OWLING WITH LAUGHTER. Report by John Revill

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.

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Monday 18th July: A few more BBOP boxes to clear up and a return to the Greasly Estate where we’d done so well with the new boxes last year.

John Revill joined Gordon and me for the day and the first box was at a farm where we’d never seen a Barn Owl before though the farmer had seen one around. See John’s article about the hazards in servicing this box!!

On to the Greasly Estate and first to a new box, one of the square ones from the Environment Agency. The Farm Manager told us he’d seen Kestrels in the box and there were 3 in the air as we drove in; however there was a Stock Dove on eggs inside and also an old Jackdaw nest, Barn Owl pellets and remains of the Kestrel nest so 4 species have used this box in the last year and three of them have possibly bred.

The next box was one used by Barn Owls last year and there was another late breeding female inside with 2 chicks and 4 eggs; another for an inspection in 6 weeks. Strange happenings continued with the next box; there were 2 adult Barn Owls in the box, one ringed and we were surprised to see that it was a female we’d found on 6 eggs on 13th so probably another desertion!  Expecting the other bird to be a male, I was surprised to find another female, one with hardly any spots but her weight, a massive 450 grams indicated a female that could be ready to lay eggs.

The day ended at another farm that had so far been unsuccessful since the boxes had been erected but the farmer almost smiled when he told us he had Barn Owls and there were 4 well grown chicks to ring. So a great ending to the day!

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Friday 15th July 2011: Hopefully this was the day we’d clear up all the outstanding chick ringing; things had gone quite well so far but a few birds had deserted their eggs and broods were a bit down on the number hoped for.

Gordon came to help and first, we had an appointment at the Bingham boxes with Marie, the photographer with the Bingham Advertiser that has taken an interest in out work over the past few years. Chris, the Farmer with family also came with us so it was one of those fingers crossed moments when I opened the box. Fortunately, there were two nice chicks in the box to make the photography worthwhile.

On then to Radcliffe and the dreaded Oilseed Rape; fortunately the path we’d trodden out to the box in May was still there so it wasn’t too bad though sitting very close to a wasp nest under     the box didn’t help. There were 4 chicks to ring here and the  good fortune continued and we ringed another 10 chicks in the next 3 boxes.

Our first failure of the day was a  box near Elton, one of the new square boxes donated by the Environment Agency. The check in May had revealed a female with one egg and 4 small chicks   but now, everything had gone. There’s another box on the farm and we went out to have a look in that and was surprised to find the same female with one chick and 4 eggs. We’ll be back in 6 weeks to see if they’ve survived.

The last box was one in a derelict barn which is getting to be in a dangerous condition. We have to use the ladder to get onto the first floor then pull the ladder up after us to get to the box which is on a roof beam. The floor boards are rotten; I’d put my foot through the last time I was here and we have to walk  and stand on a couple of old doors so it’s quite precarious. However, we were rewarded with 3 chicks which were very fierce and I ended up with holes in my hand.

That evening, it was my turn to take the family out so Kate, Lisa and Ruby came out to Kinoulton and Hickling where I’d arranged to meet the farmers and their families for the ringing. Fortunately, both boxes had chicks so no more embarrassing excuses.

So apart from the small chicks found at Elton, that completed the first round of ringing in the RUBOP boxes with the grand total being 83 chicks. However, there’s a possibility of some pairs having second broods and I’ll be checking for these in about 6 weeks time.

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Wednesday 13th July 2011: A couple of years ago, I had a call from a man in Keyworth who was getting regular visits to his garden from a Barn Owl. It was a very large garden with some wild grassland and I’d had other reports of Barn Owls in the area. However, I had a few misgivings about Barn Owls actually breeding so close to human activity but against my better judgment decided to give it a try and hung a box on a wall in a quiet area around the back. As there was a plague of Jackdaws in the area, I decided to experiment and built a ‘Jackdaw Proof Box’ that had a zig zag tunnel entrance designed to prevent the Jackdaws from filling the box with long sticks. Last year, we were rewarded with breeding ………………. Jackdaws though the sticks inside were minimal.

Early this year, the householder told me that he’d seen a  Barn  Owl fly out of the box; I advised him to keep disturbance to a minimum and that I’d be round in mid-May; when I did get there, I found a pair of Barn Owls on eggs and tonight, I  ringed 3 nice chicks. This job is full of surprises!!

Thursday 14th July:  A few good boxes to look in today with the promise of a lot of chicks.

The first was at the new convent on Bunny Hill and Sister Mary Julian, resplendent in wellingtons met us on arrival,  together with a few guests. It’s always a worrying time  when you open a box with a lot of people waiting in anticipation of seeing some chicks. I always tell them that chicks are not guaranteed,  just to cover myself; however, it was no worries as there were 4 chicks in the box and  everyone was happy.

Remarkably, the next 4 boxes we went to also had 4 chicks so we were flying and went to the last box of the day confident that there’d be more to ring here. It was a lesson into just how unpredictable this can be. In late May this box had 3 small chicks, 2 eggs and a cache of 9 voles and a  shrew. If ever a box held chicks, this was it; we even saw a  Barn Owl fly over so you can imagine my surprise when I found the box completely empty with eggs, chicks and voles all gone. Just one of those mysteries           that happens occasionally and without box cameras, its    impossible to know what happens.

Looking on the bright side, we had another 16 chicks     ringed which included our 600th chick for RUBOP!!

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My friend Gordon Ellis has 30 boxes in Browtowe Borough, on the west side of the County bordering Derbyshire. From a slow beginning, we’ve gradually improved the number of Barn Owls from just 1 pair a few years ago to 8 last year which produced 19 chicks. Though there’s some very good habitat, the overall area is higher than the Rushcliffe area with a heavier snow fall and we expected the cold winter to have had an effect on this year’s breeding figures. This was born out by the absence of several pairs from last year.     

However, it wasn’t all bad news as the 2nd box we checked had a nice brood of 3 well feathered females. This box had produced the first Barn Owl for BBOP  back in 2005, and now was full of female chicks.

Disappointingly,  these were the only chicks ringed but we were surprised to find adults still with eggs in 2 boxes that had produced last year, these are 6-8 weeks behind most other breeding Barn Owls and you have to wonder whether this is an effect of the harsh winter in this area!

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After a great month in Canada and Alaska, I arrived home refreshed and ready to start ringing all the chicks; some of these were approaching 6-7 weeks old so I had to get round fast before they fledged.

First; some good news is that the 3 Little Owl chicks rescued from the building site at East Bridgford all fledged and have been seen flying around the nearby orchard.

Sunday 10th July: A couple of years ago, I sent some nest box plans to a couple at Fiskerton, they built a box and soon had a pair of Barn Owls which bred last year then failed. They were there again this year and observations of food carrying indicated that there were growing chicks inside the box.

It was a nice morning out for the family so Kate, Lisa and young Ruby came as well. An adult owl flew from a tree as we approached, Mum on guard and there were 3 big chicks in the box which I soon processed and ringed.

Photos were taken and Ruby was shown how to hold a Barn Owl, ending up with one in each hand.

On the way home, we popped into a farm at Stragglethorpe and ringed another 3 chicks!

Monday 11th July: A good day to start the round of chick ringing; Gordon came to help and we started in the usual place, a box 5 minutes from my house in Plumtree. 3 seems to be the favourite number this year and we had another 3 here, all nicely marked females.                                    

We then had 2 chicks at Tollerton Hall and then moved on to the box that over the years had consistently been our most successful  having produced   31 chicks since 2005. In the early inspection in May, there’d been a new female on 4 eggs and I opened the door confident that it would be full of well grown chicks!! It was empty and the 4 eggs were still there. These things happen and there’s no explanation, it’s disappointing but you have to live with it.

The next box, one owned by the Notts Wildlife Trust had just a single male chick, ready to fly and then on to a box where breeding had been attempted in the past but had never fledged any chicks. It seems that persistence pays off and I ringed 4 downy chicks, a bit younger  than most of the others but all fat and well.

There was another sad failure at Cotgrave Golf Course then on to a farm at Normanton on the Wolds. This is a box that we’d moved to a more prominent position and this paid off with a nice brood of 5, 2 males and 3 females. The Farmer’s wife and son came out to see the chicks and they were delighted with them!!

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First, an update on the Little Owl chicks at the building site at East Bridgford. I spoke to Chris the builder this morning who told me that all 3 were thriving, despite the building work continuing around the box; they’re getting quite big so I’ll go out and ring then at the weekend.

I ringed more Little Owls yesterday; 2 broods of 3 at

Young George with a Little Owl chick

West Leake and Sutton Bonnington. Chris Hughes was with me and we also took along a friend of Chris’, Steve and son George.

We also did a couple of broods of Barn Owls; these were birds that had laid eggs  in advance of most of the others; the chicks had been quite big at our first box inspection and I wanted to ring them before my forthcoming holiday; I didn’t want to risk the chance of some of them fledging before I got back.

The first at Thrumpton had 3 good sized chicks with

and with Barn Owls

feathers on the wings coming through while the other brood near Gotham was of 5 chicks which were also well advanced. Adults at both boxes were absent which meant that the female was now helping Dad with the hunting. Chris made the mistake of standing underneath the box; Barn Owls have a defence mechanism of squirting foul liquid at you when you take them from the box; over the years I’ve learnt to point the backside away from me; one pooped and Chris caught the lot; all over his head and shirt and he had to meet a friend in the pub on his way home! I bet there was plenty of room around him!!

Today, I went out to check two boxes that in early May

A good selection of prey items

had eggs. The problem with that is that you don’t know whether the eggs are 1 week or 4 weeks old; the first might hatch tomorrow or it could be 3 weeks; with chicks, you have a better idea of when they’ll fledge. Both boxes today had 5 chicks but the smallest were too young to ring and I can ring these broods when I get back. One box had a cache of about 10 prey items, showing that there’s plenty of food available.

The Barn Owl Marquee with Misty the Barn Owl will be at the Bingham Town Fair on Saturday.

I’m away on holiday from this weekend until 7th July so

Cute of what?

this will be the last post until then!!

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This was our last day of checking boxes to see if they were

Bryony and Zoe with a Kestrel chick

being used; we only had six boxes still to check and with 29 breeding pairs so far, it would be nice to get over 30. Plenty of help today as Neil and Zoe were out again along with Zoe’s friend Bryony.

Looking at the boxes still to do; one was a new box so a first inspection but the other 5 had all had breeding Barn Owls in the past so a good chance of increasing our score.

The new box had an old Jackdaw nest inside and the

Bryony with the mother Barn Owl

2nd, which had had Barn Owl nesting failures for the past 2 years gave some hope but on opening the door, there was a female Kestrel with chicks and eggs inside. It’s unusual to find an adult Kestrel in a box; they usually scarper before we get there but this mother stayed with her chicks but strangely left the box as we departed.

Box 3 was one that had breeding Barn Owls for the past 2 years and I climbed the ladder with keen

Zoe and Bryony with Barn Owl

anticipation, only to be shot down in flames when I found a Stock Dove inside; however, there is another box on site, used 3 years ago and sure enough, mother Barn Owl was inside with the 5 biggest chicks I’ve seen all year. These were big enough to ring and they were all soon wearing their bright new jewelry and back in the box with mum. The two other boxes had only Jackdaws so we left for home, calling on the way to see how the Little Owls were getting on.

and Barn Owl chicks

2 nice chicks!!

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In my last post; I told about taking a call from a local

The original nest was on this wall under the tiles

builder, Chris who had found a Little Owl nest in a barn he was converting. We were nearby so went over and I advised Chris to screw a plastic box to the roof beams and put the chicks inside in the hope that the mother owl would find them and continue to bring in food.

The site was quiet over the Bank Holiday Weekend and Chris returned on the Monday morning to find 3 of the chicks alive and well. The smallest had disappeared and  had probably died and been

Plastic box screwed to roof beams

consumed to the benefit of its siblings, a regular happening in the owl world.

We visited the site today  to take some photos and found the 3 chicks still thriving and I’ll have another look next week when the chicks will be big enough to ring.

Chicks in the box

Zoe & Bryony

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Out with Neil today; hoping to finish off all the boxes east of the Fosse.

The first box was a reminder as to why we no longer put boxes on trees in the middle of fields. These trees were once in hedgerow which has been removed, leaving the trees in glorious isolation. 15 years ago, when the box was put up, members of RUBOP had never had the opportunity or experience of battling through waist high Oil Seed Rape!! This first box of the day, at Radcliffe on Trent was the first to ever get a Barn owl in it and produced a brood of 5 in our second breeding year of 2001. It’s been used regularly since including last year so we drove out in anticipation which was deflated when we found the field  full of Oil Seed Rape! To make matters worse, it was wet as well but I had water proof trousers with me and we battled through.

The male left the box before we got there and went for a fly round; I could see that it was a new bird as last year’s had a broken leg which flapped around when it flew but it still managed to provide for 3 chicks so not that much of a handicap!! He went round for a full 10 minutes, the female was in the box with 4 small chicks and an egg and was unringed which meant that there was a brand new pair using the box.

Next it was on to Bingham where last year, while doing a photo shoot for the local press, I’d surprisingly found a female on eggs which immediately improved the quality of the shoot. There are two boxes close together here; last year, the birds were in the left box and this year, they’d fancied a change and were in the right box. Both adults were at home, the same female as last year and a ringed male of unknown origin! There was a newly hatched chick and 3 eggs still to hatch.

Our good luck continued at the nest box where there was a female I’d ringed in 08 at Scarrington in the box with 3 chicks and an egg. Just as we were leaving, I got a phone call from a local builder, a man who has a Barn owl box behind his house. Chris is converting a barn at East Bridgford and although he’d had surveys done on the building, they’d discovered a nest with chicks that Chris thought was a Little Owl. We were quite close and went over and Chris showed me the nest, tucked away in the gap where the pan-tiles met the wall. There were small small chicks and a fresh vole in the nest and the broken white eggshell confirmed that they were indeed Little Owls. The chicks where very vocal and though the builders had been on site for a month, this was the first they’d seen of any birds and the female owl must have been sitting on eggs for most of that time. We found a plastic box which was screwed to a roof beam very close to the nest and I’m sure the female will find them OK. The site will now be quiet for 3 days so they will hopefully settle OK into their new home.

This had put us behind time and I was working at 15:30 so we

Dried blood on the face from tearing flesh for the chicks

concentrated on boxes where I thought we would find nesting bird. True to form, the next 2 had their regular females with eggs and chicks and lastly, we visited a new box near Elton that we’d only put up last year. We’d had some boxes kindly donated to us by the Environment Agency and this was the first one to attract Barn Owls. Both adults were at home, the male unringed but the female had been around; I’d ringed her as a chick at Barton in Fabis in 08, she’d bred at Plungar in 09 and now she’d come back to me.

A great finish to a great day. We now had 29 pairs and 135 eggs and chicks and a few boxes still to look at!!

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