For ten years, the Little Owls of Eastbrook Farm, Wiltshire lived in the squalid roof space of a derelict rust-bucket, the Shepherd Hut. After the events of last summer, it appears that they’ve finally had enough. The tiny nesting space in that old tin can was like an oven, with just a few inches of room between the rotting timber beneath them and the scorching hot corrugated steel roof above.
The whole structure was gradually collapsing, held up in one corner by an elder tree. If that wasn’t enough, they lost one chick to a marauding sparrowhawk, taken as it perched in the open, on the roof. Yet another chick was found drowned in a nearby water trough, trying to drink and find relief from the summer heat. Heart-breaking.
With just two remaining fledglings barely able to fly, the adults beckoned them away from the Shepherd Hut, to the more spacious and well-ventilated tumbledown barn — not much of an improvement, but a favourite roost for the parents, just a field away. Problem solved for this season, but what about the next?
There’s nowhere to nest inside the barn. No level timbers or straw bales. Just a corrugated steel roof that’s crumpled onto the ground, swaying and creaking in a breeze. Little owls are a cavity-nesting species, known for their lack of nest-making prowess, but there’s meagre choice even for them. In September, the parents said “Adios!” to their surviving young. The young owls departed and successfully dispersed to neighbouring farms…
“But, if the Shepherd Hut is no longer suitable,
where are the parent pair going to nest this year?”
It’s March and the little owls are calling again. They haven’t moved too far from last years nest site – roosting all winter in the derelict outbuildings near an abandoned farmhouse. There are plenty of ‘new home’ options around here. Lots of characterful old stone buildings providing safe and secure nesting sites. Plenty of food too with large open arable fields, pig farming, and a hay barn, i.e. no shortage of rodents and invertebrates.
It’s April and the evening ambience of corn buntings, skylarks, bleating sheep, and mooing cows is repeatedly punctuated by the call of two little owls. For me, it’s a heart-warming sound. It reminds me that spring is here and summer is around the corner. [Click the audio sample below to hear the little owl’s call] For the little owls, breeding season is upon them once again and the drive to procreate takes over.
Checking in the bush telegram, the farmers are telling me that they’ve “seen a little owl perching on the broken window” on the south-facing side of the house. Intrigued, it’s time to dedicate all my evenings to observation mode. I’ve barely seen them near the tumbledown barn or shepherd hut. Fingers crossed they have found a nest site. I haven’t been able to spot them in the outbuildings. It’s hard going though. There are so many nooks and crannies for them to nest in. Out of curiosity, I decide to explore the farmhouse. Rumours abound as to its history.
The Old Farmhouse is utterly derelict. Many of the windows are boarded up. The gable end is slowly collapsing. As you walk through the porch and into the 80s kitchen, the floor becomes a crunchy carpet of sheep and rabbit droppings — like a case of cocoa-pops has exploded. It has that stale musty reek of ammonia. In the next room, the remains of a half-eaten rat is decomposing on the mouldy carpet – could be an owl’s work, or just a cat. Thick Indiana Jones’ style webs hang in the windows, sagging with age and dust. You can smell the fetidness of decay.
What would have been a comfortable sitting room, houses two moth-eaten sofas. No, wait. They’re sheep-eaten – droppings are all over the floor. They must have pushed open the outside door and helped themselves to the cosy couch — nibbling on the green velvet. Looks like some of the farm hands sneak in here for a kip and a beer too. It’s a sad place. Like somebody just walked out the door 30 years ago and abandoned it. There are no owl pellets or droppings down here. Better move on.
Behind the green sofa lies a narrow, rickety wooden staircase, riddled with woodworm. It’s fragile and creaking. Standing on the landing, I realise I am now looking at the broken window that the owls were seen perching on. Thankfully, the air is much fresher up here. Glancing down, there are bird droppings (large and small) and owl pellets all over the exposed timber floors. Oh, and massive spiders. Massive! I don’t hear anything. Apart from the scuttling spiders. The house is eerily silent. I’m just standing still and listening. The floor doesn’t look particularly robust — more woodworm, rot and decay.
I gingerly step forward, listening more for creaking, breaking wood than ruffling feathers. Turning the corner, I pass through a dingy room without windows, just a mattress. I shine a torch, looking for feathers or concentrations of droppings, but there’s nothing. Another, even more dilapidated staircase is in front of me. But I stop dead. I hear ruffling feathers.
I look up the staircase, into the top-most room and see the metal frame of a four-poster bed. Perched on the corner post is a little owl. Glaring with blazing wide yellow eyes, the message is clear… “WTF are you doing in my house!?” We both retreat immediately. The owl flies to the window and I back away, right out the property. “I guess they are roosting in here then! But are they nesting?”
The answer is “Yes!” It’s mid-May and judging by the buzz around the farmhouse, the female little owl is on the nest. The male is in a feeding frenzy with 24hr activity and rapid frequency of food deliveries. On the menu: Large spiders, grasshoppers, moths and butterflies, bees, beetles, worms, grubs, small rodents and birds, even bats! The little owls are now ferociously territorial, chasing off every other bird that dares venture too near – blackbirds, pigeons, and corvids especially. For a little bird, they make a big impact, hitting pigeons off their perch and flying like a sparrowhawk, whipping through gates and along fences.
The summer solstice is upon us. The year is flying by. The adult owls are both working flat-out to raise their chicks. They fly inside the farmhouse and are out of sight for just ten-seconds, before flying out and finding more food. The young owls must be out of the nest now, tottering and hopping about on that landing and rickety staircase. It won’t be long before I see the cute little fluff-balls. Little owl chicks are ridiculously cute. They can scowl like their parents, but are completely covered in downy feathers — almost like a Furby, but without the ears.
The 24th of June marks a special occasion… the fledglings are perching on the window for all to see. They look startled and confused by the outside world, hopping back behind the glass, then peering out again. Damn cute! The adults are run ragged and more ferocious than ever. Now that the chicks are visible, the female is in a heightened state of defence.
They adults must be knackered, trying to meet the ever-intensifying demands of their rapidly developing chicks. I’m amazed they’re still looking in such good condition. Many other birds look a bit tatty as they simply don’t have the usual time for preening.
One of the chicks is huge in comparison to the others. I’m looking at the smallest fluff-ball perched on the window downstairs… inside. If he doesn’t make it back upstairs, I’ll have to go in and make sure all the doors are open and he isn’t trapped. “Biggun” however, is taking all the food on offer and has a crisp set of flight feathers. It’s physical development is way ahead of the other two chicks.
Early July and we’re already down to two chicks. Biggun has fledged already and is roosting in the tumbledown barn two fields away, with the adult female. Looks like she’s taking a breather, leaving the male to feed the remaining two chicks on his own. This happened the year before. Halfway through, she took off for a couple of weeks. I thought she’d been predated, but she returned to chase off the remaining fledglings, to make sure they didn’t loiter in her territory.
Awwww, they grow so fast! It seems like only yesterday that I was panicking about where the little owls were nesting and now, 1st August, they’ve all fledged. The adult male and two chicks are still visiting the Old Farmhouse, but rarely staying long. The chicks still look a bit fluffy, but they are well on their way to being fully fledged adults and I say, “Hooray!” for that.
They’ve given me hours of enjoyment, photographing and observing their antics — head butting their parents out of the window to get more food, standing on each other’s head to reach the food delivery first… Who knows what will happen next year? There are plans to renovate and develop the Old Farmhouse. Am I concerned? No. The little owls will survive and thrive. They are tenacious, intelligent, and adaptive.
What has been most rewarding is their tolerance of my presence. I can’t say they trust me, but I think I’m acknowledged as a non-threat, which is good enough for me. I’m watched like a hawk at first but quickly forgotten or ignored.
Being close to wild animals is one of the main reasons why I became a wildlife photographer. My encounters are what keep me going when the Black Dog comes to stay. It’s certainly not the money. With my wildlife photography hides I feel like I have (arguably) commoditised the owls and badgers and it leaves a rather nasty taste in my mouth. It’s a horrible catch-22. I need the income to do what I love doing, but hate having to earn from the thing I cherish. What a pickle!?