Over the last couple of years I have been taking over the monitoring of Barn Owl boxes in north and west Wiltshire. It was previously done by a group led by Paul Darby, a stalwart of voluntary work for the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. Paul had a regular team of helpers but, unfortunately, when Paul packed it in so did his team. Since then I have been helped by various of my ringing colleagues to get around and check boxes. It is a little hit and miss, fitting it in with other commitments, but we are determined to do as much as possible.
Because of the protected nature of the species, when Paul checked the boxes he had to do so in October, after the breeding season has ended. This meant that he had to estimate whether or not boxes had been occupied, which was fairly easy to do, as there would be layers of pellets and other detritus. What was not easy was to decide whether or not the box had been used for breeding and whether that breeding was successful. Unlike Paul I have a schedule 1 licence from the BTO / Natural England to check the boxes during the breeding season. We started quite late this year, when team members became available.
Our first session was on Monday, 17th June when I was joined by Jonny Cooper. We restricted our check to the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust reserve at Blakehill Farm an Avis Meadow. . There are three boxes on site at Blakehill: Poucher’s Field, Allotment Field and the Moat. At our first box, Poucher’s Field, we found two chicks in the nest. They were developing nicely and were large enough for us to ring them. The other two boxes were empty, although the box in Allotment Field was full of twigs and leaves and was probably being used as a roost by Stock Dove or Jackdaw.
When we arrived at Avis Meadows there was a large Well Being event going on. We checked the boxes, which were both empty. The odd thing about Avis Meadows is that there are two boxes: one is old, dilapidated and falling apart and is usually occupied by either Barn Owl or Stock Dove. the second is a new, A-style box which has never been nested in but is used as a roost by either species.
The second session, due to a whole host of factors, was not until Friday, 2nd August when I was joined by Andrew Bray. Again, we started at Blakehill Farm. As we set up to check the box at Poucher’s Field a Barn Owl and a Stock Dove flew out from the box. There was no sign of the youngsters: which we are confident means that they fledged. The Allotment Field box had a roosting Stock Dove and the Moat box was empty, except for several Barn Owl feathers.
We moved on to Upper Waterhay farm. The farmer is very keen to support his local Barn Owls and has three boxes spread around his farm. In the first box we disturbed two Barn Owls that flew off. There was, however, no sign of recent breeding in the box and they may have just been roosting. In the second box we had better news: as we approached an adult Barn Owl flew off. When I checked in the box there were 4 warm eggs. This is almost certainly a second brood for the year. I shall be back to check again in 4 weeks time. The third box realised total success: there were three juvenile Barn Owls ready to fledge. One flew off, but I managed to gather two of them and we could ring them, identify their sex (both female) and take the wing length and weight bio-metrics.
My third session took place on Thursday, 8th August, when I was joined by Henny Lowth. We started in Avis Meadows where 3 Stock Doves exploded out of the barns as we approached. We found signs of roosting in the A-box, and I collected a number of pellets for the Wildlife Trust’s Watch group. In the old box there were 2 warm Stock Dove eggs. We will be back to check up on these in a couple of weeks.
After Avis we went to check the two boxes at Plain Farm and Drill Farm. The Plain Farm box had two roosting Barn Owls and signs that there had been successful breeding (broken egg shells). In the Drill Farm box, which tested Henny’s mettle, as the field had a fairly large herd of Friesian heifers who were very curious about these two people carrying a ladder across their field. It is definitely not for the faint-hearted or those unused to large farm animals. Anyway, the only downside for me was the volume of cow dung spattered around the base of the tree holding the box. When checked, we saw an adult fly off and, when I opened the box this is what we saw:
The two little pink bundles are recently hatched Barn Owl chicks, to the far right are the broken egg shells, and in front of them are two warm, unhatched eggs. We shut up the box and moved on to the last two boxes at Home Farm and Echo Lodge Farm. The Home Farm box is always active and the owners are keen observers of the owls on their property. We checked the box, which contained one roosting Barn Owl but no sign of a second brood. When we went over the road to the Echo Lodge box another adult flew off, and when I checked the box there was one warm egg.
It looks like the Barn Owls in the Braydon Forest area are having a successful year: we will keep an eye on these boxes and more over the next 6 weeks to see how things develop.