I'm in the priveleged position of regularly reviewing the footage that we record from the barn owl nest box cameras.
If, when you read that line, you thought 'what barn owls?', then have a look at our recent blog post here
Barn Owl blog
or our posts on our Facebook page
Coombes Valley Facebook Page
It's really fascinating to witness the changes that the young chicks are going through, both physically and behaviourally. When we first installed the nest box cameras the two chicks were quite small, completely covered in fluffy down and were quite content to sit huddled together to keep each other warm and cosy. They pretty much stayed in one place in the box until mum or dad returned with food.
Three to four weeks weeks later, they really have changed. That fluffy down is being replaced by flight feathers, and they're much more active. They've learnt that their legs allow them to jump, and do so often when an adult returns and dangles food into the box. Their beaks have grown and they get their nightly fill of small mammals down so much quicker now. Those beaks actually prevent mum and dad spending long in the box now too, as being pecked repeatedly by a hungry 6 week old chick must hurt rather more than it did just a few short weeks ago.
Their wings are not the only place that feathers are now visible. In the last week we've noticed their tail feathers appearing through that fluffy down too. Very soon they'll really start to look less like baby birds and more like their handsome parents.
So, 'what about the weather?' I hear you ask! It has, to say the least, been 'unsettled'. Many of our visitors are interested and concerned as to what this has meant for the chicks. I'm glad to report that they've been getting more than enough food. The parents have hunted really successfully, even when the weather hasn't been at its best. The male adult is a prolific hunter, and I often see him bring food to the nest several times within the first hour of his nightly hunt. On average I'm seeing 7 or 8 small mammals being caught per night, which is more than enough for our two chicks. For all those fans of statistics though, I can bring you the current Coombes Valley 'Most Mammals in a Night' record. On one particularly pleasant mild and dry evening, the adult owls caught......wait for it.....16 voles and mice! Incredible stuff, even more so when you hear that the male adult caught 12 of them!
So things are looking really favourable for the young birds at the moment. We expect them to be close to fledging in the latter part of August, so call in to see them at the visitor centre any time in the next few weeks. The TV screens are on between 9am and 5pm every day. On Thursday, Saturday and Sunday we're continuing to bring you our 'Creatures of the Night' Date with Nature. Come along between 10am and 4pm on those days to get hands on with the feeding habits of owls and a real close up look at the marvellous moths of Coombes Valley.
We also have one more evening walk this coming Saturday where we'll take you out into the heart of the reserve to see what else shares the night with our brilliant barn owls. Meet at the Visitor Centre at 7:30pm on Saturday 4th, bring strong footwear and a torch. We'll supply the bat detectors! If you're interested in joining us, we'd appreciate it if you'd let us know as last weekend our walk was really popular. Give us a call on 01538 384017 during office hours. See you there.
Until then though, I'll leave you with a video clip of the barn owl chicks, where you can clearly see the shape of their faces developing and also get a really good look at those flight feathers.
This week, Jone Ayres, one of our great residential volunteer team, met someone who'd done the same thing back in 1985.
Darren Morris has been kind enough to email us more about his stay and has even managed to dig out a photo from his time here.
Here's his story:
I was a volunteer for the whole of August in 1985, aged 19, after leaving a job in construction and deciding that wasn't for me. I wanted to work in the countryside and wrote to the RSPB asking for a job! They politely replied suggesting voluntary work.I loved my time at Coombes valley and come back often these days. I remember working alongside some great characters and gaining some valuable knowledge and experience.
Fond memories too of Clough meadow cottage where this photo was taken (by the only water supply, spring water running into a bucket!).
Its two gas lights, one in the kitchen one in the main room and no electricity was a "challenge" and never having lived away from home before, learning to cook did me the world of good. A day off a week consisted of walking to Leek, going to the public swimming pool for a bath before shopping and walking back about 5 miles?Jobs included manning the old visitor centre, path maintenance, thistle pulling, patrolling and helping with guided walks. It rained every day I think while I was there but as I say, I loved it!
The time spent at Coombes Valley was a stepping stone to become a countryside Assistant on a one year community programme and in turn to become a full time Ranger which I still enjoy doing to this day. So a big thank you to the RSPB and Coombes Valley for giving me a start and for some treasured memories!
Thanks Darren for that great insight. For any potential residential volunteers reading this, don't worry, we do have running water and heating these days! One thing that is the same though, is the fact that volunteering with us provides a great depth of experience which often leads to employment in conservation. Indeed, 95% of our residential volunteers go on to paid employment in that sector.
Get in touch if you want to know more.
Thanks to Adam Machin, a great Coombes Valley volunteer for this latest blog. Read on to find how, this week, he's rediscovered the reserve.....
I have to admit that my connection to nature has its roots firmly in ecology. This means identifying, naming and understanding. That approach does serve its purpose extremely well, but I do wonder if I'm missing something.
Our visitors are all different, and they will all experience nature in their own unique way. While talking with families in the visitor centre recently I’ve heard children enthuse about what they’ve seen, felt and heard during their time here, and that really got me thinking. I realised what they were trying to tell me. So, after 3 years of volunteering here, it was time to make a change, to explore the reserve and let my senses appreciate it and bring it to life. No identifying, no naming and no counting!
I started exploring on our main trail; the one that leads gradually downhill from the visitor centre towards Coombes Brook and the valley floor. At the beginning I felt a little silly, as I stood on the path with my eyes closed. I ventured forth (eyes now open again). I lay in meadows, I took time to lean over and smell wild flowers, and to feel the sensation of grasses brushing through my fingers. I was not even half way round the trail, and any initial foolishness had long ago been surpassed by a feeling of enjoyment. I had realised that senses can take us on incredible journeys.
With my eyes closed, the quiet rustle of the aspen leaves reminded me of waves slowly lapping on a sandy shore. As I got close to gnarled mature trees, their sheer size transported me back to ancient tales of mythical creatures roaming the woodland. Lying amongst the wildflowers watching the clouds go by, I was suddenly 6 years old again! I couldn’t believe I had never done this before, what wonders I have missed out on.
By far the best experience of my journey though, was when I took a few quiet moments to sit at the valley viewpoint on a still evening. I concentrated on the moment, on the view, and on the sounds I could hear and I was rewarded with a sensory delight. The contrasting colours, the restful sounds of the insects and birds all made any stress I felt just melt away. The unmistakeable smell of the freshly cut meadows filled the warm summer air.
Pink hues eventually leaked into the blue sky as the sun slowly set, giving the most amazing backdrop over the lush green trees. I felt a world away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It must surely rank as one of my greatest moments at the reserve. No naming, no identification knowledge needed, just the ability to sit, watch and enjoy.
I sat and thought about how people are influenced by nature; what enjoyment means to them. I could only think experiences like this provide that initial spark. Where that road then goes is up to them. If they come to Coombes Valley, we can be certain though that they’ll have many more of these magical moments.
If you're seeking magical moments like these, then the next few weeks is a great time to visit us. We will bring the reserve alive for you with some special events.
Every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday until 12th August we’re bringing ‘Creatures of the Night’ into the day time at our Date with Nature. Meet our iconic barn owl family and see what else they share the night with.
Until Sunday 29th July, we have days of family fun with Wild Art events. Come along and try your hand at Wild Art in our magical woodland. No need to pre-book, and its free.
Starting on 5th August we have Family Fun events where the whole family can join in with activities like pond dipping and bug hunting. Those sessions are £5 per child. More details are on our events page.
Photo by Becky Elliott