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Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Back to Basics - October, 2017

I believe that there are a few people out there who may be wondering why owls have not featured on my blog for a long time, especially as the title of my blog suggests that owls would be a major feature. The year got off to a reasonable start, with pairs seen at a number of sites, and mating observed with the promise of a reasonable breeding season. The reality is that my sightings of owls since the spring have plummeted desperately, for reasons which I will discuss below and, until last Friday, I had last photographed a Little Owl on 1st July this year! Here's an image from back then:-

Little Owl (Athene noctua) (male) - my Site No.02, on 1st July, 2017
Shortly after that photo was taken, the whole of that roof behind the owl disappeared, closely followed by the owls.

There's no denying that this lack of owl sightings is partly due to lack of effort by myself. Now I'm in my 70s I do not have the stamina and agility that I had when I first started this passion 8 years ago that allowed me to roam the fields for hours on end looking for owls. Related to this is the problem of avoiding cattle in fields which I have to cross to get to some of my sites. It's not a worry that the cattle will be aggressive. In fact, if they are close at hand it's less of a worry as I'm happy to walk beside them. The real problem (and I've had a few close shaves) is when they spot you from afar and charge towards you to greet you. I feel that standing one's ground in this situation is potentially very dangerous, and out-running them has become more difficult, particularly when I struggle to climb over a stile in order to exit the field! 

Over the past few years I have got into the complacent habit of driving to existing sites to check on the owls, particularly on the route between my home and Rutland Water, and only occasionally visiting my other further flung sites. I have not, therefore, been doing the prospecting for new sites that, ideally, I should have done.

However, there is no denying that, in the areas I monitor, the Little Owl population has suffered badly in 2017. I'm writing this is as the latest county records have been published and there has only been one Little Owl sighting record submitted for the whole of Leicestershire and Rutland (VC55) for the month.

Some of the problem has been visibly due to nest site destruction/deterioration. In other words, the trees or buildings that the birds nested in have suffered significant damage. However, I also believe that predation, largely by Common Buzzard, has been a significant problem. Several times now I have seen Buzzard move into the vicinity of a nest and the Little Owls disappear almost immediately, and on one occasion I believed I witnessed the actual predation event.

There are, no doubt, other factors in action such as food supply and weather conditions - and we have certainly had some odd weather this year. Owls do not like to be out in wind and rain, and we've had plenty of both. There has also been a lot of publicity given lately to the way that the invertebrate biomass has crashed in recent years - and invertebrates constitute a major part of a Little Owl's diet.

Returning to the subject of my (lack of) effort in monitoring the owls, for the past couple of months I have found myself shying away from looking for owls as I seem to always come back disappointed from sites that were, until recently, a place of delight. Just of late an expression has repeatedly entered my head and that is "back to basics".

My current intentions for this winter are to spend more time closer to home than I have done over the past few years, and get back into prospecting for owls. I have in the past, largely, confined my owling to VC55 as that is the area for which I report my sightings. However, my home is right in the north-west corner of VC55 and almost at the meeting of four counties - Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire - so there might be a shift away from Leicestershire sites. I intend, also, to spend more time locally looking for birds and other wildlife. I have some great places quite close by! I also intend to spend more time out around dusk in the hope of seeing other owl species.

All this does not, however, mean my travelling days are over. In fact, I intend that the opposite will be true. The rationale is that, if I spend more owling and general birding time close to home, I'm consuming less time and fuel in travelling, leaving me time and fuel to visit those exciting areas that are significantly more remote. So, for example, I have already booked to visit Speyside in Scotland early in the year, the Scilly Isles in spring, and North Uist (Outer Hebrides, and primarily for Short-eared Owls) in the summer.

For a while, I did contemplate changing the title of this blog to remove the reference to owls. I have decided that it will stay like it is, for the time being at least, to spur me on to do better!

That process has, I hope, already begun. On Friday 27th October I spent a couple of hours in the morning checking trees in an area where previously I have had four Little Owl sites. I found no signs of any owls, but it was an enjoyable time, and I ended up photographing a few other birds. Later that day, a little before sunset, I went to my Little Owl Site No.02. Whilst I was confident that the Little Owls had gone, I had seen Barn Owl here too on occasion. I sat there until it got dark, and then there was a familiar 'whoop' - and a Little Owl came out of the remains of the barn! This next image might be be of poor quality, but it probably means more to me than any other owl photo I've taken this year. I suspect that this is the male bird from this site.

Little Owl (Athene noctua)  - my Site No.02, on 27th October, 2017
I confess to becoming a little emotional when this bird appeared. It sat there for at least ten minutes before dropping down into the field alongside the barn. 

The excitement had not ended, however, as soon there was a brief 'whoo' call and then the calls built up into fully recognisable Tawny Owl calls coming from at least three directions - then what looked like an owl (it was very dark by now) flew past the barn and a short while later flew back past the barn and down the road away from me. I cannot swear that this was a Tawny Owl, but suspect that it was.

Two days later I was back again and this time I saw a Little Owl which I am relatively confident was the female from this site. 

Little Owl (Athene noctua)  - my Site No.02, on 29th October, 2017
I feel fired-up again, and hope that this lasts, although I am under no illusions that the process will be easy or many owls found! With a bit of luck I might even find an owl to photograph in daylight!

I suspect that it might be a while before my next post, and it is in the lap of the gods as to what the subject matter will be.

Thank you for dropping by.

22 comments:

  1. Hi Richard, really beautiful of the Little Owl, fabulous photos.

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    1. Thank you, Bob. My spirits soar whenever I see a Little Owl! Best wishes - - Richard

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  2. Good to see you back owling.
    The cattle can be intimidating but I have never had any problem with them. They don't like the dogs until they get acquainted but the dogs seem to dodge out of the way. I suspect that better animal husbandry, I haven't seen stockmen or women beating them with alkathene pipe for years, makes the cattle more friendly which added to their inquisitive nature can appear aggressive.
    Last week there were three store cattle out on the road. I just opened the gate and shouted COO, COO, COO and they came at a gallop. COO is what folk round here call cows. Don't run away. just let them approach and give them a slap if they start stamping or head swinging.

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    1. Hi Adrian. Most of the cattle I encounter in these parts are part of a breeding program, rather than dairy herds. This means that I often find a field full of young beasts. If these are some distance away, these can get pretty excited rather quickly and charge towards me at high speed en-masse, and I don't trust their ability to stop in a hurry. If they are close-by from the word go I don't have much of a problem - except that I'm going to have to come back the same way and when I do so they may be far away and the problem arises again! I'm relatively OK with dairy herds as they just tend to amble towards me at a gentle pace.

      Incidentally, my local farmer, who breeds cattle, says that the people who are in greatest danger are those with dogs, who keep their dogs on a lead. Cattle, he says, are drawn to dogs, and the safest thing for a dog handler to do if cattle approach is to let the dogs off the leash.

      Best wishes - - - Richard

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  3. Oh wow that is excellent news, I hope that you now find more around. I have tried to find out where 'our' little owls are nesting but no joy. I have spoken to a neighbour who I though maybe not telling me where they are, but he admits to honestly not knowing although he sees and hears them close by. One day I may just be lucky and get a photo!!!! I will also be emotional if I ever find out where they are in hiding.
    Take care and best wishes, cheers Diane

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    1. Thank you, Diane. It's going reasonably well so far. I haven't found any more Little Owls yet, although I have now had three sightings at my Site No.02. I have, however, encountered a Barn Owl and also heard one close at hand on another two occasions, plus I have now heard Tawny Owl (but no sightings) on two occasions. For just one week I find it very encouraging!

      I hope that you find your local owls soon. With my best wishes - - - Richard

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  4. A lovely read Richard backed up by some nice photography. I do like a silhouette photo as you know and you have captured them beautifully.

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    1. Thank you, Marc. Silhouette photos was all that I was getting, but I did manage to get an image with a bit of detail in on Tuesday night. It was too dark for auto-focus to work at all, and too dark to see if my manual focus was good. I was working at 500mm, 1/8s, ISO 3,200, so a miracle that I got any image at all! Great fun, though!

      Best wishes - - - Richard

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  5. First thing - seventy is the new sixty they say! So you have a few years of spring and flexibility in those old legs yet! It's too bad that the cattle trouble you the way they do. It's not a problem I encounter much here, but unless there is a bull with the cows I don't hesitate to cross a field of cattle. I think when they all come charging across the field it's the equivalent of human hijinks. I have actually taken hay out to a field to feed cattle in fall and winter and they sure come charging over then! As for your rededication to the Little Owls, bravo I say! My trip report should be ready for publication by tomorrow and you will no doubt be happy to note that we saw Little Owl every day in Croatia.

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    1. Hi David. Thank you for that bit of information - I feel younger already!!

      I will still be wary of cattle. I have never known them to be aggressive - it's just their ability to apply the brakes adequately on slippery muddy ground that worries me!

      I'm pleased to say that the new direction is paying dividends, with sightings of three species of owl this week, although all were after dark! I'm also fitting in other birds between times too.

      My love to you both - - - Richard

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  6. Hello Richard, I can imagen the frustration of seeing less and less of the LO. Therefore I am glad you found at least two birds on this site. Hope that your luck will return on other locations which means there are more LO around than you thought. Love the captures!
    Regards,
    Roos

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    1. Thank you so much for those kind words, Roos. With my very best wishes - - - Richard

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  7. Hello Richard,
    what the translator has indicated to me is not so nice, I hope for you that you can find owls and owls again and continue to show good photos here. I always like to look at you
    All the best regards Frank

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    1. Please do not be too worried, Frank. I hope things are getting better already! Thank you for your encouragement.

      With my best wishes - - - Richard

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  8. Hi Richard! Oh, how wonderful a sight! I have not seen the owl for many years ;-(

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    1. I'm surprised to hear that you have not seen an owl for years, Anne. If asked which country I would most like to visit to see owls, Finland would be right at the top of the list! It is only the cold that puts me off!

      With my best wishes - - - Richard

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  9. I always enjoy visiting your Blog Richard and love seeing your Little Owl images,especially the ones that hide away,I also enjoy the variety of Wild life you show,please keep up the good work.
    John.

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    1. Thank you for those very kind words of encouragement, John, which are much appreciated.

      With my very best wishes to you and Sue - - - Richard

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  10. This summer I saw only one owl. It was Eurasian Pygmy owl. (Glaucidium passerinum)

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    1. I'd love to see a Eurasian Pygmy Owl, Sami! Best wishes - - Richard

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  11. I'm glad you seem to be spurred onto restarting your owling Richard. I'll be honest I still worry about the lack of LO sightings here too. I have my suspicions having stern words with toggers at two separate sites (standing and peering it a tree cavity at one site) and reporting one illegal behaviour. I've seen Buzzard and LO share territory but did see a Redkite feeding on road kill of a local bird. The only predation I've seen was be a female sprawk and stoat too.
    I think last years summer had the biggest impact of all.

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    1. There was a great dip in sightings last summer, in my area too, Doug, but then things seemed to pick up a bit earlier this year. It could be that the population was weakened by that summer and didn't recover enough this year to sustain numbers.

      Best wishes - - - Richard

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I'm pleased to report that the anonymous spam problem seems to be solvable without using word verification. I'm now just using the 'Registered Users - includes OpenID' option in Blogger settings, and I'm not getting any spam - touch wood! I've also not received any contact from people saying that they are no longer able to make comments.