With national coronavirus pandemic restrictions ebbing and flowing like a tide on the seashore, we faced a dilemma about undertaking our seasonal maintenance on our scores of barn owl boxes whilst conforming to all Government restrictions.
All owl boxes in our conservation area are visited during the winter.
This maintenance is extremely important to ensure the boxes are in good condition, waterproof and clean to provide an attractive appeal to barn owl breeding occupancy in the spring. When not cleaned and adequately maintained they can become very dirty, congested with old nesting material or wet inside from prevailing weather through the entrance, all of which encourage mould and maggots to flourish.
An owl pellet covered in mould. (Note the bones and fur contained as residue from prey consumed which is initially retained and then ejected in pellet form via the mouth as it can’t be digested).
Dirty boxes can also encourage infestation from parasites like red mite which if allowed to become extreme can affect the health of the occupants and in some cases kill them. The mite suck the blood of their hosts and this can severely weaken them. These parasites can also transfer to the person cleaning the boxes out and causes large parts of the body to be covered in a ‘nettle rash’ of lumps and red blotches which is extremely itchy and uncomfortable for days afterwards.
Large distances have to be covered to reach the boxes.
This maintenance is normally undertaken in the winter months from November to February. To overcome the anticipated severe restrictions to follow the Christmas regulation easing, we endeavoured to undertake this while it was permitted for two people from different households to meet in open spaces following all social distancing and other guidelines. It is normally a very protracted exercise fitted in between bad weather days but this year we had to accelerate the pace to capture the limited opportunity.
To conform to social distancing requirements, ladder erection had to be undertaken by a single person.
The terrain to be covered is always wet and muddy in the winter.
The task was commenced at an extremely fast rate working up to three days every week during November and December in an effort to complete before the anticipate lockdown after Christmas.
Extreme care is taken when opening the boxes in case a roosting owl flies out.
This activity has been performed every winter since 2007 and so is now very familiar to those who undertake it. Using this experience, we swiftly covered miles of terrain over fields carrying all the ladders and equipment required. The pressure to complete was intense and energy levels diminished as the work effort continued.
Interiors are initially checked to establish the internal as well as the external box condition.
Bird dropping streaks and dirt are removed from the outside of the boxes.
Each box is surface prepared, with any damage repaired, and has a coat of paint applied.
All dirty nesting material is removed and replaced with clean.
Each interior is finally inspected to ensure it is in the best condition to attract owls before leaving.
Different locations present differing access difficulties.
Some trees have smaller trunk diameters and are on sloping ground making ladder positioning difficult…
…whilst others are much more substantial and on level ground.
Sometimes on wet ground, ladders can sink a full rung’s depth as the weight of the climber is added, so extreme care has to be taken.
To add to the difficulty, several boxes were found to have been badly damaged and required replacement or removal for repair off-site. This slowed our progress considerably but it was still hoped that we would complete before Christmas. Towards the end of December our pace slowed further as we had to contend with several sites with extremely long distances to walk to the boxes, as our vehicles were prevented from getting near due to wet weather conditions.
On return to our vehicles after each visit much of the mud encountered was attached to our boots making it much more difficult to walk.
Many boxes were found to have roosting owls in them.
Each one left to perch in a nearby tree…
…to await our departure before returning again afterwards.
At our arrival at each box we try to capture the occupants in pictures…
…but many of them hear our approach from a distance away…
…and depart before we can quietly place down our equipment to photograph them.
With only four boxes still to complete, one of which required a full replacement, we unfortunately ran out of time. The severe lockdown we had anticipated to be likely to follow Christmas duly materialised and we were therefore prevented from completing this 2020/2021 winter month activity due to its extended duration.
We did however, also manage to maintain some of our tawny owl boxes on route.
My thanks goes to my fellow group member Alan, who put aside many of his own commitments to help with this task in an effort to complete in the reduced timescale and in accordance with applied coronavirus restrictions. With 14 years of experience in owl box conservation in our area, his presence is one of main reasons our initiative is so successful.
Invaluable help was provided with this task by Alan.
We now have the satisfaction of knowing that almost all of our boxes are in good repair and in a clean condition for the coming breeding season. We hope that survival prospects are good for the barn owls in our large conservation area this year with plenty of prey available to catch, to encourage them to fully utilise our boxes and breed successfully.
The boxes were restored to a near perfect condition before each door was finally replaced and we departed allowing the owls to return.
The few boxes we were unable to complete before the current coronavirus lockdown will have to remain as they are until we are able to resume later in the year. With many barn owls beginning their mating season from the beginning of March, any further disturbance could affect their successful breeding this year.
Hopefully life for everyone can return to a degree of normality in the year ahead and we can resume all our normal countryside conservation activities.