Thursday, April 17, 2014

Adventures In Owl Dining, Part I

Thursday, April 17, 2014

In less than a week it has been my luck to have two amazing nights of Sarah feeding herself and the owlets. The first night was Saturday, April 12.  I met my friends and owl mentees Brenda Hente, Barb Brownell and Chris Gerli and we headed over to see the owls. We found Sarah high up in The Overlook Hotel Tree. From about forty yards away I spied with my little eye all three owlets in a row in The Jungle Gym Tree Near The Archy Tree; a favorite haunt of theirs in this post-fledging stage this year.  (Be sure to double click on the photos to see a larger version of them)

After a quick stop to find Charles in the tallest of The Trio Conifers we headed back to watch the owlets from a closer angle.  Chris saw that Sarah had joined the owlets in their tree.  We saw her move into a crotch in this multi-faceted tree and we wondered if she was removing prey from a cache site.  Indeed she was. She made a short hop over to The Jungle Gym Tree Near The North-South Path landing on a bare branch with the remains of large greyish/darkish bird in her massive talons.  She wasted no time in feeding. We wondered what it was and American Crow, Little Blue Heron, and Cooper's Hawk promptly came to my mind as likely candidates.  It was amazing to see her take large bites of this bird with feathers of her prey sticking out of her bill as the setting sun bathed her in light.

I only took one video of her and the focus was a tad off so my apologies for that.  Still it gives some insight into her feeding.

She paused in feeding and I was able to get a clearer glimpse of the prey.  These photos are cropped in order to see the prey more closely.

When our night ended, I looked closely at these photos and showed them to everyone on my camera. I was pretty certain it was a Little Blue Heron given the size of the bird and its blue-grey feathers and long green-brown legs.  My friends and mentees were not as convinced just yet. Chris and Brenda thought that they saw some barring or striping that would have ruled out a Little Blue Heron.  A few days later I sent Brenda the above cropped photos and she concurred that it was a Little Blue Heron.  She showed it to her one of her students, Jacob Meyr, a superb birder, and he too agreed with my identification.

The day before this, Friday, April 11, I saw a Little Blue Heron flying through the owls' territory.  Of the various herons and egrets that are seen in Forest Park, it is one of the most uncommon species.  The last one I had seen was at least two years ago.  I do not know if the one that Sarah was eating was the one I had just seen the day before but I wished I had seen the actual predatory attempt and learned which owl had caught it.  A Little Blue Heron, at 24 inches tall, is in the same size class as a Great Horned Owl.  Just one of many examples of the predatory prowess of these owls.

Now that Sarah was fortified she hopped back over to the owlets and began to feed them.

The owlets moved around a fair amount and at one point instead of flying to Sarah's right, one of the owlets flew to her left and got fed.

Sarah fed the owlets on either side of her and then left much of the prey for the owlets to eat on their own.

She flew off and the owlets remained. While this was all going on, Charles flew to the northern edge of The Wooded Area.  Eager to get a closer, longer look at Charles, Chris went around and watched him fly further north.  Chris followed Charles and we kept in touch, relaying our observations and updates via our phones.

Brenda, Barb and I delighted in watching the owlets move around and it was great to see them end up all together again in the same branch before we left for the night.

Thank you for reading and look for Part II soon!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Owlets For A Friday

Friday, April 11, 2014

I hope those reading this have had a good week. If you have or have not, the following video will make you feel better.  The owlets are often perched in Charles' Favorite Conifer.  Yesterday was the first day I found all of three of them in this tree.  Watch and enjoy the owlets in the breeze, especially their fluffy feathers that my girlfriend, Wendy Schlegel, so accurately calls The Fluff!

Happy Friday!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Second and Third Owlets Have Fledged!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

This is post has overdue and fresh news about the owlets so I will catch up with this post. The second and third owlets have both fledged!  I am confident that there are three owlets this year and no more.  The nest is completely empty but I will keep an eye on it on the remote chance that a fourth is there.

The second owlet was found fledged on Friday, March 28.  For over a week I have wanted to post on this but just was not able to find/make the time.  My apologies for the delay. On Friday, March 28 I arrived at the park and found an owlet in the nest hollow.  I headed into The Wooded Area and as I was walking by The Permanent Puddle, I heard quiet begging cheeps from the vicinity of The Big Dead Tree.  I looked in the area hoping to find a second fledgling but could not see any owlet there. I made a mental memo to head back to that area later when the owlets would be more active, both vocally and physically.  I found Charles, Sarah and the first fledgling.  The first fledging had moved more than the previous nights showing again the slow but gradual progression the owlets make.

I headed back to the nest area and ran into Nate and Jane Green, a married couple of WashU PhD. students, that I met for an owl prowl via my friend and owl mentee Brenda Hente.  They had kindly read about the first fledgling on this blog and they, especially Jane, were eager to see the fledgling.  I took them up to see Charles, Sarah and the first fledgling, explaining about the earlier begging cheeps I had heard near The Overlook Hotel Tree.  They delighted in seeing the parents and the fledgling.  We returned to the nest area to see what was going on in the nest.  We saw one owlet as before but I began to hear more begging cheeps coming again from near The Overlook Hotel Tree.  We looked at this area and while my ears guided us there, Jane was the first to see that yes, a second owlet had fledged and was perched in low a small tree just near The Overlook Hotel Tree! Bravo owlet and bravo Jane for the first glimpse of the second fledgling!

Here are some pics of this well hidden beauty.  Be sure to double click on the photos to see a larger version of the photos.

We thrilled at seeing this second owlet out of the nest safe and sound and not far from Sarah and Charles. Jane and Nate took their leave and I headed back to watch the owls become active.  I was treated to seeing Sarah feed the first fledgling.

I wanted to blog about this news but demands on time including taxes, owl prowls and an owl talk did not make this occur.  

Thankfully the news of the third owlet fledging is much more current.  This owlet fledged sometime between the evening of Friday, April 4 and the morning of Saturday, April 5.  In the week after the second owlet fledged, the third owlet remained in the nest and was found both low in the nest barely visible but more often high up in the nest as you can see on Friday, April 4. 

On most nights before I would leave for home, the owlet would be perched on the edge of the nest.  I saw him "hitting the gym"; standing still but flapping its wings to build up its strength prior to fledging.  Each night I wondered if this would be the night the owlet fledged. 

Unlike the last nestling last year, I never heard this owlet make begging cheeps or see Sarah visit the nest to feed or urge the nestling to fledge.  I surmise that there was sufficient food cached in the nest for the owlet to feed.  Perhaps it also just enjoyed having more room in the nest after its older siblings had fledged.  As I have five siblings I can testify to the joys that brings as well as how imperative it is to have some time and space of your own. :) 

As yesterday, Saturday, April 5, was the first Saturday of the month it was the day of the Beginner Birder Walk in Forest Park, a joint venture of Forest Park Forever and St. Louis Audubon Society.  After too many years of letting my pillow win the decision of whether or not to wake up early-ish on a Saturday morning to go birding, I began to go on these great birding walks and have done so for the past several years.  I have learned a great deal about birds and just nature in general by doing so. I highly recommend these birder walks to birders and naturalists of all levels. Please visit to the birding section of the Forest Park Forever website for more information on these walks and other birding activities in Forest Park.  

It was to my pleasant surprise and immense honor that I was asked in June 2013 by the co-leaders of the walks, Jim Wilson and Amy Witt, to become the new co-leader of the walk.  Jim is moving towards retirement and as he is doing so he is gradually cutting back on his projects and the like. I am not filling Jim's immense shoes, merely making a gesture at attempting to do so while giving the walks my own flavors and insights. 

Once I began going on the Beginner Birder Walks I established a pattern of looking for the owls before the walk and then taking any interested folks to see the owls after the walks.  A few times each year the walk incorporates the core of the owls' territory and the whole group gets to see the owls.  Yesterday's walk began in a different area of the park than usual as much of the park, including near the owls' territorial core was being used for a big event.  I knew that it would be near impossible to get to the owls after the walk but I knew I had enough time before the event and the birder walk to find the owls.  

After a very rainy week, it was great to be out on a sunny morning. I quickly found Sarah and one of the fledglings.  I went down to the nest area in The Arena and the nest seemed especially empty.  From the edge of The Wooded Area I found the second fledgling not far from Sarah and its fellow fledgling.  Just then an owl sixth sense moment gave me a nudge to turn my head and there in a low group of branches, only twenty-thirty feet from me, was the third owlet. It had fledged!

I backed off both in distance and angle to give the owlet some space. Excited as I was I could not help but be concerned.  The owlet was not only in a low branch at eye level at but it was right next to a bike path and not far from the nest.  I hoped the superb camouflage and statue imitating skills of owls would keep this owlet safe from predators and would be pet owl seekers.  I moved around to see this big, brave fledgling from the front.  The rising sun was directly behind him making a shot challenging.

I headed to the Beginner Birder Walk eager to share the news with everyone.  They loved seeing the shots of the new fledgling and they shared my concerns about its position.  The walk went well and we saw many great birds including some of my first Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers; a cool species of woodpecker.  Amy and I had great help on the walk from Bob Bailey from St. Louis Audubon Society, a superb birder with a great ear.  

After the walk and a needed shower, I met my girlfriend, Wendy Schlegel, for an equally needed breakfast at the great diner at The Majestic on the second-to-last-day this St. Louis institution would be open for business.  It is bittersweet that the owners have sold the place after being in business since 1961.  I ran some errands and decided to return to swing by the park and check on the fledgling.  I could not find it and my level of concern grew.  I hoped that I had just not seen it on my brief visit and that all was well with the third fledgling.  

After finishing errands and some work around the house, I returned to the park to look for the owlet.  I soon found Charles, who I had not seen in the morning, and the two fledglings but no luck on the third.  I ran into Perry Elder, a genial photographer from Illinois. Perry takes great photos with his 600mm lens but I appreciate even more his careful approach that puts the owls' well being before getting the shot and that he asks me for and listens to my insights about the owls.  Perry showed me Sarah not far from the first two fledglings.  I discussed the third owlet and we agreed to keep our eyes out for it as we went about our work in separate headings. 

I scoured The Wooded Area with eyes and ears but without success.  I was soon joined by my friend and owl mentee Rusty Wandell and his wife, Marian, and then Brenda Hente.  We carefully checked different areas together and on our own.  We ran into Perry followed by Richard and Jane Winter and then Lloyd Robinson and we all watched Sarah feed the first two fledglings in the setting sun. I pointed out to Richard and Jane how Sarah closes her eyes when an owlet takes food from her to keep her safe from the eager bill of her progeny.  

We continued on our quest for the third fledgling and Lloyd found it just next to The Eastern Tree, not far where I had found it in the morning. Well done, Lloyd! The owlet fluttered down to the ground and I got a shot of it as we moved back to try not to flush it.  I corrected this shot a touch because I was grossly over-exposed.  

Perry accurately remarked that I would sleep better that night.  Despite our best efforts, the owlet flushed. However, in this instance we were glad of it because the owlet flew low but fast further into The Wooded Area demonstrating that it was healthy and putting itself closer to parental protection and feeding. Everyone was excited to see the owlet healthy and safer! We tried to find it from a safe distance but were unable to see although we heard a few begging cheeps from the owlet.  The group began to go their own ways.  Lloyd, Brenda and I watched Sarah return to the nest and then fly back to The Wooded Area.  Was she looking for the third fledgling or cached food?  We watched Charles fly off north to hunt as Lloyd's girlfriend, Ginny Spernoga, joined us.  We called it a night happy to have all three fledglings and both parents seen in a good state.

If you come to the park to see the owls please be extra cautious and careful.  Do not get close to the fledged owlets and be mindful of Sarah's whereabouts at all times.  Do not risk incurring her protective wrath. Remember that Sarah went for a Red-tailed Hawk that got close to the nest recently.  You would not mess with a hawk, do not mess with an animal that does mess with a hawk.  Wear dark, muted clothes and cover your head if you have blond or white hair and make as little sound as possible. Fledging is one of the most dangerous times for a young Great Horned Owl.  They are not strong fliers yet and dangers abound. As I said last year when the first owlet fledged, fledging is comparable to a human parent watching its child take its first Times Square.  

Unfortunately, we recently have direct evidence of these dangers. Brenda watches and documents a pair of Great Horned Owls that she found in her backyard in 2010. The owls have lived in a nearby park for the last few years and have been nesting each year.  For the second year in a row, these owls, Will and Kate, had three owlets. Brenda paid me the immense honor of naming the one of the owlets Xavier after me using one of my middle names.  All was going well but Brenda did not see the owlet after Monday, March 24.  She combed the owls' territory for many nights and days but without success all the while noticing how unprecedentedly close the parent owls perched with their other fledglings.  I gave Brenda a hand in searching last Saturday, March 29 but we came up empty.  Every day that Xavier was not found made a bad ending all that more likely.  On April 1, Brenda found feathers and much of a wing of a young Great Horned Owl.  A sad discovery to be certain. She does not know what got Xavier but at the same time it is a relief to know the outcome of this owlet.  

Thank you for reading!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Fledgling + Two Owlets in the Nest=Three Owlets!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

An amazing night last night! One of the owlets has fledged and there are two owlets in the nest! We have three owlets!  This is the first time that I have seen Charles and Sarah have three owlets in consecutive years. I could not stop grinning last night.  I am still open to the possibility that there are four owlets given Sarah's longer and earlier time out of the nest and earlier and frequent hunting.  There may be less room in the nest and more mouths to feed.

 After a successful and enjoyable talk on Tuesday for the Miramiguoa Chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalist program I was keen to get to the park last night.  Lisa, her husband and Judy were watching the nest.  I asked them if they had seen Sarah and they replied that they had not seen any owls or owlets.  I reminded them of the importance of locating Sarah so as to remain safe and not disturb her and the owlets.  I also prodded them gently that carefully searching the woods was a key thing to do.  After checking the recently expanded hollow in the nest, which both Charles and Sarah have used a little recently, I headed into The Wooded Area.  I soon found Charles in the tallest of The Trio Conifers. Be sure to double click on the photos to see a larger version of the shots.

I reminded myself to look carefully for any fledglings and I was immediately rewarded with my first glimpse of the first fledgling!  I found it in the exact same area where I have first found fledgings every year starting in 2011-incredible!  What a beaut!  The thrill of seeing the first fledgling, like so many aspects of observing the owls, is amazing no matter if it is the first time seeing it or, in this case, the ninth.

I took another look from another angle be careful to move slowly and quietly.  I was happy to get a good angle with a great view of, as my girlfriend Wendy calls it, The Fluff.

I was confident that Sarah was nearby keeping a close eye on her fledged but still vulnerable owlet.  I found Sarah about thirty yards from the owlet.  She soon began to do an Escalator Stretch.

If you come to the park to see the owls please be extra cautious and careful.  Do not get close to the fledged owlet and be mindful of Sarah's whereabouts at all times.  Do not risk incurring her protective wrath. Remember that Sarah went for a Red-tailed Hawk that got close to the nest the other day.  You would not mess with a hawk, do not mess with an animal that does mess with a hawk.  Wear dark, muted clothes and cover your head if you have blond or white hair and make as little sound as possible. Fledging is one of the most dangerous times for a young Great Horned Owl.  They are not strong fliers yet and dangers abound.  As I said last year when the first owlet fledged, fledging is comparable to a human parent watching its child take its first Times Square.

I headed back to the nest where by now one owlet was visible.

 I could not help myself when I deadpanned to the now slightly larger group of nest watchers, "I didn't see much in the woods-just Charles, a fledgling and Sarah." They were blown away but what I found in the last ten minutes. I showed them my photos and then I took them to see the fledgling.  Just before we left Sarah came and landed in a high branch just above the nest hollow.  We watched the fledgling from a good safe distance and they delighted in seeing it.

These observers headed for home but I soon ran into my buddy, Lloyd Robinson who, with his girlfriend Ginny, are becoming regular owl observers.  I showed Lloyd the fledgling, which caused his own non-stop grinning.  Throughout the night, Lloyd asked me great questions about the owls and my work with them.  He listened closely and I am thrilled and honored to learn that he has been carefully reading my blog and has been hitting the books to learn more about owls. We headed back to the nest and by now Sarah was in The PX Tree.

Charles began to hoot from his piney perch.  We headed back for another look at the fledgling and heard Charles hoot from a different location.  I thought he might be in The Rain Tree judging from the direction of his hoots.  Lloyd found him there in an unusual spot high on the northeast side of the tree. Returning to The Arena, Charles delighted us with a gorgeous flight landing in The First of The Three Trees.

We moved back to look at the nest and I was a met with two owlets staring back at me!!  Three owlets!!  Amazing!  

By the time I tried to shoot video of the two owlets just one was visible.  Several people had asked me in recent days if it this year the total was two owlets and I told them that last year's slow reveal of three owlets, which only happened after two owlets fledged, taught me to be even more careful and conservative about "making the call."  I am glad I listened to my own advice.

Lloyd and I were joined by J.R. Robinson, who has been an owl observer for a couple of years.  I met Lloyd and J.R. separately and while they have they same last name they are not related but they are roommates and both of them are scientists. We told J.R. how to see the owlet and he headed off to find it.  

Charles went for something in mid-air and Sarah flew to the same area and they both landed in The Middle Tree.  I think it was a tag-team predatory attempt.  I did not see what they were going for but I am confident that it was a predatory attempt.  Sarah is higher on the left and Charles lower on the right. 

Sarah flew back into The Wooded Area a little later and Charles flew off to hunt, heading west. We went back for another look at the fledgling and ran into J.R. who had manged to find it with our guidance.  Lloyd had another great spotting, when he saw Sarah near the owlet.  She flew off and we watched the owlet become more active.  We saw him do two Escalator Stretches and a few times he flapped his wings a few times to maintain his balance.  Sarah returned and we began to hear Charles hoot in The Arena.  Perhaps a prey exchange had occurred or Sarah had found food on her own or Charles was hooting because of some other, yet unknown, reason.  After over eight years I still have so much to learn about the owls.  It is a process with unceasing rewards, challenges and delights.

We again returned to the nest area and saw one owlet "hitting the gym"; exercising its wings to build up their strength prior to fledgling.  During then night I had sent two texts out to Wendy and owl friends and mentees about the fledgling and the third owlet and I got a nice flood of enthusiastic responses.One of the folks I texted, my friend and owl mentee Brenda Hente, had news of her own. She could not find of the three owlets that her owls, Will and Kate have, but she did get to see one of the owlets fledge!  This was a first for her to see the actual moment of fledging and her concern for the unseen owlet was mixed with awe and gratitude for seeing fledging. I echoed her mixed emotions and congratulated her on her great work.  I am honored that she has named on of the owlets, Xavier, after one of my middle names.

Lloyd and I decided to head home. I had a blast showing Wendy the pictures of the owlets and listening to her coo with joy over these gorgeous youngsters.  I cooed with gratitude at the lovely meal she had kindly had waiting for me, which was especially welcome after an intense and amazing night of owling.

Thank you for reading!

P.S. Shameless plug:  I have a talk tonight on the owls' mating, nesting and owlets tonight, Thursday, March 27 at 7:00pm in St. Ann for the Rock Road branch of the St. Louis County Library system.  I did talks at six different county library branches in 2013 and each one was a distinct pleasure. Rock Road was one of the first of these talks and they are the first of three, so far, to have me back.  Lots of cute pictures and videos tonight-I hope to see you there!  Full details here

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Two Owlets! [And quick recap of UCity Public Library Talk]

Thursday, March 13, 2014

After much patient waiting by myself and many others, I saw two owlets last night!  I got to the park marveling at the difference between Tuesday, when it was sunny to cloudy and a high of 77, and Wednesday, with some sun but mostly cloudy, windy and a high in the low 40s! The park felt almost empty after the happy throngs of people on Tuesday.  I came to my first nest vantage point and there were two owlets looking back at me! What beauties! [Be sure to double click on the photos to see a larger version]

Amazing!  The one higher up on the left used that position the last few nights and while I had not seen the owlet lower and on the right, it looks, judging by the development of its facial disk, that it might be older than its loftier sibling.  Here is a video of the gorgeous pair.


I only stayed at this close vantage point for a hyper-brief time as to not disturb the owlets and Sarah. Sarah was perched nearby in a tree roughly between The Fleur des lis Tree and The Eastern Tree, keeping a close eye on her progeny.

I arrived at the vantage point that gives the most insight into the nest, or as I sometimes call it, the least worst spot.  Very importantly, this spot is sufficiently far from the nest so as not to disturb its inhabitants. I could see the two owlets but no more.  Not that this was disappointing in the slightest!

Around this time I ran into a father-son pair: Bob and Rick Smith.  Bob had kindly attended my talk at the University City Public Library the night before with our mutual friend, Taffy Ross, and Rick is an avian keeper at the St. Louis Zoo. I delighted in showing them the two owlets and Sarah and we had a nice time chatting about a whole host of topics.  Bob generously complemented me on my talk and manner of presenting. As he is a retired art professor at my alma mater,Washington University in St. Louis, and, as he put it, "someone who knows some things about talking", I greatly appreciated his comments. Charles began to hoot from the vicinity of The Trio Conifers, his spot of choice lately.  We all enjoyed hearing his mellifluous hoots .

Sarah flew out of The Wooded Area and landed in the 06/09 Nest Hollow.  She looked in the hollow, which is one of their prey cache sites, but did not go inside the hollow.  Perhaps the cupboard was bare.

She flew back into the woods, making a hunger/food-related call as she did.  By now I could tell, based on the direction from which Charles hoots boomed, that he had relocated.  I guessed that he had moved to The Rain Tree and a quick look confirmed my guess.  He had made a similar transition in recent weeks and it was interesting to see this again as The Rain Tree, so far, is not used regularly as a fly-to perch. Sarah quickly re-emerged from The Wooded Area and now with prey in her talons.  The wind was so strong that she could not land in the nest but landed on top of the hollow branch.

I figured that she had possibly uncached prey from The Great Northern, a frequent cache and feeding tree. To get to the nest, Sarah transitioned to nearby branches now with the prey in her bill.  After I took pictures of her, I zoomed in on them and saw that the prey was the head of an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit; one of their favorite types of prey. Nothing like a little brain food to help the owlets get ahead.

Sarah flew into the nest and undoubtedly was eagerly met by the owlets whose intense metabolism demands frequent food.  In the below video you get a nice, albeit brief, look at Sarah's legs or as my girlfriend Wendy calls them, "pants."


Sarah disappeared into the nest and I saw one owlet and then no owlets as they were likely getting fed.  Bob and Rick took their leave. I hope to see them again watching the owls. Charles continued to hoot and I went for my first close look at him.  Here he is perched in The Rain Tree, thus called because this arching branch with several small branches coming off it is a frequent perch site for the owls when it rains or snows.

Here is a video of him hooting and then doing an escalator stretch.


Sarah flew out of the nest to The PX Tree and I went to look in the nest and saw one owlet looking back at me.  I noticed that Charles had not hooted for a while and sure enough he was gone.  He has been disappearing on me quite a bit lately.  Even after over eight years of observing these owls, the challenges of doing so are abundant.

I started to head out but took a moment to capture Sarah in The PX Tree.  Such a joy to see the second owlet last night!

I headed home and crashed early.  I was happily tired from a full day of work on Tuesday, followed by my talk at the University City Public Library and another day of work on Wednesday and the night's owl observations.  I am thrilled to report that Tuesday's talk at the UCity Public Library went very well.  86 people attended the talk, making it one of their most attended events in recent memory. The response from the audience was fantastic.  People were keen to learn about the owls and they enjoyed how I presented my work to them.  Here are a couple of shots from the talk taken by friend and owl mentee, Brenda Hente.  Thanks, Brenda!

I would like to thank: Claire Birge and everyone of the Library Friends Board for inviting me, Library Director Patrick Wall and his staff for their great assistance, Wendy, Brenda, Barb Brownell, Chris Gerli, Taffy Ross, Bob Smith and everyone for attending and Rusty Wandell for keeping me posted on the owls after I had a brief look in on them earlier in the afternoon.  I hope I can present again at this superb library!

Thank you for reading!