An Owl in the Forest

To be honest even for me it was the wrong side of 4 am. Light was seeping through the forest as dawn broke, turning the misty trees various shades of grey. For the first time in a long time I could hear the dawn chorus, a cacophony of birds waking up to a gloomy day threatening on its promise of rain.

The convoy of cars made its way down the dirt track, a thick wall of tall pine trees crowding in on both sides, their tops swaying in a slight breeze. Suddenly the trees fall away, opening up into one of the many clearfell patches within the forest. Tall waving grasses and dense, thick scrub and bramble replace the wall of trees alongside the track. Looking out across the clearfell, rows of stumps line the patch, a tumble of roots and limbs of felled trees. The odd tall tree remains, standing sentry overlooking the neat rows of newly planted pine trees, merely knee high and often overshadowed at this stage by the willowy grasses that are heavily laden with moisture.

As the convoy slows, something swoops out from the trees, catching the lead driver’s eye before a sickening thud is heard from the rear of the van. The group stops and the driver gets out retracing his route. Half expecting to see a pheasant, notorious for their suicidal flights out across roads, there is surprise as he approaches to find, crouched on the ground by the side of the track, a rather stunned looking tawny owl.

Tawny owl ringed in Thetford Forest

Close inspection reveals the bird is absolutely fine if a little stunned the convoy having been moving so slowly. And while this is not the most conventional way to catch owls, we could not miss the opportunity to put a ring on this one. Very few tawny owls are ringed in Thetford Forest (not for the lack of trying). In fact this is the first free flying bird to be ringed by the Thetford Forest Ringing Group, with only chicks in the nest having been ringed before the group formed. There are however many questions about the spatial distribution and productivity of tawny owls in the Forest, and how this relates to other owl species utilising this landscape such as the long-eared owl.

This owl turned out to be a young bird, fledged this year. Tawny’s breed early, with territories established during winter, and the first eggs usually being laid between February and March. Young birds leave the nesting hole after 25 days before they can fly, hanging around on branches near to the nest for another 10 days or so. This bird was well beyond that, being able to fly, even if it was not quite so well coordinated as to avoid big moving vans….

And then with a soft swish of silent wings the owl swooped away from the road and disappeared into the darkness of the maze of tree trunks.

This was not however the reason for getting up at the crack of dawn on a bank holiday weekend…. that was to try and catch a cuckoo, something that will have to wait for another day as the birds remained stubbornly out of the net and the promised rain finally arrived.


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