13 things we learned about making nest boxes from Sherborne Park Estate’s rangers

Earlier this morning National Trust rangers on the Sherborne Park Estate took to Facebook Live to explain how they’re looking after birds on the Cotswold estate that’s charming millions on BBC Springwatch.

As well as building a bird box in under five minutes, they showed-off the different kinds of bird boxes they put up at Sherborne Park – including homes for barn owls, willow tits, tawny owls and dippers.

Here are 13 things we learned from the Facebook Live.

1. It’s really easy to make a blue tit box

Ranger James Gomery knocked up the blue tit nest box in under five minutes from untreated wood that they had lying around their yard.

He used a pattern from this amazing British Trust for Ornithology nestbox guide.

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Laying out the box – plus one made earlier

2. If you’re making a nest box you should use wood

Anna Field, an ecologist and ranger at Sherborne Park Estate, said: “The important thing is not to use plastic or metals. They can get hot or damp inside and cause problems for the chicks.

“The other important thing is that you use wood that’s at least 15mm thick. That insulates birds from the weather.”

3. There are around fifty nest boxes for blue tits and great tits at Sherborne – but there are lots of other boxes for different species

A few years ago rangers put up several nest boxes that have no front panel at all. These were for dippers – a small black and white bird that snatches insects from fast flowing rivers.

“It’s historically bred on the estate,” Anna said. “But we don’t have any at the moment.

“A couple of years ago we had a young bird who came to winter with us, so we rather speculatively put up some of these boxes. We have had grey wagtails nesting in them.

4. If you’re putting up a box in your garden, don’t put it near your bird feeder

Birds don’t tend to use nest boxes near where they feed, ranger Anna said. Keeping the nest boxes away from the feeder also helps reduce disturbance.

Anna added: “If you’re putting them in an exposed position in a tree in your garden it’s best to face them north to east, away from the wet winds to the bright sunshine.”

5. Regularly cleaning your feeder helps prevent diseases

Anna said: “Empty them, put them in boiling water – and that kills off the diseases.”

At this time of year a water bath can also help the birds to keep clean – important when they’re nesting.

 

6. Owl nesting boxes are massive

Anna said: “Different owls have different sizes and different habits, so you need to have different boxes for each of them.”

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Anna and Simon with a barn owl box

7. But they don’t always get used by owls – sometimes they’re used by greedy jackdaws

Last year rangers put up a few little owl nesting boxes. The distinctive design – with a tunnel opening up into a larger chamber – is tailor made for the species, which like their nesting chamber to be really dark.

Despite having a healthy population of little owls at Sherborne, with six males, none of the boxes have been used by owls. Instead, Anna said, one of the nest boxes has been filled up with sticks by jackdaws. She said: “We’ve got them in our barn owl nest boxes and tawny owl nest boxes, but I’ve not seen one down a tunnel in a little owl nest box before.”

8. Barn owls are doing really well at Sherborne

A family of barn owls has been charming Springwatch viewers – but there are four more pairs using the nest boxes at Sherborne.

“Out of our 18 boxes we’ve got five of them with nests in this year, which is really good for an estate this size,” Anna said.  “I was just checking them yesterday and in one of our boxes the eggs are just hatching and we’ve got three little chicks and four unhatched eggs, which is a massive brood.”

9. A muddy puddle can help house martins

The small bird, which is a similar size to a swift or swallow, builds its nest from wet mud – so a source of fresh dirt can be really helpful.

“We’ve got a really damp area of our yard and we’ve had scores of house martins coming down and taking mud out,” Anna said. “I think it’s in quite short supply at this time of year because it’s been so dry.”

10. Despite the name, willow tits like to nest in rotting birch tree stumps

Sherborne’s rangers have hollowed out a big birch log to mimic the kind of nest they like.

Anna said: “We’ve hollowed it out and put a hole in. Because they like to excavate their nests we’ve filled it with wood chippings.”

There are 15 of these distinctive nest boxes at Sherborne, funded by the North Cotswolds Ornithological Society. And rangers plan to plant wet woodland this winter to help the birds further.

“We’ve only got a few pairs left. But we’re trying to do everything we can to improve the habitat.”

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A willow tit nest box

11. Even the rangers’ office at Sherborne is home to wildlife.

Countryside manager Simon Nicholas said: “We’ve got great tits nesting, we’ve got blue tits nesting, we’ve even got a nuthatch nesting in the building this year.

“In these older buildings, sometimes the mortar starts disintegrating. But in some places the cracks between the stones get bigger and the little birds find their way in and build a nest.”

12. The rangers at Sherborne really love what they do

Ranger James Gomery found a tawny owlet perched in a tree just the other day. He said: “We’re always keeping our eyes peeled for the wildlife. That’s what we’re fascinated by and interested in.”

13. And every office should have a dog called Alfie

Alfie, a black, white and tan border collie, threatened to steal the show – with his heavy panting and occasional barking interrupting the start of the video.

“He’s a bit of an attention seeker,” said Alfie’s owner Simon Nicholas – the countryside manager at Sherborne Park Estate. “Apart from that he doesn’t do much work.”

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Show-stealer Alfie with Simon Nicholas, Sherborne’s countryside manager

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