Wildlife Gardening in June

N.B. If your new to David’s monthly column then please be sure to read the ‘setting-the-scene’ opening piece first.

Garden Owls

© David Beeson: Tawny Owl chick emerging from new nest box.

© David Beeson: Tawny Owl chick emerging from new nest box.

We are fortunate in having at least three owl species in the local area. Occasional barn owls are seen in the garden, but our enclosed woodland edge habitat is generally unsuitable for their hunting style. Little owls, we are reliably informed, are common on the other side of our local road where the countryside is composed of open fields, but they seldom venture to our garden. But tawnies have always been extant, for their preferred habitat is woodland and hedgerow-enclosed grasslands.

Here tawny owls (Strix aluco) can be heard virtually every month of the year, but are probably most vocal in early to late autumn when they can become distinctly noisy! At one time our majestic walnut trees were the boundary line between two owl territories, with one male located in the walnuts and its rival on our bungalow roof – each proclaiming loudly claims to ownership of disputed hunting land. Now those normally enduring demarcation lines have subtly changed for the whole of our patch is owned by the Forest Edge mob with their nest in one of our tall wild cherry trees.

Winter is the critical time for owl breeding. This odd statement revolves around the fact that to breed successfully the parents need not only to be in peak physical condition in spring but to have sufficient food available and, importantly, to know where to find it throughout the year. A poor winter territory means no breeding the next year, as the potential parents will be in a poor breeding state.

The main food supplies of tawnies are wood mice and bank (long-tailed) voles. If populations of these rodents are limited breeding will not occur at all. Happily the former is usually common in the five square miles of woodland that spread south from our garden and a steady supply of both long and short-tailed voles can be assured from our meadows.

Tawny owls can also subsist on a wide range of other foods, including birds, beetles and even earthworms. Certainly they take advantage of our healthy frog population and ‘fish’ (or should that be ‘amphibian’?) for them at night in February and March. On one occasion I had been mildly stressed by herons consuming too many newts and frogs so had employed the usual trick of ‘cottoning’ the pond’s fringe. One morning a tawny was found tied up in the cotton and unable to escape. Happily the ending was good, for the bird remained perfectly calm as it was untied and left in a quiet location to recover and eventually to fly off.

Like most married couples we had been trying for a family for some time …. that is, before my wife has too much stress, a family of tawny owls! An old barrel, placed in a tree for some ten or more years, had been ignored by everyone except the local squirrel but the BTO recommended tawny owl box was a near instant success. I had put the woodcrete box in place in early autumn and by late winter I could occasionally spy a feather sticking out of the hole and shortly after a wary eye watching my gardening activities.

© Laurie Campbell: Mistle Thrush

© Laurie Campbell: Mistle Thrush

Calls also provided confirmation, for the male was roosting nearby and on one occasion he ‘bo-ooooooed’ at around 5pm and the female responded with a fed-up ‘ke-week’ from inside the box. Translation of the latter surely would have been: ‘I’ve been brooding here all day. Where is my food?’

Books inform me that no nesting materials are employed and that hatching was after around thirty days, so by late April we hoped that offspring were indeed occupying the nest cavity. Finally, at the very start of May, a well-grown owlet was peering out of the nest and observing us observing it. Mother remained within the nest with the one youngster visible.

The next question was naturally … how many owlets? Data suggested two to five eggs could be laid, but survival would depend on the food supply, efficiency of parents and surely how many owlets could be fitted into a seemingly tight nesting location.

The owlet had well grown wing feathers when first spied and vanished from the nest hole in early May. Hopefully it (they?) are now resident in the vicinity.

Our local wildlife hospital (HART Wildlife, based in Overton, Hampshire) informs me that they have a flush of owlets later in the summer, so we are hopeful that our pair may well have a second brood. However I would suspect that they will employ a new nesting location, and so reduce the parasite loading of any second brood.

We hope to have an infra-red sensitive camera in place for next year’s owl season.

Our meadows are good suppliers of food for ground feeding bird species, and mistle thrushes have been much in evidence this year. Previously they have surprised us in their selection of nest location: only one metre above ground level in the crook of a field maple. This year’s location appears to be in a neighbour’s old apple tree. Certainly they spot food easily in our short turf and beaks soon become crammed with wriggling prey species.

Song thrushes have also been common this year, with their exquisite song gracing the garden morning and evening, and the blackbird punctuating the early afternoon.

© David Beeson: Spotted Orchid.

© David Beeson: Spotted Orchid.

Wheezing greenfinches enjoy our hedgerows, whilst the collared doves and woodpigeons have achieved their annual task of clearing our car park and patio of twigs. Other local nesters include: finches, wrens, robins, dunnock, tits of many varieties, nuthatch, rooks and jackdaws. Buzzards and other carnivores nest in the wood but not within our neighbourhood this year.

The meadows have been slow to grow this year, but have now put on a spurt. This has been aided by a comparative lack of semi-parasitic yellow rattle, which only poorly set seed last summer. However the orchids look healthy and there is one odd specimen, that will probably not flower this year, which could be a soldier (military) orchid! Certainly seed of many rare UK / European species was kindly sent to us from France some years back. We await any flowering with baited breath.

Our Spring Meadow is now in its final flowering phase of meadow saxifrage, twayblade orchids, bulbous buttercups and a range of other species. Shortly the wood pigeons will descend to feed off the buttercup seeds and that will be the cue to cut the herbage.

The main Summer Meadow now is growing and initiating its own flowering sequence. Glowworms will be visible soon and the grasshoppers and crickets will hatch from their secreted eggs soon.

David is an ex-lecturer in Environmental / Biological Sciences.
He has written for most of the UK gardening magazines, including the RHS.
Forest Edge’s garden has been widely covered in magazines and has been featured in a BBC’s Gardeners’ World special.
He also maintains a blog at https://nwhwildlife.org/