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!



Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Tale Of Three Females and Charles

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

EXTRA! EXTRA! EXTRA!

Charles has a new mate!  Her name is Olivia and she has been with Charles since early October and they first mated on December 7!  Here she is on November 18. What a beauty!


I will be discussing this great turn of events and another huge owl-related milestone at 12:00pm CST tomorrow, Wednesday, December 30 on St. Louis on the Air on St. Louis Public Radio, KWMU 90.7FM.  If you are not in the St. Louis area, you can listen live on the web here.  Thanks go out to KWMU and the St. Louis on the Air team for having me back on to discuss the owls and my work with them!

UPDATED: Radio appearance and corresponding story now online here.  Thank you, KWMU and St. Louis on the Air, I had great time once again!

Before I go into what I hope will be a fun and fascinating post about what Charles has been up to in the last few months, I must take a moment to thank all of you who via conversations, e-mails, and other means took the time to express your kind condolences about the loss of Sarah.  The outpouring of grief, compassion and kindness continues to warm my heart and demonstrate the impact these owls have on so many people.  I feel Sarah's loss daily but her passing is softened by the kindness of her many admirers. Thank you.

This fall's owl doings amazed, intrigued, challenged, delighted and occasionally frustrated me but I would not change it.  I expected the fall to be like this and it exceeded my expectations.  I find myself often feeling like I am back in 2005-2006, my first year observing these owls, as so many new things occurred and new wrinkles and aspects of behavior witnessed.  My knowledge base of observation and research helps but only so much as it is a whole new set of circumstances.

I wondered when the owlets would disperse and if an adult female would be seen and court with Charles only after dispersal took place.  I soon had my answer.  An adult female Great Horned Owl arrived on September 1. Completely amazing to see this!  Large but not quite as large as Sarah, her darker coloration and massive talons still reminded me of Sarah.



She landed in The Jungle Gym Tree Near The Overlook Hotel Tree only a short distance from Grace; the older owlet. Stunned to see another female, what happened next took things to another level. Grace, who had just made a predatory attempt and had not vocalized before this female made her presence known, now began to make begging cheeps towards this female.  Did Grace think this female that resembled her mother was in fact Sarah?  This thought was mournful and heart-tugging. Almost immediately a more tactical possibility came to mind. Was Grace's begging the legendary opportunism of Great Horned Owls coming into play and Grace seeing if she could cadge a free lunch?  Either way the begging fascinated.

The shorter, softer, higher and numerous notes in her hoot confirmed this new adult's sex as female.  As with a human voice, the hoot of each Great Horned Owls is unique.  The tonality of this owl's hoot was unusual as it had a liquid/aquatic edge to it as is she was hooting while blowing bubbles or gargling.  Whether in the wild or via video clips, I have never heard a hoot like this. Everyone who heard her hoot has said the same thing.



This tree was regularly used by Sarah,, however this female landed in a section of the tree not used regularly by Sarah but it was still odd to see a different female in this tree.  Grace's begging continued to such a point that she flew and landed right next to the female, who promptly flew away from the hungry owlet. This behavior was quite like Sarah and although I had made the call that Sarah was gone, part of me kept a small window open that this might be her.  Overall though, I knew it was a different and new female.  One aspect of her behavior, which struck immediately was how uncertain she was in her movements and overall posture.  Not for the first time, I wondered if she was a young adult, just under or over a year old.

Charles was not found that night.  Perhaps he carefully observed this new female from a hidden vantage point.   I had an owl talk the next night but thankfully my friend and all-star owl mentee, Brenda Hente, was in the park.  She did not see Charles but saw both owlets and had her first sighting of the new female. I could not wait to return the following day and observe the owls.

After searching without success a wide area on my own, I ran into Brenda and we agreed to split up to cover even more territory.  We eventually saw two owls but by then it was quite dark and neither owl vocalized.  Despite this lack of information from what we did observe of them we decided it was either both owlets or one owlet and the new female. While we did not see Charles that night, we were glad to hear him hoot several times.  Knowing the distinctive hoots of the owls is a huge asset when observing and documenting them.

The next night, September 4, was a big night. It got off to a great start with an early and close view of the new female near The Permanent Puddle, her large talons in clearly evident.



I soon found Grace in the Jungle Gym Tree Near The Overlook Hotel Tree and the new female moved to this tree before going to The Jungle Gym Tree itself. Again Grace begged at her while the female hooted from this jungle gym tree's namesake location.  By now I was joined by Brenda and my girlfriend Wendy Schlegel. What happened next took things to the next level and it was quite correct to have these incredibly important owl folks with me.

We began to hear Charles hooting from the 2010 OP (Observation Post) Trees.  The new female soon flew towards him and they began to duet for the first time!  


This was my first time seeing courtship behavior between two Great Horned Owls and more specifically, seeing Charles court for the first time.  Beyond exciting to see Charles back in the ring! I knew that it was too early to call them a couple but the excitement of seeing this behavior could not be denied. They had a solid duet and then went their separate ways. 

With Sarah's passing Charles was more vocal in the late summer/early fall than he usually would be. This period of time is when the adults begin to vocalize more but this was a noticeable increase from years prior.  I think this served two functions. One: without Sarah to help him declare and defend their territory with hooting, he had to make up the difference.  Two: hooting solo with no female to duet with may have helped him declare his status as a single and territory holding male.  More on this point later.

The next several days passed with great interest and no lack of variety. Sometimes I saw Charles, Grace, Harold and the new female and on other days, just one or two of them.  While leading an owl prowl on September 11 I saw the best, closest and most intense duets so far between Charles and the new female.  Charles was on the right and the new female on the left.





Another good duet took place on September 14 but still I refrained from calling them a couple or the new female, the new mate of Charles.  I tend to err on the side of conservatism when it comes to making such calls.  That said, my track record is sufficiently robust to defend this pattern.

Throughout this time, one of the challenges continued to be finding the owls each night.  One of the joys of the late summer-early fall period is having so many owls to observe and conversely it is one of the biggest challenges as well. This challenge was markedly increased with significant variations and inconsistencies in perch/roost-site usage.  Patterns would emerge only to fall apart and then re-emerge. Still the challenges, as always, were worth the candle especially when rewarded like a sight like this of Charles hooting on September 20 silhouetted with pink clouds.



September 21 was a noteworthy evening in several respects as it was the first part of a collaborative project between the St. Louis Zoo, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Forest Park Owls.  I led two Zoo personnel, Rachel Killeen and Whitney Collins, on an owl prowl/filming expedition to obtain footage for an upcoming St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert with whom St. Louis Zoo was collaborating.  This would have been sufficiently cool but our evening began by finding a third adult owl even before we found Charles and the new female.  This owl was near the two of them but I never observed it vocalize even when a hearty duet started between the other two. It may have been another adult female trying to court with Charles or an owlet dispersing from another territory or an intruding adult male trying to obtain a territory.  This well-concealed owl's silence and lack of movement made it appear to say, "Nobody here but us owls."


Our time in the park concluded with Charles and the new female meeting to duet in The Jungle Gym Tree By The Overlook Hotel Tree before heading off yet again.


Rachel and Whitney were able to film this same moment and thanks to discussions with them and their supervisor, Kim Hoorman, I was able to see their footage while the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performed for a large audience on a Sunday afternoon in Powell Hall. The performance was preceded by several educational displays including an owl table hosted by your humble servant. All of this along with seeing the words, "Thank you to Mark Glenshaw and Forest Park Owls" on a large projection screen behind the orchestra made for one of my owl outreach highlights of the year and in general.  In addition, the footage was used for several subsequent concerts attended by thousands of local school children. 

An owl prowl on September 22 yielded another solid duet between the new female and Charles but I had no idea how quickly things could change.  The following night I had to work much later than usual and I stopped by the park well after sunset, hopeful but doubtful I would see much owl activity. As I parked my car, I saw Charles perched thirty-forty yards ahead of me, which was a jolly nice coincidence.  Grateful for my lucky find I got out and observed him in this large Cottonwood.  He flew south-southeast up a hill and as I walked quickly to try and catch up with him, I heard him hoot followed quickly by a female hooting.  It was a different female!  This now newer female had a much more conventional female hoot; quite reminiscent of Sarah's in all respects.  She and Charles began to duet in a glade of trees just opposite the 2010 Nest Tree. 




This brief but intense duet concluded with Charles flying off while hooting in short, sharp notes known in the literature (thanks to the world's leading expert on GHOW vocalizations and a huge owl advocate and expert, Karla Bloem) as staccato hooting,


I had no doubt that this was a different female but it was good to get supporting feedback on the above videos from Wendy, Brenda other owl friends/fanatics/mentees.   Was this second female the third owl seen, but not heard on September 21 or another individual altogether? I missed the next night due to an owl talk, my fifth one for the Maplewood Public Library (thank you, MPL for hosting so many of my talks!) but Brenda was in the park and reported a brief duet with the now newer or second female.   The next few nights yielded no additional sightings of this female or the first one.  Thoughts, theories and the like whirled around as I tried to remember to just keep observing and documenting as that would provide the best evidence and possible answers.  

During this time is when the owlets dispersed. As they were close in age I was reasonably confident that Grace and Harold would disperse close together.  That said, I think they dispersed later than they otherwise would have due to Sarah's death.  Without both parent owls duetting, refusing to feed the owlets and, if necessary, chasing the owlets away from the parents' territory, Grace and Harold remained in their natal territory.  Dispersal is always a bittersweet time in the owls' breeding cycle. It is vastly important that dispersal takes place both to ensure the health of the population of prey in the parents' territory and to keep the gene pool deep and wide.  Still though one cannot help but miss the owlets and their antics that accompanies their slow maturation.  The fact that Grace and Harold were the last owlets that Sarah ever had made this time more poignant than usual. 

September 29 found Charles again solo but a memorable night was made when it began to rain. When the rain arrived, Charles was perched in his former favorite conifer, one of The Quartet Conifers.  This tree and another of this foursome died in the last few years and while sad to see formerly regular perch/roost sites fade away, I have come to learn that perch/roost sites (and nest sites) come and go.  Usually when it rains as the owls are getting active, they tend to stoically endure the precipitation but not tonight.  For only the second time in over nine-and-half years of watching these owls, I saw Charles use the rain and take a shower in rather dramatic fashion. See for yourself!


When discussing the owls and my work with them, be it in a formal talk or with a passerby in the park or a colleague, I try to emphasize that one of the reasons that myself and others return to see the owls so frequently is that, every night is different and you will never know what you will see. This remarkable and beautiful bathing behavior by Charles in the drenching (yes, I was drenched too) rain I think is a stellar example of this aspect of the owls' allure.

The following night proved noteworthy as well. I found the newer female early on and after walking right past him him at least once, I saw Charles. The two owls were close together and the female began to hoot regularly.  (Kindly forgive the blurry videos)



Despite his proximity to this female, Charles did not respond. He watched her carefully but nothing more. She landed closer to him and hooted at a greater pace but still he did not respond.  Charles flew off a short distance east before blasting far off south.  I decided to follow him and I reacquired him in The Hilly Wooded Area, where upon he began to hoot for the first time that night.  I did not hear the newer female respond to him. Charles then blasted off flying east. Seconds after his eastward flight, which immediately took him over a tract of nearby woods occupied by a pair of Barred Owls, a large owl flew out of these woods going north-northwest.  I tried to find this owl but, to the best of my knowledge, was not successful.  I then heard the newer female calling from the Barred Owls' tract of woods and I found her there.  I watched her until I did the classic take your eyes off the owl for three to five seconds and you look up and the owl is gone. I looked around several areas but did not find Charles, the newer female or the third mystery owl. Was the latter owl a Barred Owl or another Great Horned Owl and if so, was it another female, a dispersing owlet, etc.  I have no idea but I remain fascinated by the possible permutations.  Subsequent days of observing Charles solo told me that the newer/second female was gone.  

While I believe my conservative approach about waiting to make the call about a variety of developments is the right way to proceed, my observation and documentation of the new females did not exist in a bubble.  While I did not update my blog during the last few months, sadly not the first or last time this occurred, I had numerous discussions with many people about these new females, their courtship with Charles and what might or might not come to pass with them.  It is heartening to recall the enthusiasm and vigor of these discussions, which again demonstrates the depth and breadth of the owls' impact on people.  

One topic that came up immediately as the first female made her appearance was what to call her and then the second female.  My friend and colleague, Julie Portman, both in jest and in seriousness stated matter of factly, that the first female should be named Julia as the name is obviously a superior one.  Julie referred to this owl as Julia demonstrating her human resolve and good-natured kidding.  Without too much contemplation my response to the many and kind name questions and suggestions is that I would not name any female until I saw her and Charles mate thus making them a couple and her his new mate.  Thankfully, people understood my, for lack of a better word, policy and approach.

Of the many challenges stemming from Sarah's death was how to talk about it when I giving talks on the owls.  I decided to do so after I posted about her passing, that way it was "officially" out in the public sphere.  From there, I decided to give my talks in the usual fashion but then just before the very end, tell my audiences that she died, how I saw that unfold and the two important silver linings of her passing (the owlets at the very cusp of independence and never seeing courtship behavior).  Even with this plan and the appropriate slides in place, it was tough each and every time to bring  up and discuss this sad turn of events.  The audience responses to Sarah's death are remarkable.  In front of a packed house at the Daniel Boone branch of St. Louis County Library I heard gasps of shock when I turned to her passing.  A kind woman attending my talk at the Festus Public Library came up to me insisting that I get a hug while plainly but endearingly saying, "I cried when you talked about Sarah."  With a cracking voice and tear in eye during this portion of this particular talk was the nearest I came to becoming emotionally overwhelmed in the moment.  

On a lighter but hopefully no less interesting note, one of the more curious aspects of Sarah's passing and Charles' subsequent courtships has been the questions people ask about these developments and how the questions are delivered.  For the most part the questions are solid, fact-gathering questions without any other agenda than obtaining information and understanding.    On the other hand, many questions are asked with people layering the question with their baggage, biases and the like especially when it comes to romantic/reproductive relationships.  For example, quite early on a woman asked me in all seriousness and with an abundance of vehemence, "Do you think Charles has betrayed Sarah?"  I was literally speechless for a few seconds after that one.  During the Q&A period of a talk, a lady asked me a long question and while I cannot remember her exact words, it was so baggage laden that I could not help being a smart-ass. I started my reply by saying, "Well enough about you and your boyfriend..."  She blushed crimson but to my credit, I did answer her question in full.  Many women and men upon hearing about Charles and the courting say things like "Wow-he doesn't waste any time."  or "Already playing the field, eh?"  To these and all similar comments and questions I try to first remind people about the nature of nature by paraphrasing the character, Matt Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfus, in the film Jaws by saying,  "All he does is eat, fly, hoot and make little owls."  

Being mindful of this and keeping an open mind as to the possibilities and permutations is vital but not without its challenges.  We all want a nice clear-cut narrative with easy answers to challenging questions but it is best to keep the jump to conclusions mat in its box.  With this in mind, why did the courtship fail with the new female and the newer female?  I do not know and the literature, while describing courtship behavior in detail, does not give much insight on exactly how a mate is chosen.  From what I have read and now observed I think it is a two-way street, it takes two to tango scenario. In this case, Charles must demonstrate that he has a territory and that it is a good one as well as his fitness, in general, so that a female will decide to invest her time, effort and genes to mate and nest with him.  From his perspective, a female has to show that she has the ability to successfully mate, nest, defend and raise young so that his reproductive efforts and massive food provision responsibilities will be worthwhile.  The first or new female seemed clumsy and uncertain of herself perhaps demonstrating a young age and subsequent lack of poise and polish that did not click for Charles.  The second or newer female courted well initially with Charles but the courtship stopped so quickly.  I am still fascinated by the disparity in the time that the two females were around; the first for three weeks and and the second for a matter of days.  I would love to know what accounted for this.

Speaking of the literature, mate replacement is a frequently observed phenomenon and one that often occurs quite quickly after the death of a mate.  That said, the literature is quick to say that it is not understood how mate replacement takes place.  One of the fun and beneficial things about doing intensive naturalist work with a particular species for a long time is that you begin develop your own thoughts and ideas on such poorly understood matters.  Even before Sarah's death, I considered how mate replacement might take place. To begin with in all owl species there is a significant pool of single, un-mated owls.  These owls are called floaters and while we have learned more about floaters and how they live and interact with mated pairs there is still much to learn.  With this in mind, I think that in the case of a dead male, the male floaters are listening for the hoot of a male owl in a potential territory.  Not hearing the male hoot they investigate the territory and find the surviving female still in the territory.   This indicates that the territory is available, it has a female on it and now courtship can take place.  If the courtship is successful the new male has a mate and a territory.  

In our case, with the female gone and the male still on the territory, I think the female floaters heard Charles hooting but having not heard a female reply the floaters knew that he was a single male with a territory.  I have likened this process to the following joke I heard the late, great Robin Williams tell while being interviewed by David Frost.  There's a woman living in Miami Beach and she's been in this one neighborhood for years and years. She knows everyone and everything there. One morning she sees a new man there so she says to him, "Oh, you're new here."  The man replies, "Yup, I just moved in a few days ago."  The woman has a quick follow-up question, "Really, where did you move from?" The man shifts his feet and says, "Well, it's embarrassing to say this but I just got out of prison."   Taken aback the woman still pursues her line of questioning by asking, "Really, what did you do?" Even further mortified the man says, "Well I hate to admit it but I... murdered my wife."  The woman pauses but does not move her eyes from him before she smiles, touches his arm and asks him, "So, you're single?"

In my post about Sarah's passing and in talks and discussions over the last few months, I have continuously put out there that Charles might be on the older side of the equation and having not courted for many years, may not have the stuff to play the courtship game successfully.  In recent talks I have described this in terms of human courtship by saying that "Hey, baby-what's your sign?" may have been a successful opening line in 1977 but less so in subsequent decades.  

With the departure of the second, newer female I wondered what would happen next.  With summer ended and the owlets dispersed Charles hooting became a daily and more pronounced behavior.  I continued to observe and document and as if often the case, the work paid off handsomely. 

October 7th was a mild and sunny autumn day and I arrived at Charles' territory at my typical time; an hour or so before sunset.  I was near The Quartet Conifers when I heard an owl hoot.  It was not Charles, that much was clear, but I was not sure what kind of owl it was.  I heard it again, now louder and I thought, "The length and number of notes sounds like a female Great Horned Owl but the tonality sounds like a Barred Owl."  Hearing it a third time gave this same impression and no clearer identification.  On a few occasions I have seen the neighboring Barred Owls in the Great Horned Owls' territory but I had only once heard them call from there.  What was clear was where the hoot was originating, in the general vicinity of The Training Area; part of Charles' territory which includes several important trees used by the owls including The Eastern Tree, The Overlook Hotel Tree, The Rain Tree and The 08-09 Salon Trees.

As I headed down to The Training Area I felt more certain that it was a female Great Horned Owl and not a Barred Owl.  The hooting became louder and the position of the owl more distinct. There in The 08-09 Salon Trees was a new female Great Horned Owl!  


I knew I could get a better angle on her and I moved accordingly and could see her close from her left side.  She continued to hoot and her hoot pace quickened. 


Secure in the knowledge that this was a female Great Horned Owl and now the newest or third female. I observed her hoot more closely.  I noticed that her first several notes were especially close together but her last two notes were quite pronounced and long.  Her tonality kept striking me as a mix of female Great Horned Owl and Barred Owl.  


She continued to hoot but I was not hearing or seeing Charles yet.  This latest female then flew east out  of The Wooded Area and across a nearby road.  I heard some Northern Cardinal calling near The Eastern Tree and The PX Tree.  Searching there did not pay off but I gratefully heard Charles hooting not too far away in The Middle Tree or its neighbor; The 08-12 Nest Tree.  I headed that way and found him in the latter spot.  Charles had not perched in either of these trees for several weeks now so to find him here again led me to shake my head at his recent variations in perch/roost usage. He flew to The Middle Tree and then to The Nest Tree (formerly known as The 06/09/11/13/14/15 Nest Tree, nesting there 6 out of 10 times more than qualified this tree for its more efficient name).  I could not tell for certain but he may have landed in The Nest Hollow.  A short walk confirmed that he had landed in this hollow and was now perching at the ledge while hooting, his hoots often proceeded by guttural clucking/gulping sound.


The female began to respond in the distance.  I was amazed to see Charles in this hollow for a couple of reasons: 1) He had not been in this hollow for months now after Grace and Harold fledged from it in the spring  2) With the other two females I had not seen him hoot near any previously used nest sites and here he was hooting from his and Sarah's most fruitful and recent nest spot on the first night with this female.  Was this indicative a new level of courtship with this female?

Courtship went up another notch as this female moved closer to Charles flying to and landing in The First of The Three Trees putting her about twenty meters from Charles.  Right away I wondered if Charles was luring her in not only with his hoots but by his position in a former nest spot; one that might be used again.  I was so excited to see the female come closer to Charles that I took my eyes off him and lost sight of him.  He continued to hoot and I knew he was nearby possibly down deeper in the hollow.  The female flew past The Nest Tree and they continued to duet. I finally concluded that once the female arrived in First of Three that Charles turned around and went deeper into the hollow.  While puzzling I had seen him engage in this seemingly contradictory, playing hard to get behavior with Sarah on many occasions.  I still do not understand this behavior but having precedent is always helpful.  

My friend and owl mentee, Rusty Wandell, arrived and I quickly caught him up on what had happened so far.  Just then the courtship continued to ramp up as the female now flew over to The Nest Tree and landed on top of The Nest Hollow a few feet from Charles!  Simply amazing! 


After several minutes of close quarter duetting, Charles flew out of the hollow going east/southeast.  She moved over to The Middle Tree and then The 08/12 Nest Tree.  She stayed in this last tree for some time and we pointed her out to several park visitors.  

We began to hear Charles calling from the northeast about a hundred meters away.  The female blasted off in his direction and we followed her.  Rusty and I reacquired her and Charles and they resumed their duet with a few memorable flights.  We decided to leave them to their courtship and we headed back to our cars shaking our heads with delight at what we had witnessed.  

The next several nights continued with some of the patterns from this first night: Charles flying into The Nest Hollow to hoot often proceeded with guttural/clucking notes, then luring the female into close proximity to duet, Charles disappearing into the hollow and duetting continuing in The Arena and other nearby spots.  October 10 provided some memorable sights as she flew to The Second of Three Trees and I was able to photograph her from several angles and get a good luck at this beautiful female.  







I noticed early on that while darker than Charles she was not as dark as the first female or Sarah.  More striking was her smaller size.  In species of owls and most birds of prey, females are larger than males. This phenomenon is known as reverse sexual dimorphism.  At the same time, within any species of animal you have smaller to larger individuals.  Charles is a very large male Great Horned Owl, 20-22 inches tall. Sarah was a huge female, 22-25 inches tall.  This new female looked about the same size as Charles.  It took me a while to see them close together but when I did it proved my initial impression to be correct.  This female is about the same size as Charles and she might be ever so slightly smaller.  To me this underscores how big Charles is for a male and how massive a female Sarah was. 

Variations in duetting and perch sites began to grow over the subsequent days with a big new turn taking place on October 14.  I was with Brenda and we found Charles on the western edge of The Wooded Area, a spot he had rarely used this summer and fall, in marked contrast to prior years.  We began to hear the third female from near The North-South Path but we could not see her.  Eventually Brenda's sharp eyes and ears led her to find the female in an incredibly well-hidden spot.  The below photo is one of the "best" I was able to get of her that night.  A hive of leaves and branches all but completely obscured this massive but well-camouflaged bird. 


She used this spot for the next few days and I found Charles in an unusual spot near The Rain Tree. Now here is where things began to get interesting and not for the last time either.  Charles began to use her well-hidden spot on some days and other days she was in it.  When Charles used it, she sometimes used the spot near The Rain Tree and other times was in The 08-09 Salon Trees or elsewhere in that general vicinity.  Among the many things I would love to know was this trade off of perch spots done easily and politely in a "No, after you" manner or with competition or even contention. I often tell people how perch spots vary seasonally and some spots are used over and over again while other spots come and go.  This well hidden spot of the female's, now regularly used by Charles was a completely unprecedented spot, regardless of season.  Thankfully with time and effort, I was able to find angles where I could look for one of the owls in this spot and even film and photograph them there.  With more time and application, I could even look sometimes see an owl perched there in the morning as I drove to work.

Here is Charles in this perch on October 17.


Here is the third, newer female on the same perch on October 26.


As the fall progressed her perch sites began varying making her harder to find.  I found her in places as varied as the western side of The Wooded Area,  The Rain Tree, The Overlook Hotel Tree, The Great Northern and more.  Another unusual challenge in recent years arose when I had several nights of not finding her or Charles.  I had two nights in a row like that and four overall from October 31-December 22.  As my ESL (Experience, Skill and Luck) has grown I will usually go many months and often years between nights of not finding any of the owls.  Not seeing them so often this fall was especially odd as they are quite vocal at this time of year as they declare their territory and court or maintain their pair bond. 

Speaking of vocalizing, there were some interesting variations in their duets.  Their early duets occurred in and around The Nest Hollow for the first few weeks but began to vary in location, some typical others less so.  I noticed quickly that she was quick to respond to him on most nights when he began to call.  Also, they switch off hooting first much more than Charles did with Sarah.  Charles still hoots first most of the time but I have had several nights where the first hooter is Charles, then her, then back to Charles and so forth.  

On November 7 she had been there for a month, a week longer than the new or first female.  I was thrilled that she was still with Charles but I still not making the call that she was his new mate and related to that, I had not named her.  The more time she was there and the more they duetted, the happier and more hopeful I became but I maintained this conservative approach.  I often joked that the invitations had not been sent yet and the owls were not registered anywhere.  

A moment the following night, November 8, displayed another possible good step forward towards couplehood. I was leading the monthly, public owl and we had heard and seen both owls.  I went to get a closer look and then have the prowlees join me when all of sudden I saw a third Great Horned Owl flying fast over the tops of the trees of The Wooded Area pursued equally fast by Charles and the third female.  They were chasing this intruder out of the territory!  I saw Charles and Sarah do such territorial defenses several times over the years but they were a mated pair.  Perhaps the third female was demonstrating her commitment to and investment with Charles and the territory.  While this was fascinating to see, we did not find the owls after their blazing fast flights making it an intense but brief owl prowl. 

In November Charles also began to use a regular fall perch spot, Sarah's Autumnal Perch.  Sarah began to use this spot in the fall of 2009 and in recent years Charles has used this spot a great deal in the late fall.  The tree retains its leaves for a long time and offers great concealment.  One night in October I saw the third female in this tree but not in the usual spot.  I was thrilled to see her in the usual spot on November 20 and even more thrilled when I saw them perched together there on November 23 (Third female on the left, Charles on the right).  



As November was ending and December approached duetting began to increase in intensity, some of it focused around the hollow in The Third of The Three Trees.  I will talk more about this hollow in an upcoming post. The hooting began to get so intense that on several nights in late November-early December that I thought mating might occur at any moment.  One aspect of their duetting that I noticed as the days went on was that while one would often fly closer to the other, sometimes neither would budge from their respective spot.  I wondered if this was a contest of wills or another part of the whole courting process.  Still I watched and waited.

December 7 began promisingly with the third female perched in Sarah's Autumnal Perch and Charles nearby in The Trio Conifers.  They began to duet and Charles flew down to the Third Tree Hollow. She moved a little closer but the physical proximity part of the duet hit one of the aforementioned stalemates. Things looked less promising when she flew out of my sight going deeper into The Wooded Area.  I kept a little hope alive when Charles flew to The Crossroads Tree, a large and prominent tree in an especially visible location.  He hooted regularly and I thought I may have heard her reply.  Not for the first or the last time, I briefly took my eyes off of him only to turn back and find him gone. I cursed my lapse in attention but kept ears, eyes and mind open.  I soon heard him hoot from the area where I though I heard her minutes earlier.  I moved in that direction and I began to hear both of them in the vicinity of The Trio Conifers.  I found her in The Jungle Gym Tree Near The Overlook Hotel Tree and he was nearby, to the left of her.  The duetting intensified and he flew over, landed on her and they mated!


The cold air was not the only reason my eyes watered just then!  So exciting to see them mate, to see all of Charles' courtship come to fruition and a new couple made!  I quickly texted Wendy, Brenda, Barb, Chris, Robin, Julie and Rusty the great news and my phone exploded with joyous replies. Bloody hell-what a night!

The above folks and many others knew that if/when mating occurred that is when I would name the female.  I had a name in mind but after consideration and consultation, the name was withdrawn.  As such it was back to the drawing board.  Suggestions still came in including a suggestion to have a contest to name the female. I appreciated aspects of that idea but ultimately I knew the name had to be my call.  To stimulate the brain and research name meanings/origins, I consulted an Oxford name dictionary at my job at the Taylor Library at Fontbonne University.  I found some good names but no slam dunks appeared.  Then one day, the name Olivia popped into my head. It is a beautiful and classic name. Although a tad trendy right now it is a name that sounds, looks and feels great. I had not come to the Os in the name dictionary but I certainly looked it up there and in other sources.  In English usage as early the the 13th century as a female form of olive, it came to greater attention as main character name in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.  As a film fan I quickly thought Olivia de Havilland and Olivia Wilde.  As a martini drinker, I prefer olives to lemons or onions. I consulted with Wendy, Brenda and Julie about the name and got a strong thumbs up from them. I began to mention the name to others and use it a little in my recorded journal entries while in the field. And now I happily present Olivia to you all!  

There is so much more to say about Olivia, Charles and the last two-and-a-half months such as her pre-sunset eastward adventures, she and Charles duetting throughout the territory, her use of some of the exact same hunting spots that Charles uses and Sarah used, and more.

I have now seen them mate six times including last night and while it is too early to know if they will nest, I hope to write about that big topic.

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