Beautiful Barn Owls Breeding In 2021

Heart racing with excitement as I take that first step on to the ladder. One step, two step, and the next and the next, until I reach the box high in the rafters of the empty barn. Tap, tap on the side of the box to double check that the adult has left, before reaching quietly for the latch. As I carefully open the little door to the box, I then get my first peak of what may lay inside. There, at the back of the box, balls of downy feathers topped each with a pair of inquisitive eyes outlined by a heart of new feathers. Hope, elation, and pure joy – Original Piece

Iconic, distinct, and delightful, Barn Owls are a much-loved species of the British countryside. This protected species is often less commonly seen though, emerging on silent wings to hunt mainly at dawn and dusk. They are a particularly special species for my family, being an important indicator of the health of British farmland, such as our own, whilst also being a charismatic species to live alongside.

My family’s relationship with Barn Owls began in 2015, with the putting up of a nest box in one of our farm barns. Though Barn Owls have always been in our area, previously in very low numbers, our nest box finally allowed us to draw a pair of Barn Owls right into the heart of our farmland. This box has led to 7 years, so far, of regular Barn Owl sightings, the annual ringing of chicks, and a growing Barn Owl population. To find out more about the last 7 years, check out my previous Barn Owl blog posts.

The year of 2020 was a tough one for humans, but a more productive one for Barn Owls. Though we did not end up discovering any wild nesting pairs on the farm that year, we once again had Barn Owls in our barn nest box. The pair hatched 4 chicks from 4 eggs, and raised 2 successfully to fledging in August. This was a special moment as these were the very first Barn Owl chicks that I got to ring myself. Following this success, we had a super winter of seeing Barn Owls hunting every day the weather was settled.

For 2021, I had the privilege of getting more involved in Barn Owl nest box checks across Dorset with Conservation Action (CA). This project aims to preserve and conserve nature, to promote wildlife conservation, and to undertake research and monitoring of wildlife populations. As part of CA’s work, the last few years Barn Owl boxes have been checked on Dorset County Council farms (in which my family’s farm originally came under). From being involved in some of these nest box checks and from a few private Barn Owl boxes (not including my family’s own), I got to check 6 boxes and ring 10 chicks. It was a great experience, not to be missed!

My own Barn Owl nest box was first checked last year on the 15th June. On this day we found that the resident pair had hatched 4 chicks from 4 eggs in the box, all 4 being under 7 days old. We were also able to catch and ring the adult female, allowing us to identify her as a first time breeder at 2 years old. We then made sure the Barn Owls were not further disturbed for a month, before excitingly checking the box once again. Unfortunately the 2 smallest chicks and 1 of the larger chicks did not make it, probably due to the weather, leaving 1 strong healthy chick to survive to fledging.

What happened with our Barn Owls fitted in with the trend for 2021. Out of 81 boxes checked, only 21 boxes (26%) were being used by a pair, down from 39% in 2020. This reflects that Barn Owls were having a more difficult year, following a cold, then wet spring. Despite this, on average 2 owlets survived per box, a better statistic, reflecting the similar brood size average for 2020. With such turbulent weather, we were still very happy to have one Barn Owl chick fledge from the box in 2021.

After another winter (2021-2022) seeing Barn Owls hunting most days, we are looking forward to this year’s Barn Owl breeding season. By now we have seen a pair regularly around our nest box and have made a first licensed check of the box. Things are looking positive, so stay tuned to see how breeding goes on my family’s farm this year. Each year habitat changes and improves on our land, so we will also be interested to see how a new year and hopefully more stable weather will affect our Barn Owls. Here’s to a hopefully more successful 2022!

Barn Owls are a protected species, so all nest boxes were checked under full license, with all Barn Owls being ringed under license and special supervision. All birds handed were always put first in all situations, with minimum disturbance being made to the nesting birds and sites. Barn Owls are ringed to allow us to gain greater knowledge of this species to help better conserve this species and their preferred habitats.

Exploring With My Camera Trap Spring 2021

After I click open the file on my camera trap, I press next through a male pheasant strutting his stuff and a female roe deer passing through, until a photo makes me stop. There towards the back of the shot are two small brown shapes. I move through the rest of the photos as day passes into night, and watch as these two rough and tumble through the photos, exploring, playing and watching their wild neighbours go past, ending with one sitting stock still in front of the camera. My camera trap had successfully found my first litter of fox cubs of the year!

The last few years I have become known for my exploration of my family’s farm in Dorset using a camera trap. My camera trap allows me to delve into the lives of my wild neighbours without intrusion or disturbance of their natural behaviour, and to use my photos to inspire others to open their eyes and be motivated to conserve our local wildlife. It is always a rollercoaster of emotions, never knowing what my camera trap might find, but in the end it is a very rewarding experience. If you are interested in getting your own camera trap or knowing how to make the most of your own, check out my ‘How to… Use and Make the Most of a Camera Trap’ guide for some more information.

My camera trap has been a very useful tool for me over the last few years, so since 2019 I have spent my spring seasons moving my camera trap around different sites across 250 acres of farmland, taking in different species and behaviour. In 2019, I saw 12 species of birds and mammals, including families of badgers and a family of three fox cubs. In 2020, my camera trapping got even more interesting, with badger cubs, a couple of litters of fox cubs, and lots of roe deer sightings. The most enjoyable shots are always the most unexpected though, despite from time to time getting a photo bomber or two, for example in the form of our farm cat!

This spring I have been out and about once again on the farm with my camera trap. This year I selected six different sites across our land, with the hope of capturing some of the normal sights, along with some new ones. As the spring has now come to an end, activity has dropped across these sites, and thus it is time to see how spring has been captured by my camera trap this year.

Camera Trapping Spring 2021

Quarry Field Badger Sett

My first camera trapping site this year was an active badger sett to the east of my family’s land. It sits between a silage field and a maize field in a wide and thick hedgerow, and is a great crossroads for animals passing through. I have used this site in previous years for camera trapping, with varying success, such as last year’s highlights of badger cubs and a lively, lone fox cub.

This year I set my camera trap up at the sett for a week (3rd-10th April), moving the position and angle every other day to increase my chances of capturing wildlife. It paid off as I had a successful first week, with rabbits, roe deer, badgers, and a fox.

Due to seeing a lone fox cub at this site last year, the presence of an adult fox at the sett once again led me to return with my camera trap seven weeks later for another week (27th May-1st June). My hunch paid off as my camera trap returned photos of two fox cubs playing, living alongside a badger family, and being fed by a parent.

Gill Hill Copse

For my next site, I set my camera trap up within a copse surrounded by a cow grazing field west of the Quarry Field badger sett. During early spring this is a great site to capture wildlife moving through the landscape as the copse is a great stopping place. I have used this site before, and last year I saw species, such as roe deer and foxes.

This year I used my camera in the copse for just one week (11th-18th April), but moved its position within the copse every couple of days. I captured photos of a territorial male pheasant, an adult badger, a grey squirrel, an adult fox, and a rather comical sequence of photos of two female roe deer being spied on by a hiding male. As vegetation in the copse grows up and spring progresses, camera trapping success decreases at this site, but it was nice to see some life early on this spring.

Dorset County Council Wood

For my third site, I set my camera trap within a small, young wood that can be found at the centre of my family’s land, bordered by a road and a meadow. I have used this wood before, with some positive sightings in 2019 of foxes and badgers passing through.

This year I tried the wood again for a couple of days (19th-24th April), with some overall disappointing results. A male pheasant and magpie were seen, with an adult fox being seen twice, but overall the wood was quiet, reflecting a lack of diversity evident in this unmanaged woodland. I did not return to the wood again during this spring as a result.

Badger Field Sett

For my fourth camera trapping site, I returned to an active badger sett towards the centre of my family’s land. The sett is bordered by grazing land on both sides, and is set within a wide, thick hedge, extending out into the field on its east side. Last year I used my camera trap to look within the sett and to the sett entrances on either side, and saw adult badgers, badger cubs, and an adult fox. This was unsurprising as the sett is a thriving mixed site for badgers, foxes and rabbits alike.

This year I positioned my camera trap first on the western side of the sett (25th-27th April), before positioning it directly within the area above the sett (4th-7th May). Pointing my camera trap at the animal track running along the side of the sett, I captured an adult badger, adult fox, and my first hare! Above the sett, my camera trap was more active, capturing lots of badger activity, woodpigeons, blackbirds, and red-legged partridges, and a surprising sighting of a field vole climbing vegetation. It was a lovely sequence of photos!

Badger Alley

For my fifth site, I chose to return to one of my favourite locations, the familiarly known Badger Alley. Badger Alley is an enclosed footpath that has dug out animal holes along half of its length, split into two old badger setts. In 2019 this was a super site for seeing badgers wondering its length, but last year it was obvious that wildlife numbers had declined, badgers in particular.

This year I spent two stints setting up my camera trap along Badger Alley. Firstly, I spent five days with my camera trap trained on the non-active lower sett, changing the camera’s position after two days (10th-14th May). Amongst photos of a female roe deer and a displaying male pheasant, I got lots of really lovely photos of two fox cubs playing and exploring their world.

I then returned to Badger Alley in June, moving my camera from the non-active lower sett (5th-11th June) to the sett further up (11th-14th June). By now my camera trap found that the family of foxes had moved on, with only the female and new male roe deer appearing at the lower sett. What was really sad, was finding that Badger Alley has now been fully abandoned by badgers, with the higher sett now being home to just rabbits. A slightly disappointing end to my camera trap’s time at Badger Alley!

Monkwood

To finish camera trapping during the spring season, I took a bet on a site where there was a possibility of finding another litter of fox cubs. This site was a hedge in the middle of cow grazing land, where I had not previously camera trapped before. I chose to set my camera trap up on a fence post pointing along the hedgeline where I had found holes into the hedge, and left my camera for a couple of days (14th-16th June).

On retrieving my camera trap, I was excited to find that my instincts had been right and my camera trap had shot photos of two fox cubs and an adult. It was a lovely end to my spring camera trapping season!

Spring in Photos 2021

Last year spring was my lifeline, as we experienced the world around us being thrown into disarray. This year spring was instead turned on its head, with changing weather patterns making it unpredictable and different from what we would usually expect at this time of year. A hot and stormy March, cold April, and wet May made nature emerge later, with spring events taking longer to arrive, and being anywhere up to 60 days late.

Still this year’s spring has been magnificent. Vibrant and colourful, it had much to be celebrated. My family’s farm in Dorset became full of new life, from blossoming trees and flowers, to fox cubs and leverets. Spring is unsurprisingly my favourite time of year, so this year I again made a point of getting out as much as possible to experience it, with my camera by my side. Here’s a look at some of my favourite photos from this spring, either for their aesthetic appeal, meaning to me, or overall joy factor.

Spring in Photos 2021

1. Blackthorn – This photo was taken at the beginning of April on a misty morning. It was a beautiful way to see delicate white blackthorn flowers in a different light, framed in front of a splintered stem.

2. Male blackbird – Blackbirds are an iconic sound of spring for me and also so many others. Their beautiful song often symbolises the beginnings of longer, lighter evenings, or for me fresh spring mornings. This male would sit in this willow tree every morning throughout spring to sing his song, defending his territory and mate. In particular, this male and his female nested in our shed, successfully fledging 5 chicks at the start of June.

3. Oak trees of a farming landscape – What hits me first in this photo is how bare this landscape seems for late April. The oak trees have barely begun their bud burst, looking skeletal behind a farm field that is being worked. This almost autumnal scene is refreshing though, showing the new beginnings of another year in nature.

4. Camera trap fox cub – This photo is one of my favourites from this spring, symbolising a successful spring camera trapping season (blog post to come). This was one location, an abandoned badger sett, where I thought that foxes may have been breeding. My camera trap proved my feeling to be right, and treated me to an assortment of photos, day and night, of 2 very active fox cubs. Just one of multiple litters that I found on my family’s farm this year!

5. Wood anemones – Wood anemones have slowly become one of my favourite spring flowers, being one of the first to appear in woodlands across the UK. They are a great indicator of ancient woodland, and an interesting flower to photograph for their shape and colour. My memory cards are full of all sorts of different types of photos of this species!

6. Tawny owl chicks – One of my highlights of spring this year has been ringing chicks under license with my bird ringing group (Conservation Action). In particular, I had a great day in early May at the Woodland Trust’s Duncliffe Woods site in North Dorset checking tawny owl nest boxes. It has been a poor year for tawny owls in general, which was reflected by Duncliffe Woods, but we did get lucky and found 3 active nest boxes. I had the pleasure of ringing these chicks, under permit, which will provide important information to help conserve tawny owls in the future.

7. Brown hare – This year has been the year of the hare on my family’s farm in Dorset. We have a reputation for being a great site for this species, but this year has been truly astounding. With 1-3 hares to every field, I was humbled to spend my spring out working alongside them everyday, getting to see them up close and experience their behaviour firsthand. Truly magical!

8. Pussy willow flowers – Willow flowers have been a difficult subject for me to photograph this year, with poor results. I was pleased though to find this refreshing photo on my memory card, of willow flowers stood out against a clear blue evening sky. They are beautiful in their own right.

9. Spider in macro – This photo that is not photographically ‘perfect’ is still a favourite of mine from this spring for other reasons. As I invest in my camera equipment, my latest edition has been my first professional macro lens. So this photo was the first photo I even took with my new lens, and it fills me with joy to see the new world I can now start to explore.

10. Grey wagtail – Last year my Dad began digging a pond in his field that he is currently wilding. Though he was rained off in the autumn before completion, the half-dug pond is already attracting a wealth of species from birds to insects. Majestic grey wagtails that have begun populating this area over the winter have also found the pond this spring.

11. Sunset – Though sunrises are magical, sunsets have always been my most favourite time of the day. This is because many of my happiest memories can be linked to beautiful and vibrant sunsets from field research in Canada to evenings at home on my family’s farm. I have seen so many incredible sunsets already so far, but I hope to see many more in the future.

12. Wild garlic – Though my busy spring dissuaded me from mornings waking up before the sunrise, I did spend a couple of glorious mornings waking up and getting out an hour or so after instead. The light is glorious at this time of day and always provides me with inspiration for my photos and life in general. This photo represents this magical time of day and the joys of spring flowers, wild garlic being an iconic example.

13. Feather in the bluebells – Wait, a feather again? Well feathers always sneak into my many files of photos, being a symbol of mine and representing my love of feathered species. They can also tell us useful information about what is living in a habitat, for example this feather is most likely from a collared dove.

14. Aberdeen angus calf – This photo is one of my favourite photos of one of my mum’s beef suckler calves. Spring is a time of new life in nature and on the farm, with my mum’s small free range beef herd giving birth at this time. This year they have weathered it through some turbulent months, but now are enjoying a bit of sunshine on their backs.

15. Honey bee – As I was intending to buy a macro lens this year, I made sure to time my purchase to be able to use it on the flowering of the poached egg plants in my family’s garden. It arrived well in advance, and, despite some rained off days, I got to spend some happy lunchtimes in the sunshine photographing bees on these flowers. This is one of my favourite macro photos of the flowers this year.

16. Dog roses – Dog roses were the last event of spring that I looked out for this year, and it kept me waiting! They were 22 days later for me than last year, with the first flowers blooming on the 8th June. They came out in force though, covering hedges within the space of a couple of days, adding some more colour to our hedgerows. With their lateness though, I feel like they also marked the end of spring this year.

How to… Make Your Own Bird Nest Box

As our summer visitors, such as Swallows and Willow Warblers, leave us for sunnier shores, and we wait for our winter returnees, such as Redwings, the world outside our doors is slowing down and wildlife is preparing for the colder times to come. Autumn is a time for extraordinary spectacles, storing up food and changing colours, but also a time for us to do our bit, to help our wild neighbours with their preparations, and to prepare for a new year to come. This can range from cleaning ponds and putting out food, to planting trees and creating wood piles. It is also importantly a time to provide new homes for nature.

Previously, in spring/summer I posted on my blog about how to make a home for nature in the form of a bee hotel (see How to… Make Your Own Bee Hotel). A bee hotel is aimed at providing solitary bees (90% of UK bee species) with a place to nest, and for my blog I made a bee hotel that has now had some success. There are other forms of homes that we can make for wildlife though, for example for different species of bird.

In the UK, more than a quarter of all bird species are of the highest conservation concern, with a decline in breeding birds (44 million) between 1967 and 2009. This means that conserving and creating habitat for birds is an important issue, and something we can all get involved in. One example of an easy way is to put up nest boxes, which mimic natural habitat. They create an effective artificial cavity for birds, providing an accessible alternative for species that are currently experiencing the loss of breeding habitat and winter roosting sites.

Nest boxes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and designs, which will depend on the species of choice and the purpose they need to fulfill. Though you can put up a nest box at any time of year, the best time is right now, ready to be used as a roosting site throughout winter and for breeding in the spring. This way you can increase the chance of your nest box being a success next year. There are no set rules though, so why not try making your own today!

How to Make a Bird Nest Box

What you need:

  • A plank or offcuts of untreated wood, about 15mm thick for insulation
  • Tape measure & pencil
  • Hand or power saw
  • Drill & different sized drill bits
  • Sand paper
  • Hammer & nails
  • Screws
  • Sealant, a piece of rubber or something similar
  • Optional: Hole plate

Step by Step Guide:

  1. Decide on your nest box design. Your nest box will most likely be aimed at a certain species, such as Robins or House Sparrows. You can also choose particular design features, such as a flat or apex roof. For the purpose of this guide though, I will provide instructions to make a standard Tit nest box.
  1. Use a tape measure and pencil to mark out the wood you need, either by creating templates out of paper or cardboard, or by drawing straight onto the wood. For this design you will need 6 pieces: a back (45cm x 15cm); a base (11cm x 15cm); a front (21cm x 15cm); a roof (20cm x 15cm); and 2 side panels (25cm high at the back, 20cm high at the front, and 11cm wide). Use a hand or power saw to cut the wood into the 6 pieces needed.
  1. Next, take the front panel and use a wide drill bit to make a hole towards the top of the panel, at least 125mm up, which the birds will use to enter the nest box. The size of the hole will vary between different species, but for my nest box I made a 25mm hole, aimed at Blue Tits and similar Tit species.
  1. Use sand paper to sand down any rough or uneven edges of the wood, that otherwise could cause problems for birds using the box.
  1. Use a hammer and as many nails as you need to make the back, base, sides and front fit together forming the main body of the nest box. It is often best to mark where the nails will go first and partially drive each nail through the first piece of wood first (e.g. the back), which will make nailing the pieces together easier and help avoid splitting the wood.
  1. Attach the roof to the box using screws that you can later remove when needing to clean the nest box out. Seal the gap between the roof and the back of the nest box with either flexible sealant or an attached flap of recycled rubber.

Optional editions: Add a nest box hole plate to the front of the box to prevent predators from enlarging the nest box hole and larger bird species using the box. Also, you could apply a water-based wood preservative product to the outside of the box to prolong its life and help to repel water.

Tips on putting your nest box up

  • Unless there is shade during the day, position the nest box facing between north and east to avoid strong sunlight.
  • Choose a location which is 2-4 metres above ground level, out of reach of predators, and away from constant disturbance.
  • Make sure there is a clear flight path to the entrance of the nest box and that there is shelter from bad weather.
  • Place your box away from the location of any other nest boxes to reduce the chances of competition.
  • Avoid using nails to attach the box to a tree, as they may cause harm. Instead try to tie the box to the trunk or hang it, or otherwise use stainless steel screws or nails that do not rust.

Enjoy!

Breeding Barn Owls 2020

Feathers fluffy, downy, soft to the touch. A heart of feathers outlining inquisitive eyes. A new beginning, hints of the precious adult to come. A hope, a prayer, a future. An endearing beginning for the reticent guardian of twilight – Original Piece

As a very unusual summer comes to an end, with it also comes the end of another breeding season for the Barn Owls that call my family’s farm home. For many years now, Barn Owls have increasingly become an important species on the farm, giving an indication of habitat quality and changes in the environment.

Last year the Owls had their best year yet, with two separate pairs on the farm, one nesting in a tree and one in a nest box, fledging two chicks each. It was also the start of Barn Owl chicks being ringed on the farm, which was very exciting for us all. If you want to read more about these Barn Owls, take a look at my previous posts, including Barn Owls in the Depths of Dorset, and Barmy about Barn Owls.

This Year

This year has been another year filled with the joys of this species. From sightings around the farm throughout the seasons, to fledged chicks during the summer, it has been really special. This year we were not lucky enough to have 2 known pairs breed again on the farm, but we were lucky enough to have 1 pair breed in our Barn Owl nest box. In the end the pair hatched 4 chicks, with 2 surviving to successfully fledge in August, which was exciting nonetheless. Though no Barn Owls have bred in the old oak tree this year, it has also been actively used, becoming a popular roosting site for one or more individuals.

Conservation Action and the Barn Owl chicks

Following our Barn Owl chicks being ringed last year, I have now joined the North Dorset-based Conservation Action group, becoming a trainee bird ringer. Conservation Action is a group of experienced ornithologists and BTO trained ringers, dedicated to conserving and preserving the natural environment, ringing bird species to increase knowledge, and raising awareness of conservation efforts in younger generations. Focuses range from migrating species in Autumn to Owls and my favourites, the birds of prey.

Last year Conservation Action monitored a total of 47 Barn Owl nest boxes across Dorset, leading to 66 Barns Owls being successfully ringed (63 owlets and 3 adults). It was a great year for Barn Owls and Conservation Action alike!

Now a member of Conservation Action and a trainee bird ringer, this year I was very excited at the prospect of Barn Owls breeding once again on our land. For this breeding season I got the opportunity to become an accredited agent under a Schedule 1 Permit, meaning that I was fully licensed to assist with Barn Owl nest box checks and monitoring, including our very own box. So it was an absolute privilege to be able to ring, under supervision, my very own 2 Barn Owl chicks this year. Such incredible birds and such a special experience, which was made all the better by getting to experience it alongside my parents and 2 year old niece!

Their Importance

Barn Owls are one important indicator species for farmland and grassland in Britain, meaning that they can tell us a lot about the condition of these habitats. With Barn Owls having made a comeback to my family’s farmland, it has also shown how changes to land management can restore and create habitat for wildlife, including for other species with related habitat needs (for more information see my post Giving Nature a Home on the Farm).

Barn Owls have also helped me to find out more about the small mammal species living on our land. This has been through dissecting pellets left by the owls, that I have previously written about in my post: How to… Be a Barn Owl Pellet Detective. For example, pellets from the roost tree have shown remains belonging to Bank Voles, Field Voles, Common Shrews, and Brown Rats, whereas pellets from the nest box barn have shown remains belonging to Field Voles, Bank Voles, Common Shrews, Pygmy Shrews, and Mice.

Moving Forward

After this year’s Barn Owl breeding season, and the excitement of Barn Owls continuing to breed on the farm, things are looking exciting for the future! It will be interesting though, to see how Barn Owls fared across Dorset and the UK this year as a whole, and to see if the farm’s 1 breeding pair followed the general trend. I also look forward to now getting more involved in monitoring Barn Owls in Dorset, spreading word of the work Conservation Action are doing, and the potential of ringing more of my own Barn Owls next year!

On the farm we now aim to continue working with Barn Owls and other wildlife in mind, and to monitor the success of new projects, including putting up nest boxes for Kestrels, Tawny Owls and Little Owls. In many ways the future looks bright to me!

Spring 2020: How It Happened

Walking through the trees, in dappled early morning sunlight, through swathes of brilliant blue. Standing rooted to the spot, hearing the first Chiffchaff, Swallow, Cuckoo. Sitting in breezy sunshine, learning to identify Hawkbits, Vetches and Viper’s-Bugloss. These are just some of the highlights of my spring this year, wild and full of life. With each new day, there was a new wild highlight to be had.

13_05_20_Farm_Sunrise_Hangings_Gate

Following on from my post last week about my favourite photos from this spring (check out Spring 2020: In Photos), I wanted to continue celebrating the lifeline that has been spring and the natural world for me during lockdown. This week I am looking at how spring unfolded this year in my local area and how it looked now the summer is hitting our shores.

Since 2015 I have been writing down a lot of my observations about spring each year. This means I can now look at spring 2020 in light of how the last few years have actually looked and see if anything interesting comes up. Last year I did this in more detail, so for that check out my post called: How Spring Happened 2017-2019.

22_06_19_Farm_Chalk_Mound_Oxeye_Daisies_6

So, did a favourite of my mum’s, the Chiffchaff, return by Mother’s Day this year? Did the Oak burst into leaf before the Ash (and so are we in for a splash)? And did the song of the Cuckoo return to my family’s land for another year? As spring now slips into summer, it is time for me to reflect on an extra special spring.

Trees

One of the very first trees to start showing signs of life each spring at my home in Dorset, is the Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). This year the first buds burst on the 18th of February, which shows a gradual shift forwards over the last few years, being 6 days earlier than last year, and a month earlier than 2018. The first leaf then unfurled on the 10th of March (9 days later than 2019), followed by the first flowers on the 2nd of April (13 days earlier than 2019).

Due to a cold start to spring and a very wet winter, which left the ground cold and waterlogged, Pedunculate (English) Oaks (Quercus robur) were late to make a start, with the first budburst seen on the 2nd of April, 37 days later than 2019. They got going quickly though, with leaves bursting forth by the 8th of April (4 days earlier than 2019) and flowers blooming by the 12th of April (13 days earlier than 2019).

Despite the ground, the trend this year was towards earlier budburst, first leaves and first flowers. Silver Birch (Betula pendula) buds burst on the 15th March, 15 days earlier than 2019; Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) flowered on the 2nd of April, 18 days earlier than 2019; Field Maple (Acer campestre) buds burst on the 5th of April, 13 days earlier than 2019. Grey Willow (Salix cinerea) bucked the trend though, first flowering on the 24th of February, later than last year by 10 days.

This year I added Alder (Alnus glutinosa), Beech (Fagus sylvatica), Lime (Tilia x europaea), Wild Cherry (Prunus avium), and Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) to my spring records, but I did not make observations for Sycamore as in previous years. Lime buds burst on the 14th of March, followed by the first leaf on the 3rd of April; Wild Cherry buds burst on the 15th of March, followed by the first leaf 1 month later and first flower 15 days after that; Norway Maple first flowered on the 21st of March; Alder buds burst on the 6th of April; and Beech buds burst on the 10th of April.

Shrubs

Hazel (Corylus avellana) is one species that flowers early in the year, providing a first hint of colour in a wintry landscape. This year I first saw the male catkins on the 8th of January, followed by the female red flowers on the 1st of February (5 days later than 2019). The first hazel leaf then unfurled 43 days later on the 14th of March.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is another species that flowers before it produces its leaves, cloaking hedgerows in drifts of snowy white and accompanying a ‘blackthorn winter’ in early spring. This year the first flowers burst open on the 6th of March, 5 days later than last year, but 24 days earlier than 2018.

After the early flowering species have brought colour to our countryside, Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is one of the first shrubs to burst into leaf in the hedgerows. This year its buds first burst on the 2nd of March, 5 days later than 2019, followed by the first leaf unfurling 10 days after (28 days earlier than 2019). Their flowers then followed a month after, on the 18th of April, 10 days earlier than 2019.

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A similar trend was shown with Lilac (Syringa vulgaris), where budburst took place on the 8th of March, 13 days later than 2019. The first leaf then unfurled 3 days later too, on the 25th of March, and the first flowers bloomed on the 15th of April, 7 days earlier than 2019.

The flowers of Elder (Sambucus nigra) are well known and iconic in our countryside, popular for making elderflower cordial. This year Elder flowered early, with the first flowers being seen at home on the 25th of April (22 days earlier than 2019). Just like Elder, the Dog Rose (Rosa canina) is another late bloomer, which opened its petals for the first time on the 17th of May this year (11 days earlier than last year).

Flowers 

The very first flowers to be seen blooming in the countryside is the dainty snow white Snowdrop (Galanthus spp.). Over the last few years the drooping heads of snowdrops have been flowering earlier each year. This year though, it appeared only 1 day earlier than 2019, welcoming in the year on the 3rd of January.

Snowdrops were soon followed by other iconic spring species, in the form of the first Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna) on the 18th of January (44 days earlier than 2019), the first Primrose (Primula vulgaris) on the 27th of January (8 days earlier than 2019), and the first Daffodils (Narcissus spp.); on the 2nd of February (the same day as last year!).

As spring went on, the Snowdrops and sunshine yellows were joined by Wood Anemones (Anemone nemorosa) on the 22nd of March, Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) on the 28th of March, Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum) on the 6th of April, Cuckooflowers (Cardamine pratensis) on the 18th of April, and Oxeye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) on the 18th of May, all occurring 6-17 days earlier than last year.

This year I also included three new flowering species to my spring records: Cowslips (Primula veris), Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea), and Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula). I saw the first Cowslip flower on the 20th of March, the first Greater Stitchwort on the 28th of March, and the first Early Purple Orchid on the 6th of April.

Grasses

This year I was so busy in May and the first half of June that I completely overlooked the flowering of 3 common perennial grass species in my local area: Cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata), Timothy (Phleum pratense), and Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus). I did though catch Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis) flowering, which first occurred on the 22nd of April (23 days earlier than 2019).

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Birds

With the start of every new year, I begin to keep my eye out for the start of the Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) nesting in the bare and skeletal forms of large oak trees near my home. This year they kept me waiting awhile though, with the first signs of nest building appearing on the 15th of February, 17 days later than 2019.

Unlike the start of the Rooks nesting though, the start of male Song Thrushes (Turdus philomelos) singing crept even earlier than last spring. This was 13 days earlier in fact, with me hearing my first on the 15th of December in 2019! This was not reflected by Blackbirds (Turdus merula) though, as I heard my first male singing on the 23rd of February, 17 days later than 2019.

One of my favourite first signs that spring has begun has to be the return of the Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita). This year they returned to my home in Dorset on the 1st of March, 17 days earlier than 2019.

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The glorious return of the Chiffchaffs were then eagerly followed by the first Swallow (Hirundo rustica) on the 5th of April (1 day later than 2019), the first House Martin (Delichon urbicum) on the 12th of April (12 days earlier than 2019), the first Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) on the 22nd of April (11 days later than 2018), and the first Swift (Apus apus) on the 6th of May (19 days earlier than 2018). A Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) did make its exciting return to my family’s land too, which I heard for the first time on the 28th of April (24 days earlier than last year).

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Insects 

This year the majority of the insects I observed, emerged later than they did last year in 2019. I saw my first Brimstone Butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni) on the 24th of March, my first Peacock Butterfly (Aglais io) on the 4th of April, my first Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly (Aglais urticae) on the 5th of April, my first Orange-Tip Butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) on the 13th of April, my first Red-Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) on the 1st of May, and my first queen Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) on the 7th of May, with all ranging anywhere between 4 and 37 days later in date than last year.

The ones that did not follow this pattern though, were the Speckled Wood Butterfly (Pararge aegeria) first seen on the same day as last year on the 22nd of April, and the Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) that was first seen 29 days earlier on the 22nd of April. This year I also added Buff-Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) to my observations, seeing the first at home on the 13th of March.

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This Year

This year it has definitely been an interesting and joyful experience to watch how spring unfolded. It started with early signs during the winter, before arriving with a blaze of glory in March.

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This last winter was a warm, wet and windy one, which left the ground cold and waterlogged for quite a while into spring. A number of species such as Oak trees struggled with this, but for many it did not stop them from emerging on time or earlier, such as snowdrops and field maples. This variation continued with bird species, some arriving and beginning breeding earlier and some later. For a lot of the insect species though, they emerged late, which will have had a lot to do with the less than ideal weather conditions this spring, for example frosts in April. Thus, how spring is changing year-to-year definitely has a lot to do with changing weather conditions.

So as spring fades to summer heat, I can now say that the Chiffchaff made its return to the British Isles by Mother’s Day, the Oak burst into leaf before the Ash (and so we are in for a splash!), and a Cuckoo made its return to my home. It has definitely been a great spring this year!

Barn Owls in the depths of Dorset

Floating above the ground on silent wings. A white ghost standing out against the murky dark of dusk. Swooping to a stop on a standing post. Watching, waiting, listening for a rustle in the grass, before moving on. The reticent guardian of twilight. – Original piece

A graceful and beautiful bird, the barn owl is one species that captures the hearts and the imaginations of people across Britain. Over the last century, barn owls have been on a rocky journey, showing a decline in numbers in line with agricultural improvement, before reaching stabilisation during the more recent decades. Though they are showing signs of adapting to our changing landscape, this iconic species still needs our help and protection.

The start of my very own relationship with barn owls began with the creation of this Wild World blog. During summer 2015, my earliest posts trace my first up close and personal experiences with barn owls, which at the time were breeding on my family’s land in Dorset. The two owls that feature in these posts met with tragedy though; a failed breeding attempt and mysterious disappearance. Despite a not quite expected outcome, summer 2015 was just the start of an ever growing love affair for my family and these majestic birds.

With my dad incorporating wildlife into his land management plans over the last decade, his work has now culminated in 2019 being the best year yet for barn owls on our land. We had not one, but two successful breeding pairs this year, with both fledging two chicks each, at about 2 weeks apart. One pair nested in our own barn owl box, whilst the other made their home in a hollow of a tree at the heart of our land.

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Excitingly, these breeding attempts also coincided with the Dorset County Council’s Barn Owl project. As a result fully licensed ringers approached us with the request of checking any barn owl nests on our land, which led to all four chicks produced this year being ringed. They can now importantly be a part of the conservation efforts for monitoring this species in the wild.

Barn Owl Chick

Owl chick from tree roost

Reflecting on this year with this incredible species, it is exciting to be able to now see how successful they have been in our area during 2019, gradually increasing in number. It is interesting to think now that maybe one day one of the ringed chicks could go on to nest on our land or in our area in the future, or even venture further afield. Here’s to the hope that our barn owl population will continue to thrive and be even more successful next year, and give us more heartstopping experiences! What will another 4 years bring?

Spring at RSPB Radipole Lake and RSPB Lodmoor

When asking people what they like to do most during spring, answers range from watching Springwatch and doing wildlife gardening to listening to the dawn chorus and taking in wildflowers in our local green spaces. Though I do like doing all these things too, one of my favourite things to do during the spring season is to visit two of my favourite nature reserves in search of some of my top bird species.

Radipole lake nesting mallards

By getting out to local reserves, we are supporting the work of organisations such as the RSPB, immersing ourselves in the wildlife that call these reserves their home, and improving our own health and wellbeing at the same time. Take a look at my recent adventure and see if you may be inspired to visit one of your local nature reserves as spring rolls into summer!

Saturday 11th May 2019

I was first introduced to Dorset’s RSPB Radipole Lake and Lodmoor 5 years ago by my Granddad whilst on a birdwatching trip, and since I have visited many times and have even completed an internship at the reserves with the RSPB. This means I am well acquainted with Radipole and Lodmoor (2 of the 5 RSPB nature reserves found in Dorset) and they hold a special place in my heart.

For those of you who will not have heard of these nature reserves before, I will just start with a few facts about the two:

Radipole Lake

  • 21.3 miles from my homeRadipole lake urban swan
  • 83-hectares in area
  • Designated SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest)
  • Managed by the RSPB since 1976
  • Habitats: wetland, hedgerow, scrub, reedbeds, saline lagoons
  • Star species: kingfisher, marsh harrier, bearded tit, Cetti’s warbler

Lodmoor

  • 21.5 miles from my homeLodmoor reedbed
  • 76-hectares in area
  • Designated SSSI
  • 1.5 miles east of Radipole
  • Connected to the sea under a sea wall at the southern end
  • Habitats: freshwater reedbed, scrub, saline marsh
  • Star species: marsh harrier, bearded tit, Cetti’s warbler, common tern

What makes these two reserves extra special for me though, can be split into two parts. Firstly, they are both situated in less conventional locations than many other nature reserves, being found at the centre of the busy seaside town of Weymouth. Thus, when you step into these reserves and surround yourself with the reeds and wildlife, you would not believe that you are situated within the heart of an urban area. In this way, they are both oases for a range of wildlife and for the naturalists that visit them.

Secondly, they are both year-round homes for one of my favourite species of bird of prey, the majestic marsh harrier. I did not know that they could be found on my doorstep until my first visit to the reserves, so their discovery for me a few years back brought with it lots of excitement. Consequently, it is one of the greatest draws for me when visiting these reserves at any time of the year.

Discovery centre marsh harrier mural

So, on a sunny day in May this spring, I headed to the reserves alongside my birdwatching partner in crime, my mum, to hunt down marsh harriers during their breeding season, whilst taking in other species and a range of habitats.

Adventure with my mum

 

RSPB Radipole Lake Nature Reserve

Discovery centre radipole lake map

Most trips to the reserves start in the public car park outside the RSPB’s Weymouth Discovery Centre and next to the bridge into Radipole Lake Reserve. This setting feels a lot more like an urban area than a home to wildlife.

Radipole lake pigeons

Once you cross the wooden bridge from the car park into the reserve though, you are suddenly transported into a world of water, reeds, sky and trees. You are also hit by a cacophony of bird sounds ranging from species commonly heard in our gardens to water birds and warbler species, such as the sound of the noisy and distinct Cetti’s warbler. If it was not for the houses that can be seen above the reeds in the distance though, you could probably forget the reserve’s urban setting all together!

Radipole lake reeds

When my mum and I crossed the bridge we also found ourselves on a hard surface trail that gives easy access around the reserve. Starting at the discovery centre, we then followed it round the main circular discovery walk, stopping to spot birds in the trees along the sides of the trail, to identify plant species, and to look out across the reeds and open water from the main viewing platforms and spots around the reserve. In this way, we were able to pretty quickly rack up our species list and to get some great views of wildlife.

Radipole lake long-tailed tit
Radipole lake female mallard

Radipole lake dunnock

My highlight of the trip to Radipole though, unsurprisingly included my star species, the marsh harrier. This began earlier on in our walk around the reserve, when my mum and I first caught a tantalising view of a male marsh harrier flying above the reeds, hunting in the distance. This made us then even more motivated to try and get a closer view of marsh harriers on this day, by heading off the main discovery trail and on to the north trail, to visit one of the best spots to watch these birds. Sat at a viewing screen in the sunshine, hot drinks and biscuits in hand, our luck paid off and we had the pleasure of enjoying one of our best ever hours watching marsh harriers at the reserve.

Following a short wait, the hour started with my mum spotting our earlier male marsh harrier hunting above the reeds, though still a good distance away from where we sat. We watched him through binoculars for a little while, before he disappeared from our view.

This sighting from the viewing screen was not our last though. After a longer wait, our viewing experience was suddenly taken up a notch. The same male that we had been watching previously suddenly popped up within 15 metres of the viewing screen, giving us amazing views of him. He then gave us a real show hunting and flying backwards and forwards in front of us before flying higher and higher till he was directly above our heads. This allowed us to really experience this bird in action and gave me the opportunity to at least try and photograph him in his natural habitat. We only made our own departure from the reserve once the male had finally moved off once again.

Radipole lake marsh harrier

Radipole lake marsh harrier 2

Radipole lake marsh harrier 3

From our couple of delightful hours on this reserve, we counted 30+ bird species, with our top 6 being:

  1. Cetti’s warbler
  2.  Swift (first swifts of the year)Radipole lake swifts
  3. Great-crested grebe
    Radipole lake great-crested grebe
  4. Marsh harrier 
  5. Little grebe
  6. Sedge warbler

Other photos:

Radipole lake coot

Radipole lake mute swan

 

RSPB Lodmoor Nature Reserve 

Lodmoor map

On this day in spring, following a stop for lunch sat on the seafront in the glorious sunshine, my mum and I chose to park at Weymouth’s public Overcombe car park on the eastern side of Lodmoor nature reserve. From here we planned to walk a clockwise loop around the reserve’s main trail and see what species we could see that call the reserve their home.

Lodmoor reed trail

In this way we first walked along the main road that borders the southern side of the reserve and splits Lodmoor from the seafront, stopping at breaks in the reeds and hedges to see what birds we could see on the marsh area. On one of these stops, we finally got to take in one of Lodmoor’s star species, breeding common terns. At the reserve, islands in the lagoons/marsh are managed each year to provide areas for the terns to breed safely away from many predator species. In sight of these islands, we got some really fantastic views of the terns hunting over the water.

Lodmoor commen tern nesting islands

Lodmoor Common tern 2

Though most of the best areas for birdwatching are situated along the side of the main road and near the tern nesting islands, my mum and I of course continued our walk on the main trail around the reserve, taking in as many species as we could. Unfortunately, this year we did not catch any sightings of the marsh harriers that can be found breeding at this site, but the reserve still did not disappoint us. In particular, we spotted 24+ bird species, with our top 6 sightings being:

  1. Oystercatcher Lodmoor oystercatcher and shelducks
  2. Shelduck Lodmoor shelduck
  3. Bar-tailed godwit
  4. Black-tailed godwit
  5. Common ternLodmoor Common ternLodmoor Common tern 3
  6. Gadwall

Other photos:

Lodmoor canada geese

Summary

My trip to the reserves may not be everyone’s cup of tea for a day out, but I had a thoroughly enjoyable day in the sunshine, spending time with my mum and being completely distracted from work and day-to-day life. I also got to take in some incredible flora and fauna, as well as a tranquil and vivid environment.

So how was my hunt for the marsh harriers? Though I did not get the pleasure of seeing marsh harriers at both reserves, watching the male at Radipole Lake for a long period of time felt like a real success. They are a striking species that I can easily pick out from others, and with birds of prey being my favourites, it is easy to see why I enjoy watching them so much.

The highlight of my trip obviously was the marsh harriers, but also was being able to spend the day doing something I love with one of my favourite people. We all should take a little time out of our busy lives to do things we enjoy and that uplift us, allowing us to take care of ourselves in the right way. Anything to do with enjoying spring outdoors does this for me and allows me to de-stress.

As I come to the end of this blog post, with the end of my trip, I do hope that I may have inspired you to take a trip to your local nature reserve, even if it is just to take a walk, see something new, have an adventure or appreciate your local plants and animals. Nature reserves are a free and easy form of entertainment for all, so why don’t you escape to one today?

Radipole Lake Canada Goose

Winter into spring: April on the farm

April is one of my favourite months of the year on the farm. During April, the Dorset countryside begins to burst into new life. Newborn lambs bounce in the fields, newborn calves snooze in the fields in the spring sunshine, birds begin to nest and raise a new generation, and flowers carpet the woodlands.

Plants this April still followed a trend of being late, with some woodlands not becoming decked out in their full splendour during this month like in past years. Still Bluebells, wild garlic, early purple orchids and late wood anemones began to coat the woodland floor. Also, the woodland ferns began to unfurl in the woods later than usual.

During this April, trees were very much still late, with sycamore and silver birch finally bursting into leaf. Oaks were noticeably asynchronous in their bud burst, with some trees on there way to being in full leaf and others yet to start.

April saw the main crop of migrants arriving on warm winds. This year our barn swallows returned on April 6th, exactly the same date as in 2015! By the time we were fully into April, bird breeding pairs had been firmly established, and the nesting season for many bird species was fully under way. During April, more birds can be heard singing at dawn than any other time of year, which is quite magical to hear.

This year the tawny owls are breeding later than last year, but by the end of April the first hissing calls of tawny owl fledglings could be heard resonating through Dorset woodlands.

Life could be seen blooming everywhere throughout April. Dog violets and cowslips, among other species, were seen flowering along roadside banks.

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27/04/16

Brimstone butterflies, orange tip butterflies, and peacock butterflies all began to emerge during the first half of April.

Throughout April, I made myself busy amongst the mounds university revision, by setting up my camera trap at different popular sites around our farmland. It was amazing to see the first badger cubs emerge from their den, and even more special to me, was being able to watch fox cubs beginning to explore above ground with their siblings, during the second half of the month. Fox cubs have to be my highlight of beautiful April!

 

Winter into spring: March on the farm

With the month of March comes the arrival of spring, symbolising the start of another year’s new growth and a transition following the bleaker winter months. March has often been associated with the saying ‘comes in like a lion, goes out like a lion’, referring to the weather. This was true about this March, with wild weather and strong winds featuring at the beginning of March, before the weather becoming more calm as the month progressed.

As traditional, during March, wildfowl made a sudden departure, fox cubs were born, buzzards established breeding orders, hawthorn and elder broke into leaf, small tortoiseshells emerged, nest building began, small warblers such as chiffchaffs returned from Africa, crocuses flowered, summer visitors began to return, and winter migrants began to migrate to their summer territories.

Though primroses, daffodils, celandines and blackthorn first flowered during February, it was nice to see all these flowers still blooming throughout March. Song birds during March could be heard singing, and the first woodland flowers began to come out at the end of March. The traditional ‘Mad’ March hares also made an appearance, with females resisting the advances of amorous males.

The beginning of Spring is symbolised by lengthening days and increasing temperatures. At the end of March, with the clocks going forward an hour, lengthening days were fulfilled, but this year the increasing temperatures did not make an appearance during March. After the stormier weather at the beginning of March, a cold spell set in, halting the advancement of Spring. This was symbolised with sycamore and silver birch being late coming into leaf, wood anemones and ferns being late to come out in the woods, and Blackbirds nesting late.

On the farm, new lives began during March. Aberdeen Angus suckler cows gave birth to their calves and three of our four mules gave birth to lambs, highlighting one of my favourite parts of the farming calendar.

My highlight of March was beginning to use my new Bushnell camera trap to photograph and video the wildlife on the farm, including the local badgers.