Meeting the Ghosts in the Garret
A visit to a nestbox to ring some Barn Owl chicks, accompanied by RSPB staff and volunteers – report by Roger Emmens, photos by Hanako Ward (aged 11).
Two years ago, Tawny Owls nested in one of the garret-shaped nestboxes at the side of the Scrape, and gave some fantastic views to visitors in the Draper Hide. We were able to show the owlets to some of the RSPB volunteers one evening when we went to ring the chicks – see our post A Close Encounter with Tawny Owls.
No owls in convenient nestboxes last year, but this year one of the garret boxes on the bank by the car park was occupied, this time by Barn Owls – sometimes known as Ghost Owls by country folk, since they drift in silent flight often around churchyards, a ghostly pale shape in evening twilight. Once again, we went to ring the owlets, and again we were accompanied by RSPB staff and volunteers.
Barn Owl chicks are delightful creatures. They are soft and fluffy, like cuddly toys, and are very passive when handled. You can lay one on its back on your lap to have both hands free to apply the ring – no need to be alert for struggles or attempts to escape, they just lie there and gaze at you with big soulful eyes. Sadly, there is a down side: thanks to a home life of squalor amid discarded and decaying animal parts around the nest, they can smell pretty bad.
Like the Tawny Owls, they exhibit the classical Owl attributes – the facial disc to focus sound for hunting in darkness, the soft fringes visible on the growing flight feathers to reduce the noise of wind over the wings, and the flexible and mobile neck to look around as their eyes are too large to move in their sockets. And of course the zygodactyl feet, with two toes forward and two backward, to better grip their prey in long grass.
They are also surprisingly small – despite appearing about the same size as a Woodpigeon, and having longer legs and longer wings, they weigh only two-thirds as much.
These two chicks looked to be in good condition. Like every owl brood, one was bigger than the other, thanks to being a couple of days older. In bad hunting years, the smaller one can be left to starve in order to have enough food for the larger chick, but this is clearly not a bad hunting year. And sure enough, the owls both fledged successfully. Let’s hope they make it through the winter, and that we see our pair nesting here again next summer.
Everyone thoroughly enjoyed seeing these splendid birds close up – it’s one reason why being a ringer is such a privilege!