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28 May 2012

The haunted castle

An ancient, ruined castle in the middle of the night can be an eerie place to be, and not somewhere to venture if you are easily spooked. In the early hours of yesterday morning, a variety of screeches, chuckles, snores and faint wingbeats emanating from this castle would have tested the mettle of even the bravest.

Have a listen to the audio, recorded last night from within the castle…

Sounds in the castle, 2am., 27th May (M.O'Clery).

Don't run screaming from the castle just yet… these are Barn Owl noises… After a period of quiet 'snoring' from the nest by the female, the male arrived. Snoring in Barn Owls is an enticement to feed and is made by the female and/or young. Squeaks and purring noises were heard as the male delivered a prey item to her and they mated and, after a while (which is where we join them on the audio clip), she resumed her snoring, encouraging the male to leave to hunt for more food. He gave a full-blooded, territorial screech, and headed off once more into the night, while the  female resumed the quiet snoring noises again. 

The only visual clue was a faint silhouette of the male arriving at and leaving the nest area, but from the sounds it is possible to interpret their behavior and deduce that the female is still on eggs. Far from being the wailing of lost souls, the sounds emanating from the castle last night gave us a great insight into the breeding status of this pair of Barn Owls.

The late, late show

While some Long-eared Owl nests are already full of young and very loud chicks, until they reach that stage, Long-eared Owl nests are one of the hardest to detect. This one in Duhallow, near Rathmore, was watched as dusk fell on Saturday evening last. Even though the nest was known to be there from the earlier playback survey (see post HERE), nothing was apparently happening as darkness approached and the nest seemed silent and empty. However, well after sunset, with the local Blackbirds calling in alarm, a male Long-eared Owl arrived and flew to the nest, prompting the female (who must have been on the nest all along) to start a quiet call to urge the male to get her some food. She kept this calling up for about seven minutes before the nest fell silent once again. It seems she is most likely still on eggs, as no sounds from chicks were heard.

The male arrives at the nest, and the female starts to gently call (M.O'Clery).

In the video, watch for the male arriving from the top right. The local Blackbird's alarm calls are prominent throughout, but listen then for the female's soft calls – a little like the call of a Collared Dove. The call of the males hoot early in spring, and the persistent call of the young  can carry for half a kilometre or more, but this quiet begging call from the female could only be heard for 50 metres or so. If we hadn't already known the nest was there, this might well have gone unnoticed.

26 May 2012

Kestrel ringing

On Wednesday last (23rd May), John Lusby, Raptor Officer with BirdWatch Ireland, ringed four Kestrel chicks at a site in Co. Kerry. The nest was an old Magpie's nest, about 25 metres (75 feet) up a mature Sitka Spruce. John tackled the climb with safety harness, ropes and ladder. There were four chicks in all, and two eggs (which were probably infertile). John weighed and measured the chicks before returning them safely to the nest. They were around 20 days old.

Video of the ringing of one of the chicks (M.O'Clery)

Kestrel chicks are much more feisty than Barn Owl chicks, and can make a bit of a racket while being ringed, so the aggressive instincts of this tiny predator are apparent even at this young age. John noted the ring number, weight, wing length and brood size.

Female Kestrel circling the nest site (M.O'Clery).

While the young were being ringed, the female circled, but once the chicks were carefully placed back in the nest they quickly returned to their normal routine.

25 May 2012

Things that go squeak in the night

While some Long-eared Owl chicks are already well-developed, and their loud hunger calls are now being heard at many sites, it has become apparent that not all nests are hatching at the same time and some are only doing so now. This recording from a site near Newmarket last night is of a very young chick, possibly only a few days old, and the difference in volume and tone between this and the older chicks in an earlier post (HERE) is striking. While the calls from the older chicks carry for several hundred metres, this youngster's calls carried only about 80 metres and was very faint at only 60 metres or so..

Audio of a very young Long-eared Owl chick, Duhallow, 2 a.m., 25th May 2012 (M.O'Clery)

A nest full of older Long-eared Owl chicks is relatively easy to find, but a nest of young such as this would be far harder to detect, not only because of the quieter calls, but also because they don't call as persistently. This recording was made after nearly 20 minutes of silence from the nest, and the chick only started calling after an adult arrived at the nest, presumably with some food.

22 May 2012

Long-eared Owl chicks

Since the first Long-eared Owl chicks were heard near Newmarket last week (see post below), chicks have been heard at a number of other sites, and many have been loud and obvious as they start their 'squeaky-hinge' calls after dusk. Long-eared Owl chicks are surprisingly mobile at an early age, and can scramble around the branches of their nesting tree at only a couple of weeks old. This, of course, makes catching them for ringing and measuring particularly tricky. However, John Lusby and Aonghus O'Donaill did manage to catch some yesterday...

John, with a Long-eared Owl chick, one of a brood of three (Photo: Aonghus O'Donaill).

Long-eared Owl chick (Photo: John Lusby).

The adult Long-eared Owls stay close to the nest at this stage. Careful searching close to the nest can sometimes reveal one or both parents, well camouflaged against the trunk and foliage.

An adult Long-eared Owl watches proceedings from an adjacent tree (Photo: John Lusby).

 All visits to Long-eared Owl nests and ringing of chicks is done under licence from the National Parks & Wildlife Service.

21 May 2012

Talk on Kerry Barn Owls, on May 23rd

John Lusby will give a talk on 'Kerry's Barn Owl Survey' at 7pm on Wednesday 23rd May. It will take place at the new Tralee Bay Wetlands Centre, in Tralee. John is the Raptor Conservation Officer of BirdWatch Ireland, and has been researching Barn Owls for many years. The event is free and open to all.

19 May 2012

Best things come in trees

Another Long-eared Owl nest was located during the Duhallow Raptor Project (see post below), and already patterns about nest site selection are emerging. Like the other two so far discovered, the nest is in a spruce, is very high up (20 m, 60 ft), in what is probably an old Hooded Crow's nest, and is near to the edge of a woodland rather than deep within it. 

The Long-eared Owl nest, in a pine tree within a Birch woodland (M.O'Clery).

Unlike the other two nests however, where very few pellets and droppings were to be found underneath, there were more visible signs under this one, perhaps because the two young and active chicks are less cautious about such matters than their parents.

Pellets and 'whitewash' underneath the nest (M.O'Clery). 

Pellets are regurgitated several times a day and contain the indigestible bones, hair and feathers of their prey, and these remains, by careful dissection and identification, can allow us to assess what the owls have been eating.

18 May 2012

Barn Owl mystery site

Below, a photograph of a small cliff within a woodland in Duhallow, with an obvious area of 'whitewash' (the chalk-like liquid droppings, distinctive to raptors). 

The obvious 'whitewash' of a raptor. But which one, and why there? (M.O'Clery)

Discovered during the Duhallow Raptor Project, on first glance it seemed like a good spot for a roost, most likely for a Kestrel, but as it was approached, a Barn Owl flew out. A watch at dusk later that day from a discreet distance revealed little - no sights or sounds of Barn Owls, which poses the following questions…

1) Was that an unpaired owl roosting? Not all Barn Owls will breed in their first year of life, and some don't immediately 'pair up' if they can't find a mate. 

2) Was it a male who is now roosting away from a nearby active nest? Males roost away from the nest once the eggs are laid, returning each evening to feed the female and chicks.

3) At this time of year, when breeding should be well under way, and with no activity around the site at dusk, it seems likely it is only a roost. Might there be a large enough cavity or chamber tucked in under the tree roots that might prove to be a future nest? We'll have to get the ladders out to answer that one.

17 May 2012

The first Long-eared Owl chicks

A male Long-eared Owl had responded to the tape playback Survey in late March in a patch of mixed woodland near Newmarket, so a follow-up search of the area was made at dusk on Tuesday last. Despite watching and listening for an hour there was no sign of the owls. However, searching further into the woodland, the distinctive calls of two Long-eared Owl chicks were heard from a different area of woodland – the first of the year, and probably around two weeks old. Have a listen. 

This is a movie file taken inside the forest at night, so there is no image, though the sound can be clearly heard (M.O'Clery).

These repetitive and distinctive calls are the young begging for food. While the calls were somewhat muffled by the surrounding trees, they still carried for around 120 - 140 m, but as they are not yet fully grown, they will get bigger and noisier. The sound of full-grown chicks can be heard at least half a kilometre away or more on occasions.

The nest itself was located, and will be examined further in daylight. More on that soon...

16 May 2012

A careful approach

Many birds are extra cautious around their nest site, but the pair of Duhallow Kestrels in this cliff site have excelled in their careful approach. It took five hours of careful watching before the Kestrels revealed their nest site, a rocky ledge, partially covered with overhanging vegetation. Each time one of the adults would arrive at the site, they would perch well away from the nest and carefully look around. If not entirely happy, they would leave, and only after being totally confident would they then fly to the nest.

The male Kestrel (circled) looks out from the nest. He had just fed the female a Bank Vole, which she took some distance from the nest to eat, before returning. She is now once again on the nest, and he is about to leave to hunt.

The nest (circled), partially hidden by vegetation (Photo: Michael O'Clery).

We hope to ring the nestlings at this site in the next few weeks.

13 May 2012

First Kestrel chicks of the Year!

The busiest time of year in terms of Kestrel monitoring is just around the corner, and we'll have our work cut out locating and visiting nests throughout Duhallow in the coming weeks. This morning John Lusby was checking nest sites in Connemara, where himself and NPWS Rangers Aonghus O'Donaill and Dermot Breen have spent a lot of time searching for nests and learning about the local population. The clip below shows John visiting a tree nest in Connemara. Aonghus O'Donaill pinned down this territory last summer and together John and himself ringed three well developed and fiesty young on the 24th April - the earliest brood of the year. It seems the pair is following the same pattern again this year, with five chicks from six eggs already hatched. Normally John would use specialised tree cimbing and safety equipment to access nests, but as tree nests go this one's a doddle, and can be safely climbed without ropes.

Kestrel chicks, 11th May 2012 (Video: John Lusby, under licence, NPWS).

Six eggs is a great clutch for Kestrels, hopefully we will have similar findings when we visit the nests in Duhallow soon. We'll upload some footage of the first Duhallow born chicks as soon as they hatch.

12 May 2012

Second Barn Owl tree nest found

A second Barn Owl tree nest has been located during the Duhallow Raptor Project. We had thought finding one (see post below) was terrific, but to find a second, only two kilometres from the first is quite extraordinary.

Had it not been for the owners of the property telling us of their owls, it might have gone unnoticed... below the tree there were only droppings and feathers of crows, which normally would suggest that the tree cavity might well be home to Jackdaws rather than owls. However, a single small white feather caught on the lip of the hole raised enough suspicion that there might be more to this tree. Also, the owners had seen Barn Owls flying around that part of their property as recently as two days previously.

The nest (circled) in a mature Sycamore tree (Photo: M.O'Clery).

There was a large cavity above the smaller, circular hole, though the Barn Owls only used the smaller opening. A single small white feather was the only physical clue to their presence (Photo: M.O'Clery).

We settled in for a dusk watch, and sure enough, to our great excitement, a Barn Owl emerged, stretched her wings, and started calling to it's mate. The male arrived, there was some calling between them, and she then returned to the nest. The behaviour of the pair would suggest she is sitting on eggs, and we will be watching to see how they get on. The eggs will take up to 30 days to hatch, and the chicks should be audible from outside the nest a week or two after that.

8 May 2012

Living on the edge

Part of the survey work is to try and determine nest site selection by Long-eared Owls. The nests discovered so far in the Duhallow Survey have been at the very edge of woodland, rather than deep within the woodland itself. Many of the responses to taped calls in the early part of the Survey in March and early April were also from near woodland edge, or copses, rather than unbroken forest. 

The Long-eared Owl nest, circled, in a Spruce tree right at the very edge of a large tract of coniferous and deciduous woodland. The site is near Newmarket (Photo: M.O'Clery).

The Long-eared Owl nest, probably an old Hooded Crow's nest (Photo: M.O'Clery).

Do the owls deliberately seek out these nests on the woodland edge, or are there other factors at play when they decide on a particular nest? Hopefully we will find more nests soon which will help to shed some light on this question.

6 May 2012

Another day, another nest

Another Long-eared Owl nest has been found during the course of the Duhallow survey, at a site near Rathmore. A female and male had been heard here at an earlier stage of the survey in March, so was earmarked for closer scrutiny. The copse of trees pictured below was from where the female called most frequently so was examined closely, and although there were no signs of pellets or feathers below, there was a large stick nest high in one of the pines.

The Long-eared Owl nest (circled), about 15 metres (45 - 50 feet) high, in a Sitka Spruce.

The nest (circled) is a large clump of twigs, probably an old Hooded Crow's nest (Photos: M.O'Clery).

A dusk watch was going to be needed to confirm if it was indeed an active owl's nest. Sure enough, a few minutes after sunset, a female Long-eared Owl started calling. After a few minutes, she launched a ferocious aerial assault on a passing Hooded Crow, which fled in obvious alarm at the aggressive attack. She called a few more times from nearby trees, before returning to the nest, where she continued calling. Like the other nest near Newmarket (see post below), there was no sign of the male (though he'll almost certainly be nearby, or off hunting), and no sound of any chicks. It's likely that the females are still incubating eggs at both sites, so we are already getting a small but valuable insight into the timing of the breeding cycle.

5 May 2012

First Long-eared Owl nest of the Project is found

The first Long-eared Owl nest of the Duhallow Project was located on Thursday. Two female Long-eared Owls had responded to taped calls during the first element of the survey in March (see this post HERE), in a woodland area near Newmarket. However, when our surveyors returned to the area in daylight, they could find no sign of the nest, despite searching the patch of forest in minute detail for several hours (see the post below). Another visit, another fruitless search, but once the sun went down, a female started calling nearby from a large nest of twigs (they usually take over an old crows nest), about 10 metres (30 feet) high in a Sitka Spruce. Our surveyors had missed the nest by only a few feet. Although the female called regularly from the nest, there was no calls from any chicks. Most likely she is still sitting on eggs. We hope to examine this nest (under licence) in the near future, and will keep you posted.

Where are the Long-eared Owls?

An empty forest?

Not quite.

Upon first glance, this patch of conifer plantation looked like a dead-zone for birds and animals. Uniformly aged trees, about 25 years old, high canopy, dark, little undergrowth, a few ash trees struggling to reach the light in the dark columns of tree trunks. During the Long-eared Owl tape survey in March and April, two female Long-eareds had been heard calling from this area (near Newmarket), so while setting about forensically examining the forest floor for signs of Long-eared Owls last Wednesday, we found the following in just approximately 70m by 60m of forest floor: an old Badger Sett; a fresh Badger 'latrine' area; several fox droppings; including one by the remains of a dead Wood Pigeon; many Wood Pigeon feathers and droppings, including some from regular roost sites; the remains of a dead Woodcock; a pellet, possibly from a Sparrowhawk containing the bones of a thrush; a badgers skull; two large, white, goose eggshells (presumably a fox had carried them from a nearby farm); a single eggshell of a Wood Pigeon, and YES!… two pellets of Long-eared Owls. A quick examination showed them to contain the skull of a Bank Vole, though they were carefully bagged and will be examined in more detail later. The Long-eared Owls are there. We just have to find the nest now. Not such an empty forest after all when you know what signs to look for. More later…

4 May 2012

Unusual Barn Owl nest in Duhallow

The Beech tree, struck by lightning around 2005. The entire upper half is hollow, creating a large nest chamber for the Barn Owls (Photo: M.O'Clery).

There was an exciting development in the Duhallow Raptor Survey when a visitor to our website rang to tell us of Barn Owls in their garden, nesting in a mature Beech tree which had been struck by lightning several years ago. The Barn Owls, it seems, took up residence about four or five years ago, and have been present since. The owners reported seeing two young there last summer. A careful period of observation on Wednesday evening saw a male and female present, and their behavior and vocalisations would seem to indicate that the female is most likely either on eggs, or about to lay her eggs.

The main entrance to the nest, though the owls can also climb up through the trunk and exit at the side and top (Photo: M.O'Clery).

Of all Barn Owl nests discovered so far in Ireland, only about 5% are in trees, compared with up to 30% in parts of England. This is most likely due to the combination of our much wetter climate, but also due to a relative lack of mature trees and woodland in Ireland. Barn Owls need a large, dry cavity in which to nest, and in Ireland this is most often provided by the walls and chimneys of derelict buildings. To have a tree nest in the Duhallow area is remarkable but to have one in your garden is more remarkable still! There is for example, only one known tree nest in Kerry (not in a garden), and this is the first such example currently known in Co. Cork. We'll let you know how the owls get on...