Barn Owl Tales: Monday, 2nd August 2021

We have been busy monitoring Barn Owls in north Wiltshire this year. Our activity started on the 14th June, when we ringed 4 chicks at the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust Avis Meadows site. Since then we have visited 20 boxes and have been pleased with how productive things have been.

Today I was joined by Anna, and we went to carry out some follow up checks on boxes. We started at Upper Waterhay Farm. At my last visit there, on the 23rd June, the box to the east of the farm had 5 warm eggs in it, the dilapidated box in the grounds of the Chancel was empty and the box to the west of the farm was full of twigs and muck where we had not been able to get to it to clean it out last winter. Needless to say, we cleared the box on the 23rd June, so wanted to see if anything had taken advantage.

We were joined by local farmer and birder Andy Rumming and his children. They were keen to see what they have on their land. It was very pleasing to find that 3 of the eggs in the east box had hatched and the young were of a good size, ready for ringing. This enabled Anna, on only her second ringing trip, to ring her first Barn Owl and Andy and his children to see the birds close up. The chancel box is looking even worse, and we really will have to replace it this winter. When we got to the west box an adult flew off as we put the ladder in position. I climbed up and saw this:

Newly Hatched Chick plus 5 Warm Eggs

We will check it again in about 5 weeks time. Hopefully we will find 5 healthy chicks in the box. What you cannot see from the photo are the corpses of half-a-dozen short-tailed voles that the parents have clearly provisioned for the larder. There does seem to be a glut of these rodents in the area this year. Not only have I seen the evidence in the Barn Owl boxes but several local landowners have commented on what they have seen on their own farms to me.

Having finished with these boxes, we headed off to Plain and Drill Farms to check the boxes there. First we went to Drill Farm, where we ringed 3 Barn Owl chicks on the 17th June. I fully expected them all to have fledged by now but wanted to be able to confirm that they had been successfully reared. They certainly have, but they are still using the box as a roost. One flew off when I opened the box and a second seemed a bit bemused by it all, and I managed to catch her and process the biometrics and, as you can tell from the pronoun, sex the bird.

We first visited the box at Plain Farm on the 17th June when, despite the back of the box having fallen inwards, leaving it open to both the elements and predation, we found 4 naked young. We went back to ring them on the 2nd July and ringed the three surviving chicks. Again, I wanted to check on their progress. The largest chick flew off strongly from the box as we approached. The others decided that they would try and fledge prematurely. One flopped into the hedgerow and disappeared; the other flew into the field next door and was soon recaptured and returned to the box. I take my responsibilities very seriously, and this is the first time that this has happened with any birds on my watch, so I was determined to get it returned home. However, search as we may, we couldn’t find it.

I decided to leave it for a while and then go back, working on the assumption that it would work its way back towards the box if left alone. In the event, it was pouring with rain for the rest of the afternoon, so I went back at 6:30. The bird was found quite quickly and, although it made a dash for it, an accurate throw of my ringing smock managed to cover it. I bagged it and carried it back to the car, put up the ladder (don’t tell Health & Safety but I was working solo), climbed up, opened the back of the box and put it back in. Only it decided to go straight out the front and fly into the next field! Not to be outdone by a Barn Owl chick, I thought about it and decided that, next time, I would put it back in from the front of the box, so I could block its exit. So I caught the bird again and bagged it. Then I brought the ladder through to the front of the box and replaced the bird in the box. This time it stayed put and I could go home.

Butter wouldn’t melt!
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