Sunday 17 December 2017

Little Owls - Review Of 2017


My adventures with the little owls started a bit later this year than before, as I had wrongly assumed that the introduction of a pig-pen into the area right beneath the entrance to the owls' nesting area and favourite tree, had spooked them into leaving. I had visited several times since the porkers arrived, but failed to see any of the owls.

Whilst cleaning away the mud, cow and sheep poop collected on my car from the Mull Photo Tours one Saturday in July, one of the lads from the farm parked up at the end of my driveway, and informed me he'd seen the owls recently. The cleaning was rapidly finished off, and I trundled over to the farm with some intrepidation to see what was going on. Were they really back? What had I missed? Had the pair bred again?

Within seconds of me parking up beside the barn, one of the adult little owls swooped down from the oak tree, scuttled along the roof and then stared at me, as if to say "Where the hell have you been?"

I had to laugh - I know they're wild but I'm pretty sure they recognise me from the other people around the farm.

The pigs had been and gone; replaced by some of the growing flock of sheep at the farm. I was unable to park as closely to the barn as before, but as normal, the farmer was quick to say if I wanted to move or rearrange things, I could. And as I moved the car around the fencing, so I could see more of the end of the barn where the owls normally look out from, I spotted it... a small grey ball of fluff, perched on the felt roof of the pig-pen, and it was staring at me. An owlet!

My excitement levels were going into hyperspace mode - I love these birds, and to realise they'd raised another young owl was wonderful news to me. As I'd not been there, and hence not been supplementing their need for food with what I put out, the adults were in full flow with hunting, and it was eye-opening to see how quickly they caught food, especially small rodents. As well as perching high on roof-tops, the owls would use the powerlines to watch from, and swoop down on to voles and mice as they strayed out into the open, such as crossing the track across the farm.

After a quick run to the local exotic pet shop, I returned with some food for the owls, and in that short time away, one owlet had become two! They were perched in the oak tree, hissing away, demanding to be fed by the adults. Not only had I missed them branching from the nest area, I'd also missed them mastering flight, which was shown when one of the youngsters swooped down to the roof where an adult was, to collect a meal directly.

And after being fed, it remained on the roof, scuttling round in search of food for itself. Not short on confidence or mobility already.

Of course this all meant I could re-open the Little Owl Workshop for the season, and it was a race to get the site presentable for visitors, some of whom had been patiently waiting for news on the owls since the winter months.

By the end of that first frantic week, not only had I reconfigured the site for visitors, let all the punters know it was open for business again, but also realised that the owls had managed to raise three owlets this time, and all had successfully reached the safety of the tree.

Unlike last year, where there was only one owlet to feed, it was interesting to watch the adults provide food, and distribute it fairly between the three hungry fluffballs. Two of which were obviously older than the fluffiest one; perhaps the runt of the nest. But it had made it out, and was as demanding as the others. However, it tended to remain alone, whilst the other older chicks often sat beside one another.

I didn't think the adults could work harder after last year, but with three beaks to feed, as well as their own, they seemed to be all over the place, bringing in food from all corners of the farm. This also allowed me to test out some ideas for getting images of them, introducing props and perches, gaining both running and more flight shots.

The latter are never easy, as the owls don't fly in a flat line, more of an undulating path, which is a nightmare to track in the camera.

With more than one owlet, I was able to observe interraction between the youngsters, as well as with the adult owls. On quieter days, I picked up different calls from the owls, between the almost constant hissing for food of course.

And the alarm calls, surprisingly, came from all of the owls at times, highlighting their ability to make adult calls from early on in their lives. Admittedly though, they weren't able to determine what a real threat was most of the time, and they scuttled and flew to the safety of the barn at the first sight of wood pigeons, jackdaws and gulls. Thankfully they also recognised the local buzzards as a threat and vanished whenever they flew by.


Into August, and all of the owlets were confident enough to start visiting some of the perches I had put out for the adults to collect food from. Also by now, the two adults had become one, and just the male was left. This happened last year, when the female (I assume, as the male tends to hold on to breeding sites from what I have read) left just after the young branched, leaving the male to do the remaining work. Perhaps the effort of creating and laying the eggs, followed by intensive brooding in the nest, and then the frantic, relentless gathering of food takes its toll on the female, and she leaves to allow herself time to recover. It must be an incredible effort for her each year, and by the time she departed last year, she looked like she needed a break.

Over the next few weeks, I was joined by some clients who enjoyed fantastic views of the owls, taking thousands of images of them and their antics. During the workshops, I don't tend to take any images myself, but still enjoy the days, as I simply observe the owls, making mental notes of anything they might do that strikes me as unusual.

While the owlets were confident in landing on perches, and running around the roof or along branches, they struggled on some perches, often having to fly off again after failing to balance properly, though one incident showed how much grip and strength they have in their feet and talons.

Also interesting to me was how wary the owlets were of me. Last year, the sole owlet of the brood was very tolerant of me, and would perch only a few feet away, when I was walking around the patch of land by the perches. It even landed on the windscreen wipers of the car once, to peer in at me through the glass, though I suspect it was more interested in the wriggling mealworms on the seat beside me. This year, perhaps because I hadn't been there as much, or maybe because the owlets had each other to grow up with, they behaved more like the adults, and were quick to move away should I push my luck at all.

As the owls grew up, so did their levels of confidence, and it was intriguing to see how they behaved when other birds approached. Frequently corvids such as jackdaws or carrion crows would land on the barn roof, to investigate the food on offer. Initially the young owls would flee, but within just a week or so, they had learned that these birds weren't a threat, and would just keep a watchful eye on them. The local robins would live up to their name, frequently "robin" the food put out. Sometimes the owls would just watch them, but other times, they chased them away. And appeared angrier than usual, if such a look is possible.

Birds such as wood pigeons, pied wagtails and blackbirds were all largely ignored, but magpies had to be watched closely, as they often harrassed the young owls, even pursuing them to the entrance of the nesting area, if they fled. It was clear to see the difference between the adult and the young here, as the older, wiser owl would stand its ground and if pushed, actually chase the magpie away.

By the middle of August, my thoughts turned to Mull again (holiday this time), so I would be leaving the owls to their own devices for just over a fortnight. This wasn't a problem for the owls, as I ensure that my additional feeding isn't something they rely on, and without it, they would simply target other hunting areas, and prey, more often.

The older owlets were already showing signs of adult plumage, but the runt, was still very fluffy indeed, even if it had already mastered the angry glare of the adults.

I wondered what I might miss during the weeks away...


While I was gutted to leave Mull in early September, I was keen to catch up on the little owl family on my return.

One observation I had made during the workshops before going to Mull was that one of the owlets, perhaps the oldest one, was following the adult across the farm to where he was hunting from time to time, and I wondered if perhaps the others might be doing the same on my return. The owls were dotted about the yard when I first parked up, with one overlooking the orchard area, and another further along the line of oak trees, watching for movement in the grasses of the meadow below. After reintroducing some food to the area I watch, they slowly came back over a period of several hours. Perhaps after seeing the adult drop down for some of it first. But I could only count two owlets.

Initially I hoped that I was simply just seeing two of the three each time, and that I'd eventually see all three together, but the longer I watched, the clearer the picture became. One owlet had gone. I wanted to believe that it had already fledged, become confident enough to leave the nest area, but in my heart I knew it hadn't, and that like one of the previous year's brood, it had met an untimely demise.

The farm is of course inhabited by a number of predators of these small owls. As well as the buzzards, there are tawny owls and perhaps even the barn owls from down the hill may have strayed up to the area where the little owls hunted at night. Add to that the possibility of cats, stoats, foxes and maybe even badgers when the owls are on the ground feeding on worms and grubs. Or maybe it was hit by a vehicle on or near the farm. I will never know, as I didn't find any sign of feathers or a body, just a gap on the branch where there were once six taloned feet perched.

I know these owls are wild, but it's hard, when spending so long with them, not to become attached to them emotionally. They're not pets, and the young will disperse at the end of the breeding season, but it is upsetting at times when Mother Nature shows her harsher side.

The remaining owlets were quite different in their appearance. One remained fairly fluffy, with signs of the large defined "eyebrows" forming, as well as some adult feathers coming through on its breast area.

The other owlet was well on the way to looking like an adult, with the flecked feathers covering its head, the pale down all but gone.

The adult was starting to look rather dishevelled, mainly from the moult kicking in, and feathers were missing or hanging loose from all over him. Not that it affected his ability to bring back food for the youngsters, though they were more than capable of collecting their own, and often beat the adult to any put out.

Amusingly, with history somewhat repeating itself, during a heavy rain shower, two of the owls chose to wash their feathers, and I was on hand to record the moment via my DSLR. Last year, a clip of the owlet doing this went so mad on Social Media, I had to turn off my phone to stop it alerting me to activity, and ended up being watched over 250,000 times online. This time it was the adult that stole the limelight, and as I type, I'm still getting "hits" on that clip.

Aside from danger alerts, when each of the owls would call out to alert the others, there was a noticeable change in the behaviour between the adult and the youngsters. Initially it was just between the older of the owlets and the adult, and they'd not be happy being close to one another at all, but within just a few days, the same traits were apparent with the youngest owlet too. Perhaps the first indication from the adult that he wanted them to think about leaving, to set up their own territories?

By mid-September, the older of the two owlets was hard to distinguish from the adult; the paler yellow iris being the most obvious difference. The youngest owlet still had some downy feathers around the back of its head, giving it the impression of perhaps wearing a Parka jacket!

But that had all but gone too, by the end of the month, and the adult's tolerance for it was being stretched. When perched close to one another on the roof, one would make quieter chirruping sounds, but as sweet as they sounded to my ears, they weren't friendly, and the adult would chase the youngster away.


As with last year, the start of October saw the departure of the owlets. From what I have read, this is fairly typical for them, and I was pleased that this season, my grumpy-looking feathery friend had managed to increase the local little owl population by two. His hard work done for the summer, now he can relax and concentrate on surviving the colder months, before rekindling his relationship with the female, for next years' brood.

I have visited the site several times since the young departed, and have seen both adults present, which is promising for next season. When the snow arrived for the first time in years, I made my way to the site in the hope of some views of the owls perched in it. But owls are said to be wise, and they wisely stayed out of the biting wind, and in the relative shelter and warmth of the barn, refusing to venture out for me to photograph. All I saw during three visits to the farm was one feathery head peek out of the barn for a brief moment, glare at me, and then vanish once more! I honestly don't blame them - it was perishingly cold.

If you're a fan of little owls, and would like to join me for a workshop of little owl photography, please drop me an email ( I will be adding new images over the winter from any visits I make, and sharing any news from the site, via Social Media.

Images from the year (and last year too) are available to purchase on a wide variety of media via my website and also my Facebook page, from the Online Shop.

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