April update from Chris and Beau
As we come into the important breeding season the extreme and unseasonal weather continues to play havoc with wildlife. My update for early spring does not bring good news, as feared, with a diminished barn owl population breeding in 2013. Thank you for your continued support at a time when our work to protect the local barn owl population becomes ever more important.
Hopefully, the weather will not be so bad this year and the super-tough barn owls that have survived will produce bumper crops of babies to repopulate some of the lost sites. The nest sites and habitat that has been created thanks to the work of local people will be invaluable going forward from a very tough 12 months. As will our ability to comprehensively survey the population with the launch of the project’s monitoring scheme.
Weather impacts badly on barn owl population
The outlook for barn owls in Somerset looks poor in 2013 due to the unseasonal weather patterns that have been a constant feature for the past 12months; beginning with the drought of spring 2012, followed by the wettest summer on record, causing permanent floods across many parts of Somerset, followed by the very cold conditions of winter 2012/13, including weeks of snow cover and now the dry and freezing conditions of spring 2013. Brood sizes were well down in 2012, and juvenile mortality high. Fewer youngsters fledging, coupled with increased adult mortality during the rain, floods and freeze-ups, has left a significantly diminished barn owl population for breeding in 2013. We are already seeing the results, as previously strong sites have lost their barn owls all together; roost sites are empty, and daytime sightings and road mortality (both indicators of food stress) have increased. This all makes our work to support Somerset’s barn owls all the more important.
The most comprehensive barn owl nest monitoring scheme that has ever taken place in Somerset gets underway
Though we don’t expect a high take-up of boxes this year because of the weather we are planning a programme of monitoring; including identifying and training suitable volunteers who will be working under my Schedule 1 Licence. Thanks to the generosity of Trust members and supporters who gave to the appeal we will be able to build the structure of our new monitoring programme during the summer of 2013 and this will be used annually to form the most comprehensive barn owl nest monitoring scheme that has ever taken place in Somerset. Included into the monitoring will be around 50 boxes which people have built or bought themselves because their parish box had already been allocated, and also the nest sites already monitored by us; this brings the sites to be monitored this year to around 300; a figure which will increase substantially each year.
Now 17 months into the project, we are about to begin our first year of monitoring the boxes put up as part of this project. The first volunteer workshop aimed specifically at monitoring boxes took place on April 13th in Compton Dundon Village Hall, with around 100 landowners attending.
Sadly, it is likely that the weather eventually got the better of them though and a pair of Stock Doves have now set up home in the box. For now we can enjoy watching the progress of these birds which although are not the intended residents are nonetheless interesting and welcome as this species has been on decline and is no longer the familiar sight it once was. It will be interesting if barn owls do return though as they are known to kick Stock Doves out of boxes they want to use.
Though early signs were good in our webcam nestbox it appears that the resident barn owls have now disappeared. As already mentioned this is going to be a familiar story this year, even if the weather does begin to behave itself, as the damage has already been done. The pair of barn owls at this site successfully reared five chicks to fledging in 2012, and as is obvious from the amount of pellets in the camera box, were resident until quite recently.
And, now for some good news
We have also completed our school visits programme which has seen us visit 80 schools helping thousands of children and young people to learn more about barn owl conservation. The final visit was a great trip to King Arthur’s School, in Wincanton.
Early spring has seen us pass two more milestones of the project with the 200th nest box being given out to landowner David Offley in the parish of South Cadbury. I made a short film of my visit with David which you can watch here.
We’ve also been busy getting some events organised for June and July, which have so far fallen victim to the weather. You can see the dates and locations here.
Photographs of Barn Owl prospecting © Brian Phipps and soaring © Eve Tigwell
Chris Sperring, MBE, Conservation Officer Hawk and Owl Trust and Vice President of Somerset Wildlife Trust with Beau
Eve Tigwell leads the monitoring workshop
Stock dove in the webcam box