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A new Kestrel Box for Stow Maries

Earlier this year, I helped Denis Stretton to think about ways in which we could film a pair of kestrels nesting in a kestrel box mounted on a telegraph pole at Stow Maries Aerodrome, in Essex. We had been experimenting with different set-ups, but then Denis came up with a very ingenious way of mounting a Birdsy cam up on a very tall pole, so that the camera could look in at the nest. We captured some amazing footage and live streamed this camera as the family raised their young. I visited the site earlier in the year and was able to photograph the male, 'Lemmy'. It was amazing and you can see more of my shots on my blog post.

We even filmed a unique sequence, in this box, that is possibly the only documentation of such an event. You may remember it as Chris Packham featured it on his Self Isolating Bird Club Show and it also appeared on BBC Springwatch. The female kestrel killed a hobby that had entered the box after chasing the male in with a vole. You can read more about it on this blog post

We captured some lovely clips throughout the season, but really wanted something better for the 2022 breeding season. We have been talking about it ever since and Denis has been working hard to create a new box with two new cameras. A new box was built that was exactly the same dimensions as the original one. This time, we wanted to install a camera on the outside and also one inside.

I have been experimenting with a range of new camera models and I have been really impressed with a mini PTZ produced by Hikvision. We decided to go for this camera as it could be controlled via the computer. Not only could it be moved around, it also had an excellent zoom. We both felt that we could capture some pretty special footage with this set-up.

Setting up camera systems like this can be expensive. The Aerodrome have applied for some funding to help raise money to improve public engagement at the aerodrome, but this money (if we are successful with the bid) will take a while to come. Denis has funded this part of the project himself, so we could get it up and running. I am very grateful for his enthusiasm and dedication to this project!

We have lots of plans to get the infrastructure in to deliver power and Internet to an outdoor enclosure and a switch, if the funding is successful. This would allow us not only to plug IP cameras in at the kestrel box, but also run them to a barn owl box as well. That project is now underway so the barn owl box can be up before next year's breeding season, but which time we hope to have the infrastructure in place to connect up the cams which will be pre-set up, ready to plug in. We would then hope to live stream these cameras.

I was able to advise with kestrel box camera positioning and set-up remotely, so that when I arrived on site last week, Denis had completed the box and got the cameras mounted. It looked amazing and I was really excited about what we might capture this year. The box was looking fabulous!

The challenge we had was to get this box back up onto the telegraph pole, in exactly the same position as last year's box. Whereas Denis had got the camera wired up inside his office and working on the Hikvision NVR, we now had to decide what we were going to do once the box was back up. Denis had set the cameras up with cable that would run to the base of the pole. This meant it was ready to plug in, without having to return up to the box.

Loading it onto a trolley, we took it to the base of the telegraph pole. These are old power line poles, that are no longer connected and out of use. Thankfully, the weather was on our side. Tying a rope and sling around the box, we flung a rope over the top of the cables. We tied the ladder securely onto the telegraph pole and, with me taking the weight of the box on the rope, Denis slowly climbed the ladder, with the box resting on his head!

When we reached the correct position, Denis screwed the base bracket into place. The top bracket was a lot harder! With Denis balanced at the top, he moved the sling so I could pull the box closer to the pole. We moved the ladder around and he managed to screw the top brackets in place. I breathed a sigh of relief! The new box was up!

This timelapse makes the whole process look very easy!

Denis was relieved too!

We added some substrate in the base of the box; a mix of sawdust, leaf litter, bark chippings and some plant material.

We then secured all the cables down the pole, into a waterproof enclosure at the base. We both knew that we couldn't wait until the funding came through to run the cable, so we decided to run a temporary Cat5e cable through the hedge from his office, to the pole. This took us several hours, and we were mighty pleased when we plugged it in and the image appeared up on the NVR!

This camera allows you to set a series of presets. This means, at the click of a button, you can move the camera from one position to another. It is difficult to predict the focus, but we knew we could adjust that if she went back into the box, so we could get it just right. The NVR records the footage so we could access it the following morning. A Hilook app means I can also access the NVR and the camera on my phone.

We couldn't help but keep checking the camera to see if the kestrel returned. We hoped she would approve of the upgrade.

I'm sure she was watching... and waiting. It was not long before she was back in the box and showed no signs that she had noticed the changes we had made.... we started capturing our first footage and, once the focus was spot on... wow!

We were delighted she looked so comfortable. What happened next, we had not even thought about!

First, a little owl spent over 3 hours sitting in the entrance to the box...

Then the barn owl checked it out too! This perch is an excellent hunting vantage point as it is above a rough grass bank, full of small mammals.

You can imagine how excited we were getting. Three birds of prey within a week!

The female, who Denis has called 'Kathy', has been visiting nearly every day and we already have some lovely clips. Denis was onsite today, when Kathy landed on the side post. Controlling the camera, this clip shows him zooming in and focusing. The camera is very quiet, so does not disturb her. We want her to get used to the cameras now, so she is entirely at ease by the time she breeds next year.

The wet and windy weather today meant it was a good place to shelter!

We just hope the funding is successful and we can get the internal camera up and running and also get the barn owl box operating in the same way. It will be so wonderful to be able to film these wonderful birds... plus of course, we never know what else might turn up and what events may unfold.

A massive thank you to Denis for all his dedication and hard work. I am privileged to be working alongside him on such a wonderful project.


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