Friday, July 3, 2020

Charles Is Gone

July 3, 2020

I have not seen Charles since Thursday, May 14.  This is the longest I have gone without seeing him by a huge margin.  With the great help of friends I have searched wide and far for him   I decided to search for a six week period through Thursday, June 25 and I have done so and without even a a hint of his presence. With a heavy heart I have concluded that Charles is dead.  I am leaving the window of possibility slightly cracked and that Charles has moved to an as yet un-found area but only as a remote possibility.  It is awful to write these words and beyond sad to know that he is gone. I cannot fully express how much I miss him and will continue to do so.  Nor can I completely express the impact he made on my life and the lives of many others. I can only try to do so.

This is one of my favorite photos of him. He was in a low branch of The Third Of The Three Trees on August 7, 2016. (Be sure to double click on the photos to see larger versions of them)



But to continue I want to first describe what I saw of him on May 14 and what I saw in the subsequent six weeks.  In no way did Charles appear to be ill and/or injured.  He seemed perfectly healthy and behaved in his normal and always fascinating and beautiful manner.  On May 14 he woke up, he stretched and groomed, ejected a pellet and then flew off to hunt after sunset. A perfectly normal and average night but as any one who has seen Charles an average night of his defies the meaning of the word as it utterly compelling and beautiful.

I found him in a Sweetgum tree immediately next to the western edge of The Wooded Area.  It was interesting to find him in this tree for several reasons. Over the last few years I have seen him perch in this and other nearby Sweetgums in the late spring-early summer but not at all this year.  For a number of summers several years ago, he used this tree in predictably unpredictable manner as a summer perch spot. It is a large tree and you have to especially work the angles to find him.  This night was no different.  The warning calls of American Robins alerted me to the possibility of his presence but it took a while to find him by working the angles.  Even when I had located him and fine tuned the angle my view of him was still obscured by the many leaves on the tightly spaced branches.



As he woke up, stretched and groomed the previously cloudy conditions cleared and a stunning sunset emerged in its latter stages.



A little while later Charles pivoted his position in the tree and the fading rays of sun illuminated him for a brief but always memorable manner.


A chap passing by wondered what I was looking at and at a safe social distance I pointed out Charles to him.  He was completely captivated by Charles; an effect that he consistently has on people and one I am always thrilled to witness. The chap, who's name I learned was Mike, asked me many questions and as we chatted I learned that he is very passionate forager for morel mushrooms.  I do not like mushrooms even though I am a fun guy 😁 but I have always been curious about the folks who forage so diligently for them. As such I had many questions for Mike and we got quite a good conversation going as we shared about our respective passions and areas of expertise.

I noticed throughout the night that Charles was not hooting but the reason for this became clear when he ejected a good-sized pellet ten minutes after sunset. This was on the later side of the pellet ejection timeline spectrum.  He still did not hoot but I think since it was so late that he had to progress both behaviorally and alphabetically and skip hooting for hunting. As it got even darker, Charles flew south into The Wooded Area.  Mike and I were enjoying our conversation and given the dark conditions I knew it would be hard to find Charles. The robin warning calls had never stopped throughout the night and as Mike and I chatted I heard the robin calls surge northward most likely following Charles as he went off to hunt.  My own hunger was mounting and I needed to start my own hunting in my kitchen. Mike and I said our goodbyes and I left the park over an hour after sunset after a little more than two hours in the park. A perfectly normal, groovy night with Charles.

On Friday, May 15, I went out at the normal time, about an hour before sunset, and spent 90 minutes searching with no success. I was not worried that I had not found him. Over the years I have learned that such nights will happen. Most recently I had two nights this April and one earlier in May in which I had not found him.  I could only get to the park in the afternoon for a short visit and search on Saturday, May 16. My success rate in finding Charles on such short and early visits is quite high given the two time related limitations. This night was an unwelcome exception to this pattern. Again, though I was not concerned. Just as I have a night here and there when I don't find Charles and his current mate, over the years I have had periods of 2-4 nights of no success. I really do not like such periods as they do get me worried but having had several of them I know that they do occur.

The following night, Sunday, May 17, was frustrating and it was when I began to become more puzzled and concerned about not finding him.  The first frustration was not finding him especially when we had some strong robin calling in an area where he had been doing a fair amount of hunting of late. We could not find him or figure out what the robins were calling about and their calling eventually faded away.  The second frustration involved the we in the previous sentence. Almost after I started looking for Charles that night I ran into a recent owl prowlee, Han Li, and her boyfriend (David, I think-sorry! I am so bad with names as I happily meet so many people via the owls but sadly do a bloody awful job of remembering names!) who were looking for Charles too.  Han had joined me earlier that week on Tuesday, May 12 for an owl prowl. Thanks to a faint, short bit of Northern Cardinal warning calls I found Charles thirty seconds later in an obscured spot in The Double-barreled Tree. Han was duly impressed by this and as the night went on, she had an especially cool prowl as we saw many amazing behaviors of Charles's.  The highlights included a close, fast fly-by and watching him hunt past sunset from some low, man-made structures and on the ground.  I had never watched Charles hunt from these particular spots before this. Here are two of my favorite shots of his hunting exploits that night.




I could tell that Han was hooked on the owls and now seeing her with boyfriend visiting from out of town cemented this impression.  Unfortunately we had a very different experience on this night. Instead of finding Charles in thirty seconds, they patiently and kindly accompanied me for ninety fruitless minutes as we covered a wide search area only to find no one.  I frequently repeated my puzzlement and then my apologies for the no-show owl but my inner monologue was one of growing concern and confusion about his absence.

May 19 was another unsuccessful night but it did get me thinking about the last time I could not find Charles for a long time.  It was almost a year ago to the date. In May 2019 I did not see Charles from May 16-30.  I finally found him on May 31 in part of his hunting range.  As some of you know, he ended up spending the entire summer in this area of his hunting range a half mile east/northeast of The Wooded Area, the core of his territory.  Thankfully he moved back to The Wooded Area five months later in mid-October 2019. I remain bewildered about this move in territory but it now in May 2020, I thought I should expand my search area. I started to do so on May 20, 2020 by searching The Wooded Area and the Summer 2019 Territory.

May 20 was another bust but on May 21 while I did not find Charles, I had a fortuitous meeting with a fellow park goer and nature lover. I had just started searching the Summer 2019 Territory when I ran into a lady who asked me how the owls were. I asked her how she knew about the owl and she replied that she had been on a few of my owl prowls over the years.  As happens too often, I could not think of her name so I asked for it as I apologized for lack of name memory. She replied kindly that we were friends on Facebook and the her name was Alexis Miano. That sufficiently jogged my memory. Alexis told me afterwards that she was on the phone with a friend and recognized me and told her friend that she had seen The Owl Man and had to ask about the owls. I explained about Charles being MIA and that I was expanding my search area.  She joined me for the rest of my search of the Summer 2019 Territory and she even got a photo of me as we searched Raccoonville.


I briefed her more fully about the last few days and last summer.  With no luck finding Charles in this area, I needed to head to The Wooded Area and she was heading home so we said our goodbyes.  Alexis messaged me the next day asking if I had found Charles. I let her know that I had not. Very generously, she  let me know that she is a regular cyclist in the park and would keep her eyes open for Charles. Even more kindly, she asked if there were areas that I would like her to search. I eagerly replied in the affirmative and we made a plan of attack.  The additional help and time/places searched was a major and most welcome development!

On May 25, Alexis messaged me saying that she was quite certain she had heard two hoots of a male Great Horned Owl (GHOW) from an area adjacent to the The Wooded Area; another stretch of woods that is home to Barred Owls. I searched that area for the next two nights but while I did not see Charles or another GHOW I did see and hear Barred Owls and Red-tailed Hawks. On May 25, the Barred Owls were in the very heart of The Wooded Area; something I had seen in May 2019 when Charles was not in this part of the core of his territory. Both in 2019 and 2020 the Barred Owl hooted together in a duet, which is not something they would do if Charles was there.  In the six weeks I searched for Charles without success, I saw one or two Barred Owls on four different nights in The Wooded Area. All of these sightings underscored that Charles was simply not there.

I continued searching as did Alexis and we kept in touch about what we saw.  In late May I sent out an e-mail out to my core group of owl friends updating them on the Charles's situation and asking for folks to help out so we could search even more areas.  Over the next month, several folks were able to join me or lend moral support from both near and far and for that, I am hugely grateful. Alexis quickly became the Rookie of the Year as her regularly cycling trips and her multiple evenings of owl searching per week allowed us to greatly expand the search area.  I took time and care to show her the spots in The Wooded Area that Charles had used recently while showing her search methods and techniques while pointing out other bird and mammal calls and sharing more about Charles and his history. In short she became my newest owl mentee and even more importantly a new friend.

The next several weeks were incredibly tough as we continued to not find Charles. Each night became a slog of not just not finding him but the added toll of yet another night with no Charles. With each night that we did we did not find him, the potential to find him felt less and less on subsequent nights. With other life/work stresses and the pandemic, not being able to find Charles was a most unwelcome and crushing addition to these worries. When the pandemic began and continued on and on, going to the park and seeing Charles and reveling in his beauty and fascinating behavior became even more precious. But to not find Charles night after night made these other challenges even more intense.  Here's a shot of me by Alexis taking during the stressful weeks of not finding Charles. We were searching in the immediate vicinity of The AYU Tree and The Archy Tree. Looking at this photo I can practically see and feel the mental and emotional burden of not finding him while dealing with everything else that life has thrown at us in 2020.


It goes without saying but I must say it anyway that the most helpful and important person during these weeks was my girlfriend Wendy Schlegel. Wendy listened carefully and sympathetically to my daily report of the previous night's efforts to find Charles. She knows how much Charles means to me and she has her own deep love for him as she has known of him as long as I have. I felt awful one morning when I called earlier than usual her to discuss some matter that I cannot even remember now. Given the early timing of my call she thought I was calling with good news about Charles and she answered the phone by saying excitedly, "Did you find Charles?!?"   As I do in more normal happy times, on some days I would look for Charles during the day so that I could spend the evening with Wendy. These nights were even more important and welcome than ever.

Summer is the hardest time to find owls with them being even harder to spot with the trees all leafed out and the adults are not as vocal, overall. One huge help in finding owls year round but especially in the summer is the warning calls of a variety of birds and mammals. GHOWs are powerful and dominant predators and are feared by the vast majority of animals in their range.  The summer is the best time to use these warning calls and other mobbing behaviors because the other birds have young that they need to protect and educate about the threat posed by GHOWs and other predators. In earlier paragraphs, I mentioned the warning calls of American Robins.  The calls of these ubiquitous birds in Forest Park have been the most helpful for me for finding Charles and co. during the summers.  Like the second half of May 2019, the six weeks I searched for Charles recently were eerily quiet with little to no robin calling every night.

In one of the bitter ironies of this summer, in the last few weeks a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks have made their presence known right in the immediate vicinity of my home in St. Louis. I have seen and heard more of Red-Shouldered Hawks in the last few weeks than I have in my life cumulatively before now. The hawks draw plenty of attention and warning calls from the local robins and on most days I will have 4-6 hours total of robin calls with the calls often being non-stop for hours at a time.  It has been great to see and hear the hawks but bloody awful to head to Forest Park and not only not find Charles but to hear little or no robin calling.

Another challenge of the past six weeks is that I have been the bearer of bad news to fellow park goers and nature lovers asking me "How are the owls?" and I have had to reply about not finding Charles and the serious concerns stemming from this. They kindly ask the question with a smile and I quickly turn that smile into a frown that does not depart for some time.  I had a period of a few weeks of an influx of e-mails from folks asking to schedule owl prowls. The e-mails came a welcome mix of prior prowlees like the lovely McCauley family, for whom I have led owl prowls several times for three generations of this great family, as well as new folks interested in the owls after seeing my videos on YouTube.  I had to let all these kind folks know that I was not leading owl prowls now as I was worried about Charles and had to concentrate my efforts on not finding him.  To a person they all replied that they understood and they too were worried about Charles.  I feel bad that I spread concern and worry to so many folks but I am grateful for their sympathy and concern.

Thursday, June 25 became my last night searching for Charles.  My search that night began with noticing some consistent robin calling, which raised my hopes but instead led me to a Great Blue Heron up high in a Cottonwood. Knowing that this night was the last night I would be searching for Charles, as I looked for him in the different trees and regions in the woods, each of these places became not just a place to search but a place to recall and reflect.  Without success and with a heavy heart I returned home. The following morning I e-mailed my core group of owl friends and told them that my search had ended and that while leaving the possibility that we had not found Charles, he was dead.  I want to take a moment here and thank all of my friends for the support over these hard weeks and for their lovely e-mails of support and sympathy.  These e-mails kept me going on especially in the most difficult periods.

As to the cause of death, I will likely never know. Again, Charles displayed no sign of illness or injury in the last days on which I saw him.  Adult Great Horned Owls essentially do not have any natural enemies unless they are ill, injured or caught with their pants down.  Over the years my biggest concern about the owls' well-being and safety is cars. Whether it is a field, a lake or a road I have seen the owls regularly fly 50-70 feet high and just as regularly seen them fly 6-12 inches low.  I have seen too many close calls with all of the owls and cars.  Several months ago in the late winter I saw Charles fly 1-2 feet over one of the park's roads a mere second or two ahead of an oncoming car's headlights.  When I began to drive to the park I also began driving home by taking a route that took me away from where I last saw the owls so I would be one less car near the owls.

One silver lining in this sad time is a simultaneously similar but slightly different silver lining that occurred with Sarah's death in 2015.  That year Charles and Sarah had two owlets: Grace and Harold. Sarah was last seen and likely died on July 20.  At this point, she and Charles had already stopped feeding the owlets; an important stage in the owlets' road to dispersal from the parents' territory and the owlets' eventual independence. If Sarah had died in June or earlier the owlets would likely have died from lack of food. Once the owlets fledge (leave the nest) the female GHOW will begin to hunt t as the male continues to hunt in their herculean efforts to feed their ravenous young. With GHOWs, there are a few documented cases of one of the parents dying but the surviving parent still able to provide for the family.  These cases are very much the exception to the rule that the owlets would likely die from starvation with only parent to hunt for them despite the best efforts of the surviving parent.  This year Charles and Danielle nested unsuccessfully. However, if they had done so successfully and  the owlets had fledged successfully too only to have Charles die in May-June, the owlets most likely would have died too.  I think it is important to keep this mind.

How old was Charles? The longer I studied Charles, the more this question understandably came up as I lead owl prowls and gave owl talks. If I could have asked him one question it would have been: How old are you?  I do have a minimum age, which is no small thing.  Charles was at least 16-17 years old and I have that figure from two good points of data.  Great Horned Owls generally do not have young until they are 2-3 years old as it takes a while to find a territory and a mate.  Charles and Sarah had young in the first year I studied them in 2005-2006.  I studied Charles for over 14 years.  Taken these two data points together, I arrive at his minimum age of 16-17 years old.  Where things get tricky is that despite being the most widespread, commonly found owl in North America, there is still a great deal that we do not know about GHOWs including average lifespan.  We know records for longevity in the wild and the records show GHOWs living into their 20s with the highest record being around 30 years old. Records are helpful up to a point as they show what is possible but by definition they are not the average.  Given all of this Charles may have been 19, he may have been 25.  I wish I knew.

With this in mind, Charles was at least past middle age.  In the last few years this knowledge of his advancing age had a profound impact on me.  I knew that each night, week, month and year represented, to borrow a phrase from the late, great Anglo-American writer Christopher Hitchens,  more and more from less and less. I became painfully aware that there was less sand in the hourglass in my time with Charles. Each night became more and more precious.  I frequently voiced this understanding whether to myself when studying him on a regular night with him or when leading an prowl or giving an owl talk and questions about his age arose.  When on my own, I would often reflect on how lucky I was to know him and to have been able to get know him over so many years and I would thank him for the glimpse I had into his life and for all the joy, fascination and wonderment he brought to me and many others. Now at the end with Charles I am glad that I reflected in this way and expressed my gratitude.  It is a slight but comforting cushion in the grief from his death.

While I knew Charles was at least past middle aged, he never showed any signs of slowing down.  I say this with as much objectivity as I can muster but in his behavior and appearance he looked no different this year than he did three years ago, six years ago, nine years ago and beyond.  He flew just as fast, was just as keen to mate and nest, and hunted as masterfully as he always did.  While it was sad and tough to see Sarah and Samantha's decline at least we knew that they were ill or injured-we knew something was wrong-we had some data.  With Charles it was here one day and gone the next.  I prefer to have some data and not knowing what happened makes it all the harder.

As to Charles's most recent mate, the huge and beautiful Danielle, I wish I had more information to share with you. Ever since she arrived in April 2019, she has been a very different female GHOW than what I have experienced and read about.  She has regularly spent long periods of time unseen and unheard and not in the vicinity, to the best of my knowledge, of Charles. In the fall of 2019 I expected her and Charles to duet intensely and regularly as they courted and bonded more on the path to mating and nesting.  Much to my surprise, I had two periods that fall of over 10 consecutive days when I did not see or hear her at all. One period was for 12 days and the other for 16 days. It was only when the mating period approached even closer that I began to see her with more consistency.  The most consistent period I  have ever seen her was the six weeks she spent in the nest!  Of late, she has not been observed for a long time, even by her standards.  I have not seen definitively seen her since March 13.  I had a possible sighting on April 16 but nothing since then.  I hope she is well and I keep my ears, eyes and mind open for her.

It has been just over a week since I stopped searching for Charles and it has been a sad, weird and tough time.  Initially, I took some time off from going to Forest Park, which is tough in its own right but after six arduous weeks it was important to take a bit of breather.  My first night going back to the park was odd in that I was not looking for Charles. While I do go to the park and do other things besides studying Charles, it was odd to go to the park at my usual owling time and to not have looking for him on the evening's menu.  While I think it was important to set a date to stop searching for Charles and while the search over the six weeks was incredibly challenging there was still an element of possibility and hope.  As I said at the beginning of this post, I am leaving the window of possibility cracked that Charles has moved to an as yet un-found area but only as a remote possibility.

Several people have asked me what is next for me with studying Great Horned Owls. As I responded to them, my work will continue in ways both similar and different. I am going to keep an eye on The Wooded Area and see what happens there. I am curious to see if the Barred Owls expand their territory into this area or if a new GHOW moves into this highly desirable GHOW habitat.  There are other GHOWs in the park and I may well start to study them.  I will also keep a look out for Danielle.  Before I stopped searching for Charles and not far from The Wooded Area, I found a new male GHOW on June 10 and I have been studying him with modest frequency since then.  It is too early to say if he will be the focus of this new chapter in my work of studying GHOWs in Forest Park. but a new chapter has certainly begun.  There is more to stay about this new chapter but I want to, I have to conclude by reflecting on Charles and his multi-faceted and far-reaching impact on my life and lives of many others.

When Sarah died in 2015 I wrote and often said subsequently, that I may never see another female Great Horned Owl as amazing as her. I feel the same way about Charles. I have been very lucky to have seen many male Great Horned Owls but I have never seen one that I felt was his equal and I do not think I ever will.  From his immense physical beauty to the power and grace of his movements and flight to his prowess as a predator to his dedication and care as a mate and parent, he was a male Great Horned Owl beyond compare.  Every time I saw him was a joy and to have studied him for so long and with such intensity was a labor of love. The more I saw of him the more I learned but the more I was fascinated, challenged and sometimes confused and bewildered.  The most average night with him and his mate at the time was spectacular, which is a contradiction but one that fits in this case.  The amazing nights were out of this world and the truly exceptional nights are beyond all superlatives.

Charles taught me so much about studying owls in particular and wildlife as a whole by taking things I knew or thought I knew and revealing greater depths and breadths to them. Things like patience, perseverance, camouflage, quiet, open-mindedness, documentation, care and respect, and of course research.  In turn, I do my utmost to pass on these things to the people I have mentored as well as folks who go on an owl prowl or attend one of my owl talks.

Through sharing these things with other people Charles and co. generated friendships with people that may otherwise may not have ever met.  A whole community of people has grown around Charles and co. and the impact they have had is multi-faceted and simultaneously easy and hard to measure.  One of my favorite illustrations of the owls' impact on my life and the lives of others comes from a moment I had at a party a few years ago. The hosts were my good friends Danny and Joyce Brown. I met Danny in the spring of 2010 when he was looking for Sarah's nest.  He wanted to photograph her and Charles and the three owlets they had that year: Reese, Malcolm and Dewey. as part of his work as a truly incredible wildlife photographer and nature writer.  As I looked at the other guests at the party I realized that most of us had met via Charles and co.  We are folks from different parts of the St. Louis region, different ages and stages, professions, and more but we all became connected via Charles and co. and I am beyond grateful for that.

In addition to this core group of friends of Charles and co., a wider community has grown around the owls via not only owl prowls and owl talks but by what I call owl ambassadorship.  This is my name for the process of pointing out the owls to passersby or answering questions like "What are you looking for/at?" Some of these folks regularly return to look for the owls or they start to look for owls closer to their own homes.  One of my favorite things to see occur with my fellow humans is to point out Charles to someone out for a run or a walk or a bike ride in the park and to see that person come back on their own and/or alternate their usual route so that they can see more of Charles and co. In small and big ways, Charles and co. changed people's lives.

The sheer aesthetic appeal of Charles is intense and a huge part of his magnetism for both for myself and for many others. Look at how absolutely beautiful Charles is whether caught in the setting sun or as the sun is below the horizon.



Even sleeping his beauty is unmistakable!



Charles's beauty cannot be overstated. It was not just in his markings and intense eyes but in his posture and bearing. All of these things added up to a striking effect that did not diminish with time but rather grew and grew.  I often found myself shaking my head at how gorgeous he was and how lucky I was to study him.  When leading owl prowls I enjoyed seeing how women often reacted to seeing Charles whether for the first time or the seventh time. I heard more than a few gasps and "Wows" and I could practically see and hear women say things like "Well, I do declare..." or "Call me." I saw more than a few of the sig others of these ladies grip their lady's hand a little tighter when they saw how their lady reacted to the utterly sublime Charles.  I was never surprised by this and it was always amazing to see such reactions.

Over the years, I have been lucky and privileged to share Charles and co. with fellow naturalists as well as professional biologists and zoologists ranging from such esteemed institutions as The St. Louis Zoo, Missouri Department of Conservation, The World Bird Sanctuary, Forest Park Forever and more.  These experts, many of them with years of experience with many Great Horned Owls, were often happily dumbstruck at the beauty of Charles.  When they regained their voices, they quickly expressed how beautiful he was.  All of this reinforced to me, time and time again, that Charles was an especially gorgeous Great Horned Owl.

His beauty was not just in his physical appearance but in his hooting as well. His hoot was without  peer either as it combined his stunning tone and volume with his physical beauty.








In the late winter and early spring of this year, there was an intruding male Great Horned Owl showing up in Charles's territory; often quite close to the edge of The Wooded Area.  His hoot was quite similar to Charles's. In fact, on one night when I had as yet not observed The Intruder I mistook him for Charles just by the hoot. It was only when I heard Charles hooting in reply that I realized that I was hearing two male GHOWs and one of them was not Charles!  The Intruder was definitely making his presence known and Charles was not happy about this and the similarity of their hoots made things challenging too. Finally on one night I was able to get closer to The Intruder and listen closely to his hoots.  I was able to hear some objective differences: The Intruder's notes were not as long and had a less rounded, more pinched quality to them.  Naturally, I observed some subjective differences too; The Intruder's hoot was simply not as beautiful as Charles's. [P.S. I am quite certain that new male GHOW I found on June 10 is not The Intruder as the new male GHOWs hoot is clearly that of male GHOW but it would not be mistaken for Charles's hoot]

Even when you could barely see him, Charles's hoot was a joy to witness




Watching Charles stretch and groom as he began to wake up was one of my favorite things to observe and document.  Here is doing The Escalator Stretch on each wing.




In-depth talon cleaning was not an every day occurrence so it was always a treat to see.



One of my very favorite to see owls and Charles in particular do is to fly. The speed, power, silence, grace and ethereal nature of it make it unforgettable and simultaneously ephemeral.  Having seen Charles, his mates and many other owls fly literally thousands of times there is still something about it that you do not quite believe your own eyes.





To see Charles hunt even unsuccessfully was to watch a master perform his art and craft.  I have seen Charles hunt Click Beetles on the ground, Great Blue Herons on the ground and on the wing, Raccoons in trees and on the ground, bats in midair and squirrels everywhere.  One of my favorite examples of his predatory prowess that I was lucky to observe and to document reasonably well occurred last April.  I had watched him wake up, stretch and groom, and hoot and fly to his next spot.  Something caught his attention and he flew down to the ground...


He caught this Eastern Cottontail Rabbit at the very beginning of his night; an incredible example of the opportunism and predatory power of a hunting GHOW.  Notice how you hear absolutely no sound from the rabbit.  I have never heard an injured rabbit but I have heard from many people that it is a horrible and all too memorable sound. This rabbit most likely died in a near instantaneous fashion from a combination of penetrating wounds and the intense trauma from the impact of Charles's massive and powerful talons. 

Charles was also an exceptional mate and father owl.  He and Sarah had 23 owlets in 10 consecutive nesting seasons, which was simply amazing on so many levels. While Charles and Olivia, Samantha and Danielle did not nest successfully, it was not for lack of trying or effort.  I never thought I would see the owls mate especially as GHOW mating was not documented until the 1990s!  I have been very lucky to have seen Charles mate with all four of the mates I saw him with and to have seen and filmed mating hundreds of times.  One of my favorite mating episodes that I was able to film was on New Year's Day 2019 with him and Samantha, which you can see below. 


Charles's care and devotion to his nesting mate and their young was a wonder to behold.  When a female GHOW is nesting she will only hunt if an opportunity presents itself-I saw this three times over the years with three of the females- or if the male is not bringing home the bacon.  The responsibility for the male GHOW to feed his mate and then her and the young is a huge responsibility and was one to which Charles was more than equal. My three favorite examples of this come from the first night of the nesting seasons in 2009, 2010 and 2018.  On each of these nights seeing that his mate, Sarah in the first two examples and Samantha in the third, was nesting he went out hunting and quickly caught some prey and returned immediately to the nest to deliver it to his mate. Of these three nights the most intense and striking was at the start of the 2010 nesting season.  Charles flew off to hunt traveling a good 300-400 yards. Thanks to a happy accident of topography I was able to follow his flight and see him pull up and land. I did not know exactly what tree he had landed in but from what I saw I knew the micro-region in which to search.  I strode off walking as fast and quietly as I could to catch up with him.  I had gone about 40-50 yards and I looked up to see him with prey in tow flying past me now on his way back to the deliver the food to Sarah in the nest.  He had caught and returned with prey mere minutes after leaving the vicinity of the nest. I will never forget that. 

While I was incredibly lucky to study Sarah for just over nine-and-a-half years to have studied Charles for just under fourteen-and-a-half years was not just lucky in the general sense.  Doing so allowed me to see even more incredible GHOW behaviors.  One of my favorite aspects of studying these owls is that every night is different, every night is unique. Sometimes in very small, subtle ways and at other times in wholly unexpected ways.  There are some behaviors I have seen thousands of times and other that I have seen once or twice.  One of my favorite examples of the latter was seeing Charles in the rain and not just enduring and dealing with the rain but taking it advantage of it by spreading his wings and tail feathers to take a shower.  I saw this behavior once but I did not film it but luckily I got another chance on September 25, 2015. It had not rained for two weeks and the park was bone dry.  It began to rain as it became closer to sunset. Charles moved to the top of a dead pine tree and he spread out his wings and tail feathers. As you will see and hear below this was no slight early fall sprinkle but rather capital R Rain.  I got completely soaked but it was more than worth it!


A more recent example of especially unique behavior is something I have never seen any bird do ever.  On April 3 of this year, I found Charles in The Great Northern Tree and I was able to get a good level angle on him and I watched him wake up.  He stretched and groomed as I filmed him and took photos.  At one point I turned my head away from him and when I turned back to him I saw that he had a large feather of his, most likely a flight or tail feather, in his talons and that he was grooming his bill with the feather! He mostly used the calamus or hollow shaft of the feather but also the feather's vane. This went on for a few minutes and I was able to film much of it.  


Simply amazing to see this! I reached out to several local, regional, national and international owl experts who I have been very lucky to get to know over the years and I asked them about this behavior. Everyone of them kindly wrote back and said that they had seen captive owls do this behavior and for me to see a wild owl do it was no small thing.  

As you can tell, I can go on and on and on about Charles. He was such a beautiful, fascinating and compelling Great Horned Owl. I am confident that I will never see a male Great Horned Owl as incredible as him.  There is no shortage of amazing aspects and behaviors to share but I must complete this post; one I knew I would have to write someday and have dreaded for years.  Thank you for reading this and please share it with others that would find it of interest.  The support of everyone who has seen and come to love Charles has made this tough time easier to bear.  Thank you! 

Thank you, Charles for letting me spend so much time learning about you and sharing your life with others whose lives you also touched in innumerable ways and times. Thank you for your patience and tolerance.  Thank you for being such an amazing owl and an ambassador of your kind in this world we share.  I love you and miss you.  - Mark.


Saturday, February 22, 2020

Sad News About The Nest

February 22-23, 2020


I wish I had better news about Charles and Danielle's nest but sadly it has failed. For better or for worse I saw it actively failing Tuesday night and then both on Wednesday morning and subsequent evenings I saw all too emphatic reinforcement of nest failure.  I strongly suspect Raccoons as the cause of the nest failure.  

I arrived in the park on Tuesday night 2/18 and met up with Bill Chamberlin, who had heard of the owls from our friends in common, Tom and Mary DeBenedetti.  Over 30 years ago, Bill had rehabilitated a Red-tailed Hawk in Wyoming and was curious to learn about the owls and my work with them.  I am grateful for Bill's presence that night as he was a great blend of observant, patient, empathetic and curious.  

After rendezvousing with Bill we headed to check out the nest and Danielle was noticeably higher last night than her already higher position of the last several days; an often positive sign of successful hatching.  Given her behavior and timing of when I suspected eggs were laid, I was confident that hatching had occurred in recently.  [Please be sure to double click on the photos to see a larger version]


Charles was nearby in The Vine Hide Tree, his almost always perch site during this year's nesting.  The VHT is at the eastern edge of The Wooded Area just next to The Fleur de Lis Tree.  


We watched both owls from a couple of different angles and the bright sunny conditions made for great views and light.  

Charles had done some early hooting but then hit the snooze alarm so we went back to check on Danielle in the nest.  As we did a pair of Red-tailed Hawks flew past the Pagoda Circle side of the nest not overly close to the nest.  Charles woke up and hooted at them and the hawks passed out of sight.  Bill soon noticed that Danielle was out of the nest. She was not far from the hollow but it was odd to see her out of the nest at 5:15pm-a good 25 minutes before sunset. The last time I saw her leave the nest was on Sunday night and that was around 6:30pm.  



At first I interpreted her being out of the nest as a response to Charles' early warning hoot to the hawks' presence.  This interpretation swerved some when she flew with prey in her talons landing in The First of The Three Trees and began eating.  I thought she might be taking advantage of being out of the nest to take one of her few breaks from the nest. 


She stayed there for several minutes before back to The Middle Tree; the tree closest to the nest.  I hoped she would head directly to the nest but she spent quite a while in The Middle Tree even moving within it. Finally Danielle flew to the nest tree landing close to the hollow before flying to the edge of the hollow. 




She lingered at the hollow and then turned around and flew back to The Middle Tree. I optimistically thought that she may have had a hard time finding a safe path to jump back into the nest. 



This optimism soon faded when she flew back to the edge of the hollow and bill clacked before flying back again to The Middle Tree.  She was soon joined by Charles who hooted intensely as he has often done in this tree during this nesting period but there seemed to be a different edge to his hooting.  The bill clacking behavior is a very aggressive behavior in response to threats and danger and to see her do it at the edge of the nest was a not at all good indication of things being well.  

To compound this, she had been out of the nest for well over 30 minutes.  While GHOW eggs are hardy, up to a point, in cold weather, newly hatched young cannot maintain their own body temperature and are incredibly vulnerable to the cold. It was not a freezing cold night but it was by no means a warm one either with temperatures in the high 30s and falling.  Bill and I kept a close watch on the owls and the nest but never saw anything in the nest. A frustrating lack of data that could not be helped as we could only see what we could see of the nest. While I have never seen Raccoons in this particular nest tree, they are all over the immediate vicinity of the nest and often in high numbers. 

Danielle began a pattern of flying to the nest tree and then flying off to The Middle Tree or The Multi-trunk Tree; another tree close to nest.  




Sometimes she landed at the edge of the nest and other times landed on a nearby branch.  Her times at the edge of the nest were always brief. There was another moment of bill-clacking during one of her returns to the edge of the nest. Charles stayed in The Middle Tree for a while before flying southwest presumably to hunt.  She continued this pattern and Bill had to take his leave and I resolved to stay to see what would happen.

Danielle continued her pattern of trips to the nest tree before returning to The Middle Tree or The Multi-trunk Tree. I heard Charles call from The Wooded Area and soon after he was close by in a tree catty-corner from the nest. He hooted intensely and Danielle responded by making the begging-cheep like call the nesting females can use. It was one of the few times I had heard her make this call and I could not help but wonder if she used it to express panic and desperation. Charles flew to the nest tree and hooted more. Things happened quickly and vaguely when I lost sight of Charles and did not hear him hooting. This was followed by Danielle flying off towards The Multi-Trunk Tree and then out of sight.  I circled the area but did not hear or see either of the owls.  By now Danielle had been out of the nest for a little over 90 minutes.  Not at all good. I headed home with barely an optimistic thought or feeling. 


I left for work earlier the next morning, Wednesday, 2/19 so I could stop in the park and check on the owls. Unfortunately Danielle was not back on the nest .  She was in The Vine Hide Tree with Charles nearby in Eastern Branch Tree. She flew to The Middle Tree which gave me some hope but then she got harassed by a Cooper's Hawk and then twice by a Red-tailed Hawk-it was crazy!  She then flew just into The Wooded Area behind The Vine Hide Tree and then quickly went to The Trio Conifers; where she often perched prior to nesting. It was like seeing a door slammed shut. (I did not have my camera with me) 

All of this is a terribly sad development after such high hopes and positive developments of this nesting season.  I am curious but doubtful that a second round of mating and nesting will occur as it did with Charles and Samantha when there nest failed well into 2017-2018 nesting season.  I had never read of or seen such behavior before or since so its rarity may be especially high. 

While the loss of the nest is a most unwelcome and crushing development, I do not want to excoriate or spew vitriol at the Raccoons.  Just like Great Horned Owls, Raccoons are highly adaptable animals with their own important ecological role.  Furthermore, GHOWs do kill and eat Raccoons-both young and adults. In fact during the entire nesting cycle I saw several predatory attempts by the owls on Raccoons; most of them by Charles and two by Danielle. As such the relationship between GHOWs and Raccoons is a complex and fascinating one. There are no heroes or villains in nature, just organisms trying to survive and reproduce. 

Since Wednesday morning I have seen nothing that makes me think that a second round of mating and nesting is in the offing but I keep a window of hope open. Charles has been perched in several different spots deeper in The Wooded Area and has been quite vocal. That said,  I have not seen or heard Samantha on Friday, 2/21 or Saturday 2/22. I also am concerned that her presence and my ability to find, observe and document her will be hit or miss as it was for the vast majority of the time from her first appearance on 4/5/2019 until mid-12/2019.  


Thank you for your time and support and sorry to be the bearer of such bad tidings.

Friday, January 3, 2020

One Chapter Ends Sadly, The New Chapter Takes An Exciting Turn

January 2020

With the start of the new year and decade I am ready to relinquish my crown as The World's Worst Blogger, which I have worn for the last three years. My apologies for the lack of updates and I hope you enjoy this update. The lack of updates was not for a lack of fascinating developments in the owls' lives or amazing and confounding behaviors observed.  Furthermore, as developments .unfolded, there was some news I wanted to share only when I was more certain of a few key aspects.  In addition, my outreach work continues to grow and grow, leaving limited time for blogging.  In the past few years I have been averaging 50 owl talks and over 70 owl prowls per year. The geographic range of owl talks continues to expand with highlights including my first talks in the Chicagoland area and in Indiana in 2019 and my first talk in Kansas is coming up in May. I have also increased outreach via social media and my YouTube videos have had over 152,000 views and I now have just over 250 subscribers.  

As the title of this post states there is sad news and a new chapter with exciting news.  The sad news is that Samantha has died.  She died on April 3, 2019 of a large and aggressive bacterial infection that had spread to multiple vital organs.  The cause of the infection could not be determined but candidates include an injury or wound or something she ate. Samantha received superb treatment from the World Bird Sanctuary in an effort in which Forest Park Forever and the Humane Society of Missouri played vital roles.  Unfortunately, her condition was so dire and advanced that this great care gave her respite but could not cure her.  To compound the sadness of the loss of Samantha, she died just shy of the date when I first observed her in 2016 on April 10.  She and Charles tried very hard to have successful broods of owlets these last three years but their efforts did not come to fruition. There is much to say about the last few years with Samantha and her decline and death but in the meantime, I would like to thank  Forest Park Forever, World Bird Sanctuary and Humane Society of Missouri for their amazing help with Samantha.  If you are so moved please donate in the name of Samantha, the Great Horned Owl of Forest Park, to one or more of these amazing organizations. You can use the links in the previous sentence to do so.  I must also take a moment to thank my friend and all-around owl expert and advocate, Brenda Hente, in being a vital part of Samantha's treatment.  As an award-winning volunteer for World Bird Sanctuary, Brenda was able to get updates from the amazing staff and her fellow volunteers about Samantha's condition and pass them on to me and our friends who are all fellow Forest Park owl addicts.  I will write more about Samantha but for now I want to pause here with a video of her sleeping last November. Thank you for letting us see some of your amazing life, Samantha! You are much missed and much loved!



The new chapter did not take long to begin.  On April 5, 2019, two days after Samantha's death and week after her evacuation from Forest Park, I went to observe and document Charles.  I quickly found him in The Trio Conifers.  I was talking aloud to my camera as I do to record notes about the owls' behavior, whereabouts, weather conditions, etc and I wondered if and when another female would show up.  I pivoted over to The Quartet Conifers and there was perched a huge and gorgeous female Great Horned Owl!  Bloody hell!  (Be sure to double click on the pictures to see a larger version of the photos) 



This female is Sarah's size-23-25 inches tall-as large as Great Horned Owls grow.  She is only one of a few females of this size that I have seen over the years both in the wild and in captivity.  

That night she and Charles duetted and he even showed her the 2018-2019 nest site, a new and thus unprecedented spot. Talk about a first date!  The name Danielle quickly came to me for this female. I have always liked the name and it also references my family's cat, Daniel, with whom I literally grew up as well as the cat-like appearance and behavior of owls, which hooks many people on owls.  

The exciting turn in the new chapter is that as of December 31, 2019 Danielle is nesting!  She is nesting where Sarah nested in 2008 and 2012 the accordingly named The 08-12 Nest Tree, now named The 08-12-20 Nest Tree. Here is cropped photo of Danielle nesting on New Year's Day 2020-what a beauty!



(If you know this nest location, please be sure to watch from a safe distance of at least 40-50 yards away while dressed in dark, muted colors and speaking quietly. Nesting requires quiet and peace and you do not want to anger an animal that eats Raccoons and Great Blue Herons)  

I am especially excited that she is nesting because I was concerned that nesting would not occur. I had not seen mating and the courtship behavior I had seen was inconsistent and rarely at the level of intensity and frequency that I saw with Olivia and Samantha. To compound this, since she arrived in April 2019 Danielle's only consistency was being around inconsistently.  Throughout the spring, summer and fall I had many days of not seeing or hearing her. The most intense was two periods in the fall, one of ten days and one of sixteen days, when I did not see or hear her at all.  I finally began to see her with more expected consistency starting in the second third of December 2019.  Even then the courtship was mild and inconsistent and I did not see mating, which usually begins in early-mid December here in Missouri.  Seeing her nesting on December 31 told me that they had been mating but when I was not around to see it!  I did finally see them mating on January 1, 2020.


There is a TON more to discuss about the last few years not the least of which is how Charles moved his territory a half mile to the east in the summer of 2019 and moved back to his historic territory in October 2019!  I wanted to keep this post to around 1000 words and I hope to come back soon with more news and updates on went down in 2017-2019 as well as what is happening in 2020.  Thank you for your patience and for your reading and support! 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Twelve Months Later!

December 31, 2016

The last twelve months may have been quiet on my blog, as it too often is, but the owls and my work with them have been anything but sedate.  These months are quickly moving up the ranks to become one of the most astonishing, confusing, amazing, bittersweet, and delightful periods since I first saw Great Horned Owls in Forest Park in the late summer-early fall of 2005.

I am quite aware that my blog posts tend to be less blog-like and more akin to papal encyclicals. For the sake of brevity for those readers who need and/or prefer their updates on the owls in brief bits of bytes, I present the following bullet points. Abundant detail follows for those who prefer a feast to a snack or at the very least, a feast at a time of their choosing.  Here we go:

  • Charles and Olivia mated much longer and more times than I have ever observed (42 times in 14 weeks instead of the usual 17-22 times in 4-6 weeks)
  • Olivia did not nest, no eggs were laid, no owlets hatched
  • It was quite odd to not have owlets after ten consecutive years of owlets but at the same time it was fascinating to have a year without owlets, something I had never seen
  • In mid-March 2016, Olivia began to spend time away from Charles, sometimes only a few hundred yards away, other nights over half a mile away, some nights I could not find her at all
    • She would be with Charles for 2 nights, gone for 2, back for 1, gone for 3, back for 4, gone for 1-no discernible pattern, rhyme or reason for her absence. I never observed another male either
  • I think Olivia not nesting and then spending time away from Charles, at a minimum, contributed to what happened next.
  • In early-mid April, a larger and more aggressive female Great Horned Owl showed up in the middle of the territory
  • After a massive territorial stand-off with Charles and Olivia, this new female quickly shoved Olivia out of the territory.  I have not seen Olivia since mid-April and I hope she is well and flourishing.
  • Charles was ticked about losing his mate and the audacity of this intruder.  For about ten days.  Then, being an adaptable male, he began to court her.
  • Now, here is the weirdest thing about this:
    • Territorial intrusions and courtship happen
    • But not in April in this part of this species' range.  This is late summer to early winter behavior. This occurring in April was both late and early; like trying to see a Cardinals game or a show at The Muny in January.
  • Given this female's aggressive and rather forward nature, I named her Samantha, after the similarly behaving character on the HBO show Sex and the City.  
  • I miss Olivia but I am fascinated by this development
  • Charles and Samantha kept up a low key courtship for the remainder of the spring, throughout the summer and into the early autumn
  • Once we hit the heart of autumn they began to court more intensely.
  • As of this writing they are courting but have not mated yet.  Hopefully, they will mate, she will nest and owlets will hatch, fledge, thrive and eventually, disperse.  
Okay, there's the brief catch-up/recap of what has happened since Olivia and Charles began to mate in December 2015.  Now for the more in-depth review of what went down.  For simplicity's sake, I am breaking down this time into several sections.  The first one is:


Early Winter 2015-2016

After my last blog post about Charles and Olivia mating and becoming a pair, my main focus was to see if she would nest and have owlets.  At the same time I did my utmost to notice everything they did beginning with perch/roost spots.  The owls' perch spots vary by season and in late fall/early winter they often begin to perch in conifers. Unlike the now bare deciduous trees, conifers offer excellent concealment and protection from the elements and from unfriendly eyes.  This year was simultaneously no different and vastly different. While they sometimes used The Trio Conifers and with even less frequency, The Quartet Conifers, and Charles delighted with occasional visits to Charles' Xmas Tree, they spent most of their time in The Crossroads Conifers. These conifers are within spitting distance of the aforementioned conifers but had been rarely used by Charles and Sarah over the years and almost exclusively by Sarah.

I enjoyed seeing Charles and Olivia use these conifers more frequently than I had ever seen.  Olivia first began using this group of conifers. One day I found Charles  but I could not find her until a lady kindly pointed out Olivia in The Crossroads Conifers.  In doing so, I realized I had walked right past her at least once that day.  As I often say, studying nature is a practice makes better not practice makes perfect endeavor.

As The Crossroads Conifers had only occasionally been used by Sarah over the years, I had not yet learned with any depth and precision the angles from which to look for, find and observe the owls. Another near maxim of mine is that seeing the owls (and other wildlife) is a game of angles and inches. You can have an owl directly in front of you and still not see unless you are watching from the correct angle and position.  These conifers are a small glade but still I had to learn several new observation angles.

Here is Charles in one of the more well-hidden spots in these conifers on January 8.  (Be sure to double-click on the photos to see a larger version of them)


A more easily observable spot but one that I still had to learn and remember became a frequent stop. Here is Olivia in this spot in the snow on January 19



On some days you could see both owls in these trees from one angle like this shot from January 25. Charles is on the right and Olivia on the left. 




One of the conifers is completely dead and covered with a lattice work of Winter Creeper vines.especially around the flattened top of the tree.  This flat top is an excellent perch and was often used as a fly-to perch as the owls began to wake up and begin their evening.  Sometimes they would fly to this bare perch close to or after sunset,  but some of these excursions were on the early side, which made getting photos easier.  As such they would regularly be spotted by the commuting American Crows heading east as they returned to their rookeries. Mobbing would then occur as you can see below with Charles on January 8.




Given the open space around this perch and its proximity to daytime perch spots, it was used several times for mating such as here on January 21. 


A few nights later, Olivia was perched on top of this spot and removed some of the dead Winter Creeper vines.  I had never seen such "gardening" by an adult owl prior to this.  Kudos to Olivia on her removing this problematic, invasive species.  


Also in late December were the farthest excursions out east that I have ever seen the owls do.  I think the hormones were flowing intensely as they kept duetting and moving to the eastern limits of Forest Park.  Here is Olivia just west of  Kingshighway on January 11,



On a couple of nights they even flew across Forest Park Parkway and the Metrolink tracks.  One such night, I ran into my buddy and fellow owl devotee, Lloyd Robinson.  He later messaged me to say that he had seen the owls on the far side of Kingshighway.  While it was fascinating to see these unprecedented eastern escapades, I was more than a tad worried given the dangers poised to the owls by the multiple lanes and busyness of these roadways and train tracks.  On these nights I was often mentally waving the owls back west to the safer confines of the park.  I was always relieved to find them safe and sound back in their territory after these pernicious promenades.


Late Winter/Early Spring 2016

As the winter progressed, Charles and Olivia continued to mate but there were few signs that nesting would occur.  For one thing, the most productive of the hollows and snags in the Cottonwoods where Sarah had nested was not available.  On a handful of occasions during this period and even into the summer I saw a Raccoon in this hollow where Sarah nested in 2011 and 2013-2015.  Here is one of these nights, which was on February 2


While Great Horned Owls eat Raccoons I do not think that even these powerful owls would try to go into a hollow and extricate a Raccoon with its back to the wall.

Now usually Charles would show Sarah a few potential nest locations performing his male role as nest real estate agent: "We have this in hollow but there is also this fabulous snag which is in a superb school district."  However, with Olivia I only saw him show her one hollow during the mating period. This hollow is in The Third of The Three Trees and we call it The Third Tree Hollow.  Longtime readers, owl prowl goers and/or folks who have attend my talks on the owls' mating, nesting and owlets may recall my concerns about this hollow.  It is extremely close to one of the park's bike paths and even more worrying it is close, both in distance and height, to one of the park's roads.  The owls can fly out of this hollow and be 20 odd feet above the road.  However, far too often when they fly over the road they are only 2-7 feet above the road putting them at great risk of being hit by a car.

Sometimes Charles would be found early in this hollow as on February 15.



However, most of the time he would check out the hollow closer to if not after sunset as on March 6. 


Just to take a pause from discussing mating and nesting, it is important to remember that, regardless of the season and its activities, the business of living i.e. hunting and feeding continues.  I had a few lucky glimpses of this. On February 1, I followed Charles to a small glade of pines near the Upper Muny Festival and Parking Plaza.  He swooped down to the branches of one of the pines and flew off with prey in talons.  He landed on top of The Muny and began to eat his meal, an Eastern Grey Squirrel. 


Two weeks later on February 15 while watching Charles and Olivia duet, she stopped hooting and made a short gliding flight to the ground.  I carefully searched for her but could not find her nor did I see her fly.  I changed positions and found her in The Great Northern eating.


In the faint light I saw that it was something good-sized and mammalian.  The following afternoon I returned to that branch and found the leg and foot of an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit, one of their favorite prey animals.  Note the white owl droppings; often called white wash. 




Once February arrived and began to run its short course and Olivia still had not commenced nesting, the more convinced I was that the window on nesting had closed for the year.  Great Horned Owls are one of the first if not the first birds to nest where ever they are found in their massive range which encompasses the vast majority of the Americas. The owlets take such a long time to become independent that the parents need all the lead time they can get to raise their young.  Sarah usually began to nest in late December/early January and we would see the owlets in early-mid February.  Here it was February and still no nesting by Olivia.

I still had some glimpses of hope that nesting might take place with moments like seeing Charles and Olivia together in The Quartet Conifers on February 5. Charles is on the left and Olivia on the right. Such gorgeous owls!  


Another such moment was seeing them mate twice on February 10.  The second mating occurred on the west end of Cricket Field.  Afterwards Charles flew and landed on top of a large Bald Cypress and hooted in the falling snow. Beautiful! 



Still the more days that passed without Olivia nesting, the more I knew that there would be no owlets in 2016. So why did Olivia not nest?  She may have been a young female and still learning the ropes of what is to be an adult, female Great Horned Owl.  Even if she was not young, Charles and Olivia were a new couple and perhaps needed more time to learn about each other and themselves as a pair.   I do think that Charles showing Olivia only one nest spot did not help matters.  I found this especially odd as, despite the Raccoons using the 2011, 13-15 Nest Hollow, several other hollows, both previously used and otherwise, were still available.  A final possibility is that the populations of the owls' prey were low.  The literature demonstrates in years of low prey availability, that fewer Great Horned Owls will nest and those that do have smaller clutches, i.e., number of owlets.  I do not think that this was the case as I saw the owls regularly eat and eject pellets but perhaps it was a lean year.  

 Running parallel and perpendicular to the realization that nesting was not going to happen was that Charles and Olivia kept mating!  The mating period is relatively brief, usually four-six weeks long.  In that period if I see mating occur in the high teens to low twenties, that means the owls are doing well at their job and I am keeping pace with mine.  I last saw Charles and Olivia mate on February 28, which made it fourteen weeks and forty-two matings!  Why the kept mating, I have no idea.  When telling people, whether on  owl prowls and at owl  talks or just folks asking for an update about this long mating period, there were many jokes about honeymoon periods and the like in response. Was Charles of the mindset of, "This is great, all of the sex and none of the massive hunting responsibilities and rearing of young!"  

It was bittersweet to not have owlets in 2016.  Bitter because after ten consecutive years of seeing Charles and Sarah have owlets I loved seeing owlets and their gradual maturation and all of the parents' work in making that possible.  I never took owlets as a given each year as almost nothing is a given in nature but I never lost my amazement and gratitude to see new owl life each year. Furthermore, I was so used to observing owlets that it became part of the winter, spring and summer and just as we have smells, sounds and sights that we associate with certain activities and occurrences, I developed many such associations with owlets.  Numerous were the days in 2016 when I would leave work and sniff the air, take in the weather and light and think, "This will be a great day to see the owlets...that are not there. Damn."  

The sweet spot was that I had never had a year without the adults hatching young and I was curious to see what such a year looked like.  This curiosity was heightened because in all my research I had read that, yes a pair of Great Horned Owls will not nest every year. This is reasonable enough, but I had never read ANYTHING about what such a year looks like.  This is odd considering that when this species has young the entire reproductive cycle from mating to nesting to fledging to dispersal takes the VAST majority of the year.  It stands to reason that a year without owlets would be significantly different.  Why I have I not found anything in the literature about this?  Perhaps my observations and documentation would help fill this gap.  

Resigned to the fact that owlets were a no-go, I resolved to document the remainder of the year without owlets with care and industry.  In no way did I expect the massive changes of the spring.  

Spring

Spring sprung in a most unexpected manner.  Olivia began spending time away from Charles in mid-March.  At first I began to find her in a small, pie slice shaped portion of woodlands.  In the winter and early spring, the owls began to fly to and spend time in  this area-more than I had ever seen over the years. I soon began to call this area The Wedge.  The Wedge is just east of the immediate core of Charles and Olivia's territory; just a few hundred yards away from The Crossroads Conifers.  As time went on, Olivia also began to go further afield, sometimes over a half mile away from Charles.  On other nights I could not find her at all.  I never heard another male calling and the literature is quite conclusive that given the demands of raising their young, this species is monogamous. My own observations and those of other naturalists I know support this.  I did not see any hostility between Charles and Olivia that may have led to her perching away from him.  

Now beyond the intrinsic oddness of this behavior, it was compounded by the behaviors irregularity. Olivia would be away from Charles and then would be back with him again.  Gone two nights, back one, then gone three and back four.  No discernible pattern emerged in either the short or long term.  It quickly became clear that I would not know where to find her on any given night.  While the owls vary their perch sites by season and even within a season I had never seen such wide variations in distance of perch sites.  My first goal each night with the owls is to count heads and everything else flows from that.  Not being able to find her after extensive searching that covered much more ground than usual was alarming and not reassuring. It was all the more confusing to go out the following night and find her perched close to Charles.  

Throughout this whole time of Olivia's here today, gone tomorrow behavior, she and Charles continued to duet.  April 10 provided a cool moment with Charles and Olivia have a nice duet when he departed only to return to join her in Jungle Gym Tree By Overlook Hotel Tree.



However, the next night, April 11,  I observed a duet that I almost completely failed at with my observation and analysis. I arrived in the owls territory and quickly found Charles and a cool new owl addict, Ken Shew.  Ken, a recent transplant from California and and an excellent amateur wildlife photographer, joined me earlier in April for an owl prowl.  He then began showing up regularly to observe and photograph the owls.  I continue to be impressed with Ken's kind demeanor and his eagerness to learn, in a patient and thorough manner, all he could about the owls.  Ken would often stay way past sunset and join me to follow and find the owls so he could continue to learn about them.  

On this night Charles flew east heading to the wedge and Ken and I followed him there.  We approached The Wedge when Charles flew past us backtracking west and landing on a nearby building.  Ken and I reacquired him and noticed that he was hooting quite intently.  I just missed getting a cool shot of him on this building when he flew back east into The Wedge.  

We followed him and in The Wedge we began to hear Olivia.  In fact, it was not her.  It was a different female. I had broken out The Jump To Conclusions Mat too hastily and come to the wrong conclusion.  




I even got a photograph and given the givens: a female in The Wedge and duetting with Charles- it made sense that that it was Olivia. They flew east and I still thought it was Olivia.  Eight months later I am still mortified at my rush to judgement and my wrong conclusion. To my credit, later in the evening I did make note that this owls' hoots were faster and her last two notes not as pronounced as Olivia's and that I was not completely certain it was Olivia.   In a Facebook exchange with Ken on the morning of April 12, I told him that I had reviewed some of my videos and was not sure it was Olivia but given the givens, it was most likely her. 

To say that April 12 was eventful and significant is a bit like calling D-Day a trip to the beach with a dash of an airshow.  I arrived and found one of the owls in an unprecedented spot in The Crossroads Conifers, As you can see the owl was quite obscured. From what I saw leaned towards IDing it as Charles.



I ran into my good friend and fellow owl addict Brenda Hente. Brenda has been studying Charles and company for just shy of six years now and knows a vast amount about them.  If a bank safe falls on me, she becomes the world's leading expert on these owls.  It is always a good thing to have Brenda's keen eyes, ears and mind on the case and this was especially true on this evening. 

We had not found a second owl so we kept watching this well-hidden owl in The Crossroads Conifers. At it became darker the owl did not hoot and with little pre-flight grooming and stretching it exploded out eastward.  We reacquired the owl and heard it hoot and immediately we both noticed the hoot sounded different, likely a female but different from Olivia's hoot.  I commented that it sounded like the hooting done by Olivia last night.  The owl continues eastward and again we reacquired it.  Having seen more of this owl Brenda and I concurred it was not Charles but a female. Here is my first clear shot of this owl. 


We then heard Charles east of this female and calling from The Wedge.  The owl continues hooting and we are became more convinced it was NOT Olivia.  Listen for yourself. 


The owl flew closer to Charles, hooted for a few moments and then went north, still parallel to Charles. We found the owl still hooting regularly.  We did not hear Charles for several minutes but then he began hooting again.  Brenda and I agreed to split up, I stayed with the owl and she headed over to find Charles. Brenda called me saying that she had found Charles and as we talked, I see could see him. Brenda said she may have seen Olvia. Brenda called me beack to say that she definitely saw and heard Olivia.  This confirmed that this is a third owl and one intruding in the very core of their territory. We were stunned by this audacious development!.  I mention to her that this owl might, might be male with an odd hoot. While male and female Great Horned Owls can be usually be distinguished by their hoots, sometimes it is difficult to tell male and female apart. The owl continued to hoot at Charles and he responded to the intruder. 

The owl flew east closer to Charles and Olivia (and Brenda) and I followed suit.  I found the intruder and Charles.  I continued over to Charles and Olivia (who I finally heard for the first time that night).  I rendezvoused with Brenda who told me what I missed on my short journey over to her and the pair of owls.  The intruder flew at Charles who was perched and went after him with talons out for the attack.  Charles popped up extending his own talons.  They passed each other in mid-air and the intruder flew back east and Charles and Olivia began non-stop hooting at the intruder.  We had never seen another owl attack Charles!  I wish I had seen it but I am sure glad that Brenda did!  


Here is Charles pinnacling on a conifer duetting intensely as the intruder hooted back.   This was a massive territorial stand-off, the likes of which we had never seen!  



Brenda and I noted the large size of the intruder, roughly 21-24 inches tall, just a little smaller than Sarah. Females are larger than males and the hoot sounded more like a female.  However, the aggressiveness of the intruder, especially in its attack on Charles, suggested that it might be an intruding male. 

The stand-off continued for many minutes but Charles then flew northeast and Olivia followed him. We reacquired them and they still duetted intensely.  The intruder's calls continued as well.  We took up a post closer to the intruder.  The duetting continued unabated and given the late hour and such, Brenda and I decided to head to our vehicles and drive back to our respective homes.  By this point, I had been watching the owls for two-and-a-half hours.  Our minds reeled with what we had observed and I could not wait to tell my girlfriend, Wendy, all about we had seen. Her mouth dropped as shared the evening's events with her. 

I could not wait to get back to Forest Park the next day, April 13, to see who was there and where.  I headed for The Crossroads Conifers and there again was the intruder in these conifers!


The audacity was amazing!  In telling folks on owl prowls and at owl talks about this behavior, I put it this way. "Imagine that when you go home tonight, you find a complete stranger in your living room, waiving a glass and asking nonchalantly, "Could I get some more ice for this?"  

Brenda called me saying that she had scoured the owls' territory including The Wedge and had not found Charles or Olivia.  We agreed that I would check a few other spots, however unlikely, just in case the owls were using these spots. I found no owls and I returned to The Crossroads Conifers and the intruder had departed.  I headed a short distance east and came upon some mating Common Snapping Turtles.  Spring was springing forth! 

I returned to The Wooded Area and found two owls, one in one of The 08-09 Salon Trees and the other a short distance away.  It took me a few minutes but I realized that the former was the intruder and the latter was Charles.  Charles was in a tense, forward position as he glared at the intruder.  He did not stretch or groom or hoot-just glared intensely.  




The intruder flew east a far distance as Southern Leopard Frogs began to chorus from The Permanent Puddle. More signs of spring!  Charles flew north going a modest distance before going northeast much further.  Brenda and I reacquired him as he hooted from a large Bald Cypress.  Charles flew east and we hoped we would find Olivia with him.  We found him near where we had left him the night before but did not hear Olivia or the intruder.  Charles continued towards The Wedge and again we found him thanks to his hooting.  Northeast of him we began to hear another owl and it was Olivia.  Brenda mentioned that she had heard Blue Jay warning calls earlier in that exact vicinity.  Charles flew over towards her and they continued their duet now at closer proximity, which was great to observe.  Olivia flew closer to Charles and he flew off, as is his wont to do.  We followed him as the male and their duet continued. W while we felt better hearing them duet but still we were concerned about the intruder.  

We decided to head east to our vehicles and Charles flew ahead of us heading back to The Arena.  He was not the only owl near us as we began to hear the intruder just east of The Arena. We heard the intruder and Charles call but after several minutes we did not hear anymore.  For the second night, we went home both amazed and concerned with what we observed.  

The following night, April 14, I had an owl talk in Rolla, MO, my second time presenting for the Ozark Rivers Audubon Society (thank you, kind folks!)  so I only had time for a brief and early visit for the park. Happily I can often find the owls on such visit but sadly, this was not one of those visits!  As such, I was especially keen to return on April 15.

On April, 15, thanks to him hooting, I found Charles semi-awake in The Rain Tree (but not one of the branches they use for shelter when it rains).  



He moved to The Overlook Hotel Tree and continued to hoot.  I ran into Brenda and we as watched Charles we thought we may have heard the intruder just east of Charles.  We headed in that direction and Brenda thought she heard Olivia too!  As we headed that way we definitely heard the intruder and shortly thereafter the intruder flew right at Charles and Charles flew off north.  The aggressive audacity of the intruder!  The intruder soon followed Charles and we reacquired the intruder. 


We heard Charles now west of the intruder and the intruder headed out in that direction. We heard both owls and saw one of them head back east. We found the eastward bound owl and it was Charles. From what we saw we agreed that the intruder was chasing Charles and not the other way around. Was this a female owl or an aggressive male trying to grab Charles' amazing territory? We never positively observed Olivia that night.  Another fascinating and head wagging evening in the park with the owls.

On April 16 I quickly found Charles in The Crossroads Conifers but in an unusual perch spot.  It was heartening to see him in the living room of his territory.  He took awhile to hoot and he called gradually. By now I had looked for Olivia but I did not find her or the intruder.  As it got past sunset, Charles began to hoot more and I could hear the intruder just east of him.  The two owls hooted back and forth with great intensity and speed. But this was not a duet but a vocal duel with Charles essentially saying, "Go away." and the intruder responding, "No, I will not leave."  Just as quickly, both owls stopped hooting for several minutes.  Charles' quietude became clear when he ejected a pellet.  Once a pellet gets to a certain point on its trip out from the gizzard to out of the owl's mouth, the owl cannot hoot until the pellet is cast.  Free of the pellet, Charles flew south towards The Jungle Gym Tree Near The Archy Tree.  I reacquired him closer to The Jungle Gym Tree Near The North-South Path.  He continued to hoot but I no longer heard the intruder. Charles headed north and I decided to head home. Once more, no sign of Olivia. 

On April 17,  Charles was in the same spot as the night before in The Crossroads Conifers.  He dropped a pellet but again was slow to wake up. He hooted only a little at first.  It was well after sunset before he flew at 8:40pm, when he made a short hop to a nearby conifer.   No sign of Olivia or the intruder that night.  

April 18:  I found the intruder again perched audaciously in The Crossroads Conifers! Charles was not far away not in Sarah's Autumnal Perch but the tree that contains it-quite an atypical spot.  They began to hoot at each other.  After a while the intruder moved closer to him by flying to The 08-09 Salon Trees. Charles was quiet for quite a long time.  Ken Shew and Brenda out that night and it was a pleasure to share with them and benefit from their presence. The intruder went quiet and then blasted off northeast.  Charles went north and then northwest. No sign of Olivia. 

April 19.  Brenda was out earlier and called me to let me know that she had not found any of the owls. I searched widely without success. I decided to wait halfway up a hill near a creek and the park's river system and  just watch and listen.  I finally saw an owl going after Mallards in the creek.  It was the intruder, who eventually flew east.  No sign of Charles or Olivia. Again my concerns about the possibility of the intruder being an usurping male unnerved me.  

April 20. I  had an early visit to the park due to a trip to Columbia, MO to present for the Columbia Audubon Society.  It was my third time presenting in Columbia but my first for CAS, which was good fun-thank you, CAS!  The only downside was that on this early and brief visit to the park, I did not see any of the owls. 

April 21.  There were two owls in the tree containing Sarah's Autumnal Perch.  It took me a little while to ID them as Charles and the intruder. It was great to see him for the first time in three days. Over the last several months I have used the row of descending white dots on his wing coverts as another way to ID him.  On this night I got a great close up view of them. 




The owls began to hoot and I wondered if it was a female owl behaving oddly aggressively to "land" Charles.  They hooted quickly, faster than I had seen them in the last several days.  The hooting was less declarative and more conversational.  I wondered again if it was a female.  I noted that Charles did some purring, cooing notes, something I saw him do many times with Sarah and Olivia and an indicator that the duet is growing in intensity and intimacy.  The owls were also facing each other,. Was Charles thawing out to the in the intruder who was indeed a female?

There was a pause in hooting and the intruder had flown to The 08-09 Salon Trees.  You can see them duet and their proximity here: 


Hooting resumed and included a few first hoots by the intruder, who then flew to the eastern edge of The Wooded Area. Charles' hooting paused and the intruder resumed hooting. . Charles stretched and groomed. Now the intruder's hooting paused and then resumed hooting, Charles was quiet for over fifteen minutes. Judging from its hoots and the warning calls of American Robins, the intruder had moved position. Finally, Charles resumed hooting and thus did the duet with loud hoots and an increasing rate of hooting.  Charles flew towards The Great Northern and away from the intruder.  I did not find him there so I headed northwest hoping he went that way but I did not find him.  No sign of Olivia. 

April 22: I felt more convinced that the intruder was a female.  I found the intruder near The Permanent Puddle and I heard Charles hoot once.  It took me a while to find him-he too was near The Permanent Puddle and thus close to the intruder again.  Wendy and Brenda joined me and we all discussed the growing likelihood that the intruder was a female. Charles dropped a pellet. After a little while they began to duet and we all thought it was more like a courtship duet. The female flew over close to Charles and it was like a switch was flipped-they both went into a full-on, no room for debate, courtship debate!  Bloody hell!  I was so excited that I missed filming it.  This courtship told us, beyond any debate, that the intruder was a female!  It's a girl!  

Charles flew to The Three Trees and she followed, the duet going strong.  Charles then went to The Third Tree Hollow-a potential nest site and she followed him; further proof that the intruder was a female and they were courting!  


Relatively quickly the owls went their separate ways.  

We all stood their flapping our gums at what we had just witnessed and the confirmation that the intruder was a female!  I commented that the aggressive behavior of the intruder, especially its chasing of Charles, was not the intruder saying, "I am a male and I want your territory and female" but rather, "I am a female and let's party!"  I revealed to Wendy and Brenda a name that had crossed my mind if the intruder turned out to be a female.  I explained that given this female's aggressive and rather forward behavior with and towards Charles, she should be named Samantha after the similarly aggressive and forward character of the HBO series, Sex and the City.  Wendy and I are big fans of the show and I was thrilled that my idea was met by a positive response by Wendy and Brenda.  Over the months in conversations with other owl devotees I have shared this name gradually and the overall response has been a good laugh and much nodding.  

At the same time, we had to reflect that we had not positively observed Olivia since April 13 and this change in females was a bittersweet development.  Olivia was a sweet, beautiful female and we all loved her distinctive hoot and how she and Charles became a pair.    In my research I have learned that fights to the death by rival males is not unheard of but quite rare. I have never read of fights to the death among rival females.  I have not seen seen or heard Olivia in the intervening months and I hope she is well and flourishing and perhaps has a new mate and territory.  

The amazing and fascinating nature of this event... in nature cannot be overstated.  A new female and intruded into the territory, displaced the resident female and now courtship was taking place. Allow me to restate what I wrote earlier. Hhere is the weirdest thing about this:
    • Territorial intrusions and courtship happen
    • But not in April this part of this species' range.  This is late summer to early winter behavior. This occurring in April was both late and early; like trying to see a Cardinals game or show at The Muny in January. It is both too late and too early!
In May I had the great honor and pleasure of sharing the owls and my work with them just north of Kansas City at a birding festival called Wings Over Weston; a joint venture of the Burroughs Audubon Society and Missouri State Park.  One of the other participants was the University of Missouri's excellent Raptor Rehabilitation Project  and it was a treat to speak with their staff and meet their education birds.  I told their Project Manager, Abby Rainwater, about this intrusion, chasing and now courtship and as I did so her facial expressions went from, ". Hmm, interesting." to "Whaa....?" and then, "Huh?  What?" before ending with, "What are you on?!?"  I concluded by asking her, "Have you seen this, heard about this, read about this?"  Her answer to all three questions was a resounding, "No."  

Karla Bloem, the founder and Executive Director of the International Owl Center and one of the world's leading owl advocates and Great Horned Owl experts, has seen some serious Great Horned Owl soap operas over the years. Together with Brenda, we have traded notes on this electronically and we all hope to do so in detail and in person some day.   

Seeing as I have already written some 6000 words, in the interest of time, I will have to keep the next few sections brief.  I do not want to short change these months and the owls activities therein but they are easier to summarize.

Summer

With no owlets to watch as they gradually mature and eventually disperse, I knew this summer would be quite different.  I was curious to see where Samantha would perch during the hot, humid days.  For the vast majority of time she perched in The AYU Tree or in a nearby spot that I eventually realized was high up in Olivia's Tree.  Within The AYU Tree she used a few different perch spots but one the vast majority of the time.  Here she is in that spot on June 4.


It took me a little time but eventually I found  just the right angle and spot to look for her in this perch.  Over the years, I have seen The AYU Tree used as an occasional perch spot but I had never seen it become a regular perch spot as it did for Samantha.  She would also use The Overlook Hotel Tree from time-to-time but never in a predictable manner. 

Early in the summer, Charles used some spots in and around The Training Area and most of these were unprecedented, which was interesting to see.  Once the main part of the summer commenced, I expected Charles to perch in The Arena as he had starting in the summer of 2010. He did so sometimes in The 08-12 Nest Tree but mostly in The Middle Tree.  These large trees are micro-verses  with many places in which to hide and in the The Middle Tree, I counted at least four different spots used by Charles.  To demonstrate how challenging it is to find these well-camouflaged owls in the leafed out trees in the summer, here is my initial view of Charles in The Middle Tree on June 2.  


Keep in mind that he is a little under two feet tall! 

A point that I always try to make and emphasize about the owls' perch spots is that they use different perch spots in different season and often multiple spots within a season and some of these spots come and go.  This summer proved to be a superb example of this on several fronts including Samantha's use of The AYU Tree but Charles also got into this mix as well.  I was in a steady groove of looking for and finding Charles in The Arena when in mid-June he stopped perching there and never went back there for the remainder of the summer.  I found him in The 08-09 Salon Trees as you can see from this shot from June 17.


No sooner has he started perching in those trees than he stopped several days later.  Towards the end of the summer he returned to these trees for a little while but in different spots from mid-June.  For the remainder of the summer he kept me on my toes by using several different spots.  

One last example of perch site variation. The perennial summer perch, The Bushy Tree, used every summer, to varying extents by both adults and owlets, was not, from what I observed, used at all the entire summer of 2016. It was beyond strange not to see an owl in this tree for the entire summer.  On some nights when I had difficulty finding Charles I would head there hoping to find him in one of his well-hidden summer spots. No such luck.

Among the most fascinating aspects of the summer was that Charles would often fly to The Third Tree Hollow.  He would get in the hollow and hoot, sometimes for a while, other times just briefly and then emerge and perch at the edge of the hollow as you see him here on June 28.  


Now while we had seen him show this to Sarah and Olivia as a potential nest spot in the fall and early winter, this was the most he had used it in a summer.  For some parts of this summer he went there every night.  Earlier I voiced my concerns about this hollow as a nest sight and even as perch or fly-to spot, I have the same concerns, most especially its close proximity, both vertically and horizontally to a nearby road.  But there is something about this hollow and Charles.  The least worst way I can describe it seems to be a nexus of courtship/sexual/mating/nesting behavior, perhaps with a side of "man-cave" usage.  If I could get Charles on the couch or in a Barbara Walters interview, I would love to ask him about this hollow. 

Charles also used this hollow as a launching pad for an annual summer happening-hunting insects on the ground.  Great Horned Owls eat the widest range of prey of any owl in North America. Their prey ranges from worms, insects and other invertebrates to fish, amphibians, reptiles, small birds, small mammals and up to not-so small mammals and birds including, skunks, Raccoons, domestic dogs and cats as well as other owls, hawks, geese, ducks, egrets and herons.  The great abundance of insects is too much of opportunity for these highly opportunistic owls to pass up. While the yield of an individual insect might be small, so too is the risk and many can be eaten for a substantial yield. Here's Charles doing this hunting on July 17.


On the other end of the prey size spectrum, I finally managed to get a video of one of the owls attacking a Raccoon.  Feel free to laugh and my narration.  I had been watching Charles and I thought he would fly from point A to point B.  I did not realize that a Raccoon was in between these points.


This was the first of three attempts I saw the owls make on Raccoons in a matter of days.  I had never seen so many Raccoon attempts in such a short span of time.  The third attempt was notable in that on one of the three passes made that evening one of them was tag-team effort by Charles and Samantha. I had only seen such duo efforts by Charles and Sarah a handful of times over the years and I hoped this was a further sign of Charles and Samantha bonding.  

A different behavior I was able to observe this summer was Charles and Samantha duetting regularly and sometimes quite intensely.  With Charles and Sarah having owlets each year, the adults kept pretty quiet for most of the summer.  If the parents call that tells the owlets where mom and dad are and the owlets come over and beg and bug the parents for food.  Now as it gets later in the summer and the owlets are closer to dispersing, the parents' hormone levels and their need to proclaim territory and cement pair bonds encourages them to duet. This in turn leads to the owlets interrupting the duets with the food begging cheeps in a process I call, duettus interruptus.  You can see such an episode from September 24, 2014


Charles and Samantha had no such concerns and it was fascinating to see duets all summer long.  

Fall/Early Winter

It was an odd fall as the summer weather did not stop.  Temperatures finally cooled a little but even in November we had many trees with green leaves on their branches.  Charles began to spend most of his time in Olivia's Tree as he did last fall, when it was an unprecedented perch spot; regardless of season. Here he is sleeping there on October 31.


Samantha continued her use of  The AYU Tree and The Overlook Hotel Tree but used some other spots on the west side of The Wooded Area.  As we moved deeper into the fall, she began to use, all but daily, Sarah's Autumnal Perch. Sarah first began to use this spot in the fall of 2009 and it took me two weeks to get the right angle to see her in this well-hidden spot.  She used it, to varying extents, each subsequent fall and in recent years Charles began to use it more.  Olivia used it a fair amount last fall and now Samantha is using it almost exclusively.   Three females, one perch and at the same time of year.  I do not think this is mere coincidence.   Even in a more typical fall, this tree holds on to its leaves well into winter.  Here is Samantha in this spot on December 1.  



I will have to tell you the full story sometime but in November and for several weeks Charles used an amazing perch spot.  It was the lowest daytime perch spot I have ever seen him use and it was simultaneously easy to see and amazingly hard to find.  It took me three days of concerted effort to find it but once I did, I was rewarded with some of the most amazing views I have ever had of him or any other owl.  Just as a taste here a few glimpses of this spot and its magic.  First from the last day I, so far, have seen him there, December 14, here is one of the closest views I ever have had him.


Here he is grooming extensively on December 3.



And doing an Escalator Stretch and hooting on November 21.


With fall finally arriving and not just in the calendrical sense, Charles and Samantha began to duet with greater intensity.  This is a how a new pair of owls courts and how a pair, both new and longtime, declares their territory.  While I do not take this to be a huge sign of pair bonding, it has been cool to see them perched together several times.  While I have seen some great duets and even Samantha check out The Third Tree Hollow a few times, as of this writing, I have not seen the owls  mate. Over the years both with Charles and Sarah and Charles and Olivia, mating usually began in the first two weeks in December. I had also seen it as early as late November and one year as late as Xmas Eve. 

One pattern I have seen emerge is that Samantha is taking too long to leave and/or having difficulty leaving her spot in Sarah's Autumnal Perch so that she can get to a suitable spot for mating to occur. While mating is quite brief the owls must be in a branch that has sufficient space, both horizontally and vertically, that they can make their brief mating contact.  On numerous nights, I have seen the duet build in intensity and Charles has moved to such mate-able branches, as I have begun calling them, while Samantha is still in her daytime perch which is by no means, a mate-able branch.  

Upon hearing this, some people have wondered if Charles might be showing his age. To me he looks and sounds as vital as ever.  I do not know old Charles is but he is at least 13-16 years old now.  I base this on two good bits of data:
  1. I have now been watching him for eleven years (I had my owliversary on December 29th-thank you, Charles, thanks to all the owl fans and supporters!!)
  2. This species usually starts to have owlets at 2-3 years of age and he and Sarah were having owlets back in 2006 and perhaps earlier.
Now we do not know the average life expectancy of Great Horned Owls, one of many things we do not know, but the record age for a wild GHOW is around thirty.  As such Charles could be 13-16 or 19 or 23-I have no idea but wish I did.  

To my eyes and those of veteran owl watchers like Brenda Hente and Rusty Wandell, Charles appears undiminished and we hope that Samantha gets off the bench and into a mate-able branch!  That said, if they have not mated by the second week of January, I do not think that there will be owlets this year.  I hope they do have owlets but what will happen will happen.  

Thank you for reading and for your time and support.  One last photo!

Here are Charles(left)  and Samantha (right) last night in Sarah's Autumnal Perch.  Happy New Year!