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04 February 2015

Expanding the Initiative: Phase Two

Recently I've received inquiries from landowners about putting up Barn Owl boxes on private property. It's an exciting development, as the success of the Piedmont Barn Owl Initiative will ultimately depend on individuals looking to make a difference. Most landowners will not have the right habitat for Barn Owls, and for those people I'm suggesting the installation of Screech-Owl boxes, such as the ones offered by New Hope Audubon Society. Screech-Owls are adorable little cavity nesters, and may be found in more forested areas of the Piedmont.

The best habitat for Barn Owls is vast, open pasture, marsh, or grassland, with intermittent trees and structure, low lying topography, and proximity to a moving water source. Twenty five acres of open space is the bare minimum. Fifty to one hundred to several hundred acres of contiguous acrerage is optimal.

The only areas that tend to meet these specifications, in our immediate area, are northern Durham county, western Orange county, the Silk Hope area of Chatham County, and the Snow Camp region in Alamance. The adjacent counties of Granville, Person, Randolph, Guilford, and Lee should have plenty of prime habitat as well. If you have access to lots of farmland, most of which is left in grasses, feel free to contact me at I am willing to help you set up a nest box on your own. New Hope Audubon Society will pay for future nest boxes on properties with established Barn Owls, but only in Chatham, Durham, and Orange counties.

One inquiry that I received last month, from Geoff Morrison of Snow Camp, was compelling enough to fully investigate. Geoff is a former engineer and businessman from Raleigh, who gave up the rat race a few years back to live on a farm in Alamance county. He's now a skilled ferrier, with a solid reputation tending to horses in the surrounding region.

Geoff heard of our program through New Hope Audubon secretary Pat Reid, who takes her horses to him. Geoff began reading up on the owls and our program, and soon contacted me. He believed his land could be ideal for Barn Owls. I agreed to meet with him on a Saturday afternoon in mid-January, to walk his property.

Like much of the landscape in Snow Camp, Geoff's property is mostly open, rolling pasture and fields, with early successional forest popping up here and there. Occasionally, there's a hedgerow, or a stand of red cedar, or an old farm house being consumed by the earth. These types of buildings often house small rodents, which are the favored food of many birds of prey.

The habitat looked fairly good for Barn Owls, with dozens of acres of farmland in every direction, but we couldn't find any evidence of activity in this particular building. Geoff and I talked about putting free standing nest boxes in the surrounding open fields, something I've done at many similar properties. Then we headed over to a neighbor's farm, where my jaw promptly hit the ground.

There's a reason these birds are called Barn Owls, and this barn just screamed for some investigation. Geoff and I rumaged through the rafters, and within two minutes we found evidence of activity. Barn Owl pellets!!!! 

Barn Owls can't digest bones or fur, so they hack up a pellet several hours after feeding. You can tell how fresh the pellets are by the color. Darker pellets are relatively fresh, while lighter ones may have been around for months or even years. We estimated this pellet to be between one to three months old. Here's a look at another pellet we found, with a partially intact rodent skull embedded within it. "Look at the bones!!!!"

This building has been used by a Barn Owl fairly recently. Has it moved on? Is it roosting nearby, returning under cover of darkness, for the occasional meal? Is there more than one owl? With the combination of pellets and optimal habitat, Geoff and I discussed our options on the spot. Here's a look at the barn from the inside:

We decided on a couple of locations within the barn that would be suitable for nest boxes. Because there was evidence of opossums in the building, we needed to be sure that any future owlets would be safe from predation. Geoff agreed to go with a design from the Barn Owl Trust, which makes boxes for owls in the UK, and to build them himself. Here's Geoff with his first self-made Barn Owl nest box.

We decided that one or two boxes could be installed directly on the inner wall of the barn, high enough for roosting or nesting birds to feel safe. Here's Geoff installing the first box:

The finished product blends in nicely with the inside of the barn. 

Geoff has agreed to put up several more boxes on the land surrounding this barn, as well as his own property. He's also begun talking with some of his clients about installing boxes on their land.
We are really lucky to have Geoff as part of our extended effort. It turns out, he's quite the renaissance man, modifying nest boxes, tending to horses, even quoting Wendell Berry. Geoff may be a skilled engineer and tradesman, but it's his passion for the environment that matters most to us.

Barn Owls should begin dispersing towards summer grounds soon, and may already be looking for territories and mates. Geoff's first nest box, along with our 26 other installations, are primed and ready to go. Stay tuned for any updates regarding possible activity!

25 November 2014

White Feathers!

As winter approaches, I thought I'd do a final inspection of our 26 nest boxes this past weekend. This inspection took the better part of two days, and required a lot of driving, as our boxes are spread out over three counties (actually four, if you include the box at Prairie Ridge). Some boxes are off the beaten path, and require a bit of a hike.

In order to inspect the boxes, I use a telescoping monopod with a camera attached. I set the camera to flash, turn on the ten second timer, then hoist it up into the entrance hole. This is a good strategy if a) you don't want to get stung by potential insects, or b) you don't want to get mauled by a Barn Owl. I only inspect the boxes a couple of times a year in this manner, as any disturbance could scare away desired inhabitants. Please don't repeat this procedure if you come across a nest box on your own!

I'm sad to report that I didn't find any Barn Owls this weekend. That doesn't mean there aren't any of the owls in the area. There just weren't any in the nest boxes. I did have my heart skip a beat, however, at a box at Mapleview Farm. See the white feathers?

When I first glanced at the camera screen, I was sure I was looking at Barn Owl feathers. However, after closer inspection of the image at home, and consulting with friends, I realized the feathers lacked the characteristic golden or cinnamon tones. Plus, I saw a grey feather or two mixed in with the others. Rock Pigeon, perhaps?? The only bird known to utilize Barn Owl boxes on a regular basis is the American Kestrel. These were certainly not Kestrel feathers, though, and those pesky pigeons seem to turn up just about everywhere. For now, I'll assume these feathers are from undesired feral squatters.

Roughly a third of our boxes were affected by insect nests this year. One box in particular had become a party house for all sorts of crawling and flying critters, from spiders to mud daubers to wasps. Thankfully, this was the only owl home that had fallen into severe disrepute.

Most of the boxes were fairly easy to clean, once the ladder was set up. (Hauling the ladder was the toughest part of this job). Remaining wasp nests, which now sit empty after a severe freeze, were easily scraped away and removed. Here's what my collection of wasp nests looks like. 

Thankfully, I no longer have to inspect one of the nest boxes at Jordan Dam. That one has a webcam in it, and can now be accessed day and night!!!! There are currently no residents, other than a few hardy insects, but we hope to have a Barn Owl in there at some point. Simply click on the link at You can also access this link at the New Hope Audubon Society website,

10 November 2014

Wasps and a Webcam!

With the initial nest box installations complete, the Piedmont Barn Owl Initiative has entered a second phase. We now await our first avian inhabitants. This chapter of the story may require some patience.

With current supply outstripping demand, the real estate market for owls has been slow. Our deluxe condos, with all their custom amenities, won't sit empty forever. With the slow rollout, though, a few unsavory types have decided to try their luck with squatting. Meet some of our new neighbors: wasps!!!

Last winter, after the first hard freeze, I pulled a wasp nest out of an owl box in Orange County. The nest was roughly the size and shape of a human brain. I kept it, thinking it would make an interesting conversation piece. 

Wasps, bees, and hornets are to be expected. The combination of a comfortable nest box, plus a favorable climate, is almost too much for our waspy friends to pass up. Every summer, we expect buzzing in at least a handful of boxes. Most bees and wasps, thankfully, will have died or moved on before our more favored clients arrive. 

Our best potential residents are juvenile Barn Owls, which begin to disperse in September and October. Many of the birds in the mid-Atlantic states move southward. This fall, during dispersal, we had our first confirmed sighting of a Barn Owl hunting near one of our boxes in Chatham County!! Unfortunately, the bird was only seen once, and has yet to be relocated.

It may take a while for Barn Owls to realize that these beautiful homes are for the taking. Birds like to fully inspect roosting sites, long before they begin raising a family. Wintering Barn Owls may have several roost sites, too, and may return to a nest box after weeks at another location. Our dedicated team of Barn Owl Guardians will be checking for any activity in the coming months.

With monitoring in mind, New Hope Audubon Society, along with the Army Corps of Engineers and Spy on a Bird, has installed a webcam in one of our owl boxes. This webcam, which was built for a box at the B. Everett Jordan Dam, will allow live viewing 24 hours a day. Anybody with a computer can access the link at  Once on the site, simply click Enter. . .no password is necessary.

Breeding season begins in a couple of months. If any of our nest boxes is being utilized as a roost, it's only a matter of time before a pair of owls tries to nest in it. We may be several years from a confirmed nesting. But if we keep our nest boxes clean and free from insects, we may have owl inhabitants sooner than later. Keep your fingers crossed.

16 March 2014

Box 26: Going Live at Jordan Dam

The last few weeks in central North Carolina have been nothing short of crazy. In mid-February, we had a small burst of tornadoes. The following day, it was 70 degrees. Next came a ten year snow event, with 8-10 inches of snow. Three days later, it was again 70 degrees. Soon after came a devastating ice storm, which brought down trees and electrical wires all over the area. After the ice melted, we had two or three more days of 70 degrees.

This past week was marked by 45mph gusts of wind, followed by a deep freeze. A few days later.  . .you guessed it, we were back up to 70 degrees. The mid-Atlantic has always been climactically bi-polar in late winter, but this year, 2014, is the worst I can remember.

A few of our nest boxes went down with the spate of high winds in February. So my friend Ken and I spent two weekends installing anchors and moving vulnerable nest boxes to better locations. You can read about our anchor system in a previous post. I am happy to report that our nest boxes survived the latest onslaught of heavy winds, and not one box went down. Given that nesting season is starting here in NC, that's some good peace of mind.

Earlier this month, just after the snowstorm, I talked with Francis at B. Everett Jordan Dam about putting our final phase one nest box, number 26, at the dam. We had already placed two boxes there, but the dam offered some of the best habitat available, and I wanted to fully utilize it. He agreed to meet with me on a Saturday afternoon in mid-March, to install the final box.

As the installation date approached, however, I was contacted by Perry Herpai from Spy on a Bird, the same company that had installed a Bald Eagle nest cam at Jordan Lake. Perry asked if we wanted to install a Barn Owl nest cam in one of our boxes, which would allow for live viewing over the internet. The timing couldn't have been more perfect. I talked to the board at New Hope Audubon, to secure funding, and asked Perry to meet with Francis and me at the dam.

Francis and I, after some discussion, decided to put the final nest box, as well as the previous two, on 4x4 wooden posts for extra stability. Wooden posts mounted in the ground are very secure, and don't sway at all, an important factor when thinking about live video hook-ups. Unlike most of our previous nest box set-ups, which were designed to be somewhat mobile, these would be permanently fixed in place.

On the day of installation, I arrived to find Jordan Lake much higher than usual, as a result of all the weather events we'd been having. The dam was in the process of releasing more water than I thought physically possible, dropping the lake level one foot per day. Considering the size of Jordan Lake, the amount of water being released at the base of the dam, in terms of cubic meters per second, was simply mind boggling! 

Francis and I went right to work, removing one box from a tire-mounted metal pole and moving it to a 4x4 post before the others even arrived. This box is now a permanent installation right across from the visitor's center!

We then met with Perry, who deemed Box 19 to be the best candidate for a camera system. Box 19 is situated next to a pump station with electrical outlets, only a quarter mile from the Army Corps offices at the dam. We lowered the box off the existing pole, and Perry went right to work installing the camera.

With Perry busy with his electronics setup, Francis and I turned our attention to the new installation, Box 26. My friend Ken showed up to help with digging the hole and getting the box properly secured. Here's a pic of Ken and Francis busy with the prep work:

Digging a two foot hole in North Carolina soil is no easy chore. With large rocks imbedded in hard red clay, this ground is just brutal to human joints. The upside to this soil, though, is that any post imbedded in it is unlikely to go anywhere, with or without concrete. Here I am with Francis, lifting the post into place:

We decided to add a sack of concrete at the base, for extra stability in high winds. Box 26 is located on the far eastern side of the Corps of Engineers property, and can be seen from the hiking trail on the far side of the dam, going towards the spillway.

Below is a photo of the newly installed box 26, in habitat. This was the final nest box placement in phase one of our program!!

But it wasn't time to celebrate just yet. Upon arriving back at Box 19, we found Perry putting the finishing touches on the camera wiring. As with the other two Jordan dam boxes, this one was to be mounted directly into the ground.

Perry's company installs camera systems in nest boxes all over the country, including bluebird houses in back yards, and eagle nests in remote locations. We were very lucky to have him donate his time and expertise to our project. Here is the camera, fully mounted to the inside of the nest box:

Because the camera is mounted in the upper corner, it is out of the way of potential inhabitants, and offers nice images of the back of the nest box. An antenna will soon be installed at the Army Corps office, about a quarter mile away, to receive signal from the camera. Once the antenna is in place, hopefully within a few weeks, we will be able to stream live video online!!! I will post when the stream is ready to go live.

Here's a photo of the camera-installed nest box ready to go, on its new, permanent, wooden post. When the camera goes live, it will mark the end of phase one of our Piedmont Barn Owl Initiative, which set the intention to install 25 boxes in optimal habitat by 2015. We managed to install 26 boxes before the spring of 2014! Countless hours of talking on the phone, driving, and backbreaking work went into completing this part of the project.

We will now turn our attention to maintaining and monitoring the 26 boxes, inquiring about existing nest sites in the area, and educating the public. New Hope Audubon will continue to donate nest boxes where recent Barn Owl activity has been observed. Please contact us at to report sightings, or to ask questions about our program.

Box 25: Fearrington Village

Fearrington Village is a residential community south of Chapel Hill, best known for its Belted Galloway cows. The rare Scottish beef breed looks like an oreo cookie on four legs, and is especially popular with children. Families come from all over the region to take photos of the cows and take in the scenery.

Fearrington is also a popular retirement community, offering the allure of a rural English village with Carolina weather. The large barn, once part of the old Fearrington farm, has been converted into a space used for weddings, art shows, and concerts. Charming shops and eateries fill the village square, and a five star restaurant and inn are well known destinations.  Here's a view of the inn and gardens:

The open pasture and fields surrounding Fearrington offer good habitat for birds and wildlife, and potentially for Barn Owls. The community at Fearrington has also been a big supporter of New Hope Audubon over the years. So I approached Laura Morgan, the general manager at Fearrington, about putting up a Barn Owl nest box there. She enthusiastically supported the idea.

After reviewing the possible locations for installation, we decided on a spot at the edge of a field south of the inn. The location offered relative seclusion, direct access to habitat, and ease of observation. The only stipulation was that the proposed wooden post be painted white, to blend in with the surrounding architectural theme.

Laura graciously offered to help with installation, early on a Saturday in late winter. Within an hour, we had dug the two foot hole for the post, and mounted the box with the necessary brackets. We then hoisted the box into place. The entrance hole was faced southeast, towards open pasture, and the post was secured in concrete. Here I am with the finished product:

Here's a view from across the pasture. Fearrington residents can easily view the box from the bend in the road at West Madison.

Fearrington Village, famous for it's barn, restaurant, inn, and cows, may one day become famous for its Barn Owls.

11 March 2014

Anchor systems

North Carolina, as a mid-Atlantic state, gets a fair amount of wacky weather in late winter. March is particularly schizophrenic, with 70 degree temps one day, and ice storms the next. High winds and even tornadoes are not that uncommon during this time, as warm air from the Gulf of Mexico moves north to clash with Arctic air moving south. In just the past two weeks, we've experienced a major rainstorm with sporadic tornadoes, a ten year snowfall event, three days of spring-like weather, followed by a devastating ice storm. The day after the ice storm, as trees lay broken over houses and roadways, the temperatures were back up in the 70's.

During the period of recent severe thunderstorms, three of our nest boxes went over. All three of these boxes were empty, but the mere thought of them falling over was keeping me up at night. Part of the problem was placement. All of the boxes placed in lowland areas and marsh did fine in the high winds, but some of the ones placed in open grassland were vulnerable, especially on hillsides.

Barn Owls don't particularly like hilltop placement of nest boxes anyway, favoring areas near running water and wetland. So each of the most vulnerable boxes needed to be moved to lower ground. We also decided to be safe and anchor 21 of the 24 boxes with a cable system, which would require a significant amount of time and work.

After some experimentation, my friend Ken and I devised some anchor systems that had a very small footprint. Where the ground was clay, we used auger anchors, essentially long metal corkscrews, and 1/8 inch cable to prevent any tipping of the tires. Here's what the system looks like:

In areas that had more rocky, unstable soil, we used three foot metal stakes and the 1/8 inch cable. That system, which we also used in the windiest locations, ended up looking like this (the sign is for education purposes only):

Where boxes were adjacent to silos, we anchored the poles directly to the structure.

With each of our three systems, the threat of leverage forces toppling the box was practically eliminated. In many cases, we couldn't even budge the pole when we tried to move it.

Now why wouldn't we save ourselves the hassle, and mount the nest boxes on wooden poles placed directly in the ground? Well, that's certainly an easier and less expensive option, and in dry areas would be the preferred route. I would recommend 12 foot 4x4 posts for most farms with open grassland. (In fact, we will be using a wooden post for our installation at Fearrington Village this weekend). A telescoping metal pole system, set into the ground, is also an option in areas with stable soil.

This tire system requires a lot more work, but allows us to place boxes in less hospitable places subject to flooding. In the Piedmont, Barn Owls are most associated with wetland areas close to open fields. Tires also allow land managers to move the boxes if necessary, as for a prescribed burn. Most importantly for us, moveability allows us to experiment a bit with placement. Wooden posts will likely be used in places where we get some activity.

Due to some very hard work by three of our volunteers, we were able to move the most vulnerable nest boxes to better onsite locations. We also managed to anchor every single nest box that had a remote chance of toppling, 21 boxes in all! The only thing to fear at this point is an inland hurricane.

23 February 2014

Box 24: South Wind Farm

South Wind Farm is home to the Body Therapy Institute, a massage and healing arts school nestled into the heart of the Silk Hope community in Chatham County. BTI, as it is called by students and faculty, is a very special place, considered by many to be one of the best massage schools in the country. The land itself is designed to soothe body and soul, as woodlands turn to open grasslands yielding eventually to a picturesque little pond. Breathing becomes noticeably easier the moment you enter the driveway.

South Wind Farm and BTI also happen to have good habitat for Barn Owls. Only a couple of miles from our existing Silk Hope nest boxes, South Wind Farm provides necessary open space, along with proximity to working farms in the near vicinity. Since Barn Owls are known to have very large home ranges, and may forage up to five miles from a nesting site, the surrounding landscape is as important as the potential nest site itself. 

When we originally scouted sites in Silk Hope, I couldn't imagine better guardians of a nest box than Rick Rosen and Carey Smith, the owners of South Wind Farm and BTI. Having gone to the school myself, back in the mid-90's, I knew them not only to be great people, but avid birdwatchers as well. The feeders at the school are typically covered in goldfinches, and bluebirds are a common site almost every day of the year.  

The nest box was installed within a hedgerow, at the edge of a draw, close to the pond. 

Mounted on a 12 foot 4x4, the Barn Owl box blends in nicely with the overall aesthetic of the property. Look closely at the right side of the photo below, and you may see the small white speck along the hedgerow.

As one of the few truly rural areas of the Triangle region, the Silk Hope community may offer some of our best hopes for attracting imperiled Barn Owls back to the area. We now have five installations in Chatham County, with hopes of more in the future. Will the healing vibe of BTI and South Wind Farm attract a nesting pair in the next season or two??