If you go down to the woods today…

Nope we didn’t have to go in disguise and there were not all the teddy bears having a picnic, but this time we were definitely in for a big surprise.

Sunlight from a golden evening streams through the trees, the dried crunchy leaves and needles scattered on the forest floor glow in the dappled sunlight. The trees are bushing out with bright green leaves, mixing with dark evergreens of the pine trees. A rustle in the fallen leaves and two men appear from the open grassy track, carrying a ladder, and head into the shade of the trees. They move as quietly as possible, carrying their load. Manoeuvring the ladder against one of the tall trees, one begins to climb to the large nesting box attached to its trunk. With care he opens the side hatch and peers in. The box is a Tawny Owl nest box, one of 20 put up around the Forest in a new monitoring project.

Sunlight streams through as the guys check the box

At the bottom of the box on top of the fresh sawdust placed on its wooden floor, is a deep cosy nest of greyish, soft down and hidden beneath a small layer of feathers are 10 creamy eggs.

Here is the surprise. The eggs do not belong to Tawny Owl, or even Stock Dove perhaps the other species expected to inhabit the boxes. They do not even belong to Jackdaw, although that would be unusual given the location within the Forest. No, the nest belongs to a Mandarin. A beautifully exotic duck whose usual range is in East Asia but that was introduced in the early 20th Century and is now a naturalised resident.

It seems odd, a duck nesting in a tree cavity. But there are many that do, including our native Goldeneye.

Mandarin nest. Photo: Mike Toms

But there it is all nestled within the squared walls of our box. This time the female is not present and has carefully covered the eggs to keep them warm in her absence. Carefully the ladder is removed and the team retreats, we will return again to check the nest again with the hope of catching the female as she leaves, but also to check that the ducklings have climbed out OK. For that is how it must be, the ducklings will claw up the inner wall of the cavity and launch themselves out of the hole! Good job they are so soft and ‘fluffy’!

 A few days later and the glorious sunshine had vanished to be replaced by a rather dull, grey morning. But once again, moving softly and quietly between the trees and over the rustling leaves the team with the ladder returns to the tree and the box. This time we are in luck, the female is in the box and we are able to catch her. What a beautiful bird. While the male may have all the flashy colours, the subtle beauty of the soft greyish brown feathers, mottled chest and big dark eye of the female is captivating.

The beautiful female Mandarin

We let the female go with an extra bit of bling in the form of a uniquely identifiable ring. She will return to her nest and very soon those little ducklings will be making that leap of faith. It’s then a long walk through the forest leaf litter and grassy tracks to the nearest water of the river.

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