Early Nest Checking Review: May / June 2022

Last year was our best year for Barn Owls in the Braydon Forest and my part of north Wiltshire. I have a special Schedule 1 licence issued by the BTO, on behalf of Natural England, to monitor the nesting attempts of Barn Owls and to ring their offspring. We monitored 18 boxes of which 8 successfully produced 26 Barn Owl young that fledged. We also ringed one adult female in another roost box. We never found where she was nesting. One thing I learned about Barn Owls last year is that the parents occupy the nest whilst the young are small, but once they are fully downy the parents roost elsewhere. We also found two Stock Dove nests in new Barn Owl boxes, each with one chick, both of which were ringed and fledged. Two of the boxes were occupied by Jackdaws. We missed the youngsters at Blakehill Farm but ringed two youngsters that later fledged from a box near Somerford Common. We had five unoccupied boxes and one which had four cold Barn Owl eggs. We checked it again six weeks later and they were still there and cold. That was our only real failure of the year.

Over the winter I purchased a number of replacement boxes. The Wildlife Trust have done a great job of replacing worn out, falling apart boxes but these were for our private landowner sites. I did try for a grant to help finance it but, to be frank, the Community Landfill Trust really aren’t interested in dealing with an individual and, despite the BTO being extremely helpful, in the end it got so onerous that I decided to just fund them myself. At this point, a huge thank you to Vivara Pro who honoured the quotation they had given me way back in July 2021 when I started looking into this process.

We managed to replace eight of them before I was struck down with a crippling issue that has dogged my ringing activities ever since. The three boxes I have in the Wiltshire side of Waterhay, in the fields around Upper Waterhay Farm, were replaced and we added one new one. A big thank you to Andy Rumming, who not only helped me with the four boxes on their farm, but when he found out that I had paid for them myself offered to contribute towards the cost. When I demurred, he insisted on giving me a box of the grass-fed beef that he produces. What can I say? Definitely better than money – the best beef I have ever tasted: https://www.andyrummingsbeef.co.uk/

With the help of Tanya, then working for the Wildlife Trust, we managed to replace four of the boxes within the Braydon Forest before she departed for the wilds of Shropshire and a new job.

Jonny and I did a round at the end of May checking on the five boxes in the Ravensroost complex. The grotty, dilapidated box in the condemned barn did, as usual, have a brood. It comprised 2 naked young, plus one egg in the process of hatching and one egg. They were clearly in no position to be ringed so we secured the box and left. We caught an adult male in the vicinity in a hand net: unringed and therefore new to us.

Of the other boxes in the Ravensroost complex, one was empty, another had two Stock Dove eggs, but they were cold. We left them in place, just in case she hadn’t started brooding them yet, and the third had a couple of Stock Dove chicks in it. They were of a size to be ringed, so we did.

We then visited our boxes at Blakehill Farm. There had been a lot of reports that a Kestrel was using the box nearest the farmyard. Unfortunately, it was completely empty. The other box held a brood of Jackdaws, which we were able to ring. Their primary feathers were half-grown. By now they will have fledged. I will check on that quite soon. I will be hoping that the empty box is now hosting Barn Owls.

This year, as well as the Barn Owl boxes, we decided to monitor the Swallow nests in the stable block at Clattinger Farm. Rosie, Lucy and I did a check on the Swallow nests on the 10th June. There were five active nests, one of which was inaccessible. For three of them the young were all too small to be ringed yet, one nest enabled us to ring the three chicks (one for each of us). Whilst we were ringing those birds we noticed something scurrying along the floor. It turned out to be a fledgling House Sparrow who had departed the nest a bit prematurely. This drew our attention to another nest in which one remaining House Sparrow was sitting. We were able to ring it, but it then flew off quite strongly, which made me wonder how we managed to catch it in the first place.

After checking on the Swallows we headed off to check on the Waterhay owl boxes. The results were interesting. We approached the Chancel box first and two Jackdaws flew out. Checking the box it was clear that they had taken it over for the year. I didn’t know if they had already bred and their youngsters had fledged, or if they were preparing to lay, so we left it as it was. The next box, a couple of fields further over from the Chancel, was, as usual, occupied by Barn Owls. There were three small owlets in the box. Far too small for ringing. The third box, behind the paddock, had four owlets, one of which was large enough to ring:

Barn Owl nestling: photo courtesy of Lucy Ormsby

On the 14th June, Rosie and I visited the five owl boxes in the Firs / Wood Lane area. The Plain Farm box had three owlets which were ready for ringing. The Drill Farm boxes and the Echo Lodge box were all empty but the Home Farm Barn box never lets us down and we ringed four downy owlets.

Rosie and I returned to check on the Swallows again on the 20th June. They were much more developed. The birds from the inaccessible nest had fledged, as had the young from one of the other nests. They were either sitting on the rafters still waiting for their parents to feed them or out foraging but frequently returning to the stable block for a rest. We were able to ring the young from the other two nests, a total of eight ringed. They were at the stage known as “feathers medium”, i.e. the primary feathers were two-thirds grown, but they will be fledging within the next few days.

Having dealt with the Swallows, we then went back to the Ravensroost complex to check on the boxes to see how they had progressed. We first went to the box we knew had owls in it, and were devastated to find it completely empty: no sign of the chicks or the eggs, except for half an eggshell in the box. Clearly the entire brood had been predated. What by, I have no idea. The Stock Dove box with the two cold eggs still had those eggs but in another corner of the box was a warm egg. We removed the infertile eggs, leaving the other to, hopefully, produce a youngster.

On the 22nd June I met up with the owners of Gospel Oak Farm to check on his two boxes. One of those produced three young last year with the second box being used as a roost by the parents. This year is very different: the box with owlets had a Stock Dove fly out as we approached it and when I checked there were two warm eggs in the box. The box used as a roost last year was occupied by a female adult. There wasn’t much sign of multiple occupancy, but the owners did say that they had seen both adults roosting in the trees around the edge of the field, and that they had both been observed hunting across the fields.

Finally, for this post, Rosie and I revisited the Waterhay boxes. The new box is empty and clearly hasn’t been found yet. The Chancel box is deserted but was one-third full of Jackdaw nesting material, so I cleaned it out. Hopefully the Barn Owls might use it for a second brood. The next box still had three owlets, and some cached voles in the box. However, one of them was still very small and we decided it was likely to end up as food for its siblings so didn’t ring it. We did ring the three remaining owlets in the box behind the paddock.

It looks as though we might well be on the way to matching last year for Barn Owls, Stock Doves and Jackdaws. Regardless, there will be a lot to do between now and the end of the year.

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