Friday, January 1, 2010

More owl suprises, mysteries and 4th mating observed this season!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

I began this cloudy and somewhat mild day in Kennedy Forest and with the return of the Thanksgiving Owl Surprise. There in the same stretch of woods was a Great Horned Owl. It was perched in vine covered tree where I had seen a Great Horned Owl over a few weeks in February and March of this year.

I had not been to this immediate area since December 5, when I had not found any owls. By looking at this owl, I could not tell if it was the same one myself and others had observed in late November. I noticed something dangling beneath this owl. At first I saw it was a couple of short branches coming out of the large branch on which the owl was perched. I looked some more and noticed that texture and color of this dangling devices did not match the tree at all; they were smoother, even elegant. I looked again and realized that I was looking at a rabbit legs. I went in for a closer look and saw that the owl had a headless rabbit, most likely an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit, in its talons!

As a general rule, raptors eat the head of their prey first. When the hunting is good, Great Horned Owls are known to eat the brain and leave the rest of the animal behind. Eating the head first is a good strategy as the brain is rich in protein and other nutrients. I was glad to see that the owl had found food and I wondered when he had caught it. While primarily crepuscular and nocturnal, Great Horned Owls are renowned opportunists and will hunt during the day if the opportunity and/or need arises.

While I watched this owl carefully and cautiously, I must have gotten too close for comfort and it went flying off, rabbit in its mouth, heading south. I kicked myself mentally and apologized to the owl for spooking it. Part of me wanted to try and reacquire this owl but I knew I had to get going to find Charles and Sarah. I headed out to their territory at a brisk pace, eager to find them before sunset. About a third of the way there, my girlfriend, Wendy, called me with the sad news that the actress Brittany Murphy had died at the young age of thirty-two. Wendy and I are big fans of the great but recently concluded comedy show King of the Hill, on which Brittany Murphy did the voice of sweet but not overly bright Luanne Platter.

I arrived at their territory and it was the return of the Thanksgiving owl mysteries (which you can read about here and here). I could not find the owls in any of there usual spots. When I arrived I heard some vague hooting sounds but I could not pinpoint them as I had both a hat and balaclava over my head and ears. After much searching and no success, I struck out northeast hoping to find them in some of their favorite haunts in that area of the park. I did have any success, at first, but I persisted. At 5:32pm as I came to the front of the Franz Siegel statue, I saw an owl in a large deciduous tree in the wetlands behind the statue.

I looked closer and judging by this owl's massive size, I identified the owl as Sarah. Later on, I would get a good look at her face and PIDed the owl as Sarah. Soon after I found her, she leaned over as if to drop a pellet and sure enough she out came a pellet. She also groomed rather extensively, which was interesting as they usually groom and drop pellets before heading out for the evening and here it was about an hour after sunset. I wondered how early a start she had had and why.

Sarah groomed some more, did a double-wing stretch, and a fluff out that caused a feather to fly off of her (this had also happened the day before too.) With great power and in stark silence, she flew off southwest towards the waterway east of Deer Lake. I gave chase but could not find her in some of the more frequented spots along this section of the waterway. I thought that she might be headed back to The Hilly Wooded Area for some Peaches & Herb Duetting so I headed that way.

I kept a vigilant eye open on my way to The Hilly Wooded Area but I did not find anyone just yet. Or should I say, any owl. As I went along The North-South Path and approached The Quintet Conifers I had a great sighting. I got a brief look at a four-legged mammal and its bushy tail. My first thought was raccoon but it was too big for to be the masked bandit. I then thought it might be a coyote but it was too small and short legged to be a coyote. With a clearer view of the animal it all clicked; it was a fox!! I had never seen one in the park despite of the thousands of hours I have spent in the park, the vast majority in the early evening and early morning when these animals are most likely to be seen. I have met numerous people who have seen foxes in the park and I can not help but gnash my teeth at their good luck and my complete absence of fox sightings!

The fox eventually saw me, paused and headed off east/northeast into the heart of The Wooded Area. I thought of giving chase but I did not want to alarm or accidentally corner this capable predator. I was thrilled to see the fox but unfortunately it was too dark for me to identify the species-d'oh!! Both fox species native to Missouri, the Red Fox and the Grey Fox, can be found in Forest Park. The species are almost exactly identical in overall size, making coloration one of the distinguishing traits for identification. Hopefully the next sighting of a fox I have will not be years away and will occur when some more light is available!

Just after I saw the fox I spied an owl in The Hilly Wooded Area. I carefully and quietly made my way over to the owl until I was within thirty feet of it. It was in a low branch about fifteen to twenty feet above the ground. I hoped it was Charles as I had not seen him yet this night and judging by size it was him. He flew off southeast at a low altitude for what seemed to be short distance but I did not see him land. I went around to reacquire but came up empty. Thinking that my angle of approach needed adjustment, I went back to the tree from which he had flown and again came up empty, but not for long.

Out of the north but out of thin air flew an owl and it landed thirty feet away from me. A slightly audible sound arose from its landing on the dry branch. My breath was taken away by the speed of its sudden appearance and my proximity to it. Judging by size, I took it be Sarah. I wondered if her close distance to me displayed a comfort level that they have with my presence in their territory and their lives. People often remark that the owls must know me or I am asked if I think they know me. I answer that there may be some recognition on their part and if there is it because since day one, I have done my best to keep my presence discreet and respectful. I wear muted colors, I try to keep a low level of sound (I even wrap my plethora of keys in a cloth so they do not hear my janitorial jangle), and I move slowly and cautiously. The owls are wild and powerful animals and deserve respect and caution.

As soon as this owl appeared, it disappeared flying off south. I gave chase and was rewarded with hearing Charles hoot! It was great to know that I had definitely found him. My first priority each time I come to watch the owls is to find everyone and then I can go from there. I moved forward and found Charles in a tree just west of The Possible Nest Tree.

The Possible Nest Tree is an interesting one. It is most likely a Cottonwood and it has a large snag/hollow formed by the breaking off or other damage to its main trunk. I gave the tree its name in the fall of 2008. As Charles and Sarah duetted throughout that fall, they would often fly to this tree and hoot on the tree and even into the snag/hollow, frequently in an intimate manner with gentle, purr-like hoots. As mating season approached, this behavior continued. Given their affinity for this tree and their history of nesting in hollows of Cottonwoods, I thought this tree might become their nest site. Not being completely certain that they would nest there, I gave the tree its name. It turned out that I was right to not break out the jump-to-conclusions mat. They instead nested in the tree where they had in the 2005-2006 mating/nesting season.

This fall, they again often duetted in this tree and each one of them went into the snag hollow on a few occasions. Seeing them return to this tree and continue to duet so tenderly I began to wonder if they had some history with this tree. Was this where one of them hatched, was it where they nested the first time or was it something else?

I was about forty yards from Charles and he began to hoot loudly and frequently. A few minutes later I heard Sarah just east of The Possible Nest Tree. They began to duet, about two hours after sunset i.e. Peaches & Herb Duetting!

The duet built up in pace and volume and then Sarah came blazing by me a mere five to ten feet to my left! She landed about sixty feet away from me as I my heart rate slowly returned to normal! The duet continued with Sarah behind me to the left and Charles ahead of me to the right. A few minutes later Sarah flew over to where Charles was hooting landing in a branch just above him. Within moments, Charles flew up to Sarah and they mated! This was the second time that I had seen them mate two nights in a row this season and the third time I had observed them mate well after sunset this season. Listen below at the twenty-three second mark for the high-pitched sound that Charles makes when they mate-amazing!

Charles flew out of sight heading south. Sarah hooted loudly and I wondered if their mating close to The Possible Nest Tree had any connection as to where they might nest. Sarah remained in her mating perch so I headed up for a closer look. I saw her quite clearly until a classic scenario occurred. I took my eyes off of her for a brief moment and when I looked back she was gone and I had no idea where she went. This disappearing act the owls frequently conduct is one of the most challenging aspects of their behavior. The observer shifts their attention on something, anything else and when they look again for the owls, the owls are nowhere to be seen. It leaves the observer at a complete loss as to where to look next. They move so quickly and so undetectably that one does not if go to near, far, east, west, south or north. Even with hundreds of nights of observation under my belt, I still get stumped by the disappearing act.

This night, though, I was not overly upset by the disappearing act. I had found Sarah well past sunset and well away from the core of their territory never mind that I had seen Peaches & Herb duetting and mating, all well past sunset. I continued on through The Hilly Wooded Area and I reacquired Charles in one of his favorite hunting perches. I had found him in this tree several times in recent weeks. Interestingly, his exact position varied each time. While I was loathe to leave him in such a viewable spot, I had to get going. Wendy and I were planning to buy our Christmas tree this night and I had already been out longer than anticipated. I wished the owls well and good night and headed home, my head swimming with all that I had observed.

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