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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!


  1. Thank you, it is not an entirely uplifting post but packed with beautiful images. I am almost inspired to try and find the owls I hear around here but have had a couple of halfhearted attempts and then forgotten about it.

    1. It never was going to be an uplifting post, Adrian, with so much disappointment on the Little Owl front. I'm pleased that you enjoyed the images, however - thank you.

      If you're hearing owls up there, I suspect that they'll be Tawny Owls, and they are relatively strictly nocturnal, and difficult to see. You could always try mimicing an owl call, and they might come to investigate, but please don't overdo it as you could confuse and upset the birds.

      Best wishes - - - Richard

  2. Hey Richard! Lovely pictures. That's a little owl!

  3. What a cracking post Richard, stunning shots indeed. How do you get so close?

    1. Thank you, Marc.

      All my photography, macro or long shots, is using my strusty Sigma 50-500 lens. I'm averse to changing lenses in the field. If I had a spare £2,500 I'd probably buy another Nikon D7200 and a Sigma 150 macro, but that would be a luxury to me as I'm reasonably happy with the macro results with the current set up - it'd be nice, however, to be able to use in-camera flash, as you do with such fabulous results.

      The Little Owl shots in this post, with two exceptions, were all taken from my parked car(usually with the lens at 500mm). The exceptions are the shots from Site No.30 and Site No.36. and these were taken using fieldcraft that I've learned over the last 5 years or so, the relevant parts of which are as follows.

      There are two aspects of a Little Owl's psyche that are key:-

      Firstly, eye contact is a major factor. A Little Owl will probably be relatively relaxed if it doesn't think you've seen it. Once it knows you've seen it, it will be ultra alert. The chances are that if you then avert your gaze it will take the opportunity to disappear unseen.

      Secondly, if you walk directly towards a Little Owl, no matter how stealthily, you will immediately put it on high alert, and it will probably fly off to somewhere where it can see you, but you probably won't be able to see it.

      The trick is to make a zig-zag approach so that it doesn't perceive that you're interested in it or that you're getting nearer - all the while not looking at the owl. I'm not talking about a short zig-zag - you might need to go 50 metres past on each leg. When you reckon that you're in a suitable place, bring the camera up to your face before turning to take the shot (hoping that the owl is still there!). That way the owl still doesn't see your eyes. You then turn back (camera still up to your eyes) and continue to walk on immediately. Hopefully, if you've done it right, the owl will still be there after you've departed. It doesn't work every time and I don't like to do it more than once or twice a year at any one site.

      The Short-eared Owls are easy. They are relatively confiding birds and those shots were all taken from a public footpath with probably about 10 other people looking at the owls. It's usually best to bide one's time and wait for the owls to come to you.

      I hope this helps

      Best wishes - - - Richard

  4. Hi Richard, some wonderful memories of images from when we were out together, the Little Owls have been very scarce of late but we are starting to see them again so fingers crossed. Super images of the Shorties at Cossington, look forward to them returning if they do?, mind that will bring on Winter so not so sure, they can take as long as they want. Regards John

    1. Thanks John

      Yes, I'm not too keen for the return of winter. I just hope that we eventually get a summer before winter sets in!

      See you on Wednesday!

  5. Ah, the redemptive power of owls, Richard! A great series and three species to boot. It is infuriating indeed to hear of the idiots who cut down the branches. It is amazing how some people who would label themselves wildlife photographers have no regard for their subjects, the picture trumping everything. We can only hope they fall off the ladder next time they attempt such barbarism.

    1. Thank you, David.

      If I catch them up a ladder, they possibly will fall off it!

      Love to you both - - - Richard

  6. Hello Richard,
    I always look very much on your blog for new images, this time I am excited .. the aerial photographs are stunning
    greetings Frank

    1. Thank you so much for your very kind words, Frank.

      My best wishes - - - Richard

  7. Richard I always look forward to your little Owl up dates,and your post are always very informative and enjoyable,so i'm pleased to see these little chaps are doing well,but when you produce Magic out comes the Short eared Owl collection.

    1. Sorry, John, but you seemed to have missed the point. The Little Owls are NOT doing well - far from it, in fact!

      I must admit to being rather pleased with that Short-eared Owl session!

      Best wishes to you and Sue - - - Richard

  8. I've got to say the Shorties are stunning, Cossington Meadows looks great. Did I read correctly that there was a S.E.O sighting at Eyebrook on the 7thJuly or was it a typo?
    Some people's behaviour towards photography and wildlife is disgusting. It's such a short term view to get rid of vegetation just to get an image. I hope to see more posts Richard regardless of the subject matter :-)

    1. That was no typo, Doug. The Shortie was seen on July 5th, then again by John and I on 7th, then again on 8th July when one lucky devil got a cracking shot of it on a post! Not seen any reports of it since - possibly going to check it out on Wednesday evening.

      Hoping that all is well with you. Take good care - - - Richard

  9. Always good to have one of your posts dedicated to owls Richard. I wouldn't be too despondent though, as you know Little Owls are diminutive creatures and experts at NOT being detected, hopefully they are still resident at most of your sites and you just haven't had the pleasure in recent times of bumping into them!

    1. Thank you for your kind words of encouragement, Paul. On Wednesday we discovered where the owls from Site No.34 have relocated to - and they appear to have managed to raise young too! They're going to be a bit more difficult to monitor, however!

      Thanks again, and best wishes - - - Richard

  10. It seems the Little Owls are having a hard time at the moment, shortage of suitable nesting sites and being ousted by other birds, life can be tough, it might force them to move down South ;-) I can imagine it is depressing but we can only hope that they are ok and have found themselves new homes (down South) Lovely set of pictures of the Short-eared owl. Don't give up hope I am sure you will find them again :-)

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Lin. As soon as we've got a surplus here, I'll send some your way!

      Best wishes - - - Richard

  11. Hi Richard,

    I am glad to read that there is now a turnaround is in the stone owls. In my hometown is eht also brought bad emt stone owls. A couple found dead boy, then no young owls seen in my area. We also had a very bad spring.
    That is why I am so pleased to read that to you guys happy now the right direction and July reflects hope ..
    I enjoy these beautiful owls. Also you pictures of the field owls are great to see. And flying on a pole. Fantastic!
    I wish you a very nice weekend.

    warm greeting and a hug, Helma

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comments, Helma.

      Best wishes - - - Richard

  12. Once again, you have managed to combine science, birding, photography and, most significantly, art. Some of your images should be placed in everyone's home to remind us how special nature is and that we need to identify and change the behavior of all those who would destroy it. Especially those who do so for totally selfish purposes - the "so-called Nature Photographer".

    Thank you, Richard, for attempting to raise awareness. And it doesn't hurt that your pictures are really special to enjoy with this cuppa coffee!

    1. It's great to see you back in Bloggerland, Wally. Thank you so much for your very kind words, which are much appreciated.

      Best wishes to you and Gini - - - Richard

  13. Hello Richard,
    When monitoring so many nest sites, I guess sometimes you will have good surprises and at other times bad ones.
    Bad weather is certainly a main factor for failure, but opportunistic species such as doves, jackdaws, martens, etc... will take over any suitable nest leaving the LO defenceless and with fewer choices. Prey are getting scarcer too, at least this is what I observe in France, I guess pesticides and herbicides are part of the problem but again bad weather several years in a row can take a serious toll on nature.
    Touring the nest sites with John is easier than alone and you can share your impressions with someone as passionate as your are :)
    I cross my fingers too and hope all these little guys will be more successful next year!
    Yes, I saw a few birds on the coast but in July there are few interesting species although the highlight was a Purple heron heronry... I will soon publish a few photos!
    Warm hugs to share with Lindsay and enjoy your WE :)

    1. Thank you, Noushka. The prey situation tends to be cyclic in UK. A good breeding year for the owls puts more pressure on the prey supply so, until the prey population improves again, the breeding (and survival) of the owls tends to suffer.

      I'd love to see a Purple Heron heronry!

      Hugs from UK - - - - Richard


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