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Monday, 28 September 2015

Little Owls - Cause for Concern - the start of Autumn, 2015

I confess to being more than a little demotivated over the past couple of months. There's one major factor behind this-state-of-mind and that's the state of the owl population - particularly  where the Little Owls are concerned. It seems that I'm losing Little Owl sites at an alarming rate.

LO Site No.02

When I came back from holiday in Scotland at the end of May, I found that the roof of the building in which the owls were resident had suffered a major catastrophe. Approximately 50% of one side had disappeared, and approximately 10% of the other side. For a while, no owls were seen, but one is currently showing from time to time. I feel that it's only a matter of time before the whole roof collapses and this site becomes unusable by the owls. Part of the problem is the dead weight of the Russian Vine, which covers the east side of the roof, on the rotten timbers.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.02, on 27th August, 2015
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.02, on 3rd September, 2015
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.02, on 26th September, 2015
LO Site No.03

No images to offer here, as no owls have been seen since April. A visit at the beginning of August revealed the the nest tree had suffered severe damage, rendering the nest cavity unusable. It's my experience that Little Owls often sense when their home is soon to collapse, and depart before the damage occurs.

LO Site No.11

No owl seen since April. A visit yesterday to a point a couple of hundred metres away indicated that the nest cavity opening is now covered by new growth - a visit with the secateurs is probably indicated, but I suspect that it's too late.

LO Site No.17

This is one of my most remote sites, and I confess to it being under-observed this year. I last saw an owl here in April. However, the farmer says that sightings are only sporadic these days, the roof and wooden walls of the building that is their home are starting to fall apart, and Jackdaws have occupied the building. Further investigation is needed, but it doesn't look good!

LO Site No.23

A strange site that is on the route that John and I regularly take to Rutland Water, so we probably pass it twice a week on average. We can go for months without seeing an owl here and then we suddenly start seeing one (two, on only one occasion) nearly every time we pass! We suspect that this is owls taking refuge from the confines of a breeding site after the breeding season finishes. Most times we see the owl on the same bit of RSJ.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.23, on 27th August, 2015
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.23, on 3rd September, 2015
LO Site No.30

This site, on my local patch, is difficult to get to during the summer months, due to the presence of cattle - not docile dairy cows but young beasts that tend to stampede towards you as soon as they see you. I've not seen an owl here since April, and the tree has been full of corvids on subsequent visits. I'm not giving up on this one yet!

LO Site No.34

This was one of our most reliable sites for sightings. However, having seen a single juvenile at the end of July, there were no sightings at this site in August - other than Stock Doves emerging on two occasions. On 3rd September, one of the owls was seen in the next tree down from the nest site, then on 9th September we had another sighting in a tree at the bottom of the field. We've had no further sightings since then, other than a pair of Jackdaws emerging from the nest hole on 24th September. This looks like bad news!

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.34, on 2nd July, 2015
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.34, on 3rd September, 2015
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.34, on 9th September, 2015
LO Site No.36

This site is very close to No.34. An owl was last seen here in late July. Since then the nest tree seems to be perpetually full of corvids. We're not unduly worried, however, as the birds seem to have migrated to Site No.43. The next image was taken when two birds were present in early July

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.36, on 16th July, 2015
LO Site No.40

This is another site that is on the regular 'owling route' taken by John and I. We thought we'd possibly lost the owls when the coppice in which they resided was cleared out and several of the trees cut down. However, this proved not to be the case, and we were enjoying enhanced viewing capabilities. Sadly, in June, further 'tidying up' of the coppice took place, and no owls have been seen here since early June.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.40, on 4th June, 2015
LO Site No.41

This was another reliable site, but not without a worrying history. Two years ago, the nest cavity was destroyed when a major part of the tree collapsed. The owls migrated to the far side of the field. John and I erected a nest box that has never been occupied. However, the owls returned to the tree and found an alternative cavity to nest in, and raised three young in 2014.

This year the owls didn't breed and a huge crack appeared in the main trunk of the tree in July. It appears that the tree could come down at any time and all that would be left is a stump with our nest box attached to it! The owls are still being seen occasionally, but never in the old nest tree. It seems that they might have relocated to one of the farm buildings. The second image shows debris from the first trauma suffered by the tree.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.41, on 9th July, 2015
The next images are from when we last saw two owls at this site, and we last saw an owl in the nest tree.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.41, on 16th July, 2015
Since then, if we've seen an owl, it's been in its now-usual place in a hawthorn bush near to the old nest tree.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.41, on 9th September, 2015
LO Site No.42

Sightings at this site have always been sporadic, with the owls dividing their time between the nest tree and an old building. In summer, because of the dense foliage, it is virtually impossible to see the owls when they are in the nest tree.

This year, the owls have bred again, but we've only seen one juvenile. The site presents no great concerns at present - just frustration at not getting more sightings!

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.42, on 27th August, 2015
LO Site No.43

This site is almost certainly an 'overflow site' from Site No.36. As previously noted, we are not currently seeing birds at No.36, but we are seeing birds at No.43 with some regularity.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.43, on 9th September, 2015
LO Site No.44

This has been a 'good news story' so far this year. In 2014, the owls disappeared in August. In mid-February this year, an owl was seen back at the site. It then went quiet until early March, but then we had occasional sightings throughout the month. On 2nd April, two birds were present. 

In summer, the foliage on their nest tree (which is an Oak) becomes very dense and makes it extremely hard to find the owls sometimes. We've seen two juveniles there this year, but a birding friend, who passes the site on a daily basis, says he's seen three!

The first image was taken when the leaves were just coming into bud.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.44, on 7th May, 2015
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.44, on 4th June, 2015
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - my Site No.44, on 18th June, 2015
 We've now come to the point where the situation starts looking even more bleak:-

LO Site No.46

An owl was last seen at this site on 9th August, when there were also two Sparrowhawks present in the same tree.

LO Site No.47

Sightings at this site were always sporadic. However, having seen two owls here at the end of April , we've only seen a single owl since then, and the last sighting was on 9th July. We think that they've gone!

LO Site No.48

This site failed in April when the tree split, and a large part of it fell across the nest opening. There was no way that we could safely move the fallen part, and we believe that the owls could have escaped if they were in there at the time. We haven't seen them since.

LO Site No.49

The birds seem to have abandoned their original nest tree, and were last seen in early August in a tree about 130 metres away. They've not been seen on a couple of subsequent visits.

LO Site No.50

This site was relatively close to No.49, with a single bird being seen twice in April, but not since. I'm hoping that its absence means that it has moved on to find a mate.

LO Site No.51

We've only seen an owl here once, in June this year. We think that there's a good possibility that this site is shared with No.23, which is only 350 metres away.

In Summary

My feeling is that it's been a disastrous year for Little Owl breeding. This is possibly due to a shortage of small rodents, but I also believe that the weather has a lot to do with it. We've had a much colder and windier summer than normal, although there has not been a lot of rain. Owls do not like the wind, and the soil has dried out quickly in the wind, making it as hard as iron and difficult for Little Owls to get their other favourite food - worms!

I also believe that the food shortage has led to the demise of a number of adult owls.

Furthermore, the number of raptors, particularly Buzzards and Sparrowhawks, seems to be increasing and these present a real threat to the Little Owls.

The strong winds have led to a greater than normal destruction of nest sites. Sadly, Little Owls tend to nest in decaying trees or decaying buildings, so they're at a disadvantage from the word go.

You can probably see now why it's not been a happy couple of months for me. I shan't give up, although it has been more than a little demotivating.

I'm hoping that the owls will bounce back next year - in which case, I shall follow suit!

Thank you for dropping by!