The breeding season for birds is with us once again, and here at the Heart of England Forest we are proud to say that our efforts to encourage different species are paying dividends. In particular, birds of prey are thriving in the woodland, with a recent survey showing that among the success stories are increasing numbers of tawny owls, barn owls, kestrels and little owls.

Following on from a continuous campaign to introduce nesting boxes at a number of sites, from Dorsington and Honeybourne in the south to Spernall further north, the survey shows that numbers of breeding pairs for three of the four species have undergone a renaissance in 2016 after a relatively quiet previous year.

A bumper year

Over the past two years, barn owl numbers have increased from two breeding pairs to a fantastic 14 pairs, and 25 chicks have been ringed for monitoring purposes. Tawny owl numbers showed a rise, too, with seven breeding pairs spotted, a marginal increase on the previous year’s five. Perhaps the most remarkable success story has been that of the Forest’s kestrels; in 2015 our surveyors reported eight breeding pairs, but last year that figures had risen to 11 pairs, with an amazing 28 chicks being ringed.

While the nesting boxes offer a safe and comfortable home in which breeding birds can successfully rear their young and ensure a strong survival rate, the abundance of available food is doubtless a major contributory factor.

Owls and kestrels are fond of voles, mice and insects, and the grass that is allowed to grow unchecked throughout the Heart of England Forest’s young woodland is home to a multitude of tasty morsels for owls to hunt. Barn owls also hunt rabbits so they help us by keeping their numbers in check, too. Meanwhile tawny owls walk along the ground when they hunt, searching for earthworms, so the night time tranquillity of the Heart of England Forest will allow them added security to do this.

Keep an eye (and ear) on the sky

While it is rare to catch a glimpse of owls as their prey is most active at night, a sighting can add great excitement to a woodland walk. Keep your eyes peeled when you visit and you might spot the unmistakeable white face and mottled brown back and wings of a barn owl resting on a fencepost or swooping through the trees. Barn owls can be large (up to 330mm high with a wingspan of 900mm) while the tawny owl is considerably smaller, usually up to 220mm tall with a 560mm wingspan. The latter has mottled brown and white plumage all over. Contrary to popular belief, not all owls make a ‘too wit,too woo’ sounds – listen here to a barn owl’s mating call and here for the tawny owl.

Kestrels are sometimes confused with the much smaller and less common merlin, but if you spot a predominantly brown bird hovering over prey or atop a telegraph pole, scanning the ground in or around the Forest, it is most likely to be a kestrel. At breeding time they can be heard making a plaintive ‘kee kee kee’ sound – listen here. For more on our kestrels, check out https://www.heartofenglandforest.com/news/kestrel/.

Doing your bit….

We can’t guarantee you’ll attract many birds of prey, but at this time of year it’s important to do your bit for the birds in your garden. Why not string up some high energy fat balls in a high place away from prowling cats and dogs? One simple option is to mould the strained fat from the Sunday roast and tie it off in an old string orange bag, ensuring the holes are big enough for birds to peck through but small enough to keep the fat in! You’ll be amazed at the variety of birds that pop in for a handy snack!