Today felt like the start of the summer to me. Not only had the solstice passed but, after a winter of working in the office I was finally back out in the field. It was the start of barn owl ringing season, a slightly late start. The long winter and late spring has not served England’s barn owls well and many of the nest boxes occupied by successive generations of owls are rumoured to be empty. Those birds that have survived are in poor condition and have started the whole loving and breeding cycle late.
Out on the marshes we navigate our way through the network of field ditches to a triangular box perced on top of a telegraph pole. My volunteers have been dotting the countryside with these boxes for many years and they make a great alternative to the old barns that the birds would have traditionally nested in.
“That’s close enough,” say Jan who is our chief bird ringer. I am slightly in awe of Jan and her compatriot Jane they are the sort of can do, no nonsense women I aspire to be, ornithological Barbara Woodhouses. I am simply not cool enough but I admire them none the less.
One of our volunteers inches out of the Landrover carrying a giant yellow cutip, he edges towards the box and stuffs the cutip into the hole. Quarry held tight we speed across and unload ladders. Jane climbs up, cautiously opens the box door and peers inside. Caution is wise, I have seen barn owl claws pierce through a hand. Jane emerges with a flapping adult barn owl, a bird that manages to be all air and talons at the same time, light and death combined.
Once down on the ground, Jane adjusts her grip and the bird falls asleep in her hand, as barn owls are want to do when out of the box and in the daylight. This birds seemingly lack of fear may be down to the fact that it has a distant memory of this experience. It already has a ring attached to its leg. We make a note of the number and the fact that it has 3 very small chicks in the box.
“Too small to ring,” Jane declares, “Best get it back in there as soon as possible.”
back up the ladder she pops the bird back in the box and we discretly make our exit. The bird stays put, not overly spooked and too much invested in her young to leave them.
At a safe distance we check the ring number against our records. This bird has been caught twice before and has made a journey this spring across the marshes from a box 6km away, a fair way for a barn owl which generally doesn’t travel much beyond the area where it was born.
“Maybe she lost her mate,” Jan speculates, “and travelled in search of another.”
We can only guess at the detail of the birds lives, the rings give us a tiny glimpse into these beautiful creatures, we can tell where they go, how long they live, how many chicks they have. These feed into the bigger picture analysed by the barn owl conservation trust on the health of barn owls nationally and ultimately the health of our countryside. But, most of the birds we ring as babies are never recaptured, they simply melt into the fields and hedges, their lives and deaths unrecorded.
As we head off to our next box it is good to know that despite the cold spring the barn owls are still there, still hunting, still loving, still breeding.