Tales of the tawny owl

PUBLISHED: 08:45 08 March 2010 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013

Poised for flight

Poised for flight

Kielder Water and Forest Park provides a wonderful habitat for one of Britain's favourite birds. Ann and Steve Toon went to meet the man in charge

Mr Tawny Owl is sipping a mug of hot chocolate in the Duke's Pantry when we meet him.We've been tipped to expect 'a bit of a character', and we're not disappointed. With his shock of curly white hair and flowing beard, Mr Owl, aka Brian Little, bears an uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus - only with rather more presence. It's the sort of presence that fills a room, and soon the entire clientele of the caf are listening spellbound to his enthusiastic account of the long-running Kielder tawny owl project. There isn't much Brian doesn't know about these charismatic birds and he's been a key part of the Forestry Commission's tawny owl project for years. The scheme itself dates back three decades, to when Kielder Water was first created, flooding a huge expanse of the upper North Tyne valley. Owl nest boxes were erected in the surrounding forest, to replace lost nesting sites in the flooded trees. Over the ensuing years, some 240 nest boxes have been put up in the Kielder Water and Forest Park area, helping maintain a vibrant tawny owl population and in the process providing an unrivalled opportunity for research. Come March, Brian will once again begin the mammoth task of checking nest boxes, counting eggs, ringing fledgling chicks, and weighing adults. By early June, when all this year's fledgling chicks will have been recorded, each box will have been visited at least three or four times. At the age of 72, Brian says he's getting too old to do all the heavy work himself, but these days he has a couple of MSc students from Newcastle University to carry his ladder and log the data. One box in particular will be of particular interest. It's the chosen nest site of an old friend, a female tawny owl which in 2008 produced three healthy chicks at the astonishing age of 21. Originally ringed as a chick in April 1987, in a box less than a mile away, she's already the oldest breeding female known, and if she appears live and well this spring, she'll become the oldest wild tawny owl of either gender ever recorded in Britain. Although Brian feigns a scientific detachment to the owls which he helps conserve, he can't hide his passion when he remembers the moment last spring that he renewed his acquaintance with the old matriarch. 'It was fantastic. My assistant caught the owl and I took it out of the net and read the ring number, GF29129 - that's her! I was so overcome I had to sit on a log. I had a big lump in my throat,' he recalls. The omens for this spring look promising. Tawny owls remain faithful to the same nesting site year after year, and back in the autumn there were signs that the nest box had already been visited. But even if the old lady doesn't survive the winter, there will be other tawny owls to take her place. One of the most striking findings of the Kielder study has been that tawny owls are thriving in an upland spruce forest environment, which had previously been thought to be less than ideal habitat. Last year alone, no fewer than 164 fledgling young were ringed at 95 occupied nestboxes in the Kielder, Redesdale, Tarset, Wark and Kershope forests. In the past ten years an average 186 fledged chicks have been recorded each year, with as many as 324 in the bumper year of 2003. Tawny owls are at the top of the food chain, and their thriving population is encouraging evidence of a healthy natural environment, with plenty of small mammal to prey on. As Brian explains, the birds are 'amazing predators, lethal instruments, with superb binocular vision, and equally acute hearing.' Indeed, that hearing is so sharp that a tawny owl can locate and catch a field vole by sound alone. Field voles make up the largest part of the Kielder tawny owls' diet, but the study has revealed changing trends in diet, such as an increasing number of bank voles and long-tailed field mice, probably associated with a changing forest structure. After the new season's chicks are fledged, Brian and his assistants empty every nest box of the accumulated debris, replacing it with fresh pine needles. This stops the boxes becoming flea ridden, but also provides useful research material. Brian takes us to his office in the castle, a veritable grotto of bird research paraphernalia on the floor immediately above the Birds of Kielder exhibition. Along one wall are lined dozens of plastic bags. They contain this year's nest box debris, all waiting to be painstakingly dissected to analyse what prey the young birds have been fed. Our conversation is played out against the regular sound of a tawny owl calling, on a loop playing in the visitor centre downstairs. Tawny owls are the classic 'tu whit, tu woo' callers, but did you know that the call is actually made by a pair of birds 'duetting'? 'Tu whit' is the female, 'to woo' the male. If you hear just a long, unanswered 'woooo', that's a male, advertising his availability to any nearby females. You don't have to go up to Kielder to hear the evocative call of the tawny owl. The birds are widespread throughout the North East, and at this time of year can be heard calling, even in relatively urban settings, Newcastle's Jesmond Dene and Gateshead's Saltwell Park to name just two. But if you do wish to track down Kielder's owls, the Forestry Commission runs occasional guided 'owl nights'. Telephone 01434 250209 to find out when the next one takes place. And while you're there, keep your eyes open for 'Mr Tawny Owl', with ladder-bearing assistant in tow.

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