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Detailed raptor survey gets underway in Duhallow

Until quite recently, our knowledge of Barn Owls in Ireland was relatively limited, with numerous gaps in information which prevented an overview of the issues impacting this iconic species.  Thankfully this situation has dramatically changed over the past five years, largely due to the tireless enthusiasm of volunteers who have facilitated comprehensive monitoring of the elusive Barn Owl population throughout the country.  As a result of these efforts, co-ordinated by the Raptor Conservation Project, we now have a much better understanding of the ecological requirements of Barn Owls and the factors which affect their conservation status.

The monitoring work has also served to highlight the south west of the country to be a vital stronghold for the national population.  The importance of this region has been duly acknowledged by both Cork and Kerry County Councils who have previously collaborated with BirdWatch Ireland to help ensure the local Barn Owl population remains stable.  Last year, conservation and monitoring efforts for Barn Owl in the southwest received an additional boost with IRD Duhallow coming on board and providing funding through the LEADER 2007 – 2013 programme.  John Lusby, Raptor Conservation Officer with BirdWatch Ireland, said, "Duhallow, which is an area encompassing parts of North Cork and East Kerry, seems to be particularly suitable for Barn Owls.  The local population appears to be doing well here and we have recorded one of the highest known densities of nest and roost sites in the country.  Given the fact that Barn Owls have declined so markedly in other parts of the country, areas such as this are crucial for the conservation of the national population."

John Lusby visiting a Duhallow Barn Owl nest, under licence from NPWS
John Lusby visiting a Duhallow Barn Owl nest, under licence from NPWS

In addition to the monitoring and survey work, a nest box scheme was also initiated in 2011.  Brin McDonnell, a local of Ballydesmond in Duhallow who has been integral to the work, commented, "We have installed fourteen nest boxes so far at suitable sites around Duhallow and will be focusing further attention on this after the breeding season.  However from now until the end of the summer our energies will be concentrated on finding new sites and monitoring our traditional sites.  This is the most exciting time of year; last year we had a fantastic breeding season and the positive nature of the work has really captured the imagination of the local communities and is making the Barn Owl a flagship species for this area."

Brin McDonnell holding a young Barn Owl during nest monitoring work (Photographed under licence from NPWS)
Brin McDonnell holding a young Barn Owl during nest monitoring work
(Photographed under licence from NPWS)

Earlier this year IRD Duhallow provided the Raptor Conservation Project with further funding to expand the scope of the project to incorporate monitoring and research of two other raptors, the Long-eared Owl and Kestrel.  The Duhallow Raptor Conservation Project, which aims to greatly increase our understanding of these species by assessing nesting densities, breeding ecology and success in the Duhallow area, will now run until the autumn of 2013.  Michael O’Clery, based in County Kerry and who has been long involved with the Raptor Conservation Project, will be helping to co-ordinate the fieldwork.  Similar to the success of the Barn Owl work, artificial sites will also be provided for both species to help with future monitoring.  Ten Kestrel nest boxes and ten nest baskets for Long-eared Owls will be placed at traditional nesting sites over the coming months.  However it is the survey and monitoring objectives of the project which are the more ambitious and which it is hoped will reveal new and much required information on the ecology of both species in Ireland.  John Lusby stated, "Despite the fact that these raptors are still widespread and relatively common, there have been virtually no specific studies on these species in Ireland, and as a result we are lacking information on even basic aspects of their ecology."

Young Kestrels in the nest (Photographed under licence from NPWS)
Young Kestrels in the nest
(Photo taken under licence from NPWS)

This work aims to build on the Kestrel research and monitoring carried out by the Raptor Conservation Project since 2009.  One of the objectives is to determine numbers of breeding Kestrels in a specific 100km² area of Duhallow.  This will be the first time that such detailed survey work for Kestrel will have been attempted in Ireland and will provide the basis for population estimates and assessments of the status and trends of the population.

Monitoring of Long-eared Owl has already started as of mid March and will continue throughout the breeding season to estimate densities and nesting ecology in selected 10km survey squares.  The early season survey visits involve broadcasting Long-eared Owl calls (under licence from the National Parks and Wildlife Service) in order to elicit a response from a resident pair, as the discrete nature of these birds means that this is one of the only means they can be located at this time of year.  Acoustic surveys to detect noisy young with their “squeaky gate” calls will be conducted from May onwards.

Long-eared Owl fledgling, not long out of the nest
Long-eared Owl fledgling, not long out of the nest

For more information and to follow the progress, as well as regular updates on the project, visit the project blog www.duhallow.blogspot.com. Make sure to keep an eye on this site as the breeding season progress when we will feature photos and nest footage from the Barn Owl, Long-eared Owl and Kestrel sites (all nest visits licensed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service) which we are monitoring in Duhallow.

The Duhallow Raptor Conservation Project is funded by IRD Duhallow through the LEADER 2007 – 2013 Programme and is carried out in collaboration with the Duhallow Bird-watching Group.

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