I had helped Gordon Ellis with erecting Barn Owl boxes in Broxtowe during June and he suggested that I should come on the next box-checking mission to see a few owls. I gladly accepted and after a very wet weekend in July we set off with Howard Broughton in his trusty 4 x 4 truck, hoping the weather would stay dry.
We arrived at the first location and pulled into a farmyard. We hauled ourselves out of the truck and walked to a gate leading to a field. We gazed solemnly over a sea of mud and cow muck spreading at least 60 yards into the field. Gordon said darkly that he now remembered this place, the box was difficult to get to owing to the muck and it was always empty. In fact the farmer had told him over the phone that all he had seen near the box was a pigeon. We returned to the truck and began to collect the gear. I carried the ladder and Gordon brought the ringing bag and hole blocker. Howard hung back still sorting his ringing gear out.
I climbed over the gate and accidentally trod in the edge of a fresh cowpat with one heel. Gordon suggested that I should try to be more careful as Howard would not appreciate cow muck being trod into his truck. He scaled the gate and surveyed the tundra before us with experienced eyes. He set off cautiously with small probing steps. After step three he declared that this was clearly the safe route to take. As his steps became more confident they lengthened and he announced that the crust on the top was becoming firmer. I waited nervously, watching with admiration as the brave pioneer sallied forth. At about step 8 most of his right leg suddenly disappeared into a quagmire of cow muck. His left leg desperately churned searching for traction. His arms were wind milling frantically in the air as he tried to keep his balance. He sank in further. I shamefully burst into laughter. He glanced, wide eyed, over his shoulder and said with some urgency that he was going under and to quickly pass the ladder. I realised the seriousness of the situation and began edging forward with the ladder. Howard, who had now reached the gate shouted, “Hold it! I don’t want my ladder mucking up”. I looked from Howard’s serious face to the hapless figure of the still writhing Gordon and dissolved into laughter again. Realising that hope of rescue was fading rapidly Gordon made a last desperate effort. Suddenly the leg pulled free from the stinking morass with a loud sucking noise. Miraculously his boot was still on the end. He turned and quickly began scrambling, splashing and almost crawling back to terra firma. The hole left behind after the extraction gurgled, burped and closed over as fresh slime oozed up from the deep.
We regrouped and slowly picked our way down the field to the tree with the box in it. It didn’t look at all promising. The box had come loose from its bottom fixings and was rocking gently in the breeze. Howard erected the ladder and climbed up. Amazingly he then started to pass down three large Barn Owl chicks. What a surprise. Owing to our lack of optimism we had not brought the holding cage and we had to hold a chick each while Howard ringed them. This was a first for me and as I was inexperienced at holding chicks I suffered a painful clawing. Gordon looked at my ravaged hand with a wry smile as he explained how to properly hold the bird. After the ringing Howard safely returned the youngsters to their box. We secured the bottom of the box with new metal straps before leaving. The gear was put into the truck and we climbed in for the trip to the next box. The doors closed and without a word spoken the windows were wound down as our eyes streamed with the stench of very ripe cow muck. It wasn’t the bit on my heel as I had carefully wiped it off in some long grass before getting into the truck!
Happily most of the other boxes we visited were also occupied. We had one with 4 eggs and 2 very young chicks. Another box had 4 healthy chicks ready to fly. A Stock Dove was found sitting on 2 eggs and most surprising of all 2 adult female Barn Owls in the same box. As Howard handed one of the birds down to Gordon it evacuated its bowels. It ran through his fingers in a steady stream and deposited a wide white line down the front of his fleece. The line usefully identified the only part of Gordon’s clothing that had not been contaminated earlier in the day.
On the way home we surveyed two or three new sites for yet more boxes. Overall it was a very rewarding and enjoyable day out.
If wasn’t for the hard work, dedication and enthusiasm of Howard and Gordon the County would not have many Barn Owls.