It felt good to be back in such a familiar landscape. A long strip of bright blue sky stretched above the forest ride, flanked by green and browns of the forest on either side. Sunbeams danced through the branches and evergreen needles of the trees; new leaves were beginning to burst on the bushes that wrap around some of the tree trunks like a collar. The forest floor was a carpet of crunchy brown leaves and tangled spikey briars that clung desperately to clothing. The green grassy margins of the rides were dotted with brilliant yellow flowers that bees and flies were starting to buzz round and butterflies’ flitter over.
We had missed the owl nesting season in Thetford Forest last year due to lockdown. This year we were lucky that restrictions were lifting in time.
So here we were, now with two kiddies in tow rather than one, checking each nest box in turn. At each box we try to catch the adult bird using a net. Our aim being to establish which adult is nesting in which box and its breeding success. Then we use a ladder to climb up to the box and check its contents.
Once again, our first couple of boxes had Mandarin Duck nesting in them. Incredibly both females were ringed and are the same females utilising the same boxes over the last few years! They are such a beautiful duck. While the male might get all the attention for his elaborate, bright orange and purple plumage, the female is actually no less beautiful, just more subtle about it. The description of ‘dull with grey heads, brown back and white eye stripe’ just does not do it justice. It is a soft grey, almost silvery, with chestnut brown streaks on the breast. The back is darker brown with an iridescent green sheen to the wing tips. The eye is large and dark. Soulful.
A few of the boxes have Stock Dove nesting in them. And while the bird might actually be very pretty, again with a large dark eye, and iridescent green and purple on the neck amongst the bluey grey plumage, the nest is not. In fact, it is often pretty disgusting. These birds do not care what or who was in a box before them. Dead bird. Dead squirrel. Doesn’t stop them. They pile on the sticks and poop and then lay their eggs.
Then of course there was the focus of our study and the whole reason we were out here. Tawny Owls. In 2020, when checked the boxes later in the year, it seemed there had been little occupancy and little evidence of success. In 2019 we had a good year, with owls present in 7 boxes and 16 chicks ringed. We were unsure as to what this year would bring.
So far, so very good! Five active nests, with a total of 8 eggs and 3 chicks. Plus, we still have another 10 boxes to check! Interestingly one box where we have had a known female nesting for the past few years was occupied by a new bird. One can only speculate what has happened to the other bird…
There is nothing quite like an owl in the hand. The beauty and the power. Those liquid black eyes look almost supernatural. They command the up most respect just by looking at you.
All in all it was a pretty epic day out in the wilds of Thetford Forest.