Spring is in the air and nest box ‘wars’ have begun. I’ve been following the antics of a pair of kestrels and a pair of tawny owls from my studio window for many years.
This week I saw the kestrels mating. They are starting to look for somewhere to nest, but to their horror, they found the tawny owls sitting in the nest box that they had used last year and they were not happy. The kestrels dive bombed the nest box all week in an attempt to get the tawny owls out. But the tawny owls weren’t for moving so the kestrels upped the anti and sat in the nest box that the tawnys usually use. I’m not convinced it’s all over – last year all this went on well into April.
UPDATE: Sometimes battles over nest boxes can become quite vicious. In April 2015 I captured an hour long clash between a barn owl and a kestrel. It was a vicious, talon-searing affair during which both birds were scarred. You can watch it here:
That’s nature for you! With a bit of luck I should be watching tawny chicks in the garden by summer. Below is a photograph of a pair of tawny owls and below that a picture of a kestrel chicks – both were previously raised here.
But who knows where the different bird of prey species will be living. I’ve noticed that jackdaws are also looking – up to six have been taunting the kestrels – and stock doves have been hanging around the nest sites too. There is always a tussle for the best sites and usually the tawny owls get the first pick. I’ve been building some new nest boxes today and hope to get them up by next weekend to relieve the pressure – I wonder who will be the first taker?
And further from home, owls were also on the agenda as I drove across to Cumbria to The World Owl Trust to meet the its president, Tony Warburton.
I had gone to visit after I was asked to become a patron of the trust, a position I was very proud to accept. We talked about owl conservation all over the world and it was interesting to learn about the plight of burrowing owls in America and of their conservation projects in the Philippines.
As for the UK, we discussed the importance of preserving natural grasslands. The diet of the barn owl is the short tailed field vole which needs tussocky grass to thrive. 97% of this type of habitat has been lost due to modern farming methods. Even the verges alongside country lanes are now often kept closely mown ‘neat and tidy’ and voles have nowhere to live. It’s no wonder barn owls are on the brink of survival.
On top of this the cold spring we had last year meant we had a drop in vole populations and this led to a dramatic decline in breeding barn owl pairs – Tony reckoned it was the worst breeding season since 1958! I was so worried that the winter might finish off the few remaining pairs near me that I decided to start supplement feeding several pairs in the autumn.
It has been a rewarding project as one particular pair has become so accustomed to my visits that the male actually took food from the top of my hat the other day! Above is one of the first attempts at photographing them. It’s tricky to get the exposure right, so its work in progress and I’m looking forward to lighter nights too. Initially I fed these owls on mice that I trap in my garden, but once I got them taking the mice readily from the landing platform outside the nest box, I switched them to day old chicks which were easier for them to spot on a nearby fence post.
These chicks are a by-product of the egg industry. I’m hoping that this pair at least, out of a number that I have supported through the winter, will be strong enough to breed this year and restore the fragile population here on the Wolds. Of course I might also get some good paintings of them completed before the year is out too! This is a painting of what I’m hoping for later on in the year….