Monday, September 7, 2015

Sarah Is Gone

Monday, September 7, 2015

It is with a heavy heart that I must report that Sarah, that most amazing Great Horned Owl, is dead.  I have not seen or heard her for seven weeks and when I last saw her she looked ill or injured. These last weeks have been an agonizing time of continued searching, hoping against hope and keeping a window of possibility open for some good but unexpected news.

 I will try to summarize while providing key details.[My apologies to my  friends Robin Street-Morris and Chad Henry for plagiarizing from an e-mail I sent them but hey-if you cannot plagiarize yourself, from whom can you plagiarize?]

My friend and owl mentee, Brenda Hente, and I saw Sarah on July 14 and she was her usual amazing and beautiful self. I did not make to the park on 7/15 as I had an early evening talk. I was making dinner on 7/16 so I only had time to stop by the park for about 30-40 minutes right after work. I found Harold but no one else. Not surprising given the early hour and the brief time. I did not get to the park on 7/17 due to a social outing.  Thus there is a gap in data and that is most unfortunate.

I came out on 7/18 and after finding  Charles and Harold  I heard some low-key Robin alarm calls, that led me to the Barred Owls' portion of the Successional Woods. There in a perch 15-25 off the ground was a Great Horned Owl. Just recently I found Charles hunting in a tree close to where this owl was perched but when I did so it was close to or after sunset. This owl was there well before sunset, which was odd.  Odder still was how it was perched. Instead of the more forward facing stance, it was leaning over to the side in a slight but discernible manner. The owl's eyes were partially open.  Almost immediately I wondered if the owl was ill or injured.  I did not see any visible trauma or injury though. The owl looked like Sarah and like Grace.  Grace is huge and dark like Sarah and this owl had that but I was seeing more blond, owlet-like feathers especially on the head.  I thought that there was an 80% chance it was Grace and a 20% chance it was Sarah.

 I continued watching the owl as the sun set and my concern and puzzlement grew.  It did not stretch or groom and while its eyes changed some in position, they were never in wide awake state or position.  Finally it defecated and it moved up on its feet as if to fly but it never flew and continued to remain perched.  I was there until almost an hour after sunset and it never moved nor hooted, begged or squawked.  I went home full of worry and confusion and told my ever-sympathetic girlfriend, Wendy, all about it.

I went out the next morning 7/19 and the owl was still there.  This was weird and worrying. I have seen owls leave a perch at night and find them in that same place the next day but I had not seen this owl leave and it looked like it had not budged.

 The owl seemed more alert and I was able to get some pictures of it from the front.  This angle showed me more blond feathers and the owl opened its eyes and gular-flutted in the heat.  It looked much less like Sarah and it seemed better than it did 12-14 hours earlier.

I showed Wendy my pictures from the morning and she was surprised that it was the same owl given the differences in appearance.  I had a prowl that night and I told my prowlees about this situation and our concern. We found this owl again and not changed its perch but its stance had rotated some more. It looked more like the night before than it did that morning, which was depressing.

We found Harold and then Charles.  Charles landed 20-40 yards from the mystery owl and began to hoot.  I went to observe how this owl reacted to Charles hoots and I saw no reaction at all.  We headed home with this owl again not having groomed, stretched or called at all.  I still thought it was more likely Grace than Sarah.

I spoke with Brenda, who was out of town, and she shared my concern and puzzlement.  I sent her these pictures and other pictures and she agreed that IDing the owl was challenging.  Brenda and I are both certified Missouri Naturalists and volunteers for Forest Park Forever but Brenda also volunteers for the World Bird Sanctuary; one of the nation's premier bird of prey rehabilitation and education institutions. Brenda called WBS and spoke with Roger Holloway, the Director of Operations.  With care and concern, Roger listened about the situation and encouraged us to be patient, careful and thorough.  Roger confirmed our thoughts that it would be more harmful to try and extricate the owl out of its perch.  Such action would stress the owl far too much. Brenda went on to tell me that Roger told her that if the owl was found on the ground to contact WBS and that they would contact some of their folks and have them retrieve the owl and bring it to WBS for treatment. This generous offer greatly impressed Brenda and me as we knew it to be contrary to standard WBS policies and procedures. They simply do not have the resources to pick up injured birds of prey.  The acknowledgement understanding of the widespread knowledge of and love for these particular owls that Roger and WBS expressed is most touching and appreciated. It is especially appreciated and heartfelt as this period of time was a trying one for WBS as their founder and executive director, Walt Crawford, passed away on 7/17.  I never met Walt Crawford and I wish I had but I am a great admirer of his work and that of WBS.

I stopped by before work on 7/20 and again the owl was there.  For the first time it was facing forward but I did not have my camera with me.  In this sighting and all the others of this owl I never saw any expressions by this owl that made me conclude-yes, it is Sarah.  I know her looks and facial expressions quite well and I never saw any of them definitively from this owl.  While at work I received an e-mail from the previous night's prowlee, Melissa, saying that she had returned to look for the mystery owl but could not find her.  I thought that there was good chance that Melissa, had not remembered where this spot was and was looking in the wrong place.  I stopped by that afternoon and sure enough the owl was gone.  I went home, got my gear and began searching around the area, both in the trees and on the ground, where this owl was perched.  The perch tree is close to one of the mitigation areas of these woods so there is much water and mud and dense vegetation.  I scoured the area but knew that that were was so much I couldn't see given the vegetation.  I looked for the other owls and found Charles and Harold but not Sarah or Grace.

Since then I have regularly seen Grace, Harold and Charles but not Sarah. Grace looks well and her behavior indicates health too. I have been out most every night since 7/18 and it has been an emotional, intellectual and physical drain to look for Sarah and continuously not find her. The more time that has gone by and the more I continue to see Charles, Grace and Harold but not Sarah I can only conclude that the ill/injured owl was indeed Sarah. Having not seen her for seven weeks it is all too clear that she is sadly dead.

Even with this denouement to concluding that she is gone her passing is a crushing blow on so many levels that I continue to grapple with it. I spent so much time watching her that I cannot help but to still expect to see her when I go to Forest Park.

At the same time I knew this day would come.  Early on in my work with the owls my friend and then colleague, Mark Rank, said to me, "You know, Mark, one day you are going to go the park and one or both of the owls will be gone.  I replied, "I am way ahead of you.  Every day in a small way I prepare my self for this eventuality."  My first goal each night was and continues to be finding each owl; counting heads and making sure that it is well.  Experience has taught me that some nights you will not find all of them but I always feel that much better finding them all and seeing that they are in good shape.  It is a unpleasantly surreal experience to go out looking for the owls now knowing that one of them will not be there.

One of the challenging things, which is both engaging and frustrating, about Great Horned Owls is that there is much that we do not know about them. Prominent in this body of ignorance is that we do not know the average life expectancy of this species.  In all my research I have come across a few pieces that kinda, sorta took a stab at average age: 8-10 years, 10-14 years, 8-12 years.  Unfortunately the data is not there despite the species being the most widespread commonly found owl in North America. We know the record age for a Great Horned Owl: 28 years, 7 months.  But even with this owl there is some grey area as it was banded at an unknown age as an adult. Of course, a record is an outlier, an exception not the rule.

I often tell people that if I could ask the owls one question it would be, "How old are you?"  Charles and Sarah are at least 11-14 years old.  Great Horned Owls typically mature sexually around 2-3 years old. As I have been watching the owls for over 9-and-a-half years and they have had owlets every year they are at least 11-14 years old.  However, given the record age of owls it is possible that the owls are older than that.  Nor do I know if they are the same age. Was Sarah 20 and Charles now 17?  Or Charles 22 and Sarah 18? One of the unavoidable facts is that as the number of years that I observed and studied the owls happily grows and grows the number of years that the owls have to live sadly shrinks and shrinks.  It is quite possible that Sarah died naturally of old age.

Great Horned Owls can suffer from and die from diseases including the West Nile virus but my greatest point of concern with the owls was and is cars.  Most of the time the owls will fly 50-80 feet over the many roads in the park.  All too often they will fly lower than that and sometimes as little as two-three feet over the road.  I have witnessed too many close calls with the owls and cars. One with Sarah was unpleasantly memorable.  It was the spring of 2014 and I saw her eyeing an Eastern Grey Squirrel that was at the base of a tree quite close to a road. I thought, "Sarah if  you go for that squirrel and miss, your momentum is going to take you right over the road."  Sure enough, Sarah missed her quarry and flew low over the road threading her way through two cars.  I aged a couple of years in a few seconds.

Of the many what's next questions the biggest one is what will Charles do?  From everything that I have read Charles will likely remain in the territory and try to attract a new mate.  It is well documented in the literature that when one of a pair dies, the survivor is able to find a new mate and sometimes quickly.  As many different behaviors I have seen of the owls one of the biggest I have not seen is courtship.  When I found Charles and Sarah they were already an established pair and while I saw them renew and maintain their pair bond, which was always amazing to behold, I did not see their initial courtship.

Charles has been challenging to find of late.  I might find him 2-3 days in a row and then not find him for the couple of days.  His perch spots have varied from different spots in The Arena to different spots in The Hilly Wooded Area.  On the days I have not found him, I wonder if he is checking out other areas of his territory, perhaps looking for or advertising for a mate.  As is typical in the summer he is not hooting a great deal but as we get closer to to fall he is hooting more. Here he is hooting on August 22.

As I discuss Sarah's death with many kind and concerned people, I am quick to point out that the potential of seeing initial courtship behavior is one of two important silver linings in this sad saga. The other one is that if she had died earlier than mid-late June, her death would have also been a death sentence for the owlets; Grace and Harold. They would not have had the amount of food and protection necessary for survival during their slow maturation process.  The literature mentions a few documented cases of successful single parenthood but they are the exception to the rule.

Overall the owlets are doing well, looking healthy and well-fed but Grace and Harold are still in the territory and Sarah's passing is a likely factor in this.  The last two years the oldest owlet has dispersed before July and the second owlet before September.  With Sarah gone the owlets have only half the parental push to encourage them to leave the territory.  Overall, the owlets beg little from Charles but some strong exceptions to this occur.  On August 23rd my friend and owl mentee, Rusty Wandell and I saw what was likely Harold follow Charles out north and even give chase.  On September 5th, Harold perched in a tree next to Charles and begged intensely but did not give chase this time instead he flew away from Charles.

During their lives so far, the owlets have been sometimes been easy to tell apart but mostly it's been a challenge to do so.  This pendulum of recognition has swung throughout the spring and summer.
Here they are on August 29, Grace lower down and Harold higher in the tree.



The dispersal period is always a bittersweet time but I do hope the owlets move on soon so that Charles can move on with his life in his territory.  I will miss the owlets as I do each year.

Before I conclude with some thoughts and reflections on Sarah I must take some time and thank some people who have beyond helpful during this challenging and stressful time.  As always, Brenda Hente demonstrated why she is my owl friend and mentee supreme.  Her care for and knowledge of the owls is simply amazing. Her help on so many levels ranging from analyzing pictures of Sarah to working with her contacts with the World Bird Sanctuary and many others to spending hours searching for Sarah and thinking about her with me is beyond appreciated.  Barb Brownell and Chris Gerli are my oldest owl friends and mentees and their care and concern for Sarah and me is incredibly touching.  Early in the search for Sarah, Barb was out of town and she sent me a carefully crafted and superbly considerate e-mail and I am grateful for her heartfelt and compassionate words.
Any and every time I have seen Chris during this time he always with great care and empathy about Sarah.  My friend and former colleague, Chad Henry, is one of the longest supporters of my work in Forest Park.  His wife, Sarah, and their twins, Sean and Maddie, are the inspiration for Sarah's name so the Henry family is closely connected with the owls.  Chad delighted me by telling of their younger daughter, Camille's, recent statement.  Having just turned four and delighting in her status as a big girl, she asked, just out of the blue, "now that she is 4, if she is old enough to hang out with Mark and watch the owls." Chad has sent me several immensely kind and sympathetic e-mails about Sarah.  One night during my search for Sarah the owl I ran into Sarah Henry with her mom and Sean and Maddie as they were on their way to The Muny.  It was great to see them but gut-wrenching too having not seen Sarah for many days at that point and then to see her namesake.  Sarah the owl is gone but it is great to have her human namesake nearby.  Both Sarahs could teach clinics on combining brains, beauty and motherhood.  Rusty Wandell was an instant owl addict, friend and mentee and his keen eyes, sharp brain and love for the owls are always welcome but have been a great boon during this time.  Both he and Brenda, as they often do, kept an eye on the owls and me updated about them when there were nights when I was not in the park.  My friend and fellow owl addict, Robin Street-Morris was kindness itself vie e-mail, text and phone.  Robin and her husband Jerry are former St. Louisans now living in San Diego.  It was bittersweet to meet up with them recently in Forest Park and see the owlets and Charles but no Sarah. My friend and colleague, Julie Portman has become a hummingbird addict in recent years and her kind concern for Sarah and me is lovely.  My brothers Paul and John happily let me bend their ears and offered warm and welcome words over the phone.  My mom sent some terrifically kind and empathic e-mails about the loss of Sarah.  She has always encouraged my passion for wildlife ever since I was a young boy so I am confident that she has the type of insight on what the owls mean to me that only a mother could have.   Of course, the biggest thanks go to my girlfriend Wendy.  Since my first forays into Forest Park to the night when I first saw the owls and the now literally thousands of nights with the owls, Wendy continues to be my biggest supporter on so many levels. Her love for the owls and the silly man who watches them is cherished.  Throughout this search for Sarah, Wendy's support has been without end. The second day that I saw Sarah unmoving in the tree, July 19, was brutally tough.  I came home utterly drained from the emotional rollercoaster combined with the brain-wracking work of observation and documentation while recalling the literature to decide what to look for, do next, do if this or that occurred, etc.  This was also a period of high temperatures and higher humidity levels thus making my drained state both literal and figurative.  A warm and fragrant scent greeted me as I entered our home and it lightened my load as I walked upstairs.  After a much needed and welcomed shower, I all but inhaled the perfumed gnocchi with a sausage sauce that Wendy had prepared. It was not that food was ready for a Michelin star but that it was made with love.

I am considering the idea of a public memorial service for Sarah since she touched the lives of so many people.  I welcome your thoughts, opinions and questions on this matter.

Sarah's death makes me reflect on many aspects of her. I do not know if I will ever see a female Great Horned Owl as amazing, in all respects, as her. Every aspect of what she did, she executed with such amazing skill, dedication, effort, and ultimately, success.  In the time I was privileged to spend with her she nested successfully in ten consecutive seasons fledging twenty-three owlets.  Simply amazing.  As I often say when I give talks on the owls, the reproductive success of the owls is indicative of the individual and combined skills of Charles and Sarah and perhaps more importantly the ecological health of Forest Park.  But attention must be paid to Sarah’s skills.  She was the Beethoven of brooding, the Fellini of feeding, the Salinger of safety, the Newton of nest-selection, the Camus of camouflage, the Prometheus of prey-exchanges, a Hemingway of hunting, and the Mahler of mating.  She was the apotheosis, the exemplar, the standard-bearer supreme.

Sarah’s physical beauty cannot be understated. Her feathers with their deep browns, autumnal oranges, alabaster whites and anthracite blacks combined with her deep yellow eyes and overwhelmingly massive talons presented an unforgettable image.  Sarah was between twenty-three and twenty-five inches tall; as large as a Great Horned Owl can be.  I have never seen an owl of this species, be it in the wild, in captivity or a specimen, of size equal to or greater than Sarah.  In some ways, I hope I never do.  Sarah also had massive shoulders with gave her a distinctive diamond-shaped profile that made her sometimes easy to identify by shape alone.  This distinctive silhouette was very shoulder-pads, very 80s, very Dynasty. In flight her massive wingspan often made her look as if she was doing an award-winning imitation of a B-52 Stratobomber.  Sarah’s eyes had a more hooded looked to them which while not only were distinctive from Charles seemed, at times,  to communicate an ironic and patient outlook on the world around her.  Or at least on her mate, her owlets and those silly humans who watched her for years and years.

As well as I got to know her, I never felt that I knew her as well as Charles.  There are good reasons for this difference in knowledge. When I began to see the owls consistently in late December 2005, it was Charles that I began to see in this way as Sarah was nesting.  As such she was only seen for short periods of time when she took her brief breaks from the nest to stretch, groom, eject a pellet, etc.  The fact that she nested every year meant that she was seen very little each year for a few months each year.  Even in 2008 and 2012 when she nested in a incredibly visible hollow, she was nowhere near as active as Charles due to the difference in their roles during nesting.

Even when the owlets would fledge there was still a distance maintained with Sarah due to the protective nature of female of the species when it comes to their young.  Until early summer and even then with great caution, my mantra when it came to finding the owlets was to find Sarah as fast as possible so I knew where to be and where not to be.  I resolutely avoided putting myself between Sarah and her recently fledged owlets.  Early on my research taught me not only the protective nature of female Great Horned Owls but the massive power and predatory prowess they possess.  My care for the owls and Sarah was mostly about their safety and well-being but also a little about my own.
Once the owlets were older and Sarah’s guard not quite as intense I could then see her and her owlets at closer distance and in greater detail.   Still though the cumulative effect was that I did not know her haunts and habits as well as I know those of Charles.  This is not a complaint or a regret but rather a fact that merits explanation and elucidation.

Despite this distance, Sarah treated me to two of the closest most intense fly-bys I have experienced with the owls.  One night in the fall of 2007, Charles was messing with me.  It was past sunset and he was in and around The Training Area hooting.  He was messing with me by hooting from one spot and I would move closer to this spot only to hear him hooting from a different spot after flying unseen to this new location.  I thought of a Curly-esque response and as I did I felt a gentle but discernable push of air on my left side like a localized breeze.  I looked up and flying six to nine feet above my left shoulder was Sarah.  She pulled and landed in a low nearby branch.  I had two immediate thoughts. One: “Wow that was a beautiful flight. Gorgeous. Amazing example of the owls’ silent flight.”  Two: “…And my pants are dry.”  There was not an element of threat or aggression in her movements but to have her fly so close and to only discern her awesome presence by a movement of air was incredibly intense and more than a little alarming.  

One evening in the fall of 2012 I had found both Charles and Sarah in The Wooded Area.  They began to duet and a little later Charles flew off a modest distance.  I decided to follow him.  As I walked up the hill towards him I looked up and my entire field of view was filled with the underside of Sarah as she flew over me at a blazingly fast speed.  As in the previous flyby there was no sound and nothing aggressive in her approach. She was merely flying between point A and point B and I was in the middle.  Unfortunately, I was too slow on the draw to film her flying over me but I took a quick video note of what happened.  When I played the video back the following morning I could clearly hear my heart rate and adrenal glands in my voice as I told of this stunning flight.  Memories like these will keep Sarah alive in us.

Thank you, Sarah 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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Another Radio Show, Cute Owlet Video and Talks Reminder

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

I am lucky, honored and grateful that Jean Ponzi, one of the region's leading experts and advocates for sustainability and biodiversity, invited me on to her second radio show, Earthworms on KDHX 88.1 FM. She interviewed me yesterday and yet again Jean had great queries and zeal.  You can listen to the show here:

Tonight is the first of two owl talks I have this week. I hope you can make one or both of these talks!

The first talk is tonight, Wednesday, July 15 for Gateway Greening as part of their Pints 'n Plants lecture series. This will be my second talk for this lecture series and I am grateful to Gateway Greening for having me back. This general talk on the owls is from 6:30-7:30pm at  Urban Chestnut Brewing Company ,4465 Manchester Ave. St. Louis, MO, 63110 in the Grove neighborhood. Urban Chestnut makes great beer and their Bier Hall's food has had some amazing reviews like this one. Owls, beer and food-what a great combination! 

My second talk this week is a more specific one on a rather meaty subject.  It is "Forest Park Owls: Hunting and Feeding", 11:00am, Saturday, July 18, 2015, St. Louis Country Library-Cliff Cave Branch, 5430 Telegraph Rd., Oakville, MO 63129.  This is my third talk at this branch in south St. Louis County.  I have been lucky to present at several SLCL locations but this will be the first time I have given three talks at the same branch. Not the last though:)

I rushed home after my interview, changed into my go-to-the-park clothes and headed to Forest Park to look for the owls.  The first owl I found was the older owlet, Grace, and she was perched right on the ground between The Fallen Tree and The Newer Fallen Tree. I loved watching her look all around demonstrating the amazing neck flexibility of owls.

Thank you for reading, listening and watching!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Radio Show Appearance and Reminder About Upcoming Owl Talks (Plus Bonus Pellet Videos)

Monday, July 13, 2015

My appearance on Growing Green St. Louis on KTRS The Big 550AM  aired on Saturday, July 11, and it is now online here:      Thank you for listening!   My thanks to Jean Ponzi for inviting me on her show and for her great questions and enthusiasm. 

As a reminder I have two owl talks this week. I hope you can make one or both of these talks!

The first talk is on Wednesday, July 15 for Gateway Greening as part of their Pints 'n Plants lecture series. This will be my second talk for this lecture series and I am grateful to Gateway Greening for having me back. This general talk on the owls is from 6:30-7:30pm at  Urban Chestnut Brewing Company ,4465 Manchester Ave. St. Louis, MO, 63110 in the Grove neighborhood. Urban Chestnut makes great beer and their Bier Hall's food has had some amazing reviews like this one. Owls, beer and food-what a great combination! 

My second talk this week is a more specific one on a rather meaty subject.  It is "Forest Park Owls: Hunting and Feeding", 11:00am, Saturday, July 18, 2015, St. Louis Country Library-Cliff Cave Branch, 5430 Telegraph Rd., Oakville, MO 63129.  This is my third talk at this branch in south St. Louis County.  I have been lucky to present at several SLCL locations but this will be the first time I have given three talks at the same branch. Not the last though:)

We are in the midst of a heatwave in St. Louis so I think some cool footage of the owls shot during cooler weather may bring some relief.  In late November-early December I was able to film, on several nights, Charles and Sarah ejecting pellets.  What was especially note-worthy was the size of the pellets they ejected.  Here's Charles on December 1 ejecting the largest pellet I have ever seen an owl expel.  

While a slightly smaller pellet, Sarah's efforts here on December 4 are intense so as to removed this veritable torpedo of fur, bones and other indigestible bits. 

Thank you for reading, listening and watching!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A Throw Forward and A Throwback

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Some excellent media coverage on the owls and my work with them is coming up in the near future. This Saturday, July 11 at 3:00PM CST, an interview with yours truly will air on KTRS The Big 550AM  I went to the KTRS studios yesterday and was honored to be the guest of Jean Ponzi on her superb show, Growing Green St. Louis.  Jean is a leading expert, exponent and educator on all matters relating to sustainability, biodiversity, and more.  I have had the pleasure of attending a couple of  her talks and she is beyond informative, fun and engaging.  We had a blast talking about the owls and my work with them and I cannot wait for you all to hear it!  A few days after Saturday's broadcast, it will be online and I will be sure to have a link to it on this blog under the collection of links on the right side of the page.  

One radio appearance with Jean Ponzi is a thrill, honor and a pleasure but she is having me on her second program, the podcast Earthworms on KDHX 88.1FM.  We will have the interview on Tuesday, July 14 and the podcast will be up later that night.  I will also link to that podcast when it is up and available. 

The timing of these radio appearances is superb as I have two talks on the owls next week.  The first talk is on Wednesday, July 15 for Gateway Greening as part of their Pints 'n Plants lecture series. This will be my second talk for this lecture series and I am grateful to Gateway Greening for having me back. This general talk on the owls is from 6:30-7:30pm at  Urban Chestnut Brewing Company ,4465 Manchester Ave. St. Louis, MO, 63110 in the Grove neighborhood. Urban Chestnut makes great beer and their Bier Hall's food has had some amazing reviews like this one. Owls, beer and food-what a great combination! 

My second talk next week is a more specific one on a rather meaty subject.  It is "Forest Park Owls: Hunting and Feeding", 11:00am, Saturday, July 18, 2015, St. Louis Country Library-Cliff Cave Branch, 5430 Telegraph Rd., Oakville, MO 63129.  This is my third talk at this branch in south St. Louis County.  I have been lucky to present at several SLCL locations but this will be the first time I have given three talks at the same branch.  Not the last though:)

In much of the social media world Thursdays are a time to post old photos, videos and stories thus turning the day into Throwback Thursday.  The following was something I wanted to post immediately after it happened but time did not allow.  I hope you will agree that it is better late than never.  On April 20, 2015 I headed into the owls' territory.  The previous day and night was blustery and windy. Soon after arriving I found Sarah she flew to one of the trees in The Middle Conifers. Over the years I saw her both cache and un-cache prey in this particular tree.  As you can see the tree has a large crotch at the top of it.

She began to look in this crotch of the tree undoubtedly seeking cached prey to feed the growing and ever-hungry owlets . [Be sure to double click on the pictures to see a larger version]

Not finding what she sought she walked out to a nearby branch.  For all their grace in flight, Great Horned Owls walk with comic awkwardness.  

She continued to look all around.

As she looked around she gave me a great view of her massive talons.

Sarah flew to an adjacent conifer to look from a different angle and perspective. By now I was more than convinced that the windy conditions had disrupted the contents of Sarah's prey pantry.

Not having any luck from this new spot, she flew closer to her original tree but landed much closer to the ground.

Watch what happened next!

Once on the ground, Sarah looked carefully around her. Anytime I see the owls on the ground they are the personifications of acute caution and awareness. Despite their size and power, they are most vulnerable when on the ground.

As you will see all of her efforts were worth it! What an owl and owl mother!

She landed at the edge of The Wooded Area and gave the prey to one of the owlets, most likely Grace.

Grace had some challenges feeding on what her mother gave her but that is a story for another time.

Thank you for reading!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Recent Video Highlights and Half Year Owliversary Point

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Since my last post was rather photo-oriented, I am making this one more video-centric. My YouTube videos recently reached 56,000 cumulative views; a nice number to attain.  

This first video, from June 23rd, shows what is probably Grace perched mere inches off the ground on The Fallen Tree.  She is intrigued and absolutely focused on the fireflies that travel and illuminate around her.  It was a joy to watch Grace and be able to capture some of these moments.

Next up is Harold, most likely, on June 27 perched in "the back" of The Overlook Hotel Tree. I have found him or Grace there a few times in recent weeks.  I had just found him and began to film him when, as you will see, he did an especially vigorous Fluff-Up, which caused feathers to quite literally fly. Harold was not finished as he segued into an Escalator Stretch.

Earlier that night I found Sarah in The Bushy Tree.  In the last week or so, she has perched in that tree or other parts in The Wooded Area and thus closer to the owlets.  This is in marked contrast to the weeks prior when both she and Charles perched in The Arena. With the owlets getting closer than not to dispersing, is she feeling a type of separation anxiety.  Or does she need a pause from Charles?  "Next on Owls On The Couch."   The sun broke through and her well-hidden spot received a blast of late sun.

I then found Charles and the owlets, Grace and Harold but as the day dimmed and evening emerged, I found her pinnacling in The Eastern Tree.

I had my doubts of the wisdom of Sarah's position as the ever more awake owlets were sure to find her and give chase seeking one of their two parental providers of provisions. This is exactly what happened.  Forgive the shaky video but if it is hard to film an owl in flight, filming three is jolly difficult. Listen for the loud and excited begging cheeps of the owlets.

Two of the three Jungle Gym Trees continue to be frequent perch sites for Grace and Harold.  On June 28, I caught a mere glimpse of Grace in The Jungle Gym Tree By The Archy Tree.  I moved around for a better view and found her fast asleep.  Notice how her lower eyelids are so far up her face.  This indicates that they are sleeping deeply.  What a beauty.

Last night, June 29th, was the half year owliversary point.  I have now watched the owls for nine-and-a-half years.  It is a thrill each time I reach such points as I never imagined how the owls would have such an impact on my life and even the lives of others. The first half of 2015 went well in all respects: observation, documentation and outreach.  The videos and pictures in this post I hope demonstrate the first two aspects of my work with the owls.  Outreach continues to grow and expand.  I gave my 14th talk of the year on Saturday and I have led 39 owl prowls so far. Talks in the first part of the year took me as far away as Joplin, MO and Carbondale, IL and as close to home as Webster Groves and Tower Grove Park. (As always, my next few public talks are on the right side of this website)

Thank you for reading and your support of the owls and my work with them!

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Sunny Owl For A Rainy Day

Friday, June 19, 2015

As I write this St. Louis, along with much of Missouri and the states to the southwest, are experiencing a deluge of rain from the after effects of Tropical Storm Bill.  For most of this week it has been challenging to get out and see the owls in the constant rain.  With this in mind, how about a look back to the clear, sunny day of Sunday, April 19 and see what Charles was doing.

I can go weeks sometimes without seeing the owls yawn.  Other nights it is Yawn City.  This night was one such night.  Charles was perched in a Sweetgum, one of several that he used this and previous springs as a perch/roost site. He began to yawn regularly. [Be sure to double-click on each photo to see a larger version]

I have heard some people say that yawning presages the casting or ejection of a pellet but I have my doubts about that.  I have seen many dozens of pellet ejections over the years and while the owls may open their bills before ejecting a pellet, I have not seen them yawn.

The setting sun broke through and Charles began to groom in the great light.

And yawn some more.

And just look like the gorgeous owl he is.

The sun dipped below the horizon and he shifted his position, preparing to depart for a night's hunting.

Another great way learn more about the owls' behavior, is to attend one of my talks about the owls and my work with them.  I gave such a talk last week at the Scenic Regional Library-New Haven Branch and it went quite well as you can see here.  I am excited for my next talk on Saturday, June 27 at 1:00pm at the Spencer Road Branch of the St. Charles City-County Library District.   Registration and full details are here.  I hope to see you there!

Thank you for reading!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Names For The Owlets and Upcoming Talks

Wednesday June 10, 2015

The spring/summer blogging doldrums returned again, unfortunately.  Not the owls and my work with them have quieted down in slightest. Quite the contrary.  With the owlets fledged and growing up combined with my recent appearance on our local NPR affiliate, KWMU St. Louis Public Radio, I am busier than ever with the owls and happily so.  We are in the middle of the twenty-fourth week of 2015 and I have already led thirty-five owl prowls so far.  Eleven talks on the owls are in the books with others already scheduled well into the year. More on talks later.

After much delay, I am pleased to announce the names of this year's owlets: Grace and Harold.

Grace is named for Grace Colavita, my girlfriend, Wendy Schlegel's, late mother.  Grace died on September 21, 2014 after many years of fighting cancer.  She was 75 years old.  Of Grace's many qualities, two always stand out to me. First, her life-long, not just enthusiasm but zeal and passion for learning. When she was not reading or watching documentaries she was talking about the books, magazines, newspapers and documentaries that were next on her list.  Her interests ran the gamut from history, ancient Egypt a particular favorite, religion, dance, cooking and the medical field. Grace finished her associate's degree in general studies later in life.  She artfully and consistently disproved the notion that it is folly to introduce an aged canine to new things. Second, I loved Grace's devotion and care for physical beauty in all of its forms. Be it a person, an animal, a building, a painting, if something captured her eye, mind and heart, she not only paid notice but tribute.

Harold is named after the late director/actor/writer Harold Ramis.  He died on February 24, 2014 from a rare autoimmune disease at the age of 69. His work spanned decades and includes some of the best comedic films in American cinema. You could slice his filmography in fourths and each piece would be a career worthy of emulation.  Hell, he was the only American cast member and writer of the legendary Canadian TV comedy series, SCTV. Taken as a whole, his work is truly astounding.  I start to think of his films and I cannot stop quoting them. Animal House ("Thank you, God!"), Caddyshack ("Oh, Captain Hook."), Groundhog Day ("This is just one of those moments when TV fails to capture the magic of a large squirrel predicting the weather."), Analyze This (""My name is Ben Sobel... -lioni. Ben Sobellioni. I'm also known as, uh, Benny the Groin, Sammy the Schnazz, Elmer the Fudd, Tubby the Tuba, and once as Miss Phyllis Levine.").  Harold Ramis and I both graduated from Washington University in St. Louis exactly forty years apart.  He served on the university's board of trustees while I worked at the university as I completed my degree.  My first middle name is Harold.  I was able to choose my middle names and while I did not know of Harold Ramis when I chose the name I am happy to have this name in common with him as well as my paternal grandfather.

Now who is who?  Well, this year it is rather tricky to tell the owlets apart.  Great Horned Owls lay their eggs at different times; asynchronously, usually a day or two apart but as far apart as five to ten days.  The eggs generally hatch in the order in which they were laid.  This results in owlets of different ages, size, ability, etc. These differences are often quite pronounced but over time the differences diminish.  With Grace and Harold I am convinced that they hatched quite close together. Since I first saw them it has been challenging to distinguish them and as time progresses it is even more difficult to do so.  Given the differences in the ages of their namesakes, Grace is the older the owlet and Harold the younger.

Here are the owlets on March 22 still in the nest.  I think Grace is on the left with the more advanced facial disk development and more forward position in the nest.

From May 27, I think this is Grace. She looks a great deal like Sarah both in coloration and demeanor as she soaks up the setting sun while she perches in The Jungle Gym Tree Near The Archy Tree.

From May 31, most likely this is Harold.  He was perched 20-30 yards from The Three Trees.

The next several shots are from June 2 with the owlets in The Jungle Gym Tree Near The Archy Tree.  While the owlets are growing up they still have some of The Fluff!

One owlet, I think Grace, turned around and began to allopreen (groom) the other owlet (Harold). Very cute behavior to see!

The cool thing about the owls being in this position is that though are so close in size with the forced perspective going on due to their different perches, Grace on the left looks significantly larger than Harold on the right.

We are halfway through 2015 and it is proving to be another great year for owl talks.  I have given talks in Joplin, Missouri (Ozark Gateway Audubon Society) and Carbondale, Illinois (Southern Illinois Audubon Society) and closer to home for Wild Bird Rehabilitation, Fontbonne University and Webster University as well as the spring meeting of the Audubon Society of Missouri. I have several owl talks coming up this summer and more to come in the fall.  As always my next few public talks and all their time, location details are listed on the right side of this website.

My next talk is tomorrow, Thursday, June 11 at 6:30pm for the Scenic Regional Library-New Haven Branch in New Haven, Missouri.  After that I will be at the St. Charles City-County Library District's Spencer Road Branch in St. Peters, Missouri on Saturday, June 27 at 1:00pm. These talks will be my second talks for these excellent library systems. I am excited and honored to be returning to share the owls and my work with these libraries and their patrons. I hope to see some you at these talks!

While I do many public talks for Audubon Society chapters, libraries, other conservation-related groups and more, I also frequently give private owl talks as well.  Private talks include talks for schools, scouts, senior centers, garden clubs among others.  If you work with an organization that you think would enjoy a talk, please drop me a line at
I do talks all over Missouri and Illinois and am looking to expand into neighboring states as well.

Just to finish off, here are pictures of Charles and Sarah. First is Charles beautifully illuminated in The PX Tree on June 7.

Here is a well-hidden Sarah last night, June 9, in The First of The Three Trees.

Thank you for reading!