Monday, May 25, 2009

One muskrat+one owlet feather+owls=a great night

Monday, April 6, 2009

In my video narration I noted that it was "ridiculously cold and grey" and that earlier in the day we had experienced snow, sleet and freezing rain. Thankfully, the weather held off enough for me to venture into the Forest Park and look for the owls.

I first made my way through Kennedy Forest. Yet again, I did not see the other pair of Great Horned Owls that I first saw in Kennedy Forest in early February. It had been several weeks since me or anyone else, to my knowledge, had seen this pair. I was close to making the call this day that these owls had moved on or otherwise change status. However, my optimistic side allowed a few more visits after today's before making the final call.

I continued east stopping at the point of Post-Dispatch Lake where the south bank meets its western counterpart. This general vicinity can be a great spot to find Muskrats especially in the early morning and early evening. My ESL level (experience, skill and luck) was soon rewarded with the sight of a Muskrat swimming the south bank of the lake to the south bank of Wilderness Island. I even managed to shoot some video of this large rodent. Please to enjoy a Muskrat:

The nest was my next destination. Despite looking carefully from the some of the best viewing points, including Barb's Post (located by Barb Brownell) and Edward's Landing (located by Edward Crimm), I could not find any clear indication that Mo was in the nest. I was not discouraged as it was a good hour before sunset, when the owls are often enganged in their early evening routine of stretching, grooming, calling and waste management.

I headed off towards Charles' Favorite Conifer and other parts of the southern end of The Wooded Area. I had only gone a few steps when I found a feather, most likely from the owlet Art. In my time watching the owls, I have found relatively few feathers. As this feather was the first owl feather I had found in quite a while, I was especially glad to chance upon it. The softness of an owl feather has to be experienced. Doing so, redefines the word soft. Along with the construction of the feathers, the softness of owl feathers allow them to interact without making sound. Not all owls fly silently but the vast majority do and this silent flight is a key part of their hunting strategy. Silent flight not only allows an owl to approach its prey undetected audibly, it also allows the owls to sort through the maze of sounds without adding its own sounds to the maze thus providing the owl with a auditory tabula rasa with which to work. This feather I found was most likely a body or contour feather.

Just as I saw the feather, I heard Charles hoot. I headed towards his favorite conifer and he hooted four times in quick succession even though it was well before sunset. Perhaps the cold and cloudy weather made Charles more active than he would have been on a clear day. In my observations, the owls "start of the day" activity tracks closely with the level of light. In general, they become active earlier on a cloudy day than they do on a clear day.

As I reached Charles' Favorite Conifer, I saw an owl fly within the glade that contains this tree this tree. The flight was just brief enough that I could not ID it. Just then an owl, perhaps the same one, flew south/southwest inside of The Wooded Area. I still couldn't make an identification.

My luck improved minutes later when I saw an owl fly also south/southwest with something in its talons. It landed in a particular dead tree between The Cut In and The Second Catalpa. Last year, I was privleged on several occassions to see Sarah feed that year's owlets, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, in this same tree. Now seeing an adult fly to this same tree with food in its talons, I thought that this owl was most likely Sarah. I quickly but cautiously approached closer to this tree and saw that it was definitely Sarah. Her dark coloration, massive size and astoundingly thick black rings around her eyes are some of the main hallmarks I use to ID her.

I was excited that she had food as I hoped this would let me see her feed Art and perhaps Mo too. That is if Mo had fledged but remained yet unfound so far by me. I saw an owlet fly within The Wooded Area and I heard a few begging cheeps but no owlet joined Sarah in this feeding perch. Sarah began to feed, holding the prey down with her powerful talons as she used her bill to tear pieces of food to swallow. The prey was a bird or mammal but I could not tell anything beyond that. As Sarah removed the fur or feathers, some pieces of this exterior layer went flying by me. Charles hooted a few times while she ate and I heard a few begging cheeps from an owlet too. Sarah fed for a few minutes before flying off east with the prey in her left talon, perhaps to feed the begging youngster.

As I followed Sarah, I found Charles in the tallest conifer of the glad that contains his favorite conifer. I had seen him in this tallest conifer only occassionaly including a few times this winter so it was curious to see him here again. He looked very animated and on the alert.

Moments later Sarah flew up to the top of the tree, joining Charles. He was just beneath her on the same side of the trunk until he moved to a lower branch on the opposite side of the branch. Sarah bent over and rubbed her bill along a branch. This is a cleaning technique that many birds use to keep their bills clean after eating. I've only seen the owls do this a few times so each time is noteworthy.

Charles hooted some more and I continued to hear an owlet emitting begging cheeps. Charles moved to an even lower branch and fluffed out all of his feathers, an always charming sight. I looked at first in vain to locate the begging owlet. I moved further away for a wider view and my move was rewarded. There in large branch of Charles' Favorite Conifer was Art, very fluffy and fluffed out.

I changed position and took some photos of 3/4 of the family group. Let's play "Find The Owl!"

While I looked closely at Art with my binoculars, Sarah disappeared on me. As closely as I watch the owls, on countless times I will glance away from them for a few seconds and in that time, they fly off at great speed and a complete absence of sound. If I'm lucky, I might catch the direction in which they are heading but often I will be bereft of any information. Sarah's exit was one of this type. While I watched Art, I heard begging cheeps to the east of him. I thought it might be Mo, as yet unseen. I kept in mind that owlets are superb ventroliquists, throwing their voices so their calls do not pinpoint their location for potential predators.

As I scanned for Mo, Sarah flew out of the depths of The Wooded Area and landed on the December 17th Tree. Here again, she did some bill grooming and I managed to get a picture of her doing this interesting behavior.

A park ranger who I had met recently and showed the owls to, Ranger Brown, drove by, stopped and asked about the owls. He liked hearing about Art fledging and seeing Sarah just above him. As much as I enjoyed seeing Sarah, Charles and Art, I was curious about Mo's whereabouts. I headed to the nest but despite my best efforts, I could not find him.

I walked along the north side of The Wooded Area hearing Charles hoot when I saw Art fly eastward from his perch. It took me a moment but I realized I had just seen my first owlet flight of the year! All things considered, it was a pretty decent flight and landing for such a recently fledged owlet.

Next I went back to the area containing Charles' Favorite Conifer. Charles was still in the same tree when I left but he had moved yet again. Sarah was still long gone and after a while Charles disappeared on me. I looked around Mo inside The Wooded Area but he was not to be found. At somepoint Charles left but Art took his place in a high branch of this tallest conifer. Many begging cheeps continued to be heard from many different areas within The Wooded Area.

I then saw Charles in the December 17th Tree. Had he he gone there and I didn't see him or did he go somewhere else and then go to this tree? I hope it was the former as the latter indicates a lack of vigilance on my part! I try to prevent myself from being complacent or lazy but sometimes it happens and you can overlook an owl without meaning to do so.

Still eager to find Mo, I started to head back to the nest. As I did so, Charles defecated and launched off heading west/southwest. Before I could resume my trip to the nest, Sarah flew back into The Wooded Area with prey in her talons landing in the dead tree in which she had fed last year's youngsters on several occassions. Art flew around the center of The Wooded Area and Sarah flew off in his direction. I did not see them rendezvous but minutes later Art was presumably eating as no begging cheeps were heard!

I headed back to the nest and was actually able to get there this time. Like before there were no clear signs of Mo in the nest. However, there was still more to see of the owls. I found Charles in The Middle Tree and Sarah flew there a short while later and landed near Charles. Sarah flew back to the nest tree with prey in her talons. She began to feed while perched on a large branch. Perhaps she fed there in an effort to lure Mo out. Sarah then flew off with prey to The Wooded Area. Did the parents do a food exchange in The Middle Tree or had Sarah caught something or uncached some prey on her own? I'm not certain but I think it was a food exchange. This was the third time I had seen Sarah with prey that night, which is a record for me.

After Sarah returned to The Wooded Area, Charles hooted and eventually took off, blazing over McKinley Drive. Exhausted but thrilled with all that I had observed, I left for the warmth of home.

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