Owl Box Checking: Monday, 14th June 2021

I renewed my Schedule 1 licence for monitoring and ringing Barn Owls at the nest at the end of last year. So far, though, I have held off checking the Barn Owl boxes in the Braydon Forest this year. After the horribly wet May, I wanted to be sure that the birds have had plenty of time to build up their body condition before we handled them. For one thing, we have to be sure that the rings will stay on the leg: the feet grow pretty fast, but the rings are large (size G, which have an 11mm internal diameter once closed, since you ask). The plan for the week is to check the boxes on the Wildlife Trust land today, to do the boxes in the Wood Lane, Purton to Brinkworth area on Thursday and those in the Cotswold Water Park area on Friday. Thursday looks as though it might be a wash out, unfortunately.

One of the good things about box checking: you can start at a civilised time. Jonny, Ellie and I met at Avis Meadows at 9:00 this morning. A good thing about having Jonny with you is that he is young, nimble and not scared of heights, and does the ladder work. Which means my old, well-larded bones can stay on the ground. I was first on site and, whilst I was taking the ladder off the roof-rack, a pair of Stock Doves flew out of the barn. So I thought that the box in the barn was likely to be hosting a clutch of eggs.

The barn: condemned and scheduled for demolition. The newer A-frame box in there has been removed and the grotty, rotting, falling apart box is still there:

How it hasn’t completely disintegrated is beyond me. Jonny climbed up, fully expecting to find a couple of warm Stock Dove eggs, instead he found four of these:

All a decent size and ready to be ringed. It is just astonishing how they keep choosing that box when there are three other new, good quality boxes in the immediate area. We then checked the other box in the Avis Meadows area and then went over the road to check on the Ravensroost Meadows boxes. These boxes have only been in place since last summer, so it was good to find that they are both active: not with Barn Owls though and also, thankfully, not with Jackdaws. They are a real nuisance if they take a liking to an owl box: they will build their stick nests on top of anything the owls are doing, and the owls will not be able to use it. However, both boxes have Stock Doves nesting in them, both had two warm eggs. We will check them again in two or three weeks to see if the chicks are there and capable of being ringed.

Ellie had to leave us at this juncture for a couple of work meetings, so Jonny and I went on to check further boxes at Lower Moor Farm and Blakehill Farm. The next three boxes we checked were all empty. Actually, that’s not strictly true, the penultimate box we went to at Blakehill Farm was absolutely stuffed full of twigs and grass and muck – with no sign of any attempt at nesting this year. Probably because not even the Jackdaws could get in there, it was so full. Jonny cleared it away. Hopefully, either later this year but, certainly, next year it will be back in use.

The last box checked is in the field adjacent to the farm buildings at Blakehill. When checking a box, before setting the ladder up, we have a large hand net on an extendable pole which is tapped against the box entrance to flush any adults in residence and, hopefully catch them. Most actually fly off when they hear people approaching but occasionally they sit tight. One of the Stock Doves at Ravensroost Meadows managed to escape the net but at this last box we were lucky enough to catch an adult Barn Owl as it left the box. Unfortunately, when we checked the box there was no sign of nesting, the bird was using it as a day roost.

Doubly galling the bird was a female with an extremely well-developed brood patch. She clearly has a brood somewhere but we have checked all of the boxes we know of so perhaps she has found a natural hole to use.

We released her and she flew off in the opposite direction to the box from which we had caught her – possibly going to visit her brood. Whilst flying off she was harassed by a Magpie, but she just ignored it and disappeared off across the plateau.

It was just under 4 hours of hot work, heavy lifting and a lot of walking. Three empty boxes, one day roost, one owl brood and two cutches of Stock Dove eggs might seem like a small return, but we were satisfied with our morning’s work.

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