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June 2012: Tawny Owls: Spacious family home in a sought-after area

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Tawny Owls: Spacious family home in a sought-after area.

Tawny Owls: Spacious family home in a sought-after area.

Wildlife artist Robert Fuller gets birdwatching all boxed off as featured in the Gazette and Herald June 2012.

I HAVEI put up 100s of nest boxes of all shapes and sizes in my time and I still get a thrill each time they become occupied. Among the best nest boxes are natural ones, made from fallen trees with natural holes in them. They are rather heavy to hoist back up a tree, but they make perfect natural backdrops for my paintings. They also last well and birds appear to feel at home in them.

Last year my friend Nick and I winched an old sycamore stump into a tree opposite a hide that I have built close to my studio and gallery in Thixendale. It wasn't long before a pair of kestrels moved in and it was a delight watching them raise three chicks from the sycamore 'box'. I revisited this nest box earlier this year to find that tawny owls had now taken over the site. Last week I took a much needed break from the preparations for my exhibition, which opened at the weekend, to spend an evening photographing them.

I waited patiently for more than an hour before I got my first sign that there were chicks in the box. A chick must have flapped its wings because all of a sudden a cloud of soft down billowed out from the hole. But it was another half an hour before a small owlet face appeared at the entrance. It was followed shortly by another and then a third popped up.

They looked quite comical, bobbing their heads around as they made their way out of the hole and stretched and flapped their wings as they measured up the distance to the nearest branches. Quite suddenly one launched itself on to the closest branch. It was quickly followed by another. I felt quite astonished that these small balls of fluff could fly already.

I watched them scramble up through the branches to the very top of the tree where they waited, intermittently calling for their parents to return to them with food.
The third owlet in the meantime didn't pick up enough courage to take the leap of faith it needed to follow its siblings. I left at 10.30pm, when it was too dark to see them any longer, but when I got back the next evening I spotted the two fledged owlets on a nearby ash tree.

There was a buzzard circling uncomfortably close to the tree. Owlets are very vulnerable at this stage and rely solely on camouflage and the art of staying as still as possible to avoid detection. As I got out of my car, the buzzard moved away and so I went to climb up to my hide to have another go at photographing the chicks. But just as I got close the adult tawny owl pair flew out of a hawthorn bush below the chicks and began to dive bomb me, clacking their beaks ferociously above my head.

It was quite intimidating so I left them well alone and crept back into my car. A couple of years back a tawny owl knocked a chainsaw helmet clean off my head when I got too close to its nest. And one of the earliest professional wildlife photographers, Eric Hoskins, famously lost an eye to a tawny owl so I know how ferocious these birds can get when protecting their young. I expect I need not have worried about the buzzard flying overhead; these two seemed to have everything under control.

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