Epic winged battle in wildlife stand off in the garden

The male barn owl sits on guard.  Pic: Robert Fuller
The male barn owl sits on guard. Pic: Robert Fuller
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I SPEND a lot of my spare time putting up bird boxes in my garden, both to boost local populations and to attract birds which I study for my paintings.

I like to adapt them so that they make attractive backdrops to my pictures and look more in keeping with the tree holes that birds would choose if they didn’t get a helping hand from me.

A barn owl and kestrel were fighting for the best nesting site

A barn owl and kestrel were fighting for the best nesting site

I set about replacing a plywood nest box designed for birds of prey with a hefty chunk of sycamore that had a natural hollow in it.

It took me ages to get it right. I built the structure on a wooden tower and then placed a scaffold tower alongside it from which to hoist the nest box into place.

I had rigged it up with a nest camera which would relay live images to a TV monitor in my kitchen.

The nest cam was one of 12 in my garden that provided background research for a new exhibition of paintings opening at my gallery in Thixendale on June 6th.

Robert Fuller's portrait of a kestrel

Robert Fuller's portrait of a kestrel

I sited this box in a spot where a pair of kestrels had nested before. But, to my disappointment, the kestrels spent much of March investigating a hollow ash tree at the bottom of the valley instead.

Then one evening I noticed a male barn owl perched in the entrance of the sycamore box. I watched excitedly as it walked tentatively in.

The owl spent quite some time in there over the next few nights, but was never in during the day. There was no doubt that he liked it because he would stand at the entrance and call repeatedly for a mate, sometimes for hours at a time over several weeks.

It is common for a barn owl to find a site first and then try to attract a mate to it later. But he was having trouble convincing a female to even come and take a look in spite of his luxury lodgings.

He only managed to attract a male tawny owl, who had heard the commotion and had turned up to bully the barn owl out of his new home.

The barn owl, despite being smaller than this aggressive tawny, stood his ground. After that he began sleeping in the stump during the day to guard it.

Then one day I was surprised to see that the pair of kestrels were investigating a large elm stump close by – another of my carefully adapted nest boxes and also wired with a nest cam.

The male kestrel went on to make a nest scrape in it and invited the female to take a look. She arrived in a seemingly bossy mood and immediately set about making a new scrape in a different part of the box. She filled in his original scrape for good measure. I sympathised with him from the TV monitor in the kitchen.

That night, after the kestrels had left the box to roost elsewhere, I watched the barn owl leave his sycamore stump and fly straight into the elm stump that the kestrels had now settled on.

The barn owl explored this bigger elm nest chamber. He even filled in the female kestrel’s nest scrape and dug his own. The cheek of it!

Over the next few days, two birds of prey occupied the box seemingly unaware of the other’s presence. The kestrels stayed there all day until dusk. The barn owl arrived very shortly afterwards, standing at the entrance hole and calling for a mate all night. I knew that we were heading for a very uncomfortable clash.

Then one evening the inevitable happened. And it was not pretty. I was able to watch it live on screen.

The barn owl landed at the entrance of the elm stump and before it had settled on its perch the female kestrel stooped out of the sky and rammed straight into it.

They collided with such a force the owl was knocked four feet into the stump. The kestrel fell hard behind him and rushed straight at the owl, grabbing it with her talons.

They scuffled and rolled around the floor of the box, sending dust and debris flying. They grappled each other with their talons and beaks, twisting and turning, flipping and spinning around the four foot round nest box.

The barn owl made a grab for the kestrel, rolling her over and grabbing her underside.

The kestrel meanwhile was calling out continually to attract her mate. Her feathers were raised and her wings spread out to make her look bigger.

The barn owl backed up against the far wall of the stump. He looked towards the entrance hole as though looking for an escape.

But the male kestrel was now blocking the entrance and was calling and flapping his wings. The barn owl was trapped.

The female kestrel flew at him. Barn owls have much longer legs and longer reach than kestrels and just by stretching his talons forward he was able to roll the kestrel over once again.

The owl dug its talons into the underbelly of the kestrel. It was the most damaging blow yet and clearly hurt the kestrel.

There was an uneasy stand-off. Both kestrels were calling out whilst the owl hissed and clacked its beak. It must have been deafening inside the nest box.

The owl kept glancing up to see if the male kestrel was still blocking the entrance. For a moment the male had disappeared and the owl took its chance, turning towards the exit to escape. But it wasn’t a wise move to turn his back on the kestrel who launched another attack. The owl rolled forward, spinning the kestrel off.

For 15 minutes they called half time, as if in a boxing match, during which they sized one another up.

It was a difficult battle to watch. I have been following the lives of this pair of kestrel for years and have become fond of them, but I’m a real fan of conserving barn owls too.

I wondered if I ought to intervene, but reasoned that if I did the battle would only continue another night. I left them to slug it out for a further hour, perched on the edge of my seat.

It was starting to get dark. The kestrel lunged at the owl, but the owl grabbed it again with its sharp talons. And finally it was the kestrel who retreated out of the box.

But hadn’t given up completely and remained at the entrance, glaring down at the owl. Meanwhile the owl scratched out a nest scrape, as if making its point. This wound up the kestrel further and she called out aggressively.

Eventually it flew away, but 10 minutes later the male flew in and flapped its wings at the owl. Luckily they didn’t make contact.

The kestrels kept reappearing at the entrance hole calling, but the barn owl held its nerve.

Once darkness fell, the owl spent some time preening and readjusting its feathers after its ordeal, and then it suddenly left.

Not long afterwards a kestrel appeared. I began to wonder which of these birds had actually won the ordeal. The kestrel didn’t stay for long and the barn owl returned and began calling for a mate.

To mine, and seemingly his, great surprise he attracted one two hours later. It was worth him standing his ground! She stood in the entrance and the two owls hissed at each other. She jumped into the box and they began pecking each other’s beaks in unison with their wings out. I have never seen this behaviour before. They were half aggressive and half enthusiastic. It was a bit like watching an illicit first liaison.

The following night he awkwardly tried mating her and knocked her over instead. I suspected from this and the unusual courtship display of the previous day that they were yearlings and both new to this game.

Meanwhile the kestrel pair took up residence in the sycamore stump that the barn owl had originally chosen. They have since gone on to lay five eggs there.

New exhibition opens soon

I will be showing video clips of this dramatic fight during my summer exhibition which opens at my gallery in Thixendale on June 6-28.

The exhibition features continuing live footage from these two birds of prey as they incubate and hatch their eggs as well as other wildlife encounters I filmed in and around my garden this year, including a wild stoat trained to run an assault course, tawny owl chicks and a weasel that is about to give birth to kits. This will all be displayed alongside my finished artwork.

Robert Fuller’s art exhibition, Natural Wonders of the Wildlife World, will be held at Fotherdale Farm, Thixendale, YO17 9LS. For more information or to book on an event visit www.robertefuller.com