Sunday, December 20, 2009

3rd mating observed this season!

December 20, 2009

After an interesting but fragmented week of owl sightings:
  • saw them on Sunday, did not see them on Monday

  • saw them and observed them mate on Tuesday

  • saw only Sarah on Wednesday

  • did not get to the park (holiday part at work) on Thursday

  • saw only Charles on Friday (but new owl friends Shelly and Mark saw both of them)

I was more than ready to get to the park yesterday (Saturday, December 19) well before sunset and find both Charles and Sarah. It was grey, cold and windy and there were patches of snow on the ground from the flurries that hit the area on Friday night. I went to The Quintet Conifers and I found Sarah in the conifer to the right of Charles' Favorite Conifer. I looked for Charles in this conifer but he was not there. I heard Sarah hoot briefly and I my have heard a one note hoot from Charles so I looked extra carefully for him. I altered my position slightly and saw that he was in the same tree as Sarah! They do not use this conifer a great deal but enough to make it worthwhile to examine this tree carefully. It is always special to see them perched together in the same tree. They have perched together more often in the past few months than in any other time during my observations.

While it was great to see them in this tree, it was hard to find clear angles for to take pictures of them. They each varied their positions a little and did some grooming. Charles did an Escalator Stretch and later a Double-Wing Stretch. Sarah moved again and they began to duet in full. Initially, they had their backs to each other but then Charles moved above and to the right of Sarah.

Sarah made a short flight to an exposed branch on a deciduous tree between The Quintet Conifers and The Trio Conifers. The duet paused briefly but resumed again. The wind was intense, making my eyes water and pushing Sarah in mid-flight as she flew to another deciduous tree. After another pause in the duet, perhaps to the wind, the duet continued and at a faster pace and with more intensity.

Charles flew out of The Quintet Conifers to a deciduous tree and continued to hoot. I thought the duet would continue as it had not seemed to reach its peak. On scale of 5 the duet was at a 3 but they had started at 2. The duet did continue but before it became a 4 or 5, which usually proceeds mating, Sarah flew over and joined Charles in the same tree. Moments later they mated as you can see below.

This was the first mating of the year that I had seen and I was thrilled that I was able to film it and at a close distance. This was also the earliest in the evening that I had seen them mate so far this year.

So, how do owls mate? The best way I can find to answer this is to quote, at length, an excellent description from page 151 of the superb book Owls of the United States and Canada by naturalist and nature photographer Wayne Lynch, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007:

“Birds, by comparison, are much less athletic in their quest for insemination. To begin with, birds don’t have a penis, although ratites such as the ostrich, emu and greater rhea, as well as storks, flamingos and geese have a thickening wall of their cloaca that can become erect and function like a penis.

Without a penis, how do birds stay linked together long enough for insemination to occur? Owls and other birds have perfected the maneuver called the “cloacal kiss” – the cloaca being the terminal portion of a bird’s intestinal tract into which the kidneys and reproductive tracts also empty. During mating, their cloacae pout and kiss for three or four seconds-just long enough for millions of sperm to be passed to the female…Sometimes the male brings a present of prey, as Snowy Owls and Great Horned Owls occasionally do, but it is not a necessity.

…During mating, male owls of all species balance lightly on the female’s back. To keep their balance, they may extend their wings slightly and gently grasp the female’s nape….Once the cloacal kiss is completed, the male quickly dismounts. The pair may shake and fluff up their feathers, rub their bills, together, preen each other briefly or simply fly apart.”

Charles flew off a modest distance to a large deciduous tree in the eastern third of The Wooded Area. Sarah remained in the same spot for several minutes before flying off towards The Four Trees. With Sarah out of sight, I watched Charles for several minutes before he made an impressive flight out of The Wooded Area. He dove low and then pulled up with remarkable athleticism and popped out over the trees on the eastern edge of the area.

I went around to reacquire them, hoping I could find them in some of their favorite haunts in the area east/northeast of The Wooded Area. No such luck-they had gone further than I had hoped. I continued in the same direction checking out additional further haunts around Deer Lake, the wetlands and the waterway but without success. As my time was limited due to a social engagement that evening, I concluded my search and returned home. I was a little bummed to not have reacquired them but I was ecstatic to have finally seen them mate this year.

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