There’s an Owl in my Soffit

Hi, my name is Joseph and I’m a student studying MSc Species Identification and Survey Skills at the University of Reading. I’m currently on my placement at Ecology by Design and have decided to write a blog to document my progress.

This month, I had a chance to return to a site from the start of my placement. This was an opportunity to really see for myself what a difference the time of year makes in terms of invertebrate surveys. Sam and I returned to a site where planning permission for a paragraph 55 house is being sought. The day involved transects around the site, timed invertebrate sampling using a sweep net, and a moth survey in the evening with the company’s moth trap. The difference in terms of numbers and biodiversity was immense, with more than five times as many species observed during our surveys. This included a new butterfly for my year list, the small skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris), one of my favourite butterfly species. This month has actually been pretty interesting in terms of invertebrates, and Lepidoptera (the order that includes moths and butterflies) especially have been abundant, but more on that later.

Barn Owl Check

Barn owl pellets on the ground below the soffit.

Barn owl pellets on the ground below the soffit.

Scattered skulls were found near the pellets, this one is most likely from a mouse.

Scattered skulls were found near the pellets, this one is most likely from a mouse.

A few weeks ago, we encountered one of the strangest surveys any of us at Ecology by Design had ever done. Kate received a phone call from a client about their soffit box (this is on the underside of the eaves of the house), which was in need of repair. However, when the contractors attempted these repairs, it had become apparent that a barn owl (Tyto alba) was using the soffit. Barn owls are protected from disturbance when they are nesting by schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), as well as having the basic level of protection afforded to most wild birds. This made the situation particularly complicated for the client when trying to get their soffit repaired. Sam and I went to do the initial inspection of the house looking for evidence of the barn owl. Despite some issues with the ladder being unsafe to use in the circumstances, we could clearly see the soffit was occupied from ground level as there were owl pellets on the ledge where the entrance point was, as well as covering the ground outside the front of the property. There was easily upwards of 30 barn owl pellets of greatly varying ages scattered about the gravel. Some pellets were so old they had started to deteriorate, and we could clearly see the remains of all the poor little critters the owl had eaten (pictured). The situation was so unusual that there was no obvious remedy to the problem. It was unsafe to inspect the soffit all the way along in order to prove that the owl wasn’t nesting (in which case it can be lawfully evicted with no problems). This meant that the only real option was to wait until after the nesting season to fix the soffit. A very unusual case for sure.

Chemical Plant Bat Survey

One of my most unusual bat surveys also happened this month. It was at a large chemical plant where they were planning the demolition of several buildings. On arrival at the site, we were expected to turn up for a site induction (my first site induction on the job). We turned up with ten minutes to spare, but it was not our lucky day as we were informed by the security that they were currently undergoing an “emergency situation” with no elaboration as to what level of emergency it was. As a result, we stood awkwardly and rather nervously in the reception, awaiting our induction (or possible doom) and passing the time by trawling through their rather odd collection of books, DVDs and even VHS tapes. After 45 minutes or so, we were allowed to enter the site for the induction. The induction itself was a novel experience and so was fairly interesting, but I can definitely see it becoming tedious if I had to repeat the process all the time. This made me pretty grateful that most of our sites are residential properties or barns out in the countryside rather than big industrial scale projects. The survey itself was a few hours later so we had a little bit of time to return to the hotel and grab some food. Unfortunately, due to the late start we missed out on the opportunity to make use of the hotel pool or gym, but the calamari I had at the pub were HUGE, so I can forgive. The survey itself however, was the most boring I’ve had so far. Not so much as even a common pipistrelle pass, and the strange fumes and steam coming from some of the pipes were rather unnerving. All in all, it was a strange insight into the mad world of health and safety that you enter when on an industrial site.

Supermarket Survey

Now the subtitle of this section (yes, I have subtitles now) might not seem the most exciting thing in the world, and you’d be right. The survey was simply a PEA on a supermarket in Essex. The site was fairly boring, a supermarket car park with the standard bark chippings and planted vegetation on the periphery. The inspection of the building itself was also extremely straightforward as the exterior was corrugated sheet metal and was in good condition meaning there was hardly anything to look at in terms of bat potential. There was a small patch of extremely dried out vegetation on the northern side which was home to several butterfly species including common blue (Polyommatus icarus) and small white (Pieris rapae). Now you’re probably wondering at this point why I’ve even bothered to include this in my blog, am I just stuck for ideas? Has the heat really gotten to me this much? (It has). No, those are only partially the reasons. The real reason is because of what we found in the corner of the car park, tucked behind a London plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia). Suspense building.

BAM! Look at that stunning moth (Jersey tiger,  Euplagia quadripunctaria ).

BAM! Look at that stunning moth (Jersey tiger, Euplagia quadripunctaria).

The Jersey tiger is a day-flying moth in the Erebidae family, but they’ll also fly at night and come to a light (known as positive phototaxis) if you’re interested in moth trapping. This one got spooked when we approached it and moved to another bit of wall, giving us a full display of its bright red underwings, which make it appear much more like a butterfly than a moth. It’s really a common misconception that moths are less colourful and vibrant than butterflies and the Jersey tiger is a great example of this. Other colourful species if you’re interested include the large (Geometra papilionaria) and small emerald moths (Hemistola chrysoprasaria) of the Geometridae family, and the elephant hawk moth (Deliephila elpenor) of the Sphingidae family if you’re looking for something even more impressive. I guess the point in this sub-section of the blog (and probably the overall message of this blog) is to expect the unexpected if you work in ecology. What can seem a straight forward survey can end up surprising you in more ways than one, for better or worse, but there’s always something interesting waiting just around the corner.

To follow my progress more, check out my twitter (@AlfrescoJoe) or my Instagram (Josefchidzey).