Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Happy Fourth Owliversary!

December 29, 2009

Tonight marks a big milestone in my observations of Charles and Sarah. Tonight makes it four years that I have been consistently watching these amazing owls. Those of you who have been on my e-mail list for some time received an e-mail last year, that I will quote in full below, marking the third anniversary of these frequent and detailed owl observations. But before I quote that e-mail, I want to share with you some information gleamed from the photo and video recordings I make when watching the owls. From December 28, 2008 until December 29, 2009, I have:

* I made 268 observation trips to the park to watch these owls
* This means that I got to the park rate 73% of the time over the course of the year
* Which yielded a per week rate of 5 times per week.
* Of the 268 observation trips I made, on 260 of them I saw the owls, which makes my success rate 97% (the owl mysteries of November and December 2009 brought this rate down)
* I went to the park the most in March 2009, 27 times
* I went to the park the least in February 2009, 18 times (not too shabby considering that I was out of town for 5 nights of this 28 day month!)
* The most nights I went in a row was in November 2009-12 nights in a row, followed by January 2009-10 nights in a row. 4 months had7 nights in a row.

All told, I have spent hundreds of hours in the park watching the owls. I am on my second pair of boots and my second backpack in the course of this year. I have taken thousands of pictures and videos. I have sent scores of e-mails and made scores of blog posts. I have seen the owls make predatory attempts, successful and not on:

* bats (species undetermined)
* Canada Geese
* Wood Ducks
* Raccoons
* Mallard Ducks
* Eastern Cottontail Rabbits
* unidentified insects
* American Robins
* Black-Crowned Night Herons
* Eastern Grey Squirrels

I have seen the owls: mate, nest, raise two unique youngsters (Art and Mo), groom, stretch, hunt, fly, expel pellets, defecate, duet, drink water for the first time (I saw Sarah do this tonight!), loose a momentous part of their territory and life history, get chased out of trees by Eastern Grey Squirrels, go further west and southwest then I have ever seen before, stay in post-perch trees for record lengths of time (tonight I watched Sarah stay in the same spot of one tree for 96 minutes shattering a very recent record by Charles of 75 minutes), and much more.

I have led two formal owl prowls and several informal ones, been consulted by professional naturalists, and have shared the joys and wonders of these owls with friends new and old. I have sweated gallons and felt my fingers and feet go numb, I have prepared hundreds of bottles of water, and have read and re-read countless books and articles on owls.

Thank you so much for reading and for your encouragement and support!!

Here is what I sent to my e-mail list last year-it still holds true!!

While I continue to write updates about the doings of Charles and Sarah over the past week or so, I wanted to write something this evening to commemorate and celebrate a milestone. This evening marks the third anniversary of when my observations of the owls went from occasional to highly consistent.

If I may digress, here is a little background. I first saw owls of any kind in Forest Park in August/September 2005 on a walk home from work. The owls were Great Horned Owls and were quite likely the owls that I have come to call Charles and Sarah. This late summer-early autumn evening owl observance was amazing. I saw and heard both owls hoot and fly and I even saw one chase a Great Blue Heron. I was instantly hooked.

I began delving into the literature on owls and making pilgrimages at dusk to where I first saw the owls; the wetlands area near the Franz Siegel statue. I met with little success but with just enough to keep me encouraged and returning in hope of further owl observations. I was joined on some of these excursions by either my girlfriend Wendy or my friend and colleague, Mark Rank. Unfortunately these joint excursions were unsuccessful. As Mr. Murphy and his eponymous law would have it, I would only see the owls, albeit briefly and inconsistently, when alone.

Then one day in the fall of 2005, I got a huge tip that would change my luck immensely. I was speaking with a then PhD student; Bipasha Biswas who I knew visited the park regularly. I brought up the owls and she remarked that she saw them with great regularity in and around The Boathouse. I thanked her for the information and shifted my attentions to The Boathouse. My attentions were soon rewarded and my success rate in seeing the owls went from a paltry 1 out 10 to a more substantial 3 out of 10. I even had co-observers of the owls as Wendy finally saw one on a cold, rainy evening. The observations remained short and inconsistent but progress had occurred.

As the fall semester of 2005 came to an end, I looked forward to a healthy amount of vacation and the additional owl searching time available to me. On December 29, 2005, I approached the area near the Boathouse between Government Drive, Pagoda Circle and McKinley Drive, where many of my recent observations had occurred. My devotions were soon rewarded and then some as I saw a Great Horned Owl fly into a hollow between two-thirds and three-quarters of the way up an immense deciduous tree.

With great excitement, I watched the owl settle into this hollow, which encapsulated the owl in a way that seemed correct and comforting. The owl dozed for a while and then began to groom, stretch and then hoot. I was spellbound. The level of intimacy and detail with which I was able to observe the owl surpassed every previous sighting.

The owl then flew off to one of four large deciduous trees in close proximity to each other (now known as The Four Trees) and began to call some more. After substantial hooting, the owl flew off at a rapid pace and disappeared from sight. I could not believe my luck. I hoped that this hollow would turn out to be the very thing I had been looking for; a specific place where an owl regularly spends significant amounts of time, a place that can be viewed with consistent success.

I walked home briskly to share the news with Wendy. As I walked home, I thought of a name for the owl. The name Charles came to mind quickly and instinctively. For one, I knew Wendy would find it irresistibly adorable. Two, the name Charles seemed to fit the simultaneous common and special reputation of the Great Horned Owl as the name has a broad range of associations from the names of royalty to the names of everyday people.

True to her nature, Wendy was ecstatic and listened as I went on in great detail about the hollow, the owl and everything it had done. I re-read relevant portions of the few owl books that I owned at the time and I could not wait for the next day to arrive so I could seek Charles out anon.

The next day as I had hoped, there was Charles in the hollow! For the second evening in a row, I saw him doze, wake up, doze again, wake up again, groom, stretch, hoot, fly a short distance, hoot and then fly out of sight. My success rate now skyrocketed from 3 out of 10 to 8, 9, and 10 out of 10! For many months now, I have been at a point that if I arrive with enough time before sunset (preferably 30-45 minutes), I will see one or more of the owls.

After December 29, 2005, everything just snowballed. I began to see a second owl more often and after much confusion (self-caused) I was able to determine that Charles was indeed a male and the second owl a female. The second owl was soon named Sarah after I saw the two owlets they had in the late winter/early spring of 2006. I watched the owlets grow up over the spring, summer and early fall and then saw Charles and Sarah begin the build-up to mating in the fall of 2006. On December 24, 2006, I saw Charles and Sarah mate for the first time and tonight I saw them mate for the sixth time in the last ten days.

In the three years since the great, fateful day of December 29, 2005, I have seen an amazing panoply of Great Horned Owl behavior; everything from hunting to child-rearing to moments of danger to moments of comedy.

In conclusion, I would like to make a few acknowledgements. Firstly, to the person who gave me such a huge tip on where to find the owls, Bipasha Biswas. Bipasha, the information you gave me has yielded rewards I cannot fathom. It is important to note that Bipasha has gone from PhD candidate to now being Dr. Biswas, Assistant Professor of Social Work, Saint Louis University. Secondly, to all of you: you have read my words, heard my words, viewed my pictures and videos, gone on owl prowls, and kindly given your praise, interest and encouragement. I thank you for your patience and kindness. The biggest thanks of all go to my girlfriend, Wendy. She is beyond encouraging. She listens to detailed descriptions to countless evenings of owl observations, she reads and proofreads my scribblings, she finds countless books, articles and references to owls, she helps me with physical items to assist me in my owl observations: clothing, optics and cameras and when the weather is sufficiently decent, she comes out for an owl prowl. Thank you, Wendy and thanks to all of you for your continued support and encouragement!

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