Watching the little owl during winter in the North East

PUBLISHED: 13:20 19 October 2010 | UPDATED: 17:58 20 February 2013

Watching the little owl during winter in the North East

Watching the little owl during winter in the North East

Winter is a great time to look for the little owl, a charismatic incomer whose angry expression belies an unexpectedly comic repertoire

If you see one running around on the ground it will be searching for earthworms and insects. If it spots a worm it will attempt to tug it out of the ground, and if the worm comes free suddenly, the owl may fall over backwards! Hilarious.
Martin Kitching, who runs Northern Experience Wildlife Tours, and used to edit the annual Birds of Northumbria report, says that although little owls are not always easy to see they are fairly common in the north east. Birds were reported from 37 localities in Northumberland in 2008, for example, he says.
He recommends looking for little owls in lowland farmland areas, especially around hedges, copses and orchards. Old, twisted ash trees with hollowed branches are a good place to look for them, and derelict farm buildings are another good option, he says.
On sunny winter days they can often be found sunning themselves and this is a good time to look for them with the trees bare. They frequently perch prominently on fence posts, telegraph poles etc, he adds.
The little owls we see today are not really a native species. There is fossil evidence that they lived in Britain half a million years ago, but they appear to have died out, and it was only in the 19th century that they were reintroduced as part of the Victorian fashion for improving the variety of the nations native wildlife.
Little owl releases in Kent in the 1870s and Northamptonshire in the 1890s proved remarkably successful, as the birds quickly established a niche for themselves and spread as far north as the Scottish borders. As small, largely nocturnal predators, with insects and earthworms, rather than small mammals, making up much of their diet, they faced little competition from other birds.
Since the mid-twentieth century, however, their numbers seem to have been in decline, though reliable statistics are sparse. Emily Joachim, of Reading Universitys Centre of Agri-environment Research, has been studying little owls, using radio-tracking techniques and nest box cameras to monitor fledgling survival and mortality and feeding behaviour. She points to two likely causes of little owl decline - the loss of semi-natural vegetation such as hedgerows, woodland and grassland from the English countryside, and changes in the way
land is farmed.
Hedgerows are an important habitat feature, providing nesting and foraging sites, and acting as corridors, linking up habitat patches and allowing birds to exploit prey items with a level of cover from predators, she explains.
Hedgerows, woodland, pollarded trees and grassland provide breeding sites for invertebrates, small mammals and birds, all part of the little owls diet.
Agricultural intensification has meant a reduction in the sowing of cereals in the spring, changes in crop rotation and lowland grass management, and increased pesticide use. The area of unimproved and semi-natural grassland has declined, while arable monoculture crops, such as barley and wheat, which offer low prey availability during the summer, have increased.
On a brighter note, Emily points out farmers have been doing a fantastic job of taking up agri-environment schemes which benefit farmland birds. It is important that landowners continue to provide wildlife with a mosaic of habitat, including hedgerows, grassland margins, scrub and woodland, she says.
She is also keen for more public involvement in helping conserve the little owl. Nest boxes are increasingly used by little owls, indicating that loss of semi-natural vegetation could have reduced nest site availability.
Providing little owl nest boxes in areas the little owl has been seen or heard offers the species alternative nest sites, she explains.
If you do spot a little owl nest site, then you can help simply by going online and reporting the sighting to the British Trust for Ornithology (www.bto.org/birdtrack). The BTO only receives around 70 little owl nest records each year, says Emily. This makes it really difficult to monitor the little owls breeding biology.
At present the north east is near the northern limit of the little owls range in Britain. Research from Durham University has suggested that the species could benefit from climate change, and sightings of this charismatic character could become commoner in the region. If so it would be good news, but we suspect Mr Angry would still look as grumpy as ever.

Mr Angry is glaring at us from atop a fence post. Frowning at us from under his heavy brow, hes also bobbing and weaving, now hunkered down in a small feathery ball, now stretching skywards to all of ten inches.
He doesnt appear happy to see us, but his comic routine makes it hard to take his disapproving look seriously. Mr Angry is a little owl, the original wise old owl in fact, and were a lot more pleased to see him than he us.
Winter is always a good time for bird watching, with bare trees and hedges and birds actively searching for energy-giving food to combat the cold. This is certainly true of little owls, which will hunt on the wing at dusk and dawn, and sometimes even in the middle of the day, flying low over farmland and along hedgerows with their characteristic undulating flight.
But the little owls diminutive stature and cryptic camouflage can make spotting one when perched very tricky. Secreted in a hole in a dry stone wall, a little owl all but vanishes and even when perched prominently on a bare branch or fence post the dumpy, boxy profile is easily overlooked. So a sighting is always something special.
If you do spot a little owl, its well worth investing some time to observe its behaviour, which can be unexpectedly entertaining. In wet weather they will sometimes perform an elaborate rain dance to clean their feathers, while in dry conditions they will roll in dust for the same purpose.

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