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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!


  1. Hi Richard
    Yes we both feel the same, but we will keep looking as we did with sites this year when again birds returned in the Spring. We will also, if we have a better Winter than last year look for more sites. We always say "We wonder how many sites we drive by" .
    See you soon.

    1. Fingers crossed for more sites found in the coming months, John. See you soon - - - Richard

  2. Nobody could expect to see a better and more comprehensive report about the Little Owl status than this Richard, excellent and well done. Quite depressing, to which I can only say keep on keeping on Richard, stay positive.

    1. Thank you, Pete. I'm looking forward to the coming months when trees will be bereft of leaves so that new sites can more easily be found!

      Best wishes - - - - Richard

  3. It's a pity these Little Owls did not have satillite trackers on them so you will know where they have gone, hopefully most have found new homes. What is the lifespan of the LO ? Enjoyed your pictures :-)

    1. I'm not a great fan of trackers on birds, Linda. Whilst I appreciate that they can give us interesting, and potentially useful, information, to my mind they're an added burden (no matter how small they are) to a bird which is probably already living a somewhat hazardous life.

      It's usually stated that a Little Owl has an average life expectancy of around three years. However, no one ever seems to say at what point the clock starts ticking. I'm not sure if these figures include chicks that hatch, but don't survive to fledge (which would bring the figures right down and I suspect are not included), or whether it starts from when the chicks fledge - which I suspect to be the case. If this latter situation is correct, then those birds that make it past their first winter (a hazardous time) will probably live well beyond the three year average. It's normally stated that around ten years is the limit, however.

      Thank you for visiting. Best wishes - - - - Richard

  4. NAture has a wonderful way of bouncing back and let's hope that is what happenes here with the Little Owls. Ilove allthe photographs of them. They aare such sweet little birds and I love the one justpeekingover the brick wall.

    1. Thank, you for your words of encouragement, Margaret. Yes, nature does frequently find a way of bouncing back. However, reports suggest that the Little Owl is in decline overall. I can't help feeling that this is partly due to old farm buildings being torn down or converted to dwellings (something that has greatly affected the Barn Owl population), and partly due to old trees being removed because they are 'inconvenient'. I often think of a farmer friend (now sadly departed) who was deeply and lastingly upset when the local council demanded he cut down a tree which had a Barn Owl nesting in it because the tree presented a danger to a nearby rural footpath that crossed his land. Sadly, I didn't know him at that time, as I could have helped him put a stop to that nonsense!

  5. Your findings/observations do initially comes across as being rather bleak (I have gone through exactly the same cycle). However, it is better to have found, watched, photographed and enjoyed than to have never found them at all! It's the cycle of life mate, they don't live forever (in fact they have a relatively short life), they have many a predator to watch out for, their homes (both natural & artificial) are being destroyed in one way or another so all in all they do have a tough time. As quick as some of your birds disappear or site deserted a new one's will be occupied, your challenge now is to find the new ones but cherish the old ones as birds may well turn up again? A fantastic post Richard and good luck in your quest..............

    1. Thank you for your kind words of encouragement, Paul. I find that I've managed to become a little complacent about the Little Owls, and have got stuck in a rut by having a convenient owling route. I'm hoping to find the time, energy, and weather this winter to go prospecting for more sites. I also feel that I should be doing more for the owls by possibly starting a box building and erection programme, but I'm not sure that that will happen! At all-but-70 years old, climbing ladders/trees is possibly a step too far!

  6. Take heart, Richard. As John says above, let the quest for new sites begin. I'll have to send Eagle Eye Miriam over there to help you search!

    1. Thank you for your words of encouragement, David. If I didn't think that Miriam was much-needed over there, I'd consider your suggestion!

      Best wishes - - - - Richard

  7. I will have to start looking for owls. Your efforts have inspired me. I hear them during the night but can never find them in daylight.

    1. Thank you, Adrian. Little Owls are often out during the day, but don't stray much further north than the borderlands of Scotland.

      Best wishes - - - Richard

  8. Helllo Richard,
    With regret I read about the dissapointing numbers, and loss of habitat for the Little Owls.
    I can understand how you feel. All I can wish for is that next season things will get better and the Little Owls will also make use of the nestboxes. Same problem is going on here. Los of possible nesting places. Therefore organisations put more and more nestboxes in sutable places for them. Which are used very well. We had on the internet a program called "Beleef de Lente" where we could follow by webcam a couple of Littel owls who had a succesful breading season.

    Thank you also for your very kind remarks on my blog with the Kingfishers. :)

    1. Hi Roos. Thank you for your kind words.

      Sorry not to have replied before now. It's been a difficult week since 29th - I think you know why.

      Take good care - - - - Richard

  9. It seems to be a bit of a national trend this year with LO's. I haven't been able to locate any regulars this year. The only birds being at Brampton Valley railway and Moulton Quarry, the quarry providing plenty of beetles though with the extra hazzard of bot Buzzard and Sparrowhawk. Hopefully things will bounce back soon.

    1. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we get better conditions next year, and the tables are turned.

      Best wishes - - - Richard

  10. Richard a post of heartfelt dedication and warmth. As a reader of your post I think there is plenty of optimism for some of your sites and even some for the sites that you think have been abandoned. Next year there may just be some bouncbackability.......

    Lovely images mate.


    1. Thank you for your kind words, Dave.

      Best wishes - - - Richard

  11. I'm amazed how many sites you cover,it takes a lot of hard work and dedication in recording sightings with the good and bad results,
    I hope all your hard work inspire others as it does me.
    Well done Richard.

    1. Thank you, John.

      Best wishes - - - - Richard

  12. Your photos as always are fabulous. I am certain that you will soon see more sites, I am sure they do not travel far if they have to rebuild a nest. I often do not hear the little owls for ages then I hear them day in and day out for several weeks, I never see them though when I have a camera with me!! I have not seen or heard the barn owl for a while but I hope it is not too far away. Good luck with tracking down the sites Diane.

    1. Thank you for your kind words of encouragement, Diane.

      Take good care of yourself - - - - Richard

  13. Brilliant post, Richard!

    I know you find the results of your observations discouraging. However, I am in agreement with Paul Riddle in that the life cycle of our feathered friends follows a pattern of survival. That may mean weaker individuals die off in lean years, or new hunting grounds must be found when old ones fail to produce adequately, or a new locale has to become home due to all sorts of circumstances. Your efforts in recording Little Owl natural history in your area have been significant. It is inevitable that some of those birds will not survive or may move to another area. Others (or other species) may replace them. As humans, we can but report what we observe and (for those physically able) perhaps create a "bird friendly" environment for them.

    Meanwhile, I, for one, am thankful for the Richard Peglers of this world who care enough to watch, act and report on behalf of Athene noctua and all of its relatives, whose message does not reach our ears. Thank you.

    By the way, outstanding photographs! Be careful - some of them could be mistaken for "art"!!

    It's a good day, Richard. Let's go birding!

    1. Thank you,Wally, for your kind words of encouragement.

      Best wishes to you both - - - - Richard

  14. Hi Richard! We envy you many meetings with these gorgeous owls. In our region the little owl is a rare bird. Photographs are really beautiful...
    warm greetings from Poland :-)

    1. Thank you for your kind words, gentlemen. I'm sorry to hear that the Little Owl is a rare bird in your region. They are delightful!

      Best wishes - - - Richard


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