Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Our smallest owl

The bird hide at Flitcham Abbey Farm is a hidden treasure, overlooking, as it does, a grazing marsh, complete with pond and areas of more open ground. The range of habitats attracts an impressive array of species and provides some excellent bird (and mammal) watching. The site is perhaps best known for its breeding little owls and this is why I made a special visit over the weekend. Although it is a site that I sometimes stop at on my way back from the North Norfolk coast, on Sunday I chose to make an early morning call instead. Morning is not the best time to visit because the hide faces east and the late winter sun can be a problem. However, I did have the hide to myself and there was plenty to see.

Two family parties of Egyptian geese were noisily seeing off any birds that came too close, their cream and brown youngsters oblivious to the hollerings of their over-protective parents. A dozen or so late redwings intermingled with grazing rabbits and thrushes, while a curlew went quietly about its business along the edge of the wetter ground. There was no sign of the kingfisher which nests in the exposed bank at the back of the pond, nor the tree sparrows that sometimes appear. There was also no sign of the little owls, at least from where I was sitting. These usually frequent a large tree in front of the hide but it was only the jackdaws that were active, busily cramming sticks into the available cavities. I decided to change position and left the hide to move further along the road so that I could look back towards the tree, with the sun behind me. This proved to be an excellent decision, for no sooner had I raised my binoculars to the tree than I spotted a squat shape sitting within the roots of the fallen trunk. This was a little owl, sat with piercing yellow eyes half closed but ever alert.

Little owls are fascinating birds, full of character and with an attitude that belies their tiny stature. First introduced into England during the mid-1800s, they really became established following introductions near Edenbridge in Kent and Oundle in Northamptonshire during the 1880s. Today, although widely distributed, they have declined somewhat, especially here within eastern England. The loss of suitable hunting and nesting opportunities may be to blame, so it is fortunate that Flitcham Abbey Farm has both in abundance. Flitcham is just east of King’s Lynn, off the A148, so do pop in and take a look. Make sure that you leave a donation in the box to support and acknowledge the efforts of the landowner.

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