IT was an unforgettable experience this week to not only see but to actually hold one of our most extraordinary birds, the barn owl.
And to do it in this most beautiful of locations, in the wild extremities of County Antrim, with Lough Neagh sparkling in the distance. The small band of terrific enthusiasts who had protected the owl nest like a Praetorian Guard had chosen Monday as the day the youngsters would be ringed. That it happened to be Ireland’s hottest day for a century only added to the uniqueness of the gathering. The experts knew they would be able to take the chicks safely from the nest for half an hour as soon as the parents had left for their first hunt of the night. And so at 9.25, the four wee troopers were brought out.
Dúlra never expected them to be so placid – rigid even – seemingly happy to sit like ornaments in people’s hands. Over the previous few weeks, he had been watching live footage from the nest camera of these same chicks battling over food, gulping down whole mice and hissing like snakes at each other.
Efforts are being made in the North to increase the barn owl population after decades of decline. Four barn owls were ringed in Co Antrim last night following efforts to encourage the owls back to the area by putting up nesting boxes and by doing supplementary feeding. pic.twitter.com/yGiDxgvCBO— RTÉ News (@rtenews) July 19, 2022
Everything in nature has a purpose, and Dúlra was to learn that the apparent obedience of the chicks is actually a defence mechanism. When danger strikes – say a fox or a pine marten or even an eagle were to discover the nest – chicks who struggle will be immediately put out of their misery. But if they stay perfectly still the predator might leave them be for a while, buying them precious minutes while their parents return to rescue them. In a way, they’re playing dead.
We fawned over them like they were newborn babies. They were all born three days apart, but that difference of just 12 days’ growth was striking. Dúlra got to hold the ‘runt’ of the litter and it was truly beautiful – a cuter cuddly toy has yet to be invented. He passed it to Debbie ‘Doolittle’ Nelson who weighed it and then expertly used pliers to put a metal ring around its right leg. These baby birds are hopefully heralding a bright new era for the barn owl here, and their future movements will be closely monitored.
Or maybe a bright new era is a bit optimistic. This bird was once a common feature of Irish farms, over centuries they even became familiar with the people they lived among, not minding the families who came and went through the barns and farm outhouses where they roosted in the rafters during the day. But in recent times it has come under a deadly two-pronged attack. On the one hand, the rodents they feed on were widely poisoned, wiping out any owls that fed on them. And then their nesting spots slowly disappeared as barns were modernised and sealed off. The damage was almost total – it’s reckoned that this year just three pairs are nesting in the whole of County Antrim.
But that there are any at all is because of the single-minded devotion of one man, Ciarán Walsh, who hails from West Belfast but has made his home among the owls near the lough. The birders at the gathering insisted he hold all four chicks; after all, the birds wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for him. He championed their cause, tracking down nesting birds, then installing nestboxes in suitable buildings for new pairs to breed in. He would watch their nests like a guardian, protecting them from all dangers. And the biggest danger, funnILy enough, was from so-called bird lovers. One pair in an old barn were disturbed by someone who had set out to help them – they fled, never to return.
Dúlra joins Ciarán for a birding day to remember https://t.co/W7cXWSm5w6— Andersonstown News (@ATownNews) July 20, 2022
This week's Lough Neagh pair aren’t aware of the figurative safety net that has been thrown around them. Secrecy is paramount. You can’t photograph the barn they live in or the surrounding area, one shot on social media and next day you’ll have well-intentioned people taking selfies outside the owls’ nest.
Cameras watch the birds 24/7, and the ‘barn’ has been padlocked so no-one out for a stroll will venture inside. Last year the guys arrived to find empty beer tins scattered around the inside of the building – someone had had a mini-party.
Ciarán told those gathered on Monday that if we lose the barn owl, we lose a bit of Ireland itself. “Our folklore is the banshee and the call of the scréachóg reilige is the banshee – that’s where the story came from. For Ireland to lose the barn owl, we’re losing part of ourselves. If I can do something to stop that happening, then why not do it?”
He hopes that in the next few weeks, the four fledglings will take to the skies and literally spread their wings across Antrim, hopefully moving into one of the 35 new boxes the group have put up across the county, some just outside West Belfast.
“We started out with one nest a few years back. That nest died because, we believe, of rat poison. This year we have three nests, which we’re over the moon about.”
Ecologist Conor McKinney said it was “incredible” how a group of enthusiasts had made such a difference. Spotting a barn owl in Scotland many years ago was the main reason why he chose his career.
Nature buff Dearbhail Uí Lughaidh from Banbridge was clearly astounded by getting so close to the owls – she had only ever seen one bird before, while on holiday in France.
“I’m delighted to be invited here to see the barn owl. Tonight has just been amazing,” she said.
The barn owl is a wonder of the world and we’re so lucky to share a country with it. Getting a chance to experience them at such close quarters was an honour. Thanks to Ciarán and his gang of barn owl devotees, this magical bird will continue to fly over the Antrim skies for many years to come.
• If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.