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Saturday, 16 July 2016

An Owl Update - mid-July, 2016

I was recently taken to task by my good friend, David Gascoigne, for not publishing anything about Owls for a very long time. I've been aware, for some time, that this was so, but there have been reasons.
Up until the end of February, things were looking very promising on the Little Owl front. during the month of February, I'd had 27 sightings of Little Owl over 8 different sites. This compares favourably with the same period in 2015, when I had 18 sightings over 8 different sites.

Things went downhill a bit in March with 19 sightings over 9 sites compared with 25 sightings over 13 sites the previous year.

By the end of April, I knew that there was serious trouble. I had just 3 sightings over 3 sites, compared with 60 sightings over 15 sites the previous year.

May was just as bad with 4 sightings over 3 sites (19 sightings over 9 sites in 2015 - when I was away for a chunk of the month).

By now I was finding the situation somewhat depressing and getting disheartened. I possibly reacted in a way that I shouldn't have done, and tended to shy away from the situation by not visiting sites that were not on regularly travelled routes. Whilst some of the drop in sightings can be attributed to destruction of nests, nest invasion (definitely) and probably predation contributed to the situation! My owling buddy, John, and I suspect that food supply and weather were also factors.

It's too soon to get excited, but July is possibly showing us a small turnaround in the situation. John and I are starting to see birds again where they've not been seen for many months, although I've only seen juveniles at one site so far. We've also spotted an owl at what will possibly turn out to be a new site.

Here's a run down on my Little Owl sites that were active this time last year.

LO Site 02

The barn that is home to the owls suffered major storm damage to the roof in the spring, with approximately 30% being lost. Russian Vine is also invading the roof space. At least one owl is still around, but sightings are sporadic.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.02 on 18th February, 2016
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.02 on 1st May, 2016

LO Site 17 

The barn that was home to the owls also suffered roof damage in the spring. Since then, sightings have been almost non-existent.  Jackdaws have been frequently seen using the barn, and on my last visit,  two weeks ago (3rd July), I found that the barn door was off its hinges and lying on the ground, leaving the barn open to predators. I'm particularly sad about this one as this has been a great breeding site, and given me some wonderful photo opportunities. At least one owl is still around as I spotted it that day on a pole the other side of the farm house.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.17 on 3rd July, 2016
LO Site 23

This site is also a barn, in which cattle are housed in the winter. An owl is very occasionally seen, usually on an RSJ which is part of the roof structure. Only once have I seen a pair of owls here. I last saw an owl here in March, but pal John saw one for the first time since then on Thursday (14th July).

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.23 on 25th February, 2016
LO Site No.30

This site is difficult to monitor as it is a good 20 minutes walk from any footpath and in the summer the field either contains boisterous cattle, or I have to pass through other fields with these cattle in. Many a time I've had a herd stampeding towards me and had to make a run for it! As far as I'm aware, all is well here - but it's been a while!

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.30 on 7th March, 2016
LO Site No.34

This has, since the day I found it, been one of my favourite sites - a gateway which overlooks it is a usual lunch stop for both John and I. Sadly, however, the site has a chequered history as, in all but one year, the site has been taken over by Stock Doves or Jackdaws. This year it was both. The last sighting, of a pair, was on 3rd March - then Stock Doves took over, followed by the Jackdaws. Both have now departed again, although the nest cavity is still full of sticks brought in by the Jackdaws. It was quite upsetting to have lost this pair. John and I had a real moment of excitement, however, when we stopped there on 7th July and John spotted a LO on the next tree down from the nest tree. We have fingers, and everything else, crossed!

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.34 on 25th February, 2016
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.34 on 7th July, 2016
LO Site No.35 

I've only seen an owl here three times, but I know that it's resident in the farmyard somewhere. Each time I've seen it, it's been in exactly the same place, so I'm guessing that this is its home.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.35 on 15th January, 2016
LO Site No.36 

This site is extremely close to site No.34. This site also has a history of being taken over by Jackdaws. Sadly, this happened again this year, and shortly after that it appears that the farmer had taken the top off the nest tree - possibly to protect his cattle from the danger of falling branches. We've not seen an owl here since 14th April, 2016.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.36 on 14th April, 2016
LO Site No. 37

This site is a strange one in that we only seem to see a bird here during the winter. The last sighting was on 8th January. However, John and I saw a bird a few hundred metres up the road from here on 7th July, and John saw one even closer on 14th July, so we suspect that this is probably the same bird.

LO Site No.41

The tree that is home to the owls is in an advanced state of decay, and there is a split in the trunk which probably means it will come down in the next gale. We've had a nest box in place for two years, but the owls have not used it. Currently, sightings of an owl here are sparse, and we suspect that they are now favouring the farm buildings.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.41 on 31st March, 2016
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.41 on 17th May, 2016
LO Site No.42

Sightings are difficult here as the owls share their time between their heavily foliaged nest tree and a barn. However, they have continually bred successfully and this is the only site at which I've seen juveniles (2) this year. I've no photos to offer as they are all from a great distance and would give away the location of the site.

LO Site No 43

This site is close to Nos.34 and 36, but now appears to have been abandonned as we've had no sightings since December, 2015.

LO Site No.44

This site is in a tree, right beside a road. We've often seen a pair here, and things were looking good for 2016. However, we've not seen any juveniles yet this year.

John and I were both recently enraged to see that some stupid idiot has trimmed the branches from around the nest opening - presumably so that they can get a better view of it (probably for photography) as this is the only pruning that has been done to the tree. This means that the owls have less protection from incoming predators, the nest cavity is more attractive to invasion by Stock Doves and Jackdaws (of which there are many in the vicinity), and that any juveniles that the nest might produce have been deprived of branches that would help with the fledging process. The crazy thing is that some decent images could still be obtained when the branches were there, by waiting for the owl to be in another part of the tree. OK, so neither of the next two images would win prizes, but they are a reasonable record of owls in their environment, and I don't think that the second is too shabby! All those branches visible in the first two have now been removed by someone who puts their photography before the welfare of the birds! The last image was taken post-pruning and away from the pruned area - just to prove it can be done!

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.44 on 18th February, 2016
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.4 on 3rd March, 2016
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.44 on 30th June, 2016
LO Site No.46

The last sighting here was on 9th August, 2015.  Although there is some visible deterioration to the nest cavity, I suspect that the loss of this site might have been due to predation. Both Buzzard and Sparrowhawk were being seen locally at that time, with even a pair of Sparrowhawk in the nest tree on one occasion. I think, however, that I might have witnessed the demise of one of the birds as cries in tones which were reminiscent of a Little Owl drew my attention to a Buzzard having a go at something on the ground about 50 metres from the nest tree. We've not yet given up hope of a return, however.

LO Site No.47

Johm and I only get occasional sightings at this site, in spite of passing by on a weekly basis and the nest opening being clearly visible. Our last sighting had been on 3rd March, until this month, when I had sightings on both 7th and 14th July.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.47 on 14th July, 2016
LO Site No.49

During 2015, the owls relocated from the original nest tree to one much less accessible about 100 metres away. This might have had something to do with the Mandarin Ducks which nested in the original tree! I've not seen an owl at this site since January, but my visits have been a bit sparse!

LO Site No.51

The last sightings here were twice in February (4th and 11th). Since then the nest opening has been grown over by Ivy, so we think that the bird (we've only ever seen one here) has gone.

Other Owls

Apart from the Barn Owls that I was seeing locally to my home in February, and The Short-eared Owl that was even more local to me from November to February, other sightings have been sparse, the latest being a Short-eared Owl at Eyebrook Reservoir on 7th July. However, I did have a session at Cossington Meadows with John on 31st March, when we had quite good views of Short-eared Owl, and a Barn Owl put in a short appearance at a great distance Here's some images from that session.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)  - Cossington Meadows on 31st March, 2016

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - Cossington Meadows on 31st March, 2016
Writing this post has instilled in me a new enthusiasm and I realise that I must get out there and revive my passion.

Thank you for dropping by. I'm not sure what the subject of my next post will be, but it's about time I reported on my visit to Scotland in late June. That might take some time to put together, however!

I hope that this compensates for my lack of post on owls, David. Thank you for the prompt!