Apart from our resident Sea Eagles, we are treated to views of plenty of other wildlife at Loch Frisa. Last year our Buzzard-cam was a huge success, and this year we have a camera on a large Sand Martin colony which nests in the quarry where our visitors park their cars. In a former life I was national co-ordinator of the Barn Owl Conservation Network, and I've always felt that the habitat in the area would be perfect for a nesting pair of Barn Owls. The local farmer told us that he often saw Barn Owls hunting over the area in the late evening, so last summer our Forestry Commission Wildlife Rangers put up a nest barrel which could be seen from the hide. Of course it had to have a nestcam installed, but by the time the barrel was put up it was getting a bit late in the year for the owls to nest, plus the fact that 2010 was not a good year for the Short-tailed Field Vole on Mull (the Barn Owls' staple diet).
This year we were hopeful that the owls might use the box as the vole population seemed to have recovered, and sure enough when the camera was turned on, there were two adult Barn Owls in residence. At that point they were using the box as a roost, but after a while we saw the birds copulating and a couple of weeks later the first egg was laid, but not until the male had proved that he was going to be a good provider for a family of growing owls. A huge pile of voles appeared in the nest and the female has now laid seven eggs. Incubation time is 31 days, so the first egg should hatch in the next week or so. By the time there were four eggs the female had evicted the male from the box - quite normal behaviour as when the chicks hatch she sees the male as a potential threat to tiny chicks.
However, it meant that the male now needed somewhere safe to roost during the day, particularly with a hungry Buzzard family and two Sea Eagles all looking for food! So the rangers put up a second nest barrel in nearby trees and we hope that the male is using it. The design might look strange at first sight, but by having the opening near the top the adult bird(s) can come in and out with ease, but the chicks can't get out until they are ready to fledge. The floor area needs to be quite large too, as the youngsters stay in the nest until they are eight or nine weeks old by which time they are fully grown.
So now we are waiting for the eggs to hatch, and the nestcam is recording so hopefully I may be able to publish some footage of the chicks on a future blog. Seven is a very big brood of youngsters to rear, requiring up to 35 voles or mice a day between them, and it's possible that not all of the eggs will hatch, but when I've ringed Barn Owl chicks on Mull in the past I have had one brood of six healthy chicks so you never know! I'll keep you informed.