The Yorkshire Wolds is great ‘little owl’ country and I love to paint these charismatic owls. Yet, a cold spring last year and freezing conditions which were so severe for the previous two winters has meant that all the little owls bar one pair that I know of in my local patch have gone.
So I was delighted this week to spot a pair busy looking for a new nesting site on the other side of Thixendale from my gallery one morning. There have been no little owls in this valley for two years.
I quickly got out my binoculars to watch them as they inspected the surrounding trees for suitable holes to nest in. They seemed to be particularly favouring a rabbit warren for their prospective site. They stood outside the entrance to the rabbit hole. Next they peered down into it before disappearing down underground. It made me wonder if something was wrong.
Little owls usually only pick rabbit holes to nest in when there are no other suitable sites. The holes, often some of them still used by rabbits, leave these small birds of prey open to attack from stoats and rats.
I wondered why they seemed to be plumping for this option when just 70 yards away there was a large ash tree with a hole in it which I know has been used by little owls many times before.
I decided to return the next day with a ladder to inspect the hole for myself. I propped it against the tree and climbed up to find it was completely blocked up with debris.
I carefully dug it out for them. Little owls are quite fussy about their nest sites, and rightly so. Being so small they are liable to come under attack from other larger birds of prey such as tawny owls, buzzards and sparrow hawks. Jackdaws compete with them for nesting sites. I have watched six jackdaws trying to push a pair of little owls from a prized site. And they will even take their eggs if they find their nests.
To be safe little owls choose long, small holes, preferably with a few bends and turns in it, that only they can fit down. They also need a chamber at the end for the nest.
By the time I had finished clearing the hole it was two feet long and difficult for me to get my arm down – perfect for a nesting pair of little owls. Before I left I set up a hide opposite the tree on the daleside near the rabbit holes so that I could watch what happened next.
After lunch one of the owls flew up to the ash tree to hunt for beetles. I held my breath as it passed my newly renovated hole. The little owl spotted it and promptly disappeared into it and out of sight.
It was only gone for a short while before it popped out again and called to its mate to come across and take a look. They both then disappeared into the hole for a few minutes.
As they came back into view they began to call to one another and then to mate. Clearly they were pleased with my clearing up job and had decided to move in. I'm hoping this painting of mine will come true later in the year....