Despite the blanket of grey white cloud overhead, soft green light filtered through the forest canopy. Among the dark crinkly leaves and branches of the forest floor the occasional green fronds of new bracken growth had begun to unfurl. It had only been a few weeks but we were back in Thetford Forest checking our owl boxes.
First off we checked our three mandarin duck nests. All three nests remain active with the females sitting tight in the last stages of incubation. Very soon those eggs will be hatching and the ducklings will make that leap of faith from the nest box to the leaf litter below.
The next few boxes have active stock dove and great tit (yes great tit!) nests. It always surprises me just a little to find great tit nests in these boxes. Of course they are a hole nesting species that has adapted superbly to manmade nest boxes, but they tend to be much smaller! Our boxes are designed for the much larger tawny owl! It amazes me each time to see the whole base of the box filled with moss, a good couple inches thick. Then in the middle there is a small, perfectly round, cup lined with feathers. And snug in the cup 8 or 10 small eggs that are whitish with red speckling.
Stock doves too are well known for nesting in boxes. In fact the name stock dove roughly means ‘a dove which lives in hollow trees’. The word stock comes from the Old English ‘stocc’ meaning stump, post, tree trunk or log. Such hollow trees near human settlements would often be used as wood stock for firewood.
The stock dove nests are less appealing. A haphazard mass of twigs, sticks, dead leaves, and poop. Lots of poop. Many of the nests had two shiny white eggs, one had three rather cute yellow fluffy chicks with a dark bill that looks too big for the little bird. But as they get older and dark greyish blue feathers start coming through the chicks tend to look a little prehistoric – very much an ‘ugly duckling’ or should that be ‘doveling’. But just like the Ugly Duckling that turns into a beautiful swan, the stock dove chicks undergo a final change as their plumage fills out and they turn into the free flying doves with soft dark eyes, grey blue plumage and beautiful patches of iridescent green and purple on the neck.
For all our boxes we try to catch and ring the adults as well. Although our target species is tawny owl we will try and catch other birds using the boxes, including stock doves and the mandarins. As the previous blog about the mandarins shows this is starting to show some interesting results between years. The same goes for the stock doves. This time we managed to catch a female from one of the boxes. She already had a ring on and it turns out she was ringed as a chick, last year, in the very same box she is now nesting in!
Then there are two boxes with our target species, the tawny owl. We knew they were there, having recorded contents during our first check, with both boxes containing two eggs. Both now they only have one, very cute little tawny owl chick. For one box we had already caught and ringed the female, but this time we manage to catch the female from the second box that had eluded us before.
What a stunning adult bird she was. With perfect soft feathers in various tones of brown, grey, black and brilliant white. With liquid black eyes surrounded by rounded discs of feathers that flatten the face and act like a radar dish helping her find and catch her prey in the dark. Around her sharp bill which she occasionally snaps in annoyance (well wouldn’t you?) are short, bristly feathers that help sense objects close by. Under the beauty of the bird, there is a steely threat. Just one snap of the beak, clench of the talons, is more than enough reminder of the power and fight in this bird. We gave her the respect she deserved.
It turns out this bird also already had a ring on, and that she was ringed by our team, as a 3 year old bird last year in the very same box. Now here she was, back in the same box, raising another new family.
And so, with the sun finally starting to break through the cloud cover, brightening the green light under the canopy and sending beams between the trees, we came to the end of another epic day working our way round our set of nest boxes in Thetford Forest.