During the winter of 2015 / 2016 we spent some time setting nest boxes up in a couple of areas of Thetford Forest. The boxes were tall with a wide square opening at the top, and a little perch sticking out at a right angle. They were attached high up on selected trees, always in permanent stands of the forest. These stands act as buffers around the edge of the commercial plantations and are made up of a mix of tree species, although they are predominantly deciduous trees rather than the pine of the plantations. The boxes have been designed and built for Tawny Owls. We even spent a day with the Friends of Thetford Forest building them.
In the spring and summer of 2016 we drove round each of the boxes and checked their contents. Unfortunately there were no Tawny Owls nesting, but we did get our surprise ducks (see If You Go Down to the Woods Today) and plenty of Stock Doves.
And so now on a bright sunny mid-morning at the end of April 2017 we were back to check the last seven boxes. The forest gleamed, a dazzling palette of verdant greens in every shade. The warm sun had brushed aside the clouds of the early morning. The dark branches of the trees ruffled slightly in a gentle breeze. They stood in dense blocks on either side of the wide, open ride whose verges were filled with short swards of grass, extensive patches of dark green stinging nettles, dense bushes of spiky bramble with bright, fresh, new leaves and patches of new bracken growth, unfolding in delicate furls from amongst the dried, reddish brown bed of last year’s growth. On one side the tall, dark green pine trees stand close together, with tall, straight trunks. But the side we are interested in, where our boxes are perch high up, is much more open. The green of the grass ride gives way to brown, crunchy leaves and other debris of branches and twigs that fill the floor beneath the trees.
We approached each of the boxes with a ladder and a net on a long pole. The ladder was used to climb up to the box and check its contents. The net and pole, to catch any adult bird exiting the nest box. Of the boxes in this section; one has tiny pellets that suggest something like a Kestrel has been roosting in there. Two have Stock Doves nesting. One has a rather ambitious Great Tit nesting. One was empty. One has a magnificent Tawny Owl. She is beautiful and she has three gorgeous little, white fluffy chicks couched up together in the box. We put a ring on her now, take various measurements and then release her into the woods. We will return to ring her chicks in a few weeks’ time.
So we approached the last box of the day and went through the same motions, not expecting anything different. Perhaps it would be another Tawny Owl, or another Stock Dove…. What we were not expecting was to see a stunning Barn Owl come out of the box! Our final box held a Barn Owl nest, complete with eggs and the remains of small mammal dinners. As magnificent as the Tawny Owl is with her soft dark brown feathers and liquid black eye, this bird is just as beautiful with soft white and pale brown feathers, and a gorgeous heart shaped face. It is a delightful surprise and a great addition to the project this year.
And so our first check of all 19 boxes is complete. Now we have three Tawny Owl nests, with a total of eight chicks, one Barn Owl nest, one Great Tit nest, two Mandarin nests and at least 10 Stock Dove nests to monitor over the coming weeks…. It’s going to be a busy time.