Just over a week ago I was lucky enough to go out with the Brandon birdringers to see the barn owl chicks being ringed at Brandon Marsh. For anyone who doesn’t know, bird ringing involves attaching a small metal ring to a bird’s leg, which has a unique code on – therefore allowing the bird to be traced when it appears in new places. This means that we can better understand different species’ movements across the country or across the globe and also monitor their survival. It was my second ringing experience – the first I wrote an article about in the members’ magazine last autumn – but for me this was even more special. I’ve had some contact with owls and birds of prey before in a falconry context, which has fostered a real interest in all things taloned and fairly vicious. So the prospect of seeing chicks in the wild was too good to miss.
As I arrived the day got even better; I was told by Jim, who was leading the session, that we were going to ring the kestrel chicks as well. This was rapidly turning into a true bucket list experience, which was probably why there was a crowd of around 12 people also with us, including some fellow birdringers who were helping Jim out. We set off down to the Newlands Reedbed and directed our steps towards the kestrel nest box. We set up camp fifty metres away while Jim and a few helpers continued on to the tree and set the ladder up. They returned with a staggering 6 kestrel chicks – no one had anticipated so many, especially as after 2012/2013’s winter there were none at all. At between 3 and 4 weeks old, the chicks have certainly already learned to be feisty; there was a good deal of noisy protesting and a fair few talons whipped out too. Then came the words “would anyone like to hold a kestrel?” – a rhetorical question only I assume as about 6 people piped up at once. Soon I got the chance to hold a small, downy, staggeringly warm ball of beaks and claws.
The barn owl chicks by comparison were incredibly relaxed, and a lot smellier! They pretty much just fell asleep in your hands and let the ringers carry on with what they were doing. Again, there were 6 chicks, and for 6 to have survived until 5/6 weeks old is undeniably a fantastic result. Because the female incubates from the first egg, each chick was at a different stage of development: some still looked like they’d just popped out of a tumble dryer, while others had a fair few feathers already in place. If anything the downy ones were even softer than the kestrels – it’s hard to explain but the down was so off the scale of softness that it was almost like there was nothing there at all. Perhaps I shouldn’t be describing such awesome hunters as cute, but these guys were CUTE and so docile that they were lovely to handle.
Within a short time, all the chicks were safely back in their nests, ready for mum and dad to appear with more food. As we were leaving we spotted a vole wandering the reedbed in broad daylight. With 12 hungry chicks only a few metres away, perhaps the rodents of Newlands should be a little more careful!
To get to handle one, let alone both of these species in the wild was something I never thought I’d get to do, so my thanks go to Jim for inviting me. It was a fantastic experience and one I’d love to repeat.