Incredible Barn Owl Visits and a Nest Box Dilemma

I have had a kestrel box mounted on my neighbour’s barn, at the end of my garden for several years now and, although nothing has actually nested in it, I have captured very exciting footage of both kestrels and tawny owls visiting. You can imagine my total amazement and sheer delight when, on Thursday night I was working at my desk and a BARN OWL appeared at the box. I have installed 2 barn owl boxes in the local area… one near a church with lots of rough grassland around and one on a local farmer’s land. Despite looking, I have never seen barn owls around here. The nearest are about 7 miles away. 

The grassland immediately around my patch is grazed, so not really conducive to barn owl hunting… they like rough grassland, where there is a build up of dead grass under new growth. These conditions are ideal for field voles and field voles are a barn owl’s favourite prey..

So, all of these factors made the appearance of this barn owl all the more special. It was a species that I had never thought was a nesting possibility so close. To say I was excited is an understatement! The i-catcher software installed on my computer meant that the box was being monitored 24-7. Although I had been actually sitting next to the monitor when it first appeared at around 9.30pm, I was able to go to bed, knowing that if it returned, I would be able to see it on the recorded footage.

Unfortunately, the camera that I have on the box has rather steamed up and is a little misty. I was due to go up and take it down to take a look. Also infra-red (the invisible ‘night’ light that allows me to view these animals in pitch dark) reflects strongly off of a white surface…. and of course a barn owl is just about pure white on the face and on its breast. Hence, a lot of the images are rather burnt out. Regardless, to know that a barn owl was around was a very special discovery. Here are some of the clips I captured from Thursday night, when this individual visited 4 times.

 

 

The following night, I hoped that it was not just a one-off and that I would have a return visit. I just about had went crazy when I played back the footage and, to my amazement, this owl had brought its mate! Yes! There were 2 barn owls and they spent over 20 minutes preening and other and beak touching; all good sign as these behaviours are seen in courtship… these are a potential breeding pair!

My mind went into overdrive! This kestrel box is not a suitable box for barn owls. Young owlets are well known for falling out of boxes unless they are pretty deep. Also, this box is very open. Having said that, they have been known to nest in them. I felt I had to act… and act fast to maximise the chances of this pair choosing to breed here. I have bought my tawny boxes from the Barn Owl Centre in Gloucester and I decided to buy a barn owl box from there. My plan was to get a new camera system set up in there and then replace the kestrel one with this much more suitable abode.

I spent Saturday morning, excitedly setting up the new camera inside the box, with an extra IR unit bouncing IR off of the ceiling to try to avoid any glare on the white birds.  The plan was to simply remove the kestrel box and mount this on the brackets already bolted onto my neighbour’s barn. I used a kitchen roll to mimic a barn owl!

I thought I had better go up and let her know, as I would need to be on her land to swap the boxes over. I was completely bowled over when she said that she did not want the box on her barn and also suggested I may need to take the kestrel one down too. I was totally gutted. Walking back home, in floods of tears, I could not understand how anyone would not leap at the chance of having such an iconic bird nesting on their barn. Not everyone is as obsessed with wildlife as I am though. Barn owls are Schedule 1 birds. This means they are protected by law and if they nest, then there are lots of restrictions regarding what you can and can’t do close to their nest site. I can only presume this is why she did not want this box on her land.

Regardless… I was left with a dreadful dilemma. I had a potential breeding pair of barn owls quite literally at the end of my garden, a new barn owl box in my lounge and no barn to mount it on. It was sheer torture to know that these birds were here, prospecting for a nest site, and I was in a position to possibly offer them somewhere and this had been taken away from me.  I went to bed with a very heavy heart.

I got up this morning and, with the help of my partner Martin and a friend, Dave we decided we were not going to give in! I have two large trees near the barn. Neither were big enough to hold this very large box, but there was a possibility that we could build a platform between the two and mount the box in there. The trees would need to be pruned to provide a completely open outlook onto the field, but the box could go there, facing the same field and only be about ten metres from the original kestrel box. It was worth a try!

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After a day of pruning, sawing and building, we finally heaved the box into position and wired the cameras back to the house. My new barn owl-suitable abode was in place.

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Just before the lid was screwed in place, I took a picture out of the box, showing the landscape outside….

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It is not as ideal as on the barn, but it is the next best thing. I am not unrealistic about my chances, but when presented with such an iconic species, that is in such decline, I had to feel that I had done my utmost to provide a possible nest site. I will be created some more detailed descriptions of the box and the camera system on my website in the coming weeks, but now, after yesterday’s devastation, I now feel that I have done all I can do. It is now up to the barn owls…… watch this space… and keep everything crossed that you can cross!

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