The tale of four Little Owls part1

First of all, before we get to our story, both Rosie and I want to say happy New Year and may it be a physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy one for all of us.
This past year has been huge and it seems like an age since I last sat down in front of the computer screen and shared a photo adventure with my readers.
But here we go.

A loud Ping from my computer notified me of a new message through FaceBook from a friend Anne Lamb in my bird photography group.

When I opened the message there staring back at me was simply the most beautiful image of a Little Owl I had ever seen.
Little Owls do not inhabit the North Island of New Zealand which is where I live and I stared at the image longingly and the cogs in my brain box began to grind out a plan.

Steve and I were already planning a very short trip to the South Island over Christmas.  I saw the possibilities of obtaining images of the Little Owl and I asked Anne if she could show us the bird. Anne replied in her typical enthusiastic style and along with the yes, came a promise of Christmas cake if we behaved ourselves (which we always do) lol
Little Owls have always been on our wanted list but the time necessary to locate one was a luxury we had not enjoyed and now we were being handed one on a plate along with Christmas cake.

Dates were arranged and the excitement grew.

A rough night on the water

It was 2am and the wagon rocked wildly from side to side as the westerly wind howled through the night.
We were parked in a long line of other terrified people waiting to board the overnight ferry that would take us between the two biggest blobs of the earth that make up the bulk of the main-land of Aotearoa (The land of the long white cloud).
We would be deposited on the other blob of earth around 6am if the westerly wind didn’t blow us over to Argentina first. We made it more or less on time just as daylight was breaking with the last hour being in calm conditions.
Not that I cared, as I had taken my sea legs tablet well beforehand and my travel mattress and pillow accompanied me onto the main deck and into the lounge.   Being the height of the tourist season and just a few days out from Christmas people were packed in like a tin of sardines lying all over the floor in little family groups.

I pretended to be invisible and promptly fell to the floor and crawled under a dining room table and immediately went to sleep to the sound of the wind thrashing the side of the boat.
Our trip south was to be short this year, a ten-day whirlwind tour and back home to see in the new year.
We made our way to our guide Anne’s house halfway down the Island the next day and then out to view a Little Owl for the first time. But it was not to be just one Owl, it was to be a family of Little Owls with a chick only just starting to venture outside the nest.

First Contact

The nest was in a tree on the side of the road and we approached the nest as a convoy of two vehicles, I saw that the tree was not too dissimilar from a willow tree, only completely different.
These birds are completely at home with human activity just so long as you stay in your vehicle and remain quiet.
As we drove up I spied the chick above the entrance to the nest which was a slit in the tree which led into a hollowed-out section in the heart of the trunk. It stood in defiance of the invasion force below, at least that was until we stopped and tried to get a shot outside the car in which it streaked down the trunk, into the slit and into the nest at an amazing speed. Lesson learned, remain in the car.

First contact

Rule number one, STAY IN THE CAR

That chick never came out till the next day and it was only 9am in the morning so we had a long wait to see it again.
Never mind I had my first image of a Little Owl, perhaps not of the calibre of the one I was sent, but I was on the board as they say.

Sometimes cars make wonderful mobile blinds and this was to be one such occasion. After the quick departure of the chick, we decided to vacate the area and let things quieten down.
Now that Steve and I had the lay of the land it would be just a matter of returning and positioning the wagon correctly to give us the best chances.
Anne knew of other birds in the area so we went for a short tour and then planned to return to park up and partake of the legendary Christmas cake, but something happened along the way.
I was promoted to the backseat of Anne’s car which I shared with her hairy tribe of 3 Jack Russells. I could now see and shoot out both sides of the road providing I could shoot between the hairy beasts. As we were passing the nest site on the way back, I spied a Little Owl at the base of the tree so we glided to a stop and I got my first shots of an adult bird from three meters away.
He had a starling head and neck in his beak. Most likely the rest of the starling had been served as the main meal to the chick and the dad had the leftovers, I could hear him crunching the head from inside the car.

A little Owl has a bird for lunch

Yummy Starling head for lunch.
I could hear the crunching of the head and beak from inside the car.

The bird did not remain long on his little perch just above the ground and flew off into the trees to finish his meal away from prying eyes.  We positioned the wagons, broke out the flask coffee and had lunch finishing off with the famous Christmas cake which truly lived up to its legend.
It wasn’t too long after that, that our guide had to return home and we were left to our own devices and we settled down for the long wait.
We did not know what to expect but not much happened over the next 6 hours.
Then one materialised as if out of thin air and I got the shot I had been hoping for.

and suddenly it materialized

That was basically the end of our first day and we headed back to the holiday park and prepared for day 2 which started as soon as there was enough light.

Bad light great day 

We knew we were going to struggle a bit as the sun came up directly behind the tree. It was light overcast which made it even worse, the sky was bright white. We would have to shoot at least 2 stops over to get any light on the birds if they put in an appearance. This would result in very low contrast images as the overwhelming bright backlighting from the white sky behind the tree would be making its presence felt.

Always expose for your subject and deal with the background later in Lightroom or Photoshop.
At 8am we got our first bit of action with an adult coming in with a big fat beetle for the chick and we got our first shots of the chick and a parent.

Our first shots of an adult with a chick

A big surprise – one becomes two

Mum or Dad, (we could not tell which was which) started making more and more frequent trips back to the nest as the morning wore on. Then to our delight, another much smaller chick poked its head out of the entrance to the nest. There were two chicks and not one as we were told.

two Little Owl chicks poke their heads out of their nest

two Little Owl chicks poke their heads out of their nest.

As the morning wore on activity dropped off and it was decided that we would head on down to the Ashley River Estuary and see what the place had to offer.

It was midday and we still had light overcast conditions which are ideal during summer just so long as the sun is not directly behind your subject.
Having only been at Ashley River Estuary on one other occasion we had no idea how to approach the area, so we simply headed right up the middle.
The usual suspects that one would normally expect on a coastal estuary were present.

a kōtuku ngutupapa or Royal spoonbill makes its way up the Ashley River Estuary

A kōtuku ngutupapa or Royal spoonbill makes its way up the Ashley River Estuary


tarāpuka or the black-billed gull diving for sea worms

tarāpuka or the black-billed gull diving for sea worms


The Ruddy Turnstone also known as the Arctic Turnstone migrates from the top of the world the Arctic Circle to the bottom, New Zealand, every southern summer

The Ruddy Turnstone  migrates from the top of the world, the Arctic Circle to the bottom, New Zealand, every southern summer

kuaka the bar-tailed godwit another summer visitor from the arctic flying up the Ashley River Estuary in search of a worm or two

kuaka the bar-tailed godwit another summer visitor from the arctic, flying up the Ashley River Estuary in search of a worm or two.

Soon it was time to return to the Little Owls and we parked the wagon and waited.

That afternoon never seemed to pick up. However, we were entertained by a Hare that dropped by to keep us company for a while.

A The European Hare dropped by to keep us company

In Europe, hares are considered a delicacy and are not that common. In New Zealand, they are considered a pest and seldom end up on our plates.

Tomorrow, as they say, is another day and so this proved to be true. We packed up and headed back to the campsite wondering what tomorrow would bring.

Day three of the great Little Owl stakeout

The third day dawned much like the previous, overcast with difficult light, but the nest site became a hive of frantic activity for those first few hours.
It was Christmas Day 2019 and like Christmas for many, food and fellowship becomes the main focus, it appears Little Owls are not that different from humans.

a mother with her two Little Owl chicks

The mother with her two Little Owl chicks as the day warmed up so did the activity

The two chicks began competing for the beetles being delivered to the door and things became truly comical.
The wagon had become oblivious to the family of Little Owls. just so long as we stayed inside and reasonably quiet.

The larger chick came up with a cunning plan, It climbed above the nest and when the food came in, it dropped straight down on top of the food provider like a demented paratrooper creating chaos and upsetting the apple cart.

A Little Owl perches in its tree above the nest

The old chick perches above the nest hoping to drop in for a juicy Beatle. It worked .. but not for long.


The king of chaos drops in for Christmas dinner

We would have loved better light to capture the action, but you get what you get in this game and you do with it the best you can.

Meantime the beetles keep coming

A Little Owl with a Beetle for its chicks

Mumma Owl with a beetle takes a deep breath before flying into the danger zone. She casts her eye up at her ravenous babies looking down at her with pleading eyes.

We had plans to head south to the southernmost region of the New Zealand mainland, so it was with glad hearts we left the circus hoping we could catch up where we left off on our way back up the Island.

Little did we know that we would witness a giant step in the development of the chicks when we got back, something that made us feel truly privileged to see.

Anne’s hairy tribe


10 thoughts on “The tale of four Little Owls part1

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