Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving owl mysteries

November 27, 2009

I got to the owls' territory on Wednesday 11/25 a little later than I had wanted to but at the same time at a faster pace, thanks to one of my owl/park friends, Chris Gerli. Chris and I found Charles in his favorite conifer. He flew to the December 17th tree and began to hoot. We looked for Sarah but could not find her. Chris had to get going and moments after he left, Charles went flying off in an easterly direction. I debated about looking for Sarah in other areas or following Charles. In the end, I did a bit of both but came up empty.

On Thanksgiving (Thursday, 11/26), I went back to their territory just under two hours before sunset. As I had not seen Sarah the night before, I decided to stop by their territory and count heads before heading out elsewhere (more on that later) and then returning to their territory at dusk. Lately, Charles and Sarah have been sharing his favorite conifer quite often but they were not there. I then went to a stand of conifers that Sarah has been using lately, that my girlfriend Wendy and I have now dubbed The Crossroads Conifers as they are located near where a bike path crosses with three roads. Neither Sarah or Charles was there. I then went into The Cut In to access The Wooded Area from a different perspective. I searched from The Cut In to The North-South Path. No dice. I looked in the vicinity of The Owlet Conifers, where I had found Sarah on a recent Sunday. Nobody home. I looked in The Possible Nest Tree. Nothing. I went around the hill and looked in The Mixed Glade and The Middle Conifers without success. I looked in the hollows of the trees where Sarah nested in 2006/2009 and 2008. The hollows were vacant. I bashed through the eastern portion of The Wooded Area, in the hope that my loud footfalls would stir up some owls, something I usually abhor, only to find nobody home.

As I emerged on to the road, I saw a familiar looking car and its owners, Chris Gerli and Barb Brownell. Before we even exchanged Thanksgiving greetings, we exchanged owl updates; we know our priorities! Their news was better than mine but not about Charles and Sarah-more on that later. They were dismayed to hear that I had not found Charles and Sarah especially as I had looked everywhere and then some. Now armed with three pairs of eyes we re-traced some of my steps but still came up empty.

Throughout my search and our search, a large number of American Crows began to congregate around The Hilly Wooded Area. They were vocal and loud but never in a way that suggested that they were mobbing a bird of prey. They varied their position but again it did not appear that mobbing was taking place. It was unusual to see the crows loittering about in this manner as they tend to fly a west to northeast route as the afternoon descends into twilight. Over the last several weeks the number of crows making this journey has grown steadily but this was the biggest group of crows that any of us had seen so far this year. American Crows and many of their close relatives were decimated by West Nile virus to a point where it became noteworthy to see any of these birds. We all agreed that it was good to see the crows population flourishing again.

As we contiuned our search, the crows began to alter their positions more, even landing in some of the aforementioned favorite perchsites of Charles and Sarah. There is no love lost between crows and birds of prey and this enmity is especially pronounced between American Crows and Great Horned Owls. When a crow finds a Great Horned Owl, they sound the alarm and all the crows join in to harrass, call at and even fly by and bite at the owl. This behavior is called mobbing. Mobbing is a whole other tin of worms but suffice to say, the keen eyesight and brains of crows make for excellent owl detectors. As these crows flew around the territory of Charles and Sarah, I hoped that they would uncover our dynamic duo. No such luck. The crows meandered around casually as if no owl had ever made its home in the vicinity.

Barb and Chris departed for a Thanksgiving dinner at a local bistro and I continued my search. As sunset approached and arrived, I walked around the core of the owls' territory searching in vain for Charles and Sarah. I even hooted, hoping to draw one or both of the owls in to repel an interloper. I have only rarely hooted to attempt to find Charles and Sarah. Playing recordings of or imitating owl calls should be done judiciously as it can make false impressions of intruders that upset the local owls. In human terms, think of sitting in one's living room and hearing an unknown human saying in a loud voice, "I like this living room and I want to stay here." Most humans would be upset and react accordingly. It is the same with owls.

My hooting came to naught so I headed to one of the owls' favorite hunting spots over the last few autumns, the north and west side of Post-Dispatch Lake. No go. No one in The Bare Tree, The Right Hand Tree or anywhere else. I even hooted at these places but without success. With the sun having set an hour and half earlier, I headed for home.

I relayed the worrying news to a sympathetic Wendy as she made the finishing touches to an exceptional Thanksgiving meal of chicken pot pie. The recipe she uses is a sublime blend of comfort food and decadence as chicken baked in fresh cream mingles with peas, carrots, tarragon and onion and a 1/4 cup of brandy and homemade crust. The pot pie went down a treat with a Sicilian Chardonnay. Dessert was a superb pumpkin pie from our great local bakery, Sugaree Bakery , topped with freshly whipped cream. Even amongst the flurry of culinary delights, I could not help but worry about Charles and Sarah.

That night I slept a long time but uneasily as I dreamt of, among other things, owls. I often dream of Charles and Sarah and other anonymous owls but this time my dreams were undoubtedly borne out of anxiety and concern. I woke and had a relaxed morning followed by some successful errands but my thoughts remained on the owls.

As soon as we returned home, I made my preparations to head to the park and then made my way to the park at an extra fast pace. After heading out to see the owl suprise (wait for it), I got a call from my brother John. We had a good chat as made my way to the territory of Charles and Sarah. We rang off just as I was in the inner-core of the owls' territory that I have dubbed The Arena. As I looked around at The Eastern Tree, The Four Trees and the 2006/2009 and 2008 nest trees, I hoped that I would find Charles and Sarah. Minutes later, I did.

There in The Crossroads Conifers was Sarah. I exhaled about half-way. There in his favorite confifer was Charles. I exhaled the remaining half. At the same time, I couldn't help but think, "WHAT THE HELL!?!?! WHERE THE HELL DID YOU GO!??!!" Not being a parent, I still have often described the times that I worry about the owls as "the closest I will come to an approximation of the sensation of what it might be like to entertain the notion of an illusion of a simulation of parenthood."

Having exhaled, I reveled in watching Charles and Sarah wake up, stretch, groom, duet and depart for points beyond. I was able to follow Charles and I ended up reacquiring him about half a mile from his favorite conifer. After that, my tank of ESL (Experience, Skill, Luck) ran out and I headed for home, greatly relieved and eager for chicken pot pie leftovers.

I mentioned mysteries plural and that is where things get odd. In 2007 as in this year, I looked forward to Thanksgiving. Moving back our clocks an hour in the early part of November made finding the owls after work a very real challenge, then and now. With several days off at Thanksgiving, I looked forward to arriving at the owls' territory well before sunset and as a result observing the full panoply of their early evening behavior. In 2007 I was unable to get to the park the Wednesday of the Thanksgiving weekend. On Thanksgiving itself, I had to go to the park well before sunset as our friends Vickie and Art (the namesake of the owlet Art) hosted us and other friends for a superb Thanksgiving dinner. I did not find the owls before sunset on Thanksgiving that year. Over the next two days, Friday and Saturday, I did not observe any sign of Charles and Sarah.

This absence of observation was especially odd as the fall/early winter is one of the best times to observe Great Horned Owls in this part of their range. At this time they are busy duetting to proclam their territory and re-cement their pair bond. After not seeing Charles and Sarah the Friday and Saturday of the 2007 Thanksgiving weekend, I found them on the Sunday of said weekend in some of their favorite perches. I felt the oft-expressed dichtomy of human parents who, in some situations, do not know what to do first after defused crisis situations : to hug or strangle their progeny.

I am happy to report that I saw Charles and Sarah yesterday, Saturday 11/28, in the same perches as they were on Friday. It was a night full of showing the owls to people in the vicinity, a practice I call owl ambassadorship. Wendy joined me and marveled at the beauty of the owls and the unseasonably warm weather. Charles was innocently flushed by a cyclist just as a group of crows made their nightly commute and they mobbed him thoroughly. The crows departed and Charles and Sarah got a nice duet going before they flew off north. I hope I get to see Charles and Sarah more over the next few days and with a minimum of extraneous drama and effort!

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