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Part 16 - The Little Owl and the Kingfisher
Little owl - Athene noctua

A line drawing of the Little Owl

There is much concern in nature conservation circles about the effects on “native” wildlife of introduced species. I put the critical word in inverted commas since in the plant world at least its definition is disputed. Is a species that has been here for 1000 years “native”? Not according to most botanists, nor, for that matter, zoologists. Horse chestnuts and rabbits both, are still very much regarded as aliens, though ones which are welcome. By contrast, plants like Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed, parrot’s feather and New Zealand pygmyweed are far more recent arrivals and are almost universally regarded as pernicious. As far as birds go, the ring-necked parakeet – now breeding in very substantial numbers in west London and part of Surrey – is beginning to cause worries. It’s a hole-nesting species, after all, and there are only so many suitable holes in trees. If the parakeet population really explodes, as it may, how will all the starlings, woodpeckers - and owls - compete?

The little owl is another relative newcomer to Britain but one which has settled in very unobtrusively, the only voices of objection being gaming interests who claimed that the birds took young pheasants, an allegation that was later proved to be completely inaccurate by a careful study in 1935. As owls regurgitate the inedible parts of their meals, their diets are easy to establish – if, that is, you have the time, patience and expertise required to recognise prey from the remains in pellets! Unlike the parakeet which spread from escaped cage birds, the little owl was very deliberately introduced – from mainland Europe – in the nineteenth century. The numbers of predator species are always low and after 100 years and more there may still only be fewer than 10,000 pairs in Britain and the population seems to be declining.

One or perhaps two pairs of little owls seem to be resident in Kingston parish in most years. They hunt during the day-time, especially late in the afternoon or early evening, as well as at night and can sometimes be heard calling from Ash wood or the copse near Swanborough. I have seen them, though not now for several years, perched on the telegraph pole almost opposite the church and on the roofs of the nearby barns. Little owls are indeed small – shorter than a blackbird and about the same size as a great spotted woodpecker, though stockier. They eat small mammals and some birds including species larger than they are but also a great variety of invertebrates including beetles, earwigs, worms and moths. Like puffins, they sometimes nest in old rabbit burrows.

Kingfisher – Alcedo atthis

A line drawing of the Kingfisher

Nothing prepares you for the vividness of a kingfisher’s colours. Depending on the angle and the light, you may get a flash of orange or green as well as the more usual iridescent blue as the small, finch-sized bird flashes by.

Many people say they have never seen a kingfisher but –even though the British population is quite small (perhaps only 5000-6000 pairs) - if you walk along almost any lowland river for long enough and with enough attention, you are almost certain to encounter one. They disperse after breeding and may range quite widely, especially in cold weather. It’s mercifully hard at the moment (20 October) to recall what really cold weather is like but the winter of 1962/63 is reckoned to have wiped out almost 90% of the kingfisher population. It’s from about this time of the year onwards that they are most likely to visit garden ponds. I’m still waiting for one to come to mine but I know of at least two Kingston ponds where kingfishers have put in an appearance. (I’d love to hear of more too – do let me know if you are one of the lucky few!). Other than that, you may come across one this bird one of the ditches in Lewes Brooks and here I have found them in the past.

But anyone desperate to see a kingfisher should take a walk by the river Cuckmere to the sea. Keep your eyes open and I can almost guarantee you a sighting!

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