A Year in the Life of a Nest Box

Philip Jordan wears many hats. First and foremost a local naturalist, he is also one of our dedicated volunteers, education rangers and bird ringers. We caught up with Philip to find out about his latest project documenting nest box activity at Gosforth Nature Reserve. What a year it has been!

“We’re delighted to confirm that Barn Owls successfully bred at Gosforth Nature Reserve in 2020 – the first time since the 1970s! Spurred on by our sightings, we decided to put up a new nest box overlooking one of their favourite hunting areas in February 2021. A month or so went by with no luck at all until mid-April when we witnessed a Barn Owl flying out above us. On closer inspection, pellets in the box confirmed our suspicions. Like all raptors, Barn Owls cough up indigestible parts of their prey (bones, fur, feather etc.) in the form of a dense ball, known as a pellet.

When we returned at the end of May to put a trail camera in place, we noticed a Barn Owl inside the box and seized the opportunity. Jane blocked the hole temporarily to keep the bird in the box while I positioned the camera. It looked like an unringed male. That night after we left, the camera came up trumps and caught it exiting.

In June, when photos showed a ringed Barn Owl entering the box, we wondered if it was the same breeding female we’d encountered in 2020. She had arrived with a ring put on in Cambridgeshire. Sadly, we found her dead in another box in August 2021. So, when photos showed a ringed Barn Owl entering our new box in November, we wondered instead if it could be one of her four offspring which we had ringed in June 2020.

That same month, a second-year male Kestrel entered the box on three days, raising hopes that they might breed there. They probably bred nearby, but not in any of our boxes.

Our camera also caught a Tawny Owl entering the box one night in July. Suffice to say, the streaky plumage and particularly feathery legs were enough to confirm its identification.

Stock Doves nest in all the large nest boxes at the reserve. A pair laid two eggs in this box in June. A few weeks later, there was just one juvenile Dove in the box which then disappeared. We know that a Barn Owl has eaten young Stock Doves in one of our nest boxes before, but I haven’t found any Dove remains in the pellets I collected from this new box. Perhaps it was predated by a Grey Squirrel.

Grey Squirrels frequently visit our large boxes, often filling them with sticks and leaves. These nests or dreys make it impossible for any birds to enter the box. I removed a drey from this box in December. We’ve also managed to capture four additional sightings of other species looking in the box: Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Great Tit and Blue Tit. Cameras at other boxes have also picked up Coal Tit, Wren, Treecreeper and Peacock Butterfly.

The box has certainly attracted plenty of interest in its first twelve months at GNR. We look forward to seeing what species will take up residence in it next year”.