Raptor ringing and monitoring in Wiltshire

Earlier this year I gave a talk at a workshop at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, which was run by Dr Emily Joachim. When I met Emily she told me a lot about the work she does which sounded very interesting! Emily has been monitoring nest boxes for eight years. She has recently been awarded her C license for raptors and owls and was trained by a man called Nigel who set up a raptor and owl nest box project in 1983, I speak more about his work later on. She has completed a PhD on little owl breeding ecology so she’s a real expert! She decided to focus on little owls because they are rapidly declining and she wanted to learn more about their ecology. Few people study little owls in the UK. Emily is fascinated by raptors and studies and monitors barn owls, little owls, kestrels and tawny owls. She has recently set up a UK Little Owl Project which works to celebrate the species and encourage people to record their sightings, you can see more about it here – http://www.littleowlproject.uk/

When I visited she also invited me to come out with her and some others, who are part of the team, later in the year to see what they do and get up to when spending the day ringing and monitoring raptors in the South Wiltshire area. Through the year they monitor and ring different birds at different times, altogether they check around 700 nests. First of all it’s the tawny owls in February, then kestrels in late March, little owls in late April then barn owls in May.  These are just the first checks. If they discover any signs of breeding they record the number of eggs then return later on in the year to ring the young, if the nest has been successful.  As I was visiting later on in the year, the day was all about ringing and monitoring barn owls however we did come across some late kestrels.

On Tuesday morning, we met with the man who runs the project, Nigel, before we all went out together to the first nesting site. Altogether there were four of us but Nigel is supported by a big team of dedicated volunteers. Major (Rtd) Nigel Lewis MBE initiated his raptor and owl nest box project in 1983. The project extends across south Wiltshire, south England. The project covers an area of 700km2. There are a total of 1100 nest boxes for barn owls, kestrels, little owls and tawny owls; 500 boxes are on the MOD land, Salisbury Plain Training Area.

During the breeding season the team spend 3-4 days a week monitoring nest sites. I joined them on one of these days which was a full day of hard work, not just a couple of hours! When we arrived at the first box we weren’t sure what to expect as it was a ‘lucky dip’ so hadn’t been checked this year. Quite surprisingly there were three kestrels in the box, this was unusual as it’s quite late for them. However they were in good condition and doing well. This was great to see as it was such a surprise and I wasn’t expecting to see any.

I’m told it is hugely satisfying to monitor the raptor nests, but can be difficult if there are a high number of nesting failures due to poor weather and low prey availability. This year there are low vole numbers and many pairs of barns owls have not bred. They’ve had a 100 pairs and the average brood size is only 1.2 chicks. As well as this they’ve had 60 pairs of kestrels use their boxes this year and the mean brood size is lower than average due to a shortage of food. Overall the average brood size is only 2.3 chicks. Little owls are also continuing to decline in Wiltshire. This year only 11 pairs used the boxes. They also had 30 pairs of tawny owls using their boxes this year.

After visiting the kestrel site we were then on our way to the next site where we checked three boxes. In one there was some eggs, another had an old jackdaw nest in then the last had an adult, which was already ringed, a chick then an egg which was rotten and hadn’t hatched. We had to empty the box with the jackdaw nest in as jackdaws fill the box up with sticks which would put of an owl nesting in there next year but if the jackdaw went back next year it could build the nest again in no time at all.

Whilst travelling around to the different sites we travelled across a lot of privately owned land to get to them. This was a great experience as we got to see areas of the countryside which many others won’t. I also felt privileged to be travelling around this this area of the country as the views were amazing. The team work with 100’s of landowners across south Wiltshire. Many manage habitat for wildlife and try to ensure that strips of rough grassland are kept for barn owls to hunt for their main prey, which is short-tailed voles.

Throughout the day we visited 11 boxes at 9 different sites. They normally visit more but these were all at the edge of their study area so it took longer to travel. I got a brilliant first hand experience of the work they do which was fantastic and very inspiring. I also got a detailed view of the life of the barn owls, from how they look close up and small details like the parents brood patch to how their nests look. You can see some of the photos I took and what it was like below.

The volunteers were incredibly dedicated people who do some amazing work in the area and contribute to records from the rest of the UK. They send their records to the BTO.

Their nest box team won the MOD’s Silver Otter and Environmental Project Awards in 2014 and Nigel has won Wiltshire Life’s 2015 Outstanding Contribution to Conservation Award. Very well deserved for a fantastic project.

IMG_8201Emily ringing a kestrel.




Adult barn owl with young.


The talons of a barn owl.

The brood patch of an adult barn owl.








On the way back we stopped off at the little owl area to change the camera and found two of this years young roosting in there.

A big thank you to Emily and the rest of the team for letting me come along!