Spent most of the day driving around looking for little owl casualties once again but found none, but I did see dead muntjac, fox, badger, and numerous squashed pheasants, yes it is that time of year once again. I also spent some time checking the cattle troughs for any marooned birds or ones that may have drowned, but again found none.
But I did find a dead fallow deer by the roadside, I know not who hit the beast but they must have done quite a bit of damage to their vehicle. Indeed one particular gentleman wrote his car off hereabouts last year and very nearly lost his life too. The reason being most of these accidents are caused by driving way to fast down narrow meandering roads, one can tell this by the length of the skid marks left on the road.
Hello, my friend hello, just called to let you know (Neil Diamond,) so what follows will be a small part from this years field notes sprinkled with anecdotes I expect including my usual brand of humour.
Nonetheless on May the thirtieth I was struck down once again with rotational vertigo whilst away up north, in which all I could do was lie in bed looking out of the summerhouse window for twenty four hours until I could bare to place my feet on the ground once again. Anyhow having arrived safely back from my latest trip that will last twelve weeks in total I will have another series of notes to work on which is something I do every year at the end of the breeding season for little owls, until they have dispersed. However I have had some exiting experiences already though one of which being a perfect example of keeping ones’ eyes and wits about one instead of gazing through a cameras view finder at the wrong time. Had I been doing so I would have missed the sight of two male kestrels copulating, or at least trying to. I seemed to have recalled seeing this once before so looking back through my field notes I did indeed, forty-seven year ago to be precise. Of course, forty-seven years ago kestrels were much more common than they are now at least locally, but given the fact both my wife and I spend vast amount of time in the field I can only conclude this is most unusual behaviour in kestrels rare even, but I do know that this type of behaviour in other bird species also occurs in polygamy mating systems so this may also play a part since kestrels are well known to commit bigamy too.
But as one might expect this whole subject is complex with much still unknown, for instance ‘why is same sex sexual behaviour higher in the monogamous species. Fortunately for me it does not happen too often in the species I study although it has been documented in magpie, jackdaw, and jay to mention just three, but how would one know when it is two males or two females in these cases to be one hundred percent sure, captive birds perhaps. But then again would not their close proximity play a part of that I am not sure, or why it has even been known to occur when two different species of the same sex attempt to mate with each other.
I do know that of all the covids I keep long ago none showed any sexual traits at all despite being in close proximity to each other unless it happened behind closed doors so to speak, the anything can happen in the next half hour syndrome. But my carrion crow did show sexual imprinting traits a sort of alarm call enouncement whenever one approached followed by a deep throaty gargling, with much bowing and flickering of the nictitating membrane whenever I stroked its head, followed by a gentle rearrangement of the hair on my head, a reaction to pleasure if I am not mistaken, not to be confused with territory alarm calling in this case of course. But I did once have a carrion crow with the upper mandible crossed over its lower but it seemed to adapt very well, starlings too sometimes suffer with extra-long bills that may be straight or curved much like a curlew, I believe the latest thinking is poecivirus being the cause. Incidentally this was the second carrion crow I kept a (fairly common practise in the early fifties/ sixties) but this one hopped down the path one day obviously attracted by my other crow. Very much a tame bird too having being kept by someone else but this one also had a leg injury of some kind but it went on to live for many years.
Still that aside it’s been another interesting year so far in which my little owl journeys will take me country wide once again meeting various personalities along the way, testing my multifaceted sense of humour to the full, in particular secret squirrel who I have already met being the latest birder who like my self-travels light and relatively smartly dressed as opposed to the huge back carrying athletic birder Brutus Tiberius Maximus I once encountered here at home. Now secret squirrel is a man of very few words who never replies to my friendly greeting, although I can quite understand not wanting to engage in conversation to a certain extent, for example being in an intense frame of mind being a serious birder or keeping what he may have seen secret for instance, but a good morning would not go amiss would it, but no not even a grunt passed secret squirrels lips. As opposed to the elderly lady hiker a very endearing soul is she with much interesting conversations also the carrier of two walking poles, and a small pair of binoculars. No observational humour aimed towards this lady of course on the contrary, nothing but admiration did I feel radiating from a smiling face simply filled with life’s wisdom, echoing very fond thoughts of my late grandmother, although I should just say the other birders I met along the way were only ‘too pleased’ to pass the time of day with a smart looking chap wearing a Stetson.
Nevertheless, this year my journeys began up north once again in the land of the Yonghy Bonghy Bo (Edward Lear) the plan being to work my way south taking a zig zag route across the country which will finally finish in Devon. The further plan being to park the car some distance away from the main gates of each property so I can take in the scenery on foot and maybe spot a bird or two along the way to my finale destination. Now the plan ‘was all going along splendidly’ but of course Alan being Alan I might have known something would happen, and so it did this time in the form of the creature known has Acceleratii Incredibus who leapt out from behind a bush who then began to insist I was Clint Eastwood, I presume because I was relatively smartly dressed wearing the Stetson, but I look nothing like Clint Eastwood on the contrary I am much better looking. So I can only conclude he must be unique in having undergone a giant leap forward in some sort of evolutionary power, mind you though he was drinking a can of beer at the time which on the way back I found empty along with yet more plus enough rubbish to fill a swimming pool.
Nevertheless the male little owls are now very busy feeding their females whilst they brood their chicks, judging by the frequent visits by the males, so far so good.
I must just say though being a creature of the woods and normally being at home I never come in contact with anyone very much at all here except the odd birder and dog walkers who think they have the right to walk straight in and make their self at home, but this latest strange behaviour has been some somewhat of an eye-opener for me, (leaping out from behind bushes) an epiphany even, ever since I began to wander once again. I have never quite understood why they always choose Alan to leap out on though, but many years ago I did have the first of these very funny experiences whilst passing through Slough in which the car gave a splutter and stopped with steam pouring out under the bonnet. The problem being the radiator bypass hose had burst so off I went looking for a petrol garage who just might have one, but as sure as nine pence out jumped a couple of people or should I say a spiv a throwback from the 1940s and his female companion who I thought was a bit strange who leapt out from behind a telephone box. But of course only recently left home for the first time and having led a relatively sheltered life I had no idea what a strange woman was, just the fact my mother always said beware of strange women son, and men piped up my father which he thought was extremely funny, nothing unusual about that remark of course coming from a different generation unlike today when every ten year old child knows far more than their parents. Anyhow where was I oh yes, hello guv said the spiv can I interest you in a sparkle of two, not unless you have a mini bypass hose about your person I replied, no but I have got these rolling up his sleeve to reveal about twenty watches up each arm. Not content with this his female companion then stepped forward, oh hello darling I have a sparkle or two as well, however I never waited to see what sparkles she had so with that I swiftly moved on; the moral of the story is of course never breakdown in Slough. Now just in case you are wondering about what sort of petrol garage sell bypass hoses it ‘was once fairly common’, which is just as well really has the early mini were quite prone to break down with a burst bypass hose. But nothing else serious you understand just head gaskets blowing, con rods breaking, failing big end bearing, front suspension collapsing/ ball joints, collapsed wheel bearing, leaking brake / clutch cylinders, / clutch plates, and a whole host of other things all of which I use to fix on route. But nothing was too much trouble back in the day has far has breaking down was concerned has I enjoyed fixing things myself, in any case the trailer was ‘filled to the brim with spare parts and tools but not a single bypass hose of course. After that I use to carry a length of garden hose as this would fit perfectly and last almost forever, providing one could manoeuvre it into place but having small hands with dexterity of a surgeon it was just about manageable. I also carried a pair of wheel ramps, small block and tackle, complete with tripod, just in case I needed to remove the engine. Oh yes I did do that not once but twice over the twenty five years I had that car and three hundred thousand miles later, which is quite considerable for an eight fifty cc engine. I also carried a tent plus the kitchen sink. After that came a series of cars all equally problematic including a Cortina that exploded on the M1, and the rest I simply wore out all in the search and study of one bird - the Sparrowhawk even though few were still breeding during the pesticide era unless one knew where to look.
I am happy to report contact calls have become more frequent between the little owl pairs both at home and locally while other courtship behaviour is also being observed at this present moment in time, and so I am really looking forward to another year of watching things unfold once again.
However, I am still wondering if they will start breeding early again this year, changing weather patterns perhaps...
That is good news, Alan. Little Owls have been reported around this bit of east London for a few years but it was only last summer that I saw any in a couple of small copses when walking the dog early in the morning. However, as the days got shorter the walks started later so there were more people around and I haven't seen any for a few months.
Well it will soon be mid-April a time when little owls start to lay their first egg a time when things really start to get very interesting, although laying dates can be quite variable. Nonetheless, it goes without saying I never go anywhere near the boxes until the cleaning and maintenance is due, even then I always give these a good tap with a stick whilst wearing goggles just in case the bird should be within flying out in one’s face, better safe than sorry I always say even though little owls are not aggressive towards man an accident such as described could possible happen.
However, in contrast Sparrow hawks by their very nature are fiery psychopaths being the proud possessor of a powerful grip locked into place by a ratchet mechanism making owls and raptors a very formidable predator, but during the egg laying stage Sparrow hawks become lethargic and can be reluctant to leave the nest even allowing themselves to be handled, but then again, we live in an era of smart phones and very silly people being the element of unpredictability still remains, in other words ones eyesight is precious and cannot be replaced.
For instance, who would think the common buzzard is a bird to be aware of normally restricting their selves to alarm calling but there are instances of actually lurching an attack upon man, that being very similar to the cock pheasant I named Philip after my brother-in-law the stuffed shirt that lives in my garden that seems to have taken objection to our postman.
Grey and overcast this morning but it did not stop the jackdaws being a general nuisance by trying to enter my little owl boxes which they cannot do since I made improvements e.g. making a small round entry hole(65 mm) as opposed to arched as barn owls will also try to enter in order to predate the little owls chicks something that happened here in the early days before I redesigned “my boxes” (see link) for an written explanation and example of a poorly designed box below, (note the size of the arched hole is “much too large here”.)
Nonetheless, things here on the little owl front are still continuing as predicted e.g. nothing much happening at the moment so I left early for a break stopping off at the garden centre for a slice of coffee cream cake, where I found a song thrush repeating the same old tune, being just the same as you know who dear reader, although on second thoughts!
However, I still continue to find poorly designed little owl boxes placed in trees which is not such a good idea as predation is much more likely from stoats and grey squirrels which is why my boxes are place on poles fitted with a baffle to prevent the aforementioned climbing. However I still find the following example difficult to understand as the barn owl will predate little owl chicks by lowering its body and squeezing through on its sternum.
Quite deep the following quote but I am sure all nature lovers will understand.
It’s not what you look at that matters it’s what you see.
Henry David Thoreau
Emily Joachim (the little owl project) filmed this nest box attack. The barn owl visits the little owl nest box twice.
She says, due to their size, little owls are vulnerable to predation in the nest. A newly hatched chick weighs just 10g. We are aware that barn owls predate little owl nestlings but this is the first time that I have recorded such footage.”
1 A barn owl somehow squeezes his way into the nest box to find the little owl and her four eggs, which are only days from hatching.
2 Despite the dramatic difference in size the little owl attacks the intruder, fighting ferociously to protect her precious clutch.
3 The barn owl retreats from the onslaught. He’ll return when the chicks have hatched.
4. The male barn owl returns to the little owl nest box to find the little owl and her hatched chicks.
5. The barn owl tries to take a chick and the female little owl fights to defend her young. She lunges towards the barn owl using her talons.
6. The barn owl predates one chick and injures another. Three of the four chicks survived to fledging age and two survived fledging.
I find the example difficult to understand as the barn owl is known to predate little owl chicks by lowering its body and squeezing through on its sternum if the entry hole is too large. This box is also very poorly designed as it is laid out on the same level as opposed to an elevated corridor ending at a right angle to prevent fledging too early and making entry by a larger predator impossible as my boxes are, dare I say so much for “experts”.