Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A Season For Barn Owls

With my last post in April time I have some catching up to do, so here is a flashback to mid spring and early June of this year. After the failures last year nationwide, 2014 seems to have been a very successful year for breeding Barn Owls and none more so than locally throughout the Test Valley.

I shall set the scene for you if you haven’t read one of my rambling blog posts before. I am lucky enough to live in a tiny hamlet which is sandwiched between the ever serene and beautiful chalk stream of the River Test and the vibrant ancient woodland of the nearby Harewood Forest. With sprawling farmland and quiet expanses of water meadow throughout the river valley, the area offers a bountiful habitat for any vole feeding predator. Kestrels are regular breeders and this year was no exception, Tawny Owls are also present in good numbers but this habitat also suites the silent winged ghost the Barn Owl.

2014 saw 2 Barn Owl pairs nesting nearby, one using an artificial nest box the other a wooden barn. The nests were no more than 700 metres apart from one another, an occurrence which seemed a bit alien to me, with both nests so close I was sure that both pairs of owl’s territories would easily encroach upon one another, with each Owls hunting range covering a far bigger area that 700 metres. Would this cause issues? Would there be enough food for both pairs to raise a successful brood? Gnawing at my mind a little I had to turn to the only trusted source we seem to rely on in the world these days ‘Google’.... and although each website had a slightly different take on how big an Owls home range would be. Each had the same answer for me; ‘Barn Owls are not particularly territorial and often live in overlapping home ranges’ something my bird books at home also seemed to back up a pretty clear answer to my first question.

My thoughts on prey shortages proved to be nothing more than a forgotten worry, as each pair raised a successful brood. The pair in the artificial nest box fledging 4 healthy looking chicks. I was lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time watching these noisy owlets from a neighbour’s garden two or three times a week for the duration of June. At the start of the month the adult birds would drop in with a fresh kill causing a frenzy of hissing and scrabbling from inside the box, each time a white fluffy head would appear briefly in the opening. By the end of the month four juvenile birds had fledged, dropping back down every now and then on to the nest box from the leafy branches above to be fed. Gangly, awkward and lacking the elegant aerial grace of their parents who were still tirelessly feeding them.

As a schedule one species I made sure I was at a safe distance, careful not to disturb or distress the adult birds or the newly emerged youngsters. Although sightings could be guaranteed each night, I found it quite hard to get some photographs I was happy with. Light being the main factor as the setting sun would drop down right behind the nest box casting all of the meadow into shadow. A lot of my photographs were taken in near dark at high ISO’s something I hope to remedy next year by some better planning. But nothing can take away the pure pleasure of watching these beautiful birds raise a family.

As I came home late last night a stunning white outline passed through my headlights beam landing on the railed fence to the side of the road, my first Barn Owl sighting in more than a month. Maybe one of this year’s young or could it be one of the local resident adults. No way of ever knowing but -whichever it was it brought a smile to my face!

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