Saturday, 10 September 2022

The arrival of the Little Owls

Autumn provides Blackbirds with blackberries, rowan fruit, privet berries and ivy berries.

Ahmet Amerikali took these pictures of a Robin eating a blackberry ...

... and a female Blackcap picking elderberries, both near the bridge.

The bold Chaffinch at the Mound Gate gave Neil a fine photo-op while he was feeding it.

It's quite easy to feed Great Tits from your hand in Britain, but in Spain the birds are much shyer and it's almost impossible. However, in the peaceful park of Isabel la Católica in Gijón Marta has managed to win their confidence, and this is her video.

Another curious picture from the same park, sent by Tinúviel. A Canada Goose and an Egyptian are mates, and now inseparable. There is no chance of goslings from such distantly related birds. The electric fence guards them from predators.

An Egyptian on the Serpentine having a good flap, photographed by Neil.

Now, while I am still laid up with a sprained ankle, another retrospective. This year we have been entertained by wonderful views of two families of Little Owls. But these are just the latest descendants of Little Owls that arrived in the park in 2011 and 2012, and it's worth looking at their story.

A historical note: it's often claimed that Little Owls were first brought into Britain in the 19th century, with the intention that they should keep down Bullfinches which were eating farmers' fruit crops. The plan didn't work, but the owls established themselves and there are now estimated to be 5.700 pairs in the country, though the population is in slight decline as agricultural pesticides kill the insects the owls feed on. However, Little Owls were already present in small numbers. Thomas Bewick, in his British Birds of 1798, writes 'It is rarely met with in England: it is sometimes found in Yorkshire, Flintshire, and in the neighbourhood of London.' So it's very likely that Little Owls have been in the park for a long time, though probably not continuously.

A pair of Little Owls were seen in Hyde Park in December 2011, near the Ranger's Lodge garden where they probably had their hole. I never saw them at this time. Since then they have bred at least once, and owlets have been rescued after falling out of trees (the thing to do is to put them back on a low branch, and they will climb up nimbly in spite of not being able to fly). 

Then, at the beginning of April 2012, three pairs of Little Owls arrived in Kensington Gardens. One pair settled at the southwest corner of the leaf yard, using holes in the old sweet chestnut trees planted in 1690. It was on one of these trees that on 6 April I photographed the male owl, and that was the picture on the first post in my blog which I started on that date.

The following year the owls moved to the next tree, where there was a better hole ...

... and stayed there for the rest of their lives.

They bred in 2015 and raised two owlets ...

and again in 2016 when they fledged one. This picture is by Tom, taken in the evening in very low light.

They lived till 2019. This is the last picture I have of them, the female on 2 February.

The other 2012 arrivals were unsettled at first and were seen in various places. Eventually one pair found a hole in an oak not far from the Albert Memorial. The first picture I have is from 12 March 2014.

They had two owlets in 2016, seen here in a nearby horse chestnut tree.

It was hard to photograph the adults together in the hole, but Alastair James got a good shot in 2018.

We don't know how long they lived. Calls have been heard from the area quite recently but are likely from their descendants.

The third pair settled on Buck Hill a short way from the bridge, in a group of tall lime trees. This was their first hole, shown in a picture taken in 2016.

They bred in this year, producing just one owlet.

In 2017 they moved into a larger hole in another lime tree. The hole was in shade and it was very hard to get a good picture of them there. This one is taken from the other side of the branch with the hole in it.

The female tended to stay in that area, but the male roved around Buck Hill and was often seen as far away as the Italian Garden.

They bred again in 2020, when Julia got some excellent video of the single owlet at play ...

... and being fed with a caterpillar.

There was a pair of Little Owls at the top of Buck Hill in 2021, but I think they were the next generation. They spent their days in a broken lime tree next to the upper path, where there was an old squirrel drey made of dead leaves.

It was extremely hard to see them when they had snuggled down in the leaves.

A gale blew the leaves away and I haven't been able to find the owls since.

There was another pair of Little Owls in 2021 in a sweet chestnut near the Speke obelisk. Here are the female ...

... and the male.

I saw what may have been this male owl only a week ago in a nearby oak, but I didn't have my camera. However, it's possible that they may be the same as the pair that nested near the Round Pond this year. The two places are only a couple of hundred yards away.

A pair of Little Owls could be seen in Hyde Park in 2018 in trees at the edge of the Serpentine below the Ranger's Lodge. They may have been the pair that arrived in 2011, or their descendants.

I've had two reports from people who have been going by the Round Pond after dark. A couple of years ago Steve the policeman looked out from his car as he drove down the Broad Walk and saw 'a whole lot' of Little Owls hunting on the lawn in front of the Round Pond. This year, while the owls were breeding near the Round Pond, a woman passing on that side of the pond on her bicycle also saw a large group of owls running around on the grass. (I won't name her because she shouldn't have been there then, or riding a bicycle on the footpath.) It sounds as if Little Owls may hunt in groups larger that their immediate families, which would be an efficient way of catching the beetles and other large insects that form a large part of their diet.


  1. I have enjoyed the Littlle Owl story so much! Julia's video of the owlet is adorable. Silly me, I had always thought Little Owls were endemic in GB, but of course they would be native to warm climates and introduced in colder climates.

    In Spain there are marked differences in behaviour in small birds according to regions. Where they are traditionally hunted, they are much more wary and shy, sometimes, as is the case with Herons and Cranes, to the point of not letting anyone get within 50 metres of where they are.


    1. Well, Little Owls do seem to be endemic here, just scarce until more were introduced. Yorkshire is a good way north, and Flintshire (in northeast Wales) a good way west of the Channel and the possibility of owls straying over from France.

      The Grey Herons in the park are ridiculously confident, and when they see someone who will feed them they stalk along the path after him, following like an obedient but hungry dog. Rural herons are much shyer, although no one hunts them.