Tuesday 18 February 2014

The owl service

The rain has gone from fire hose to showers and today it turned off completely for a whole day. Everywhere are signs of a ridiculously advanced spring.

In Preuilly-sur-Claise for the Saffron Fair on Saturday, we saw an almond tree just coming into bloom.

Taken with my elderly Nokia mobile, I'm afraid

Yesterday Tim spotted a lizard (European wall lizard) sunning itself, and today a Brimstone butterfly flew past. The frogs are croaking, the great spotted woodpeckers are drumming, the male wren is singing (no change there). The cirl bunting is up on the wych elm by the road belting out "a little bit of bread and no - erm - prompt?!!". Today one of the chiffchaffs started up right in front of us. The blackbirds are a definite couple. A male house sparrow in immaculate breeding plumage does the hippy hippy shake in front of two females who weren't too impressed. Wings half extended, knees bent and bob up and down. Doesn't he look daft, Ada?

But the most remarkable spring song came from the Tawny Owls [strix aluco] la chouette hulotte. The romance unfolds as follows:

2nd February: Loud "kwik-kwik" calls coming from the hangar in the evening, where a female tawny owl is perching on a cross-member. The red 2CV is directly underneath, and is covered in white splodges.

9th February: Loud "whooo....whooo" calls from the barn roof. This time we have a male.

12th February: The female is in the hangar again. The "kwik-kwik" is rapid and chopped off, interspersed with "kia" calls, sounding more urgent and excited.

13th February: Two males, one calling from the riverbank, one more distant.

15th February: The female starts. The "kia" call is accompanied by an extraordinary trilling hoot, very musical and pure, but not loud. [We found out that this warble is sometimes called the "xylophone trill", en ocarina in France. It is often regarded as a sign of distress or agitation.] She doesn't sound at all distressed, and keeps it up for some time. Then we hear a male's "tu whoo" from the Aigronne. Finally we are treated to a duet, both birds in the hangar, she giving a soft yelping call, he responding with gentle hoots. I try recording it with the voice recorder function of my mobile, but only get a faint echo of what is happening.

17th February: the following night, but after midnight, the same thing happens, with the female calling and (in the wee small hours) I am awakened by the duet. Tim has put recording equipment together, using a minidisk recorder with a small parabolic microphone (officially an educational toy, but capable of much more). I didn't like to wake him at such an hour.

According to the outstanding website God's Own Clay, the trill is rarely heard in the wild, and Xeno Canto has one recording of it (made on an I-phone!) out of 175 Tawny Owl examples. We're hoping the owls may get it together again tonight at a more reasonable time so we can record them.  As for pictures, Faune Touraine has lots of Barn Owl images in its photo gallery but no pictures of Tawny Owls, neither has Tim's brother Nick on his Flickr site. I'm sure we could get a picture of one or both of the birds, but we don't want our presence and the flash to drive them away. So here's a lovely portrait of a young tawny by Thomas Helbig [Germany] taken at the Falconry Centre Greifenstein in Bad Blankenburg, Thuringia.

Copyright Thomas Helbig

Between 8pm and 10pm we hear the male calling, then the female, with a tremolo trill as she flies past the front door. They are in the trees by the Aigronne this time.
11pm and Tim comes in saying he can hear four different males calling at the same time, so it looks like quite a party tonight and she'll be able to take her pick.
11:45pm: first the female ("kia"!) then a male ("whoo"!) fly past the house, heading upstream.

Something tells me we haven't heard the last of this!


Niall & Antoinette said...

Oooh super! Owls round us are busy too but nothing fancy.

We had a butterfly float into the house--only to be gently escorted out again. Cowslips are out!

Tim said...

I think this behaviour is courtship. The female is ready to mate and letting all the males in the district know about it. She has one steady boyfriend but is ready ro play rhe field. We've been privileged to be spectators in their courtship, but oh for the kit to be able to photograph and record it! It would be lovely if they nested nearby - baby tawny owls are like roly poly hot water bottles.

Anonymous said...

Do you get many Cirl Buntings? In the UK, they are now restricted to a coastal strip in South Devon near where I live, but we do see them regularly when we visit the coast.

Tim said...

Yes, Philip...
they seem to replace their cousin the Yellowhammer around here.
We are pretty certain that a pair nest close by...
we certainly get all the territorial activity from the male.
In fact, he was atop the bush, at the end of the garden, as we pulled in from visiting the market.