The first sign that our owl box was being used was the intermittent calling of a female tawny during the day. A male, occasionally hooting from the wood across the river, would sometimes be answered by her muted kee-wick. It is females alone that incubate eggs and stay with the chicks until they have fledged. Living so close to the house, she would be able to hear my feet on the gravel path, our voices and other everyday sounds.
The nest box, a tall chimney shape suggesting a hollow tree trunk, has been fixed to the sycamore for a while now. It took some years for it to be accepted, but this is the third time it has been occupied. Hearing an alarmed flurry of small birds, I reached for my binoculars, and there was a female owl on a weathered sycamore branch, its surface scuffed and peeling from her sharp talons. The symmetry of her face resembled a vertical slice through an apple. Her feathers were a pattern of buff and light brown, like the shadows of leaves that float across a branch.
For the next five days, I watched her from the kitchen window or glanced sideways at her as I gardened. I could weed nearby or pick bunches of flowers and she would stay where she and I could see each other. She had three favourite perches: the first easily visible, the second a bit more secluded and the third tucked deeper into an ash tree. When anyone else was nearby she would retreat to the innermost perch. Studies have shown that birds can recognise people’s faces, so perhaps she trusted my movements and gestures.
I heard the peeping of an owlet, and there it was, standing on the front rim of the box, grey and fluffy. Later at dusk, it moved to a gate, motionless and staring. I watched from the window as the light dropped.
Gradually it relaxed, stretched an exploratory wing, scratched among feathers. When the female landed alongside, barred wings against the pale field, she fed it a vole before flying off. The chick lifted a claw, rotated the prey and swallowed. I felt I had witnessed something very special.