This was a busy weekend in the park. As it got off to an early start on Friday, I'll start there. Thanks to a long day the week before, I had some overtime coming to me. I left work at 2:30 and headed to the Visitor's Center, enjoying the sunny skies all the while.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a kind request via e-mail from Chris Ferre, the Nature Reserve Technician for Forest Park Forever. He explained that tree maintenance and removal was ramping up and he wanted to prepare for it. Chris asked me if I could point out to him trees that birds or other animals were using so that he could work with other park personnel to avoid removing active nests and perches. I happily accepted his invitation and once we set a date and time, I looked forward to our outing for days.
I met Chris at the Visitor's Center and we headed off in a gator, a small, gas-powered vehicle used by Chris and his colleagues to venture into many different types of terrain in the park. Naturally, our first stop was the owls area. I was able to show Chris several trees that while on the ropes, have been and continued to be used by the owls for perching, hooting, duetting and more. We found Charles in his Favorite Conifer. Over the next few hours, we went to several other locations and checked out a number of additional trees. As is want to happen between two nature enthusiasts, we spent a healthy amount of time exchanging information about different species observed with anecdotes a plenty. When we were in the owls area, our conversation became sufficiently animated that we accidently flushed Sarah! She flew out of The Wooded Area and across the road. Sorry, Sarah! Chris was happy to share a great deal of his expertise about particular trees, tree diseases and all sorts of wildlife and I was eager to learn from him. Here is a picture of him showing a budding branch of an invasive species, the Tree of Heaven:
We headed to a point along the waterway and saw a Snowy Egret, one of the first, but not the first I have seen this season. As we continued our tour and chat, I spied two turtles of the species Red-Eared Slider, the smaller of the two basking on the larger. I have only seen this behavior a few times in the wild so a picture was in order:
Chris and I headed back to the core of Charles and Sarah's territory so that I could point out a few other trees to Chris as ones to avoid removing, if possible. In the midst of our engaging tour and conversation, we found that time had run out on us. Chris needed to head for home and I was ready to go on with the rest of my extra-long park sojourn. We agreed that our chat was not over and that we should try to meet up again for additional exchanges of information and insights.
Just as we prepared to go our seperate ways, we ran into a mutual friend and fellow Forest Park enthusiast, Chris Gerli. Chris is the proprietor of City Cycling Tours, which rents bikes and leads bike tours of the park and the city as a whole to visitors and locals alike. As such, Chris is one of the most knowledgeable people around about all aspects of Forest Park. Chris and his sig other, Barb Brownell, are longtime eagle watchers and two of the most sincere and dedicated observers of Charles and Sarah. We have become friends through many evenings watching the doings of the owls and their progeny.
Barb had e-mailed me earlier stating that they planned to come and watch the owls. While Chris F and I caught up with Cris G, Chris G let us know that he and Barb would not be coming out tonight as they had forgotten about a previous engagement. Pity. I had been looking to watch the owls with them. We all went our separate ways and I thought about what I would do before sunset began to arrive.
Memory fails me a little now but either I called Edward Crim or he called me and we agreed to meet up and watch the owls and anything else that caught our fancy. Edward is a new park and owl friend. In a short time he has abundantly proven his enthusiasm for the park and its inhabitants and visitors. As you can see from his website, Edward is a professional photographer of great skill and range. Ingenuity is also part of his toolbox as he has turned the slow economy into an opportunity by launching his project, Forest Park 365. For this project, Edward goes to the park every day (which he began on December 31, 2008) of 2009 and takes photos of anything and everything. By doing so, he has created an ever-growing and consistently stunning gallery of the park's nature (both plant and wildlife), architecture, attractions, visitors and even yours truly (many times beginning in early March). Here is Edward with one of the tools of his trade:
When Edward and I spoke on the phone, he was on the west side of the park while I was near its center. Given the beautiful day, the hundreds of people on the park and the distance between his starting point and our RV point, never mind Edward's magpie eye for brilliantly photographing and everything, I knew it would be a while before we would join forces! With that in mind, I took a closer look around my surroundings and took some photos including some of the budding Cottonwoods that make up many of the owls favorite trees.
After a while, Edward joined me and we discussed our options. We decided to check out the Red-tailed Hawk's nest about a half-mile from the owls' territory. I noticed this nest a few years ago but last year was the first time I saw it in use. Both last year and this year, Chris Gerli tipped me off that it was active and he also positively identified the hawks as Red-tailed Hawks. This is a key point Red-tailed Hawks and other American hawks of the genus Bueto are notoriously difficult to identify correctly. We found the nest quickly and saw one adult lying deep in the nest while its mate perched in a nearby tree.
Encouraged by our sighting of the hawks and with the sun setting, we headed off to see the owls. We found Charles ensconced in his Favorite Conifer and then saw another owl in a large deciduous tree not far from Charles perch. Edward thought it was Sarah but I took a look with my binoculars and saw that it was too pale and immature to be Sarah, thus revealing a big surprise. It was not Sarah but Art, one of the owlets!! Art had fledged! Just two days before he had left the nest for the first time and here he was not just out of the nest tree but fledged and hanging with his parents in the Wooded Area. This quick fledging is at least twice as fast as any of the owlets fledged last year! Even now, I amazed at how quickly Art fledged! Here is Art in all of his fleged glory:I found in Sarah in a deciduous tree that the owls rarely use, just east of The Salon Tree. Edward went for a closer look at Art and Sarah and Sarah flushed deeper into The Wooded Area. She didn't stay there for long as she flew back towards Art and perched within a few feet of him, making for a beautiful sight of parent and progeny.
Around this time, I heard my first begging cheep from an owlet in 2009, in this case from Art. One of the best ways to find owlets, especially as it gets dark is to listen for their begging cheeps. In Great Horned Owls, it is a raspy, slightly hiss-like call. The begging cheeps let the parents know that the owlets are hungry and roughly where they are located. Charles had not been inactive during all of this. He hooted beautifully and flew off a short distance, landing in the December 17th Tree for the first time in many weeks.
This tree received its name after December 17, 2006, when I saw Sarah and Charles conduct a long duet in this tree whilst perch next to each other. It was one of the first, longest and best views I had of them within close proximity to each other. That day gave me great insight into their differences in size and coloration. Over the years it has remained one of their favorite fly-to and singing perches in the fall and early winter.
A little while later, Edward and I decided to head back to the nest tree and see if we could see Mo, who, at that point remained unseen that day. As we approached the nest tree, I saw a familiar person scoping out the nest, Christine Torlina. Christine and her husband Gary Schimmelpfenig are both avid naturalists and teachers at The Forsyth School, just across from my workplace, The George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. Christine and Gary were frequent owl watchers during the last nesting season and had been by a number of times this season. Along with Barb and Chris, they kept an eye on the owls when I was out of town for several days in February. I introduced Ed to Christine before he headed for home and Christine was very interested in Edward's Forest Park 365 project.
Christine and I looked carefully but could not see Mo in the nest. I told her about Art fledging and we headed back to the area around Charles' Favorite Conifer. Christine had never been in that area and she was excited to know about it and see Art and Charles. We watched them for a while before heading back to the nest to look for Mo. Christine departed to pick up her son and I kept watch on the nest.
I often tell people that this hollow plays tricks on one's eyes due to the variety of the wood color and texture inside the hollow. This night the branch that contains the hollow fooled me. While looking through my binoculars, I could have sworn that I saw an opossum or raccoon heading up to the nest on the underside of the branch. I looked back and saw...nothing. I checked the branch out from several different angles and distances and still saw nothing. To this day, I still don't know what, if anything, I saw.
I looked some more of Mo but saw nothing that indicated that he was in view. After six or so hours in the park, it was time to head home. I was thoroughly but pleasantly exhausted and I had much to tell Wendy especially with Art having fledged. Thanks for reading and please feel free to comment!