and it operates without fail.
Events of the night of 19/20 March
As it's an occasion to celebrate, I'm going to put up clips of all Mr Owl's recorded visits plus another by an unidentified female. It's my impression that night time traffic has become worse since I last recorded these owls two years ago, and I apologise for that and the airplane noise. To suppress it I've filtered as far as I dare. Human noise is becoming a really terrible problem for anyone trying to record natural sounds — not to mention for birds who need quiet to hunt and communicate, like owls.
Visit no. 1 at 8.17 pm
As luck (Sod) would have it, the first visit began just as I was finishing fixing the recorder, so the beginning is unplayable. At first I didn't realise it was Mr Owl as he was approaching from a part of the wood I didn't think was in their territory and he was in very commanding voice -- so much so that I thought he must be a new, dominant male I'd never heard. The fact that Mrs Owl -- who knew very well I was lurking beneath the nestbox -- didn't reply didn't help. But when he came closer and began hooting from different positions around the nestbox it was obvious it must be him. By this time I was sat against a tree trunk a little way off, hoping that he'd come and I'd see him in the moonlight.
No such luck. It was a brilliant full (Easter) moon, and not getting a reply from his wife -- which was what he was expecting -- was making him suspicious. The clip below is an edited sequence from near the end, where the cautious little mew she at last uttered told him everything: "I'm here, I'm ok, but I think you'd better stay where you are." Usually, as you'll hear in later clips, she would be kewicking happily in reply to his approaching calls. He considered the mew in silence for a long time before starting to hoot again, but he moved off, and when he'd gone I left them in peace for the night.
First visit 1 Mb, 50 seconds
In fact I'm sure he knew I was around before this warning from his wife. Unlike another male we know, he often turns up at the nest without announcing himself. This time he'd started calling some minutes before from, well, definitely within 100 yards, and he must have heard me setting up even if he couldn't see me.
Mrs Owl's box only went up on 14 Feb — we'd had to remove it from its previous site at Christmas because of vandals. She seems to have been still looking for it only a couple of nights before she laid!
After he'd gone and before the next visit Mrs Owl made three series of calls, from 8.40 until 8.48, 9.10-9.15 and 10.04-10.07. These are quiet kewick calls made at up to half-minute intervals and are often heard from a nesting female. Here's a sample from the 9.10 pm set of calls. I've shortened the interval between calls a bit.
Mrs Owl calling 0.5 Mb, 24 s
Visit no. 2 at 10.56 pm
Mr Owl was away for nearly three hours before his next visit. If he'd brought something for Mrs Owl on the first visit I guess he probably had to eat it himself! Anyway, here he is, turning up unannounced. At first he calls from a nearby tree, but it's easy to tell when he finally lands on the ledge.
Second visit 1.5 Mb, 1 min 20 s
That's the first part of the visit, which in all lasted something over three minutes. After the above excerpt Mrs Owl kewicked by herself for a minute, and then she made these very peculiar noises. Yes, that is her sounding like screeching tyres. Heaven knows what he was doing -- listen out for his quiet mews -- but she's obviously very happy!
Mrs Owl's funny noises 0.56 Mb, 22 s
Visit no. 3 at 11.08 pm
This time Mr Owl made up for lost visiting time by coming back just 10 minutes later, shorter than any interval between visits I've known before. Usually the interval is, very roughly, an hour. In fact this is a bit of a worry because it suggests he may sometimes be hunting very nearby, along a broad, 10 metre wide "avenue" recently cleared by the electricity company (now Electricité de France, EDF) under a power distribution line. There's been no indication from previous years that this was in their territory, but now I've heard him in the "middle wood" just beyond the line it's clear that they've extended their territorial bounday in these parts. Always before he's hunted in the fields to the north and west; the line and the pines of the middle wood are to the east. (There's a map half way down page 5.)
Anyway, here they are during the third visit. It's much like the second, and I've cut the long series of kewicks made by Mrs Owl afterwards.
Third visit 1 Mb, 51 s
Visit no. 4 at 00.36 am
The next visit came an hour and a half later. This time she's more vocal than he is, and she seems to have heard him just before he made his first hoot as the sequence starts with a kewick from her. She may have seen him, or she may have heard his wings as he braked to a stop on a neaby branch. Once again I've cut the long series of mewing kewicks that often end such visits.
Fourth visit 0.9 Mb, 45 s
Right: Mrs Owl filmed in 2006 soon after her first chick fledged.
powered by owls
About a pair of owls who've taken to a nestbox after losing three broods from open nests
Left: the moon a couple of hours before the eclipse of February 2008, looking a bit like a sick grapefruit.