It can take a while for owls to accept a nest box. My homemade wooden one was built to a chimney design from the RSPB website and set on a sycamore branch at the recommended 45-degree angle. My garden has a plentiful supply of voles, which are owls’ main prey. I have waited five years for one to move in.
For the past couple of weeks, the signs had been there: hysterical blackbird calls and a fluster of blackcaps and dunnocks signalling the daytime presence of a tawny owl in my garden. I have watched her edging closer to the box as the days have passed, first on a level spur of the ash tree, next on the side branch of a sycamore, and then so near the house that I could study her as I ate my breakfast.
Leaf patterns dance shadows over mottled plumage. Sometimes she snoozes, sometimes looks straight at me with black, black eyes. With a taloned claw, she scratches the side of her head, then retracts the leg until it’s just visible among her chest feathers, while the other claw holds on to the lichened branch.
As her beak opens, in what looks like a yawn, I can see the pink inside of her mouth. There’s a moment of alertness at the sound of a shed door opening but then, used to our comings and goings, she relaxes.
Every now and then I hear the peep of what sounds like a single owlet, but in the summer-dense foliage I can’t be sure where the sound is coming from. I walk quietly up the garden path. Little black chimney sweeper moths flit over umbels of pignut, small tortoiseshells feed on cirsium thistles. Day-glo California poppies are turned towards the sun and the lady’s mantle is flagging in the heat.
I look up and the owl has retreated, hidden herself in a network of leaves and branches. I am just a bit too close. But there, peeping over the lip of the box, are two pale grey chicks. Fluffy and rotund, they are still a little way from flying.