The Owls Won’t Wait

With all human activity currently paralysed by the coronavirus pandemic our feathered friends are getting on with life as normal. This means that our local barn owls are getting on with their breeding season probably encouraged by the lack of human interference while COVID-19 restrictions persist.

 

Life carries on as normal for barn owls.

With a gradual easing of the lock-down precautions we are permitted to carefully venture out again in limited numbers to undertake the initial annual barn owl box inspections to establish whether any of them contain breeding youngsters. This task can only be carried out by licenced operatives as barn owls are a protected species.  With the disastrously wet weather we experienced earlier and the scarcity of roosting owls found on our winter maintenance visits, we expected it to be a dismal year for barn owl reproduction. To our surprise this was not the case, although numbers found were not as great as we have experienced previously.

 

Government safety measures are observed.

Strictly conforming to the rules and people number restrictions dictated by the Government, two of us ventured out duly masked , travelling in separate vehicles, wearing gloves, applying frequent antiseptic hand gel and remaining two metres apart at all times and began our tour of the boxes which normally takes at least 3 days.

 

We were apprehensive that with ladder work and the close contact routine that normally prevails this would make the task extremely difficult. Not so! We began carefully adhering to all these new requirements at a gradual pace and were surprised how quickly we created a routine way of working that met all the rules of operation.

 

One put the ladder up and stood back while the other climbed up to inspect the box and record whether there was a young owl presence. When known he climbed down and his colleague removed the ladder and placed it back on the vehicle.

 

We then drove separately to another location. The landowner of each location had been duly telephoned in advance to ensure they were agreeable to us attending and were given the reassurance that we would maintain social distancing at all times.

 

The ladders were clamped back on the vehicles and the next box  location was driven to.

 

The inspections revealed a reasonable number of barn owls had mated and produced a brood, although the first box we visited revealed 4 very young kestrel chicks. They hadn’t been hatched long and possessed none of the normal fieriness they develop as they grow.

 

Four very young kestrels found in the first box visited.

The initial inspections identify which boxes have owl broods in and allow us to establish their size to determine when they are old enough to have identification rings fitted.  Due to the variation in sizes even in one box brood this is quite complex and means many return visits to specific boxes to ensure the birds receive their rings at the required stage of development. Often this is based on noting the size of the smallest member of the family and calculating when it will be ready. This is complicated further on some occasions when food is in short supply by the smallest one being eaten by its siblings in the meantime. It also often means that the smallest one’s bigger brothers and sisters are very large and a handful to deal with on the return visit.

Kestrels develop much quicker than barn owls so these had to be visited again a week later when they were the right size to ring without being too large and give us major handling problems. Even at the size they were a week later they were sufficiently aggressive to shred the fingers of the ringers with their talons and beaks. That is when the hand sanitiser gels become useful to disinfect the wounds.

Despite the pain inflicted and the difficulty it is to remove the talons and sharp beaks which are embedded in the flesh of the handlers, it is always felt to be a privilege to be in close contact with such magnificent creatures.

On our initial tour around the scores of boxes we found that many contained old jackdaw nests which we duly cleared out as we progressed. Jackdaws always fill them full of twigs and mud which prevents barn owls who breed later, from utilising them. This operation is time consuming and extremely messy with the long twigs jammed in making them difficult to remove. The mud by the time we visit has become so dry it has turned to dust and the large quantity contained often blankets the whole of the immediate vicinity under a dense dust cloud as it is cleared out. It also covers the person clearing it making the masks we were wearing doubly beneficial.

 

Three barn owl eggs in another box.

The barn owl chicks discovered were generally very young with a number still revealing eggs waiting to hatch. One box had 3 newly hatched young in with one egg still unhatched. If the food supply becomes scarce the unhatched one being the smallest, is the one likely to be eaten by its siblings.

 

These chicks had only just hatched with one egg awaited.

Some boxes had roosting adult owls in with no young in evidence whereas others had the mother in the box with the young with the proud father often in residence in a neighbouring box. Sometimes the young owls are found in one box with the two adults residing in a neighbouring box. The male stays close to assist the female with food gathering for the young.

However quietly we approach, the acute hearing of the adult owls invariably detects our presence leading to them fly out before we are able to get near. They return as soon as we have finished to either tend their young if chicks are found or to roost if not.

The following pictures show some more broods we discovered this year.

 

Three other chicks. Note the larder of prey left in the box by the parents for the youngsters to eat.

 

Further chicks found with development still required to assume the classic features of their parents.

 

When very young, as in this box, movement is limited.

 

A single very young chick was found in this box.

 

Another box found with a single chick in which was still little more than a ball of fluff and far from the size we would be able to ring it.

 

Two chicks huddling together in a far corner of another box. Facial characteristics have begun to form in them.

 

These in a further breeding box were the most advanced of all the young found.

The two pictured above (one is shielding the other) were judged to be nearing the size to be ringed. We therefore returned a week later to undertake the task.

The picture below shows how much they had grown in a week and the adult feathers that had formed.

 

A week later they were looking more like adults.

 

Now recognisable as one of the most beautiful birds in the British countryside.

The whole breeding check/ringing activity occupies several authorised people for many months of the summer in our area before all are satisfactorily recorded. The results are then forwarded to allow population records to be kept for the whole country.

 

A newly recorded owl ringed and then carefully returned to its box.

Originally severely endangered, years of conservation effort have restored their population number but it is only with continuing nurturing by volunteers that it will be maintained.

 

A volunteer recorder proudly holding one of these valued birds. 

The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group volunteers in addition to these summer checks, spend many months each winter maintaining our scores of group barn owl boxes in preparation for summer usage by breeding owls. This has been undertaken since 2007 when we erected our first boxes and began attempting to restore the local population. It has proved to be a huge success story for our group and justification for the considerable effort spent.

Our volunteers with their considerable experience now offer their help to capture data at breeding time for other areas of Sussex. This in addition to tending the large Southern Mid Sussex barn owl conservation area we have created and maintain ourselves. The overall commitment given to preserving this species therefore is huge and we are very grateful to our volunteers for the time and the hard work provided to achieve it.

We are also very grateful to Hassocks Field Society who generously contributed £500 towards the funding of our barn owl conservation programme at the end of last year. This has helped us enormously with our ongoing costs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nature Reserve Work Interrupted

Volunteers worked very hard on the maintenance of the small Hassocks nature reserve named Talbot Field in very wet and muddy conditions until March this year. Due to the progressive advance of Covid-19 working practices had been modified to include volunteers arriving on site separately, social distancing whilst working, wearing gloves at all times and with all tools used by individuals disinfected after every session. This worked well in the open air environment and volunteers observed the measures easily without it impacting on their enjoyment or ability to carry out their tasks until late March when the Government imposed ‘lockdown’ and all work ceased.

Normally our reports are written when a particular seasonal activity has been completed but in this case with this not having been possible the task has been described up to the point of interruption. Hopefully when the restrictions are eased further we can resume the precautions we were previously taking and return to site to complete the work.

We began the task at this site in January. The weather had been extremely wet for several months and the ground was waterlogged in many places. This made working difficult. Many volunteers attended despite the conditions and a lot of brush clearance and renovation work was completed.

The aim was to complete this activity before spring to give the spring flowers clear space to flourish and bloom. It took many weeks to remove the brush and a lot of volunteer effort to rake and pile up the cuttings. This was finally completed and piles of debris were locally stacked all around the site. We were in the process of transporting these piles to a central stack at the rear of the site where they would be burnt. Unfortunately ‘lockdown’ occurred before we could complete the process by the end of March so the site was left with many piles remaining.

Local people close to the site reported that the bluebells and other flowers that emerged later in the cleared ground looked wonderful despite the heaps we had left. We unfortunately missed the display this year due to our enforced absence but the safety of members is more important.

The work progressed over several months so the following pictures will record the people who regularly attended and work achieved.

 

The brush was progressively cleared.

 

The raking of cuttings began.

 

Teams of volunteers tackled the task.

 

The result at the end of each session was clear to see with the piles of debris stacked tidily for later removal.

 

The work was continued weekly.

 

The collective effort began to yield results.

 

We are very grateful to the dedication and enthusiasm of the volunteers and especially to the young woman pictured above on the left, who often travelled from Hove to Hassocks by train to join us.

 

Two of our volunteers taking a well-earned break.

 

The meadow area was also tackled.

 

Despite the hard work our helpers always appeared happy knowing that their effort was benefiting nature.

 

In the open air and the sunshine most found the experience rewarding.

 

All worked extremely hard until the coronavirus lockdown when we were forced to discontinue our activities.

 

The clearance and raking had been completed but the piles remained in position as we had been unable to dispose of them.

 

However, the site today shows the results of our effort with new growth abounding.

 

Hopefully when the virus pandemic subsides and it is once again safe to resume our activities, we will return to finish our work and to plant the wildflower plugs that Hassocks Parish Council, at our request, kindly purchased for us to enrich the meadow.

Owl Box Maintenance Struggle

This winter has proved to be a ‘nightmare’ for The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group owl team. Not only has it been difficult to find dry days to undertake the box maintenance but so heavy has been the rainfall that the countryside has been a quagmire to negotiate.

 

Every location presented the same waterlogged terrain to overcome.

 

With the target to complete by the end of February so that owls can begin mating the pressure on the team has been intense. It has meant grabbing every dry opportunity at short notice and on some occasions meant working up to three days a week.

 

Boots were quickly overwhelmed by the flooded conditions. 

 

We are fortunate to have dedicated volunteers to undertake this work who put the welfare of the owls as a very high priority in their lives. Without this dedication our breeding success would have been minimal and the survival of the local owl population would return to being very fragile.

 

The resulting wet mud quickly spread to clothing.

 

When beginning this work we were faced with the daunting task of transporting all the maintenance equipment required over countless fields that were so wet that it was difficult to stand up let alone walk. Due to these unprecedented conditions we had the added complication that we were unable to get our vehicles as close as we normally try to in order to reduce the distance we are required to walk.

 

 

Tools and equipment were gathered to mount on a purpose-built ladder trolley at the start of each expedition.

 

Once the ladder was tied on all equipment was placed on it.

 

When fully loaded we braced ourselves for the journey across the uneven slippery terrain.

 

Just holding it in position to start the journey was challenging.

 

On this occasion the ground was found to be too treacherous and uneven so the trolley reluctantly had to be abandoned.

 

 

Everything had instead to be physically carried over the flooded ground balanced on ladder sections.

 

Our clothes were damp and mud splattered up to our waists and with muddy boots climbing ladders when a location was reached, each rung became clogged with wet mud which further spread the sticky soil to our arms and chests. We quickly assumed an appearance more resembling mud wrestlers than owl box maintenance volunteers.

Each location presented us with difficulties that could be associated with running a marathon over an army assault course. As we progressed across expanses of waterlogged countryside manhandling the very weighty items required to maintain each box, we found our slipping feet were accumulating huge amounts of heavy wet mud which made walking feel as if we had lead weights attached to our boots.

This obviously slowed our progress to a crawl in most cases and expended huge amounts of energy to achieve. This had an impact on the number of boxes we were able to maintain on each day as the gruelling effort and slow pace took its toll.

Our plight however, rather than put us off from our task seemed to strengthen our resolve, and we even managed to laugh at the ridiculously severe conditions on occasions. Any laughter though, was often accompanied by some exasperated utterances when faced with each new difficulty. With the team being long established it works well and individual members slot into well-established methods of team working even when faced with such adverse conditions. It is this spirit and determination that has to date managed to cope with all adversity that has beset us with this annual task.

 

Some of the distances were so lengthy to carry the equipment that it felt like a day’s work had been completed before we reached the first box.

 

This spirit was tested on one occasion when we had needed to carry our ladder-loaded equipment over an extremely wet and difficult field which very nearly exhausted us. On arrival at the boxes we began our cleaning, repairing and painting only to be quickly interrupted by one of the most prolonged and vicious hail-storms we have experienced. We had no choice but to immediately pack up our equipment and retrace our difficult journey back to our vehicles as quickly as was humanly possible. So heavy was the downpour which further added to the already waterlogged ground conditions, that it was weeks before we were able to return to complete the job.

 

When boxes were reached the maintenance work commenced.

 

Any damage was repaired and all boxes cleaned out and painted.

 

The locations were left in a condition deemed to make box occupancy as attractive to the barn owls as possible.

 

The year generally has been one of the worst we have encountered in terms of numbers of roosting barn owls found. Some years we have found roosting barn owls in almost every location. This year the total number was only 7 which out of 42 boxes is very poor and has to be the result of the amount of rainfall that had fallen almost ceaselessly since September last year. Farmers hadn’t been able to plant their crops in their wet fields and voles, shrews and mice were not flourishing as normal as a result of the wet conditions. If there are no prey species to catch the owl populations suffer a decline. This has been the wettest year on record so far and we fear it will impact on this year’s breeding owl numbers considerably.

 

This box had been knocked to the ground by wind and falling branches. Fortunately the damage wasn’t severe and it was quickly remounted.

 

The few owls we have found in boxes have on most occasions been lone ones with the boxes showing a reduction in the number of fresh owl pellets they have accumulated around them. This further indicates a shortage of prey to feed upon which will surely impact on their breeding prospects as they tend not to produce young if food is in short supply. Unless conditions rapidly change this is the feared outcome for the coming season.

 

The occupants we did encounter were a welcome sight.

 

However quietly we approached their sensitive hearing detected us…

 

…and they glided away across the fields to temporarily roost in nearby trees…

 

…where they waited until our work had finished.

 

When their roost renovation had been completed they returned to the refurbished boxes to once again benefit from the welcome shelter they provide.

 

During our maintenance tour we also serviced some of the remaining tawny owl boxes that had survived the grey squirrel onslaught that has inflicted so much damage in recent years. We found this damage to be continuing and were forced to remove another 3 tawny owl boxes which were considered a waste of time to continue with further repairs on.

 

This was one of the remaining few to have escaped the squirrel damage.

 

With the barn owl boxes and tawny owl boxes combined, the total number of boxes maintained this year numbered 50 in total.

Despite all our difficulty this winter we somehow managed to finish on time in readiness for the owl breeding season but the relief felt after such effort was considerable.

Talk by Clare Blencow cancelled

The talk advertised by The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group to be given by Clare Blencowe on April 3rd has been cancelled to conform to the advice received from the Government to combat Coronavirus. It is regret that this has to happen but we hope to restore it to our events calendar once the virus outbreak has been contained.

Personal invitations had been prepared for our supporters but fortunately not issued. All local and social media advertising has been withdrawn. If you are aware of anyone else who was intending to come could you please advise them of the cancellation? Thank you.

We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Talk by Clare Blencowe

The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group is holding an illustrated public talk given by Clare Blencowe on Friday 3rd April at 7.30pm. It is to be held in the Club Suite of the Village Centre, Trinity Road Hurstpierpoint, BN6 9UY.

It will follow immediately after a brief introduction by The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group.

Clare is the manager of the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre and her talk is entitled ‘Making Nature Count’ in which she will describe how her team meticulously record wildlife and flora species that have been identified in the Sussex countryside and how this benefits their welfare. She will illustrate some of the species discovered and recorded.

 

 

Clare was the Record Centre Manager who was instrumental in ensuring that all the data collected in our group’s countryside biodiversity study was included in the Sussex records.

She is a very busy person so we are privileged that she has found time to speak to us. If you want to learn more about our local countryside and wildlife and how the collected data helps with their protection, this opportunity should not be missed.

Entry is free and all are welcome.