Barn Owl checking: Friday, 17th July 2020

Jonny Cooper and I finally managed to get out to check on our fist batch of Barn Owl boxes for the year. Having contacted all of the relevant landowners for permission on Thursday, we checked a total of 10 boxes: 3 on farmland in Upper Waterhay; 2 at Blakehill Farm; 1 each at Avis Meadows, Echo Lodge, Home Farm, Drill Farm and Plain Farm.

We started at the civilised hour of 9:15 at Upper Waterhay Farm. The first box checked is in a tree adjacent to the Chancel (which featured briefly in an episode of Poldark). Last year I ringed 3 chicks in this box in August. This time we disturbed 2 adults who were roosting in the box. Hopefully this is a precursor to another late nesting effort. However, we later visited the box behind the horse paddock at the farm. As we were walking the ladder over to the box a stunning male Redstart hopped out of the hedgerow and obligingly gave us a lovely view before flying off. In this box we found and ringed 2 youngsters at a relatively early stage of development: very downy and with little primary feather growth:

The question we had between us was whether these were the parent birds day roosting away from their young. The habitat close by was much more likely to be vole-rich than the paddock and the field where the box was, as they had both just been cropped for hay and gathered ready for baling and the fields near the Chancel were largely uncut. In between times we had checked the box in the fields behind the Chancel. That proved to be empty, whereas last year Andrew Bray and I ringed 3 chicks in that box.

After Upper Waterhay we made our way to Blakehill Farm. I have ringed Barn Owls there ever since I started this project. The Poucher’s Field box is usually productive. This time two free-flying, probably adult, birds emerged as we approached the box. We don’t know if they were keeping a look out, or if it was the sudden mini-stampede of the Dexter cattle and their calves that spooked them, but we were a good 20m distance away before they flew off. We checked the box and, whilst the signs of occupancy were there, lots of pellets and muck, unfortunately no sign of breeding (yet). After a brief chat with Ellie Jones, the Northern Reserves Manager (and one of my valued C-permit holders), who was doing a botanical survey at her site, we went off to check the other box, in the Allotment field. This was also devoid of Barn Owl activity but there was one sad, dead, desiccated Jackdaw chick in the box. It had started to grow its primary flight feathers but was pretty small: the runt of the clutch possibly?

From there we went to Avis Meadows, another Wildlife Trust site, adjacent to Ravensroost Woods & Meadows. The barn is about to be pulled down. In preparation they have removed the new Barn Owl box that was situated there but left the old, dilapidated one that always has something in it. The adults always seem to roost in the new box but rear their young in the old, falling apart, if it was a building it would be condemned, one. It is pretty much the same with the Chancel box, also dilapidated, but used every year. We had hoped to replace the Chancel box earlier this year but a combination of, firstly, bad weather and, secondly, coronavirus restrictions, has meant that it did not happen.

Since last year a chunk of wood has fallen from the back right corner of the Avis box, leaving a nice hole a small chick could fall through. Fortunately, there were no small chicks in there: there were 4, all of which were doing very well. Flight feathers were at medium length and the facial disk was well-defined and, whilst they have retained a fair amount of down, their body feathers are growing through strongly.

The boxes at Echo Lodge, Home and Drill Farms were empty. Somehow the back had come off the Drill Farm box, so Jonny reattached it. Hopefully we will have a brood there later in the year, as it does regularly produce. We were accompanied by a large group of Friesian heifers whilst visiting this box! They seemed to enjoy chasing after the car.

The final box was at Plain Farm. It is a swine to check because the tree it is is situated in sits in the middle of a bramble and blackthorn hedge. You have to get your ladder and equipment through the outer hedge layer into the ditch in the middle to get access to the box: definitely not shorts and T-shirt habitat: so we both got well scratched and bloodied. It was worth it. They were the most advanced nestlings of the morning and fully capable of flying off. However, Jonny managed to catch them before they could. We ringed them and returned them to the nest box and, once returned, they showed no inclination to move off to pastures new. We packed up at 13:00, with 10 boxes checked, 5 of which were occupied and 3 of which had a total of 8 chicks between them: 2 x 2 and 1 x 4. Very satisfying.

Lovely bird, nearly appropriate T-shirt! Photo courtesy of Jonny Cooper
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