Gaining Skills For The Future in Heritage Learning

Hi I’m Tabitha the Heritage Learning Trainee and am based in two different places with two different hats to wear! During school term time I am mainly based at Ancient House, Thetford, and throughout the holidays I am mainly in King’s Lynn for the Fenland Lives & Land project, as well as across the Fens Museums when needed. Since graduating from university last year I have been involved with museums doing collections volunteering as well as working as a museum assistant leading tours. I’ve always enjoyed exploring historical sites with fascination since I was little and felt they are a vital place for learning, and for not just history but more varied subjects. When I saw this traineeship appear I thought it looked just my sort of thing – fun events with schools, projects, and working with youth groups – but it turned out to be so much more!

The title of Heritage Learning Trainee is one that includes a range of activities and tasks, especially as the traineeship is divided between sites, but a challenge is always rewarding and I got straight into learning the ropes.

Working with the Fenland Lives & Land project involves assisting with the great learning programme that’s on offer alongside the five community co-produced exhibitions funded by HLF which are touring the Fens Museums over the year. As one of the partnership museums Lynn Museum is having three of the exhibitions with the latest currently being installed, and to coincide with the fantastic exhibitions there’s great family events. The first was ‘The Vikings are Coming!’ which explored the links with the brave bearded explorers visiting the watery fen landscape.

Picture 1 viking event

‘The Vikings are Coming!’ Our Lives & Land event went down brilliantly. Odin would be proud!

 The day included meeting Vikings, creating your own Viking brooch, as well as having a go at coin minting in the Viking method. As this was my first large event during the traineeship I was excited to be able to create my own activity to be available on the day, and decided to offer a simple paper activity of ‘what kind of Viking would you be?’. As it was so popular on the day Project Support Worker Ruth decided it would be included in the summer Learning Programme. Some of the Fens museums have already booked the session so I expect to see more fantastic Viking characters being created this summer.
It was great fun on the day and interesting to be involved in the preparation for such a big event day. I will definitely be using those skills for future events coming up, with both the Fenland project and at Ancient House museum.

The next big event I was able to be a part of was a World War Two family day at Ancient House, run in partnership with the 8th in the East project, which explores the 8th United States Army Air Force in the East of England. The visiting families were given a G.I. Training Card upon arrival, and over the day completed the card with stationed activities. These including painting your own patch, meeting ‘Hank the Yank’, and making Wartime Truffles with myself and a volunteer (the secret ingredient being mashed potato!)

picture 2 1st photo wartime truffles

All prepped for truffle making.

This was my first chanceto get into acharacter session, which I know I will be doing a lot more of at Ancient House, as their historical events and school sessions are very popular, so this was a perfect introduction. I have done sessions with youth groups before, but it was a totally different experience being able to step back in time in a great historical kitchen, which if you have seen will understand how atmospheric it can be. Before this event there had been several meetings to organise the day and how it would work, and being a part of these was vital to understanding how much work goes into a joint heritage event, from the finance to the consideration of the museums Georgian floor and using paint!

 I really enjoyed the chance to use my knowledge of rationing and Dig for Victory, as well as getting my hands dirty with cocoa powder! It made me realise how much preparation is needed for events, and that you can never plan enough – as anyone in learning will know, anything can happen!

 Getting to grips with providing the sessions that are available at Ancient House, with Learning Officer Melissa Hawker, is a great experience as they are so varied, and really blows away any presumptions that museums are dusty old lifeless buildings! Another event I was able to be part of was the ‘Hard Times Victorian Mystery’ for the West Norfolk Home Educators. The day involved a serious crime of a stolen spoon, and Victorian sessions interweaved with suspicion and plot twists. It was great fun playing the role of ‘Alice’ for the day alongside four freelancers, which gave me more confidence in delivering a drama-based session while being able to observe them, and ad-lib when needed! It was also a key chance to gain more knowledge into how to provide a diverse session, as I had previously done drop-in family days or working with specific groups. However having to adapt to the varying ages that were present was a brilliant challenge and a fun day was had by all.

‘Hard Times Victorian Mystery’ – who took the silver spoon? Turns out I had!

‘Hard Times Victorian Mystery’ – who took the silver spoon? Turns out I had!

Very early on in the traineeship I realised my responsibilities would not only be school sessions and event days, but a whole lot more within the goings on and exciting tasks happening at Ancient House. When starting the role I knew my interests were not just in learning but also in collections, conservation, and curatorial management, and realised that within this position I am able to explore those roots and be involved in a variety of roles.

picture 4 1st lives and land

Installing the ‘Living on Land and Water’ exhibition at Lynn Museum in March.

With Fenland Project I have been able to help and obverse the moving and installation of the touring exhibitions, which meant visiting other fen museums as well as getting down to the nitty-gritty of what an exhibition really consists of.

Moreover, when I began in March the staff of Ancient House were preparing for a new exhibition named ‘I ♥ Toys and Games’ which celebrates play in living memory.

Working with volunteer Dan on some lead Snow White figures for the Toys exhibition.

Working with volunteer Dan on some lead Snow White figures for the Toys exhibition.

This meant I was able to get stuck in with a range of tasks from recording the vast amount of objects that were brought in on loan, to being in charge of the retro sweets needed for the exhibition opening. 

This gave me a great insight into the real effort and organisation that goes into exhibitions, and I am excited to be involved from the start with the Thetford in World War One exhibition to commemorate the centenary this year.

 As well as being able to explore my interests and passions through the ongoing exhibitions and mini-projects with Ancient House and the Fenland Project, I have been able to attend various training days. These range from SHARE Museums East courses on object handling & packing, housekeeping, and conservation, to an upcoming Teaching Museums day visiting independent museums around North Norfolk. So far these have all been really informative and have given me a wider knowledge of the roles within a museum, and the care and dedication that goes into caring for our vital collections and buildings by various people. We can all do our bit to help!

picture5 housekeeping training

Everyone’s got to do their bit with the Museum housekeeping!

To conclude then, it’s been a fantastic first few months doing such a great range of tasks and responsibilities. I’ve been able to gain a better understanding of the daily life and inner workings of a busy museum, as well as the organisation needed and involved in a project which covers a fantastic subject. With this position I’ve been able to visit several of the fens museums, and various sites in the Norfolk Museum Service. This has given me a whole other perspective when it comes to the efforts at a national level, and has made me realise how lucky I am to work (and live close to) such a unique and thriving area for heritage.

There’s plenty coming up for both roles. My ‘Fenland hat’ has been firmly on over the last couple of weeks to prepare for our Bygone Beasts event at Lynn Museum, which coincides with the opening of the Wild Fens exhibition – I’ve had a sneak peak and it’s looking fantastically ferocious! At Ancient House we’ve got several bookings lined up for more group activity days, plus our History Club and Teenage History Club are both getting through their new term programme. To add to the mix, as of last week I am trained to be an Arts Award advisor for Discover and Explore levels, so I can’t wait to start putting this to good use with our clubs.

All in all a great start to the traineeship being busy, learning, challenged, and having a blast! Bring on the rest of the year I say.

 

Tabitha

Gressenhall’s Barn Owls – Success at last!

After two seasons without any successful breeding we finally have a pair of Barn Owls back at Gressenhall Farm! The pair have been occupying one of the nest boxes overlooking the wet meadows; using the box as a roost for some time. Our female has been sitting on five eggs which is a good clutch size for this particular species; if the pair can successfully hatch and raise all five chicks it will be quite an achievement since these birds do not fare particularly well in the wider countryside and are not expected to live much more than two or three years as adults.

5 eggs have been laid in total, between 9 and 19 April

5 eggs have been laid in total, between 9 and 19 April

The very wet summer of 2012, followed by an extremely cold winter into 2013 has undoubtedly had an impact on the breeding rate for Barn Owls because like much of the animal kingdom they will not attempt to breed if they cannot secure an adequate food supply. The wet summer of 2012 made hunting difficult and the cold and prolonged winter of 2013 led to a marked decrease in the abundance of key prey species such as Short-Tailed Vole, Wood Mouse and Common Shrew. This has meant that many adult birds have also faced starvation, and higher than usual mortality rates have been evident across the countryside with fewer birds being spotted and even fewer juvenile birds recorded during the 2012-13 period.

Barn Owls hunt by sound, using their excellent asymmetrical ears to locate prey in tall grass as it scurries through self-made tunnels in the soft, dead material below the new growth. They use stealth; gliding through the air making almost no sound at all as they have hollow cartilage in their wings and specially designed feathers with tiny barbs that trap air and prevent the typical ‘clap’ that bird’s wings make when in flight. Unfortunately, these special adaptations also have a key flaw- Barn Owls will not hunt if it is too wet not only because their prey are often holed up in the dry but also because the birds do not preen or produce any oils to ensure their feathers are waterproof; meaning that to get them soaked could prove fatal.

Barn-Owl-hunting-sequence

The good news is that we have had a very mild winter (the first in a few years!) and a fantastic early spring in 2014; many prey species survived in good numbers over the winter and have begun breeding around two weeks earlier than last year. At Gressenhall we are fortunate to have a perfect habitat for mice and voles in our wet meadow grasslands beside the river Whitewater (a tributary of the river Wensum) so it is no surprise that the pair of Barn Owls which had been occupying a nesting box overlooking the meadow were found to be on eggs in early April. In total 5 eggs have been laid, with the close pair continuing to mate whilst incubating and exhibiting wonderful signs of bonding behaviour during this time; it’s fantastic to have the ‘naturewatch’ cameras on hand to capture these moments!

Parent birds perform regular bonding rituals including this greeting gesture when the male returns to the nest.

Parent birds perform regular bonding rituals including this greeting gesture when the male returns to the nest.

The first chick duly arrived on 11th May, followed up by the second and third on the 13th and 15th respectively. It is usual for the eggs to hatch over a staggered period of a couple of days for each egg, given that they are generally laid over a week or so from first to last, with no more than two eggs laid in a 24-hour period. The female has put a great deal of effort into egg laying and it uses an immense amount of her energy to produce the required nutrients in the eggs. Studies have shown that there is a direct relationship between the bodyweight of the female and successful laying, including final clutch size. She will rely heavily on the male being able to supply her with enough food during laying and incubation to ensure that a good clutch is laid and incubated to hatching.

1st chick hatching 11.5.14

1st chick hatching 11.5.14

Another good omen for these chicks has been the sheer amount of food being brought in by the male bird. We have observed up to six fresh kills being brought into the nestbox in a 24-hour period. These early arrivals are now approaching two weeks old, and have had a great start; already they are proving quite a handful for the female bird as she tries to keep them warm under her brood patch. This is an area of bare skin that is packed with blood vessels and carries a lot of heat to that particular part of her body where she can press down onto the young and incubate their tiny featherless bodies. It will still be another week or two before they begin to grow the white ‘down’ that will make them less dependent on her warmth inside the nest.

2nd & 3rd chicks arrive 13 & 15 May. Barn Owls typically lay their eggs a day or two apart so that hatching is staggered over a period of days.

2nd & 3rd chicks arrive 13 & 15 May. Barn Owls typically lay their eggs a day or two apart so that hatching is staggered over a period of days.

Our fourth chick hatched on the 18th May; the first three are already twice the size of the newborn but if the plentiful food supply continues it shouldn’t be long before this chick catches up. Although the imagery from the ‘naturewatch’ cameras is grainy at times, it has still been possible to watch some of the chicks hatching. The chicks are born with what is sometimes called an ‘egg tooth’; a small protrusion from the beak which the chick uses to break through the eggshell over a number of hours. The egg tooth will fall off the beak of the young bird within a few days.

Mother with 4 chicks and one egg still to hatch. No4 arrived on the 17/18 May.

Mother with 4 chicks and one egg still to hatch. No4 arrived on the 17/18 May.

A possible fifth hatching may have taken place by the 21st; it certainly appears from the images we have been able to take that hatching began around the 19th or early on the 20th. This would tie in with the other egg hatching times. The problem we have is that the female bird is more or less constantly incubating and only moves off the chicks once or twice every 24-hours. This, coupled with the size of the earlier chicks now crowd out the smaller two; although it is clear to make out four chicks it remains impossible to determine whether the fifth has survived. Hopefully we will have a better idea in the coming days.

Are there 5 chicks in this shot? 23.5.14

Are there 5 chicks in this shot? 23.5.14

Barn Owl chicks will compete more and more fiercely for the scraps of food dispensed by the female as they grow, and the smaller, later chicks are at a distinct disadvantage. It is not uncommon for them to starve or be bullied and pecked to death by their older siblings; sometimes even eaten by them! Although it seems cruel, there is a natural advantage in that these stronger birds will certainly have a better chance of survival, whereas if the food was evenly distributed then all chicks would have the same chance of survival but also the same susceptibility to starvation in leaner times.

Barn Owls have a typical incubation period of 32 days. This is quite a considerable period of time and compared to other Owl species it is lengthy. In comparison to average female body weight, incubation is 10% longer than might be expected. Barn Owl eggs are prone to breaking before hatching; indicating that they might be thinner than other owl’s eggs. This might explain the longer incubation period or it might point to the fact that the female must rely on whatever the male is able to provide for nutrition whilst she is on the eggs. She certainly spends most of her time incubating and this practice continues once the chicks have hatched. They cannot regulate their own body temperatures for the first three weeks of their lives so it is up to the female to brood them until they have acquired the downy feathers that will enable them to stay warm.

Mother with her chicks

Mother with her chicks

In total the chicks will be in the nest for around 60 days. Though the reason is unclear, it is suggested that the Barn Owl has evolved in this way to compensate for when food is less abundant; a longer period of time spent in the nest should in theory support young birds in their quest to reach an optimum body weight before leaving the security of the nest. It certainly reflects the symbiotic nature of the relationship between predator and prey. Another item of interest is the significance of the male’s role in bringing food to the female whilst she is incubating the eggs. There is again a clear relationship between the amount of food he is able to provide to the female and the final clutch size.

There are six distinct small mammal carcasses in this shot. The male is doing a great job keeping his young family fed.

There are six distinct small mammal carcasses in this shot. The male is doing a great job keeping his young family fed.

60+ days in the nest will make for some fantastic images though so we shouldn’t complain! We have already captured some images of the female feeding the young chicks; with the male bringing as many as six rodents every night so far she will tear the meat apart and feed strips to the chicks. Until they are big enough to eat an animal whole she will continue to do this, and they will produce miniature pellets of their own when swallowing indigestible items such as bones and fur.

Owl chicks are renowned for their mobility and curiosity so we can expect plenty of movement in the nest box over the coming weeks as the chicks grow and begin to explore their surroundings. Already the largest of the chicks is becoming difficult to keep under the female’s belly! These amazing birds are quite unlike many other raptors in that the young will readily play and interact with one another and make frequent attempts to explore outside the nest as soon as they are big enough to get around.

A face only a mother could love..?

A face only a mother could love..?

We will continue to monitor the cameras and make regular updates on the chick’s development. Hopefully the weather will continue to be mild and not too wet; with plenty of food being brought in by the male every night these birds will continue to grow and we will have some fascinating images to show you over the coming weeks!

Daniel Johnson

Landscape Management Trainee

The Dyer’s Garden

One of the lovely things about being a Heritage Gardening Trainee is the fact that we are able to garden in so many different heritage settings. Even within the walls of Gressenhall there are different focuses for each gardening area.

My focus has primarily been on the Dyer’s Garden and the Farmhouse garden. It has been a joy to get to know the volunteers who have spent many years in some cases caring for the different areas. Carol and Jenny who look after the Dyer’s Garden are extremely knowledgeable about the whole process of dying, from which plants to grow for which colour, through to the processes of dying fabric. Carol loaned me a fascinating book about the history of wool industry in Norfolk and how dying yarn and silk was a highly valued skill.

Dyer's Garden at Gressenhall FW

Dyer’s Garden at Gressenhall FW

Starting the traineeship in winter was a good time to begin as the Dyer’s Garden was pretty much a blank canvas. Many of the perennial plants had died back for the winter and much of the remaining space is left for last years annual plants to self-seed. Once spring had begun it was an education in itself learning how to distinguish which tiny seedlings we needed to keep and the rogues which needed to be weeded out. Once this was completed which took us about 3 sessions together we could see where the spaces were and we could thing about what to fill them with.

Gardening in the Dyer’s Garden almost forces you to throw out much of the theory of normal gardening – adding feed and compost and mulching in the winter for instance, as many of the plants like bare, dry, stony and impoverished conditions to thrive. After a delightful trip to Norfolk Herbs, a nursery in the tiny village of Dillington, we rushed back to the Dyer’s Garden to place Echinacea and Marjoram, whilst leaving gaps for the Dahlias which wait quietly in bags ready to be planted. Hummocks of daylilies and ? have quickly grown up in the last few weeks. Rustic plant supports, made out of Hazel have been used to allow the Madder to scramble up and the Cotinus has been moved forward after struggling in the shade. I had propagated at home some Achillea Cassis and Rudbeckia fulgida which have also filled some holes. I‘m really looking forward to seeing the blaze of colour later in the summer, when the Dyer’s Garden reaches its peak.

Me with tractors at recent trip to Avoncroft Museum.

Me with tractors at recent trip to Avoncroft Museum.

Sam Kemp
Heritage Gardening Trainee

Adventures of a Visitor Services Trainee

My name is Lydia and I’m the Visitor Services Trainee for the friendly and positive Front of House team at Gressenhall. A ‘Visitor Services Traineeship’ is pretty much what it says in the name. My duty is to be there for between 200-3000 visitors all day, answering whatever questions they throw my way, responding to whatever surprising situations arise and helping to keep the museum as clean as possible for visitors. This also means clearing up after them, but as long as they’ve enjoyed their day and will be coming back for more fun at Gressenhall then that’s all that matters! I’ll also be learning a great deal about museum operations and how our dedicated duty managers Phil and Gina undertake the day-to-day running of Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse.

It’s our job to make everything accessible for visitors so before anyone arrives at the museum, we share the tasks of opening up the museum inside and outside, along with cleaning wherever necessary. This includes ensuring that the toilets are squeaky clean before any visitors use them and undertaking the vital task of keeping them topped up with toilet roll and soap. Making sure that visitors have a nice experience using our toilets can actually be a rewarding task! No one wants to use a grubby toilet when they go out for the day and it is our job is to give them a pleasant experience at Gressenhall.

I’ve enjoyed spending many busy days in the museum shop, including a Day With A Difference on Mother’s Day on which we had 800 visitors wanting tickets from the shop as the day went on. My job was to issue all sorts of different tickets and answer the many varied questions the visitors asked me. I enjoy the buzzing atmosphere of the shop on a busy day and interacting with visitors who are having a great time is always rewarding. Front of House recently launched a new ticketing system, and on the day of the Spring Fair I was on standby all day in the shop, involving issuing tickets and museum passes but also holding the fort when the new computer system doesn’t always do what we expect it to. This usually happens when there’s a long queue of visitors desperate to get in to the museum and enjoy the fair, and as a member of Front of House staff I find the key is to smile – apologise and to explain that we are getting to grips with the new IT system.  Together the Front of House team are conquering the new system and its proving to be an efficient way of doing things.

Manning the Front of House Desk in the main museum involves being the first point of call for questions ranging from ‘where’s the toilet?!’ to ‘I’ve lost my child’s pink jacket – do you know where it is?’ as well as questions about the museum, it’s  collections and our event days.  I am responsible for doing the security checks around the museum and to make sure everything’s tidy and to empty the bins which are mostly filled with the remains of lunches. As long as visitors have enjoyed their lunch at Gressenhall on a picnic bench in the sun and got the most out of their visit then that’s all that matters and I have contributed to that!

Something I’ve enjoyed doing over the Easter holidays is Object Handling with visitors in the Treasures Room. Visitors have to memorise a picture of how a Victorian table has been dressed and then remember how to dress the table with the plates and cutlery we’ve provided them with. I’m always impressed by how much people remember once they’ve looked at the picture. I’ve particularly enjoyed watching the younger children complete the task as they don’t usually look at the picture but instead use their own imagination to lay the table, which can be surprising and amusing.

I have been down on the farm helping out if needed including queue management with horse and cart rides. This involves letting visitors know when and where horse and cart rides are happening and counting out a group of about fourteen to have the next ride. I also had the fundamental task of firmly telling overly excited children to stand back from the horse cart and helping to prevent anyone from getting injured!

Image Enjoying a sunny horse and cart ride.

 The farms Norfolk Black pig, Margaret, gave birth to five piglets recently and me and Graham, another core member of the Front of House team, were on standby for her. It was a long birth which took all day and there were three hours between the first and second piglet. I’ve never worked with animals before so this was my first time watching an animal give birth and it was an amazing experience. I was at the door to the pig pen talking to excited visitors and letting them know what was happening, and holding out newborn piglets for them to look at. Whilst I had the easier task, Graham was inside the pig pen with Margaret, being there for the piglets as they shot out ‘like torpedo’s!’, he said. As Social Media Champion for the Front of House team, it was my job to take as many photos as possible. Some were nice which made it to the Gressenhall facebook page and some weren’t so nice which didn’t make it!

 Image

Image

So it’s been an exciting and varied first couple of months at Gressenhall. I am really enjoying working with the Front of House team who are incredibly dedicated to their role. I’m developing a variety of skills relating to making the visitor experience at Gressenhall as enjoyable and efficient as possible.

Lydia Bartlett

Visitor Services Trainee

Hive restoration – an update!

It feels like I have been working on this project for a very long time now; ever since our Assistant Farm Manager called me over the radio to come and have a look at an old WBC hive that had been put into storage in the museum. In reality, it has only been six weeks and I have had to cram this restoration project in-between the myriad of other tasks and experiences that I am getting involved with on the Farm and away on my work placements with Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the Hawk and Owl Trust.

The old hive showing its age...

The old hive showing its age…

For my part, I have been busy in every spare moment as I renovate the hive trying to make sure that it is ready for the bee’s later this month. The first task was to try to kill off any beasties that might be living in the old cedar wood of the outer frames, or ‘lifts’, as they are called. This was done by placing the hive into deep freeze in the museum freezer; a process they use for much the same purpose in preservation of old furniture and museum pieces.

 

Entering deep freeze

Entering deep freeze

Next, I needed to clean of any exterior dirt and debris from each of the lifts, the stand, and the roof. Simple enough, using lukewarm water with a little washing up liquid. The important thing here was not to get the wood too wet; it’s old wood and not in the best condition so adding too much moisture would only expedite the onset of rot. After that it was onto removal of the old paint…

The old stand showing signs of rot.

The old stand showing signs of rot.

I wanted to get back to the bare wood in order to give the hive a real chance at recovery and hopefully extend it’s useful life for another decade at least. This proved harder and more time-consuming than I’d imagined; the old paint was flakey in places but elsewhere it still retained a gloss and stubbornly refused to budge! I was using an orbital sander and when this failed to work I switched to a heat gun to try to strip the paint. Sadly this also failed, and worse still seemed to be harming the ageing wood. I determined to finish it off with the sander, and good old-fashioned elbow grease!

Using an orbital sander to remove the old paint

Using an orbital sander to remove the old paint

Once the bare wood was exposed I again wiped the surfaces down with a damp cloth to remove any dust and create a good key for the paint to grip onto. I opted for one undercoat of primer, followed by two coats of gloss; thanks to Mike for the materials! The results have been quite impressive, and I’m content that the hive has been preserved for a good few years to come…not long until the bees can move in!

Adding the gloss

Adding the gloss

We will shortly be moving the hive to it’s final position, back in the wildflower meadow and erecting and fine mesh fence to keep visitors back a safe distance. It is hoped that we will be able to give some an exhibition of hive opening during the summer; once we have worked out some safe working practices and properly risk-assessed the operation. The bees themselves will be in place within a week or so, just in time for the blossoming of our wildflower meadow so hopefully they will be well fed…

The renovated bottom lift, which sits on the stand

The renovated bottom lift, which sits on the stand

It’s very exciting to be part of this project, and I’m really looking forward to getting the bee’s into their new home, as well as having the chance to put into practice all that I have learned on my short course- I have the last of my practical sessions this weekend. I’ve been shown how to handle the frames within the hive and also more complicated husbandry skills which I hope to further develop under the supervision of Venetia.

The completed lifts, and the stand waiting for its gloss coats

The completed lifts, and the stand waiting for its gloss coats

I’m discovering that beekeeping is an amazing hobby but also a privilege to spend time looking after these fascinating insects. Keep your eyes peeled for further updates on the progress of returning honey bees to Gressenhall, and also some insights into beekeeping procedures as I learn them!

Our nesting Great Tits

Typically for this time of year we have been fortunate enough to have a pair of Great Tits take up residence in one of our nesting boxes; attached to the side of the St Nicholas Barn. Great Tits; like Blue Tits, Robins, Wrens and Dunnocks all take readily to artificial nesting boxes and are relatively easy to study. Having our ‘Nature-Watch’ Cameras inside the box has meant that we can stream live images of the birds as they nest, incubate, hatch and fledge their young.

Investigating the nest site

Investigating the nest site

The pair began investigating the box in the middle of March and it wasn’t long before the female bird started to use the box as a favoured roosting site. From that moment on, I have been keeping a close eye on developments!

The male bird was noticed roosting in the box at the far end of the barn, and during the day would be seen with the female and helping out with the nest-building which had started at the beginning of April. Great Tits construct their nests from dry hay and grasses that they flatten into a sponge-like mass on the floor of the box; in a natural setting this would be the floor of a cavity in a tree or in the fork of a large shrub. This layer will form a base which absorbs fluids from the hatching eggs and later any liquid excretions from the chicks themselves; much like a nappy on a newborn!

Building the base by flattening down the dried grasses

Building the base by flattening down the dried grasses

As the month has progressed, I have watched as the nest has been completed, with the female continuing to roost in the box and the male nearby; preventing any other Tits from occupying the neighbouring box! Occasionally he would be seen entering the nest box with materials to help in the final stages of construction, or with a morsel of food for the weary female; a good sign of the bond between the pair. Although it is not uncommon for a male Great Tit to have more than one female to ‘visit’ during the mating season, it does seem that our male is doing right by his lady!

Final stages... Great Tits use finer materials like feathers and fur to line the top of the nest which helps to insulate the eggs and chicks.

Final stages… Great Tits use finer materials like feathers and fur to line the top of the nest which helps to insulate the eggs and chicks.

The nest-building is not fully completed until after laying begins, but a sure sign that this is close is when the female begins to draw up insulation such as mosses, feathers and fur into a cup shape around her, which she flattens and moulds into shape with intricate movements of her body and beak. Sure enough, I believe that she began laying around the 11th of April. She covers the first clutch of eggs with more moss and feathers as she will lay a complete clutch of 7-9 eggs over the course of a few days and will be in and out of the nest looking for a good supply of food for when the chicks hatch.

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The male bringing food back to the nest for the female. This precedes the feeding of the chicks which will be shared by both parents. Initially however the male will bring food that the female will break up or regurgitate to the chicks.

Our female spent much of this time in the box since the male was regularly bringing in food for her. Great Tits, like all small woodland/farmland birds will only attempt breeding when they know that they have a good supply of the insects and particularly caterpillar grubs that will form the basis of their own and their chick’s diet during the coming weeks. At Gressenhall we are not short of wild and woody areas where these insects thrive so our female could afford to spend much of her time with the eggs. In all, she has laid 9 eggs; a great clutch!

9 eggs in all. Notice the 'cup' construction of fine mosses, feathers and fur.

9 eggs in all. Notice the ‘cup’ construction of fine mosses, feathers and fur.

Both birds took turns in incubating the eggs and this period lasts for around two weeks. It is generally believed that the female incubates alone, but I have observed both parents incubating; the male distinguishable by his prominent dark black chest stripe. They will rely on one another for food whilst incubating; swapping duties many times during the day.

Hatching chicks

Hatching chicks.

The first of our chicks hatched late on 25th April and into the early hours of 26th April. The female dutifully eats the egg shells and sits on the newborns to keep them warm as they are born without any feathers or down. In the morning, the male returns and quickly takes over the babysitting; with the female free to stretch her wings and go out foraging.  The final hatchings took place on this Sunday last, and I am busy trying to make out if we have the full 9 birds; I haven’t seen any dead ones outside on the ground below the box, nor have I observed the adults disposing of any. All good signs that for now at least, we have a full complement.

Removing a faecal sac.

Removing a fecal sac.

Now that all the babies are hatched, it is the female who is more or less permanently in the nest box. The male brings food for both mother and babies, with the mother regurgitating smaller pieces of food for the chicks. She will occasionally be seen leaving the nest to forage for her own food and bring in more for the chicks, but from what I have observed, the male is very busy at the moment; backwards and forwards many times during daylight hours. And he is still roosting in the neighbouring box!

Feeding the chicks

Feeding the chicks

These common and abundant birds offer us a glimpse into their fascinating lives when they nest in boxes. We are lucky at Gressenhall to be able to peek in with the cameras and get an even closer look. I will be posting more pictures of the chicks as they develop and eventually fledge in about a month’s time. Gressenhall’s resident Barn Owl pair have also been busy this Spring and I will have some news on them to follow shortly!