It was the end of a hot September day, one of the hottest in over 100 years in fact. The brilliant blue sky overhead became gradually more washed out as the sun sank behind trees and houses, tinging the wisps of white cloud golden yellow. Under this sky a small group of people head across the rough pasture of the reserve. The ground rutted from the hooves of cows, in places the grass is closely cropped, but we also pass through areas of tall grasses, thistles and other plants, over waist high many with little cotton balls of seeds swaying gently in the warm evening breeze. Bushes and small groups of trees dot the pasture as we head from one small copse of tall trees towards another on the far side of the field. Overhead Jackdaws call noisily as they head for roost. We pass through another gate, nearing out destination. Here, near the meandering river, the grasses are long and almost blade like, bending so their deep green tips almost touch the ground. At this point two of the group split off, taking the lead, silver ladder between them. They approach the small copse of woodland, thick oak trees with gnarled trunks and thick branches, deep green foliage providing a screen against the surrounding evening.
The pair negotiate the barbed wire fence (we do have permission to be on the land!) and then lean the ladder up against the trunk of one of the trees, so that the top comes just below a dark green box secured to the tree trunk. The rest of us have caught up and wait on the other side of the fence as one of the team quietly climbs the ladder and opens a hatch on the side of the box. We hold our breath. There is no guarantee that there will be any chicks in this box, they could have been predated, it is very late in the season, and these birds have a habit of eating each other!
It is with a sigh of relief, and a slight shiver of excitement that out of the box, not one but four small, fluffy, white, Barn Owl chicks are carefully extracted! This is one bird I have yearned to ring in all my years of training and ringing. Silly since many of my friends and colleagues work with this species, for which you have to have a separate Schedule 1 licence to approach nests. But it has never been the right time or fallen to me to get the chance to ring one. So here I am, standing on a hot September evening, at the edge of a small copse of trees, sky blazing with colour overhead with a Barn Owl chick in my hand! Readers of Wild Barley will know how much I love owls, having done numerous posts on Tawny Owls, but never have I held a wild Barn Owl in my hand. They are full of white, fluffy down. Their soft brown and white feathers starting to grow through on the back, head and wings. The face is gorgeous, deep, dark eyes sit between a ridge of feathers, streaked with brown that end with a neat beak. The face around this is like a dish, a heart shaped bowl of white, soft feathers rimmed with brown, that will help the bird hunt and find its prey, guiding the smallest, softest of sounds to its ears.
It may seem late in the summer to be ringing chicks, certainly the nesting season is slowing down especially for many of the small passerines and even many of the larger birds of prey. But there are many species who will try and squeeze in an extra brood. While the main Barn Owl nesting season is often quoted as March (although that is very early, and most start in April) to August, work done through the BTOs Barn Owl Monitoring Programme and Barn Owl Conservation Network indicates that it is not unusual for Barn Owls to have second or late brood. How many of those chicks, including ours, go on to survive and fledge is even more uncertain at this time of year. It all depends on so many factors including the availability of small mammals and the adult’s ability to catch enough (many males for example begin to go into wing moult and are often generally less able to catch sufficient amounts of prey for their young).
But for now our four chicks are healthy, well fed and growing well. It is with hope and good wishes that we return the chicks to the box, with fingers crossed they will continue to thrive and fledge successfully; only time will tell.
And for once the Barn Owls story in the UK is a positive one. They are an icon of the struggle between wildlife and agricultural changes. Numbers declined from the 1930s with changes in farming practices resulting in loss of habitat and nesting opportunities. However a huge effort from landowners, farmers, conservationists and birdwatchers, which included putting up nesting boxes and extensive monitoring, has seen numbers increase to an estimated 9000 pairs and the species moved from the Amber to Green list of Birds of Conservation Concern. While the population certainly seems more resilient, conservation and monitoring work remains essential as the species is now heavily reliant on the provision, maintenance and replacement of artificial nest sites.
Chicks safely returned to their box we leave the area, heading back across the field, dusk gathering around us, the sky now a blaze of pinks, yellows and reds. It is with surprise that a glance at the watch tells us it is only 7:30 pm. The warmth of the evening had lulled us into a false sense of summer, telling us it should be near on 9 pm. But the nights are drawing in and autumn is upon us.