Click on the links to YouTube for some late in the year action from a box in Stilton country:
The second image shows assorted bones with rodent jaws and two bills from an unknown passerine. It is very unusual to find remains of birds in Barn Owl pellets.
Click on the links to YouTube for some late in the year action from a box in Stilton country:
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of taking out a couple of young guests to see some Barn Owls; Amelia who is doing a Masters in Zoology at Nottingham University and Alex, an Environmental Science and Natural History Photographer who also studied at Nottingham.
Checking Barn Owl boxes this year has been difficult, nothing is guaranteed with many pairs laying eggs and then deserting and some not laying eggs at all. The last thing you want is to take people to see Barn Owl chicks and then find the nest empty; very disappointing both for them and for me!
I had a few boxes to look at in the Vale of Belvoir where I’d found birds on eggs and small chicks 6 weeks ago and we could also check some boxes where I’d already ringed chicks which might be still in the boxes.
As usual when in the Vale, I picked up our friend Jo who sees Barn Owls regularly from her garden and has a couple of boxes behind her house though neither were used for nesting this year.
The first box was one where I’d already ringed 4 chicks back in July so there was a good chance that birds would still be present; I was delighted to find 3 birds in the box, all ringed and full feathered and it was great to see the look on the faces of Alex and Amelia as I showed them their first wild Barn Owls.
Checking the ring numbers, I discovered that only one bird was a chick, the others were Mum and Dad, the female ringed as a year old bird in this very box in 2012 and the male ringed the year before as a chick in another box on this same farm!
The birds were checked, photos taken and we headed off to the next box. There’d been eggs and small chicks in the box in July but now only a Stock Dove on eggs; the owls had deserted with only owl pellets and an egg with a hole in it, probably caused by Jackdaws, to show of the owl’s earlier residence!!
The next box proved better though, I’d ringed 2 chicks here and they were both still at home though one managed to head butt the hole blocker out and made its escape, The other though was a beautifully spotted female!
I was still hoping to find some chicks to ring so we headed for Bingham and another box that had eggs and chicks when I last looked. With three car loads of Farmer, family and friends turning up as well, I had everything crossed when I climbed the ladder and was relieved to find 2 gorgeous chicks, well grown but still downy like 2 dandelion clocks.
I ringed both chicks, photos were taken and we headed off to Cropwell Bishop to check another box that had eggs last time I looked.
Both adults departed and there were 5 chicks in the box, 3 downy and 2 pink, looking like some small pre-historic reptiles. Nothing big enough to ring so a job for 4 weeks time when I hope to see Amelia and Alex again; I’m sure they’d like to come!!
Ain't it great when you give someone advice on a subject, they take it and everything works out OK?
A few weeks ago, a farmer rang me to say that he’d been taking hay bales from a barn and come across two small Barn Owl chicks. He seemed quite anxious that the parents would continue to feed the chicks and what could he do to keep them together to fledging.
I suggested he find a large box or disused water tank to contain the chicks and leave it on the bales close to where he found them. The adults would hear the chicks calling and continue to feed them! He readily agreed to try this and I heard nothing more.
Then last week I received a text from Colin Shawyer of the Barn Owl Conservation Network to say that he’d been in contact with a farmer at Epperstone who had 2 Barn Owl chicks in a cardboard box in a barn and would I be able to ring them. I told Colin of my earlier contact with the farmer who’d obviously taken my advice.
Yesterday, Neil and I went over to Epperstone to ring the chicks, we met the farmer and his wife in the yard and went over to the hay barn to get the chicks but looking into the box, we were dismayed to see that it was empty, oh no, could they have been taken by a cat or fox or just flown away. I started to search amongst the bales and eventually found one perched on a metal beam under the roof. I asked Neil to fetch my net and a metal pole and managed to get the chick into the net. The bird was near a new nesting box under the roof beams and we found the 2nd chick snug down in the box. After a good Spiderman impression, I was able to get it out and both chicks were ringed, photos taken and released to continue growing!!
Also that day; we’d ringed a big chick at Radcliffe after having to wait until the farmer had harvested his oil-seed rape crop and found a newly fledged bird in a box at Owthorpe; this bird was unringed so must have fledged from a natural nest site and found our box to its liking; a good day all round!!
Usually Barn Owls are easy to sex; females have spots on their breast and underwing and males don't - they are pure white beneath.
Today though I found 2 adults in a box with eggs and a small chick. I grabbed the first bird, noticing big spots on its underwing and put it into the holding crate. I then caught the second bird and was surprised to see that this too had spots! Possibly 2 females sharing a box which happens, but only rarely.
Weighing the birds was the clincher; one weighed 390 grams and the other only 330, the heavier bird was the female and she also had a large brood patch on her belly; a bare area with engorged blood vessels to aid the brooding of eggs and chicks. The bird immediatey below is the female and the lower one is the male and he has heavier spots than the female!!
In a generally disappointing year, today was one of the more rewarding days out, not least since Howard and Neil were joined by two lovely ladies (though one was Neil's daughter Zoe, so she doesn't really count). The other was owl-fan Jo from Sutton cum Granby with welcome (and not so welcome) news about her visiting Humming-bird Hawkmoths (one got squashed!)
The day started badly with a box with eggs a few weeks ago, now abandoned and occupied by Stock Doves, but a trip to Elton on the Hill to a pole box, that had not been visited for some time and which was very full of accumulated owl-debris also housed three very large chicks just days from fledging. The nature of the box necessitated the rare circumstance of Neil up a ladder and you can probably see the distrust he has of the rotting, woodpecker-drilled pole, in being able to withstand the vector force of his generous mass.
More chicks followed at Langar and other pairs were present, some with eggs (one with a clutch of 6) and others may yet lay and if the voles (and shrews and mice) get their act together, this could still turn out to be a decent year. And, to round things off we had the nice bonus of three Little Egrets and a Red Kite.
Barton in Fabis has a bouncing baby Barn Owl. Only the one but in the scheme of things this year, that's quite an achievement.
The first Barn Owl boxes erected by the project were seven pole boxes at the newly developed Rushcliffe Country Park, just south of Ruddington.
Back in 1997, both the project and the park were in their infancy and to be honest, neither had much idea about the placement of the boxes. For a start, 7 boxes was at least 4 too many for an area that size; 5 were positioned in newly planted trees which was fine at first but were eventually engulfed by the trees and became useless for Barn Owls though to be fair, 5 of the boxes were used by Barn Owls before the trees grew too high.
This is by no means a criticism; the project did a fantastic job and most of the boxes erected by them in the Rushcliffe countryside have since held nesting Barn Owls! The project had been running for about 2 years when I joined; not that would have made any difference to the RCP boxes as I didn’t know anything about nesting Barn Owls either!! My expertise was more in the use of ladders, ropes and pulleys which improved our nest box erection procedures.
Back to the RCP boxes and after about 6 years, new boxes were fixed to the existing poles and 4 of the old ones were given to a local farmer who wanted to put them up on his land.
In 2005, I phoned him to see if there’d been any use and he said he didn’t know as he’d never looked. By this time, I’d taken over as the project's field work manager and had just completed a ringing course; I drove down to the boxes and was rewarded by the sight of three Barn Owls flying around the pole boxes. They were on a strip of very wild land covered in nettles, thistles, brambles and grasses, all about 4ft high; no one had been in there for years and to make matters worse, the Fairham Brook ran between the access track and the boxes.
I went down there with 3 helpers, we crossed the brook using a ladder and beat a way through the undergrowth to the first box in which I was able to catch a female Barn Owl. She was ringed and was a bird I’d ringed earlier in the year at a box about 3 miles away; she’d had one chick, hence the 3 birds I’d seen flying around the boxes, the whole family had moved over to these boxes and I caught and ringed birds here for the next few years.
Eventually the boxes fell foul of the weather and began to fall apart; I had a word with the farmer who said he’d plant one of the poles on the other side of the stream to make access easy for us, I put a new box on the pole so for the last few years we’ve easily reached the box and though we’ve had Barn Owls inside; they’ve never bred!
This week, I phoned the farmer to ensure that the gate to the field wasn’t locked; he told me that he’d sold the field and that it was all locked up, we’d have to gain access from his farmyard.
Chris and I went there on Tuesday and the farmer led the way through fields of sheep and maize to the rough ground. Trouble was, we were now on the wrong side of the brook again; back to square one!! The farmer used his buggy to beat a path through the chest high nettles and undergrowth up to the brook which ran through a steep sided cutting. I dropped the ladder over and negotiated the crossing OK but decided to go down the bank to get the ringing bag off Chris!
However; the sides of the bank were wet, my foot slipped and with the grace of John Sergeant in Strictly, lost my footing and fell flat on my back into the brook. I didn’t stay in for too long and after Chris had stopped laughing, he managed to cross as well, we retrieved the ladder and continued to the box. As we approached, a Barn Owl left the box and we found a female sitting on 2 eggs inside, she was very heavy and will probably lay more eggs. We’ll be back in 6 weeks time to ring any chicks and the farmer has promised to put a bridge over the brook to make our crossing easier. Well worth a soaking though; I went hope to change my clothes and Chris and I continued with our owling!!
Neil has spent many happy hours rummaging through pellets collected from the boxes to collect data for the Notts mammal atlas project though the results are of interest in themselves. The results from 17 locations so far are:
|Species||Number||Percentage of Total|
A pair near Upper Broughton seem to have the most varied diet with 6 species on the menu including the only rat and harvest mouse found so far.
“J'ever have one o those days boy, j'ever have one of those days; when nothing goes right from mornin’ to night; j'ever get on o those days?”
So sang Elvis Presley in GI Blues. Well yesterday turned out to be one of those days!
Chris and I were trying to get to an owl box on the far side of a large field; trouble was that the crop of oil-seed rape had grown over the track we usually use so we had to find a new way in. This entailed driving along a track around a fishing lake and, coming around a corner, there was a mound which raised the nose of the truck so I couldn’t see the track immediately in front and there was a wet muddy ditch right waiting there; my front wheels dropped in and despite going into four wheel drive, we were well and truly stuck and the rear end was sliding towards a deep ditch!!
I telephoned the farmer who was fortunately at home but in a meeting with an insurance assessor so it was an hour before he reached us. He turned up in a Land Rover which was unable to pull us out so he went away and returned with a massive tractor which soon had us out.
We continued to the box, driving around the field edge which had very long grass and ran over a large fallen branch; this clonked underneath and I had to drive home with shaky front wheels. We also nearly ran over a Muntjac which shot in front of us!!
To make matters worse, we checked 6 boxes, 5 were full of Jackdaw nests, one had fallen off the tree and we found no owls!! Definitely one of those days!!
Earlier in the week, Neil and I went to look at boxes at Ruddington; I’d had a call from a landowner to say that he’s got Barn Owls in his box which is just a few yards from his house but had been used for breeding 3 times in the past, the last being 7 years ago.
Looking in the box, I could see a pair of Barn Owls inside and started to clear some of the debris from around the door but you have to be careful as owls can move like lightening and can easily shoot through a 4” gap at the bottom of the doors. My reflexes are still quite good and I've often caught owls as they've tried to escape. I'd put the ladder onto the tree and was holding onto the back of the box while leaning back to clear the door when an owl shot through the gap; I grabbed it with my right hand, just as the other owl made a bid for freedom. I automatically dropped my forearm onto this bird so I had one in my right hand and one under by forearm but couldn't let go with my left arm as I'd have fallen off the ladder. So what to do? I went down the ladder one rung to get more stable and was then able to grab the one under my forearm with my left hand and pass it down to Neil.
There were six eggs in the nest, the female was unringed but the the male was ringed as a chick last year at Lady Bay!
We also found nesting birds at Bunny Hill where the same adults as last year were again in the box. I'd ringed the female here last year but the male was an old friend, I'd ringed him as a chick at Plumtree in 09 and caught him again on 5 other occasions. They had 3 small chicks in the box!!
The end of our first week of box checking and after the last record-breaking year, things are disappointingly quiet. The Barn Owl Conservation Network had circulated a message that many pairs were slow in getting started and we’ve found a few pairs in boxes that have yet to lay eggs.
I went out on Tuesday with Chris Hughes, looking at boxes around Widmerpool; we found our first birds on eggs, the first a female that I’ve seen on 4 other occasions; I ringed her as a chick at Holme Pierrepont in 2011, caught her a year later in Keyworth and twice last year when she raised 5 chicks.
She’d laid 6 eggs this time and we’ll be back in 7 weeks to ring the chicks.
At the next box, a male Barn Owl flew out leaving his lady in the box; there were no eggs and her ring wasn’t one of mine; she was ringed by Jim Lennon as an adult in a box near Southwell last year so she’d flown a few miles to join our breeding programme. The last box we checked had been used last year for a 2nd brood that failed after they’d raised 5 chicks in a nearby box. I’d ringed the female as an adult in a box at Keyworth in 2010 and again a year later on eggs.
Looking in the box, I saw a pair of Barn Owls and 4 eggs but both birds were surprisingly unringed!
Not for long though and they were soon back in the box with their eggs.
Yesterday, with Neil Pinder; I’d arranged to meet Ruth Testa at the NWT Skylarks Reserve to check the 2 boxes I’d erected there 2 years ago; however, it wasn’t Ruth who met us but Katie Last, an Assistant Reserves Officer at NWT. The reserve had changed enormously since my previous visit last year with a lot of grassland removed and replaced with pools and scrapes which should suit wading birds and Katie is deeply involved in the development of the new reserve.
Both boxes had breeding Stock Doves but as the reserve improves, there’s a good chance of Barn Owls settling there.
Another box at Holme Pierrepont was disappointingly empty after being used by Barn Owls last year but we were determined that Katie would see her first Barn Owls so travelled to Stragglethorpe to a farm where the farmer had told me that the owls were in his box.
Sure enough, the owls were at home with 5 eggs; the male was a new bird but the female had a ring that was only 7 numbers less than the one that I’d just put on the male. Back home, I found that it was the female I’d found roosting in the box that was hanging face down off a tree nearby on 10th of April, (see below).
So not a bad day; we’d met the lovely Katie and Katie had held her first owl; I think she enjoyed the day!!
Neil has dissected a handful of pellets from an occupied box and found the remains of 13 Field Voles, 3 Bank Voles, 1 House Mouse, 5 Common Shrews, 2 Pygmy Shrews and the unidentified skull of a large finch-type bird (going by the short, thickset bill).
The last two Barn Owl years couldn’t be further apart; 2013 was a disaster with poor winter weather causing a massive crash in the vole population; hundreds of Barn Owls were reported dead and very few pairs carried on to breed. RuBOP had only 7 pairs breed raising only 16 chicks.
The recovery last year was equally dramatic; most of the non-breeders of 2013 were still around; the winter was favourable, the voles bred prolifically and the Barn Owls put on weight, laying large clutches of eggs. Reports from throughout the country indicated one of the best breeding seasons ever with remarkable numbers being mentioned. RuBOP, like most other groups had a record year with 39 pairs raising 183 chicks.
Colin Shawyer of the Barn Owl Conservation Network estimates that 10,000 – 12,000 Barn Owl chicks were ringed; the highest ever recorded. Colin thinks that we’re ringing on average, about one-third of all Barn Owl chicks in the UK, so we could estimate that about 30,000 young were produced in 2014.
So for 2015: with so many new birds reaching breeding age and with the winter being kind and not too much juvenile mortality we should have a big increase in breeding pairs and a good uptake of our boxes. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we will find a good number of occupied boxes when we start our inspections in May, and the 80th chick we ring will be the 1,000th for RUBOP!!
I was messaged on Facebook by a lady who was out walking and had come across a Barn Owl box which had become detached on the top bracket causing the box to fall forward with the entrance facing down.
As the box had been used last year it required urgent attention and Neil and I went out to the box today; I walked underneath it to look up through the door and despite its sorry state, there was a Barn Owl looking down at me!
I fetched my big net and she was soon in my hands; the first of the year. It was a female and a bit lightweight for breeding but there's still time. She was not ringed so I put a ring on her and she was placed in the holding cage. We removed the box and replaced it with a nice new one purchased from the Barn Owl Centre -courtesy of Rushcliffe's conservation fund; we put her back in and she stayed put which is a good sign.
Hopefully we'll see her again with a box full of chicks!
Neil dissected a handful of the pellets that had fallen from the box to add records to the Nottinghamshire mammal atlas project and found a Water Shrew skull and jaws. The pellets also contained the remains of 24 Field Voles, 4 Wood Mice and 5 Common Shrews. Water Shrews have fewer than 10 records in Rushcliffe.
On my recent trip the Belarus, it turned out that one of our guides, Denis Kitel was an Owl Man; putting up platforms for nesting Great Grey and Long-eared Owls and monitoring nest holes of Tengmalm’s Owls. He was able to show us Great Greys and Long-ears on the nest but Tengmalm’s were absent. One day, knowing that I did a bit of owl work myself, Denis asked me if I’d like to ring an Eagle Owl chick. Would I?? Bring it on!!
We drove into a town to a housing estate, a funny place for an Eagle Owl nest I thought but we were just picking up a man who was the guardian of the forest and knew where the Eagle Owls were nesting. We drove to the edge of the forest and walked along a path into the woods; eventually coming to a large patch of feathers and bones on the ground beneath a large pine tree. A look through the feathers revealed the wings of a Long-eared Owl and Jay feathers. There were no chicks in the nest and after a brief search around the nearby trees we found two hiding behind trees, playing dead but peering at us with just the one eye!! After admiring them both, Denis pulled out a ring and a pair of ringing pliers; while the rings I put on the Barn Owls are about half an inch across, this was about the size of a 2 inch jubilee clip.
Denis bent down and pulled out a leg, the claws on the feet were about an inch long but the chick didn’t attempt to grab him but just clapped its beak together a few times, nothing more. I watched carefully as the ring had 2 tags on it that had to be folded together with a nipple located in a hole. We approached the other chick and I pulled out a leg; again a bit of beak clacking but nothing more, I slipped to ring onto the leg above the massive foot and folded the tags together and eventually locked them into place, the ring was quite hard and I had to use both hands on the pliers to squeeze the tags together. It was done to Denis’s satisfaction and photographs were taken before we moved away.
The mother had been seen briefly in the forest and no doubt she was keeping an eye on us as we worked on her chicks and we were pleased to get out of there intact.
On a horrible cold snowy day, a good day for updating my blog; so what do Owlists do in the Winter??
Well, there’s always something to do though nothing is that urgent and much depends on the weather. Some owls stay around their box area throughout the Winter though might prefer roosting in a barn while others disperse to where I know not, only to reappear in February and March. If both birds have survived, then they can pair off early but if one doesn’t return, then the other has to find a new mate which can involve a lot of flying and a lot of screeching!!
This Winter, we wanted to take down some of the boxes that had never had a Barn Owl inside and move them to hopefully better areas. However, we were thwarted at 3 boxes by finding Barn Owls roosting inside; hopefully, they’ll stick around but as they were all on farms that had a number of other boxes in regular use, we might be able to move these in the Summer if the owls choose to nest in one of the other boxes. We did move a couple of boxes though to cover the loss of some farm buildings that were being demolished and the owls will hopefully move into these.
Another thing we did this Winter was to replace our project vehicle. 10 years ago, when I took over as Field Work Manager, I was looking for a cheap 4×4 vehicle and was fortunate to buy a 1984 Mercedes G Wagen, a real iconic vehicle which became quite well known around the Rushcliffe area. This was a superb vehicle, built like a tank and renowned as the finest off-road vehicle ever made. In all our time out in the fields and through some of the wettest Summers on record, it ploughed through everything and never got stuck. When there was snow, we went out and had a great time pulling cars up the steep hill where we live; remarkably, it got a grip on sheet ice and never failed to tow them out. Unfortunately, the engine began to wear and it was feared that it would fail the next emission test on the MOT and be very expensive to repair. With great reluctance, I passed it on to a G Wagen enthusiast, getting back the same price as I’d paid for it; he rebuilt the engine, fitted an automatic gear box and he’s now using it as a runaround in the USA! So der Eulenwagen has gone to a good home and is still going strong!!
So we were looking for a new vehicle; over the years the group had done quite a lot of fund raising and thanks to attending shows with sales goods and donations from Parish Councils and County Councillors, we had enough cash in the bank to get a new vehicle; I added a bit myself and we purchased a nice Ford Ranger 4×4 pick-up. I bought a cab top off ebay and it’s made an ideal vehicle for our purpose with enough room in the back for 3 owl boxes.
Come some better weather and we’ll be out there again, exploring new sites and putting up some new boxes in good habitat. Mid May and we’ll be back into the breeding season which is always an exciting time for us, never knowing what we’re going to find and whether the vole population will enable us to have another fantastic year!!
All my life I’ve loved ladders; from being a 4 year old toddler climbing up the diving board at Bulwell Lido to a life on the Fire Service, then doing the Barn Owl Project; ladders have always played a big part in my life. I’ve been up them all, from precarious Hook Ladders that hooked into windows on the building you were climbing, Roof ladders that you had to manhandle onto roofs from another ladder; 50ft Escapes, the ones with the big wheels to 100ft Turntables that disappear into the night sky; I loved em all!
The good thing is that I’ve never fallen off one; this can be quite serious and to be avoided at all costs.
Yesterday, for the first time, I fell off a ladder. Neil and I were erecting a box on a tree on a field edge at Kinoulton; Neil was pulling the rope on the hoist while I was up the ladder guiding it onto the headless nail that we use to hook the box onto before nailing into place. However; the box slipped on the rope and swung into me, knocking me off balance. I grabbed for the ladder and missed and went out backwards like Tom Daly doing a reverse dive but without the double somersault piked!! Not to worry, I was aware that there was a wide Hawthorn hedge below me; I put both arms out, relaxed and landed flat in the hedge. While my body dropped down in the middle, my legs got caught in some brambles so when I stopped, my legs were stuck up in the air. It took a bit of time to extract myself; I told Neil I was OK but he couldn’t help as he was still holding the rope to stop the box from dropping down.
We then saw the funny side and started laughing, then I remounted the ladder and we got the box up onto the tree!! My dive scored 6.5 from the judges and 5 on the Richter Scale!!
We had a couple of mornings putting up boxes this week; Gordon and I went to a farm to move a box that in 12 years had never had a Barn Owl in it; guess what flew out of the box; yup, a Barn Owl. I removed the Jackdaw nest from inside to give it a bit of room and hopefully it’ll stay to breed next spring.
We also went to Holy Cross Convent to put a 2nd box in their orchard; they have a box there that’s regularly used and a second box will give the owls another roosting place and an alternative box that might encourage a 2nd brood.
While here, for the first time ever, the old G Wagen; Der Eulenwagen refused to start. I called the AA man who diagnosed a sticking petrol pump, gave it a tap and away we went!!
Thanks AA for a speedy turnout!!
Also, whenever Neil has a day out with the project anything of interest gets a mention on the Keyworth Meadow Log page