Tawny owls lead breeding success

Tawny owl chicks jostle for position on a feeding post.  Pic: Robert Fuller
Tawny owl chicks jostle for position on a feeding post. Pic: Robert Fuller
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For most, Christmas represents the end of the year. But for me the year draws to a close in autumn, when the wildlife breeding season is over. And what an extraordinary year this has been.

I’ve watched tawny owls, barn owls, kestrels, and swallows from the moment they first settled on a nest box to the time when their young fledged.

I’ve been able to follow the action closely after rigging up CCTV cameras in nest boxes across my garden and even further afield. Setting it all up was a logistical challenge, but the results were worth it. I have a bit of phobia when it comes to using a computer, but I’ve had to overcome this in order to watch the comings and goings of all this wildlife and ‘going digital’ has meant that I’ve learned more about the secret lives of birds than ever before.

My wildlife watching season began with a pair of barn owls. They live about a mile from my gallery and I had a particular interest in them after helping them through the previous winter with a daily supply of food. They had become so accustomed to my daily offerings that if I stood very still the male would take food off the top of my hat!

Barn owls had a disastrous breeding season in 2013 and the restoration of barn owl populations in Thixendale depended on their performance this year.

And they didn’t disappoint. By Valentine’s Day this pair was loved up and already roosting in a nest box that I’d put up for them. I’d positioned the box opposite a tree-top hide so that I could watch the action at eye level.

It was so exciting to be able to watch, via my new CCTV, what happened once they disappeared into the entrance hole to the nest box.

I became privy to their entire courtship process! It was endearing to hear the soft, chittering calls of the male as it appeared in the box to offer the female gifts of food.

I watched as he delicately offered her a dead vole and could see the quiver of her wings as she replied. Whenever he entered the box she would physically tremble with submission. After she accepted each offering, he would mate her and then head back out to hunt for another.

On one occasion I watched him present her with a vole and then mate her twice in the space of 20 minutes. On the third occasion she snatched the vole from him, standing up and turning sharply on him as if to say ‘Not this time, matey!’

The first egg was laid on April 1 and six eggs followed at three day intervals, with the last laid on Good Friday.

For me these were the most precious eggs this Easter. These eggs represented real hope.

I was able to get the most amazing footage of the chicks hatching, although it was extremely difficult sometimes to work out how many there were. The female sat very tightly on her young and would only fleetingly lift a wing to show several wriggling wings and legs beneath her.

Only six of the seven fledged, but this was still a healthy proportion and I was delighted when not long after they’d left the nest I saw the male mating the female again.

She went on to lay a further five eggs and these chicks hatched in September. This second brood of chicks are due to fledge this week. What a boost to the local barn owl population this has been.

Watching the chicks grow has been fascinating and I’ve been able to get some intriguing shots of them practising flying and landing with a GoPro camera which I positioned near to the post on which I put food out for them.

But the barn owls weren’t the only breeding birds that captivated me this year. A pair of tawny owls and a pair of kestrels visit my garden and most years there’s a tussle early in the season over the nest boxes. But this time, thanks to my CCTV rig, I could see how the fights continue inside as well as outside the boxes.

I’d assumed the tawny owls would be the victors, as they are the ‘thugs’ of the owl world. But I soon learned that you can never underestimate the dogged determination of kestrels. This pair dive-bombed the tawny owls, letting out ear-piercing screeches several times an hour over the course of several weeks.

In the end the tawny owls, unable to stand this sort of anti-social torture any longer, moved off to a different nest site a few trees down.

Once the heavyweights were evicted, the male kestrel entered the box, clearly delighted with his victory. I’ve got a lovely film sequence of him literally strutting his stuff around the box before digging a nifty nest scrape to show his missus.

But it was the evicted tawny owls that earned ‘best effort’ in the breeding stakes this year. They had a brood of four this year and they supplied me with some of the most entertaining photographs of the year too, after the chicks chose two extremely wet days to fledge.

It was at the end of May and they were just six-weeks-old when they ventured out and the poor things got a thorough soaking.

Tawny owl chicks are adventurous little things and often attempt to fly the nest before they are ready. The chicks inevitably fall to the ground, but in dry conditions they can climb vertically back up the tree trunk if they have to - using a fascinating combination of talons, wings and even beaks.

Celebration of wildlife in a new exhibition

Robert Fuller has documented his year of watching wildlife in a new exhibition at his gallery at Fotherdale Farm, Thixendale, North Yorkshire which is due to open daily between November 8-30.

Among his artworks is a painting capturing the earliest days of six rescued tawny owl chicks that he persuaded the adult pair in his garden to adopt. The chicks have now fledged and begun their long journey back to the southern hemisphere.

This and several other paintings form Robert’s ‘My Yorkshire – An Artist’s Perspective’ exhibition, paying homage to the wildlife living in the county. For details and to book an accompanying event, call 01759 368355 or visit www.robertefuller.com