Friday, 23 August 2013

2013: The Year so Far

The British Trust for Ornithology recently reported that there has been some really depressing news of how badly Barn Owls seem to be doing across the whole country so far this year following our unseasonably cold spring. Traditional Barn Owl "hotbeds" in Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Somerset have mirrored our own experiences here in Cheshire.
If we look back to last year, March was a very warm month when temperatures rose above 20 Celsius. Consequently as the grass began to grow and the small mammals, upon which Barn Owls feed, began their own breeding cycles early. As the availability of these mammals and particularly Field Voles, the owl's favourite food, increased the Barn Owl began its own breeding to take full advantage of the available food source. Sadly, during the subsequent months, as we know, the rain set in with a vengeance. Many fields in the Cheshire countryside were flooded and the availability of this early food source began to disappear with disastrous effect. Many well developed broods of owlets began to starve to death as their parents were unable to hunt in the incessant rain and broods such as this one were discovered dead in their nest boxes. However, adult birds too began to suffer as well as they were unable to feed and desperately left territory in search of better conditions elsewhere. It is true that 2012 still represented a good breeding year overall and 215 owlets were ringed locally, but most of these birds would not live to survive their first winter.

The wet weather continued until winter but gradually dry, frosty weather set in which is the type of winter weather that owls can easily cope with. However, March 2013 was to have a brutal ending to the winter and deep snow once again hindered the ability for the owls to hunt. Many birds sought sanctuary in farmyards and close to human settlements. Reports of dead, emaciated birds (such as the one below) increased exponentially in March; due in the main to the fact that they were in places where they could easily be found. Many other birds would have gone undetected in the wider countryside. This heavy loss would decimate the breeding population for 2013.

As I began to check our traditional breeding locations it was soon very obvious that there were no owls present at many sites and where there were birds present their condition and weight left them in no fit state to start their breeding cycle. The older breeding birds had been replaced by new first year birds which had just managed to survive the perils of winter. When return visits were made to those sites where birds had been present it was apparent that many of those had simply moved on in order to try and find food to guarantee their own survival and breeding attempts would be few and far between.

Our first chick of the year, a solitary owlet was not discovered until July (I had been ringing chicks in May last year) and so far this year only six broods have been found with a combined total of 16 owlets, which includes one brood of 5 and another of 4. There are a further three sites to revisit that may be successful but the numbers of young in 2013 will represent an all-time low for us.

Despite the miserable results of 2013 which places our local Barn Owl population into a precarious position, nature does have a habit of bouncing back. As long as we continue to work with landowners to provide appropriate habitat coupled with available nest sites then there is no reason why recovery cannot begin in 2014. This makes our work both important and fundamentally rewarding.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Box Number 1000

Yesterday we put up a couple of new boxes at Peover and this particular one, which Peter is stood proudly underneath, is our 1000th box.

Friday, 16 August 2013

A Much Better Evening

Following the disappointments of Wednesday it was really pleasing to go out tonight and find two good broods of Barn Owls. I was joined by new ringer, Eileen, and it was a welcome change to discover five chicks at the first site near to Moore along with another four at Daresbury. In a year of disappointing breeding successes these are the two largest broods that we have had in 2013.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Breeding Failures

This morning we went out to check upon the progress of three active Barn owl sites in the south of the county and to hopefully ring the young. Sadly all three sites had suffered brood failures and although adult birds were present at two locations there were no youngsters to be found.

A pair of birds were ringed at the first site; a third year male along with his second year companion. She is a very pale bird with hardly any speckling whatsoever and could easily be mistaken for a male at first glance.

At the third site we found this second year male who was a tad shy and perhaps he didn't want to face the camera! All three birds are in good condition and will hopefully try to breed again next year. 

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

New Record

Having only an hour to spare this afternoon I decided to check upon a couple of boxes near to Comberbach. The first box contained the now customary Stock Doves but I could see that the second one contained an owl as I approached it. Care was needed not to disturb the bird before I got there and I was delighted to discover this roosting male inside the box.

He was in superb condition and was already ringed. Upon checking my notes I discovered that I had ringed him as a chick in July 2004 just a few miles away in Pickmere. As a bird in his tenth year he becomes the oldest owl that I have ever recovered; my previous best being a seven year old bird. Most Barn Owls do not live beyond five years in the wild and so he represents an amazing success story.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Everybody at Home

Male with unusually dark facial disc feathering.

Proud Mum

Earlier today Peter and I revisited one of our regular breeding sites near to Tabley. I had found both adults in the nest box at the end of May and was reasonably optimistic that they would have managed to raise young, even in this most dismal of breeding seasons.

Thankfully the birds did not disappoint us and there were two healthy youngsters in the box. Unusually with the young being present, both adults were also in the nest box; it is certainly normal for the male to be roosting elsewhere by this stage and often the female has also left to roost with him as well.

Peter with the two youngsters.

Elder female chick.

Younger brother.