Friday, March 5, 2010

A few days ago I came across some brutal behaviour while walking through Ashstead Common in Surrey. It was a commotion mainly created by carrion crows and magpies that caught my attention and although these birds are often noisy, it was something urgent about their calls that got my interest and soon jays and other birds were alarming too. I often find that this behaviour is often brought on by the discovery of an owl.
However, surveying the scene from a distance I could make nothing out other than the epicentre of the disturbance so I slowly approached; a lot of the crows by this stage were on the ground and fighting amongst themselves. They scattered as I got closer and it was a sad sight that lay on the ground; a tawny owl, dead, one eye missing, apparently mobbed to death. I couldn't help but find it sad that such a beautiful and specially adapted bird had met its end in this way, though why a predator elicits more emotion from us than if it had been one of the magpies dead is strange. It did give me the chance to examine the bird; it was incredibly light but it was the structure of the feet that impressed me most; 4 needle sharp talons 8mm long on each foot; a vole doesn't stand a chance!
On a much more positive note and as if in balance to the previous paragraphs, two of the tawny owl nestboxes at Scrag Copse are now occupied by tawny owls. This is fantastic news and I am over the moon about it. This is the first year this has happened although I suspect one of them may have been used last year but unsuccessfully. This year, it appears that there is a female in each box; one of them is now regularly sitting at the entrance and watches me with her near-closed eyes which helps maintain her cryptic camouflage. It is a great feeling that the boxes made by my father and installed by us both with great frustration and effort are now being used by the species intended (it has been jackdaws that have used them up to now).
They will, hopefully, remain and lay eggs in the next couple of weeks; the males will be hidden close by and although I have scanned and searched for them, I have not located them. Anyway, it is great news indeed and my intention is to steer clear at least until the eggs are laid in order to avoid disturbance.
The owls, especially the males, are very vocal as soon as I get into position for a badger watch. I have carried out a couple in the last month or so. The first was very cold and dark on the night of a new moon and resulted in fairly minimal badger views. It did, however, show me interesting behaviour of a single male that was just walking from one entrance hole to another and repeatedly making a grunting sound. This is a sort of rutting behaviour and he is trying to lure out the female(s) who will have just come into oestrous having just given birth. Although this was not the most eventful, or comfortable, watch I have done, it has added a piece of the jigsaw regarding their behaviour to my knowledge.
A badger watch with Mark Elliott on Tuesday night, however, was a much more active event with 5 adults including Vincent, the dominant boar (he only has one ear), who was out first and scratching well before using the latrine and then off across the field, possibly to secure his boundaries. The following 4 adults gave us a display of digging, bedding collection and mutual grooming before the wind changed direction and we had to leave. All in all though it was a great watch and seems to be marking a general increase in activity across Scrag as the Spring progresses at long last!

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