Barn Owls galore! The past two summers have been bad news for Barn Owls. Contrary to popular belief they rely on hearing more than sight when hunting. For that reason they find it difficult to find prey during periods of heavy rain or strong winds. Remember the summer of 2012? Did it ever stop raining between April and June? And the late winter last year. Three months of constant north-easterly gales from February to April. Many Barn Owls starved to death and those that survived were often in no condition to breed. To add to their woes the population of Field Voles – the mainstay of their diet – had sunk to a four year low in their cycle of abundance. The Barn Owl Trust reckoned that the number of owls declined between 25% and – in a few places – almost 100% in the areas from which they receive reports and that nest-box occupancy was down 71%. At Blue House the experienced pair in the box in the farmyard managed to survive those wretched winds and eventually reared three owlets but the other two pairs on the farm did not even attempt to nest.
What a difference a year makes! The vole population is on the rise once more and last week a check of the boxes revealed five chicks in both those on the grazing marsh and six in the box in the barn. This is one of the former, a young female (note the black spots on the underside) almost ready to fledge, a few wisps of fluff on the crown being the only giveaway.
Dr Simon Cox, who ringed the owlets, reckons that 4-5 is the norm in boxes he has checked in north and east Essex this spring so, after two grim years, nature has addressed the balance back in the owls favour. Certainly, the one pictured here caught a vole within a few minutes of starting to hunt, even though it was the middle of the day. Daylight hunting can sometimes be a sign that food is scarce but in this instance there are probably not enough hours in the night to meet the demanding gapes of five hungry youngsters.
A desire to be first in the queue probably led to the undoing of one youngster in the box on the fleet, as it was found dead on the ground below. If they can find a perch nearby they will continue to be fed but once on the ground they tend to be ignored and, if not predated, eventually starve to death. Nick, the warden, has had to rescue such wayward owlets in the barn before now.