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 The older breeding birds had been replaced by new first year birds which had just managed to survive the perils of winter.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.

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