A great year for owls

It has been a long time since I wrote a blog. With a bit of a shock I realise it is almost 6 months. The entire winter. It is not that we haven’t been out amongst wildlife and nature, ringing or exploring, although our winter ringing sites were comparatively quiet this winter. I did get out dazzling a little, catching Skylark and Woodlark, and we have explored hundreds upon hundreds of metres of footpath throughout Thetford and the Forest while walking the pup. We have played at Forest School and even gone fossil hunting on the North Norfolk and Dorset coasts. We have celebrated Christmas and Easter and birthdays to boot. There have been plenty of lovely moments with family and wildlife. It has however also been some of the hardest months of being a parent, as we grapple with an ever more active and full on 2 year old, as well as the needs of our flourishing 6 year old. Toby is a completely different kettle of fish to Robyn, and it has been full on and exhausting. So much so that my writing has fallen to the wayside as life takes over and the evenings revolve around getting the kids into bed and then falling asleep on the sofa.

Ringing has been hard. Not only have the winter sites been quieter with birds, but with Toby in full on explore, get into everything and don’t listen to mummy mode many of our sites have simply not been suitable to take him, and when we have gone it has been exhausting just keeping an eye on him so that on many occasions I have barely even looked at a bird let alone ring one.

But if anything we are persistent. Knowing the enjoyment and benefit we and the little ones get from being outside in nature and the privileged position we are in to be able to catch and handle wild birds.

With the Early May Bank Holiday weekend upon us I knew there was one activity we could do all together that would be relatively easy. Not completely hassle free but definitely easier. The Tawny Owl boxes in Thetford Forest. There are now 36 of them located throughout the forest and all of them needed checking to see whether there were any owls nesting. Last year was a pretty good year in terms of occupancy, with six boxes containing Tawny Owl nests, although only five were active and the brood size was small, with each only having single or at most two chicks.

Over the three days of the extended weekend we head out along the gravelly, dusty, bumpy tracks of the forest (the new car less that a week in our possession given a real baptism of fire!) We stop at seemingly random points to unload two kids, a net on a long pole, a couple of old pillow cases and a ladder. The forest around us is filling out with pale greens, filling the gaps between the dark greens of the pine trees and the browns of the tree trunks, fallen trees and carpet of crunchy leaves. Sunlight appears in strips overhead, following the straight lines of the fire routes we drive down. Under the trees it streams through the branches and canopy dappling the leaves and forest floor with ever changing patterns of light.

Toby is happy to follow behind us, and I am comfortable knowing he is not going to go too far or get into too much trouble. He plays by the car, crunches through the dead leaves, looks for creepy crawlies and pushes his cars along fallen branches. Robyn is straight up the ladder opening boxes to see what is inside!

Robyn and Lee checking one of the owl boxes

The purpose of the net on the pole is to catch any adult birds in the box. Since the project started we have been catching adults in nest boxes as well free flying during the winter months. The aim being to ultimately link the productivity of nests to known individuals. The purpose of the pillow case is to act as a bird bag, holding any adult or chicks we find before we take them back to the car for processing. It is a repetitive game. Stop the car. Unload. Set the net. Set the ladder. Catch the adult. Check the box and remove any chicks. Ring and process the birds. Return the adult and chicks to the nest box. Reload the kit into the car. Gather up the kids. Move to the next box. Repeat.

Over the three days we checked all 36 boxes and were rewarded with eight active Tawny Owl nests and a total of 20 owl chicks, our best total to date. The owls are definitely having a good year, at least within our boxes. Most of them have at least three chicks in contrast to last years single broods, and the chicks are older and larger compared with those we found the same time last year. Then we found a lot of small, single chicks and a few still on eggs meaning that we needed to return in the following weeks to ring the chicks. This year they were all large enough to ring on this first visit.

The reasons for this are not completely clear, other than the birds must be having a good year food wise, allowing them to nest earlier and raise more of the brood. Most studies on Tawny Owls are conducted in their usual deciduous habitat. We are studying owls in what is predominantly a pine forest, although the boxes themselves are located in the mixed belts surrounding the plantation. So there is much more of the unknown about the birds demography and behaviour!

One long weekend later and we are tired (nothing new there) but also satisfied at a job well done and a successful year for our owls. Not only that but when you listen to your 2 year old babbling in his mix of real and made up words about having a ‘baby twit twoo sat on my lap’ you know you just might done something right to inspire him.

Toby with an owlet on his lap

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