Sunday, January 31, 2010

What Is Charles Doing While Sarah Is Nesting?

January 31, 2010

Charles is on full-time hunting duty. When the eggs hatch male Great Horned Owls are known to hunt, hunt and hunt some more until the nest overflows with food. This is not always the case but some remarkably prey-filled nests have been observed over the years. One such nest was described in Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey, Part 2. Owls by Arthur Cleveland Bent, a giant work by one of the giants of American ornithology. The nest contained remains of:
  • a mouse
  • a muskrat
  • eleven rats
  • two eels
  • four bullheads (fish)
  • four ruffed grouse
  • a woodcock
All of which weighed over eighteen pounds! I have seen this portion of Bent's work quoted in numerous books on owls. I first read it in Great Horned Owl by Dwight G. Smith. If I had to recommend one single book on the species, it would be this one for its concise, informative text and brilliant pictures. I have not seen evidence that Charles creates a veritable Sam's Club of prey items for Sarah. That said, having seen them raise eight owlets in four years speaks well to his hunting abilities.

On Wednesday, January 13 Charles flew off west/northwest. I reacquired him in a low branch of a tree near the wooden bridge that connects The Grand Basin with Picnic Island (last year I reacquired him one night on this bridge's railing-breathtaking). I was quite chuffed to see that he was sitting in the tree with a small rodent in his bill. He flew back in the direction of The Nest Tree; undoubtedly bringing his prize to Sarah just over twenty minutes since he had left the vicinity of The Nest Tree.

One of the interesting aspects about this season's nest tree is that it within a dense population of Eastern Grey Squirrels. In fact, I am reasonably certain that there is a squirrel nest within The Nest Tree itself. Throughout much of the owls' activity in the area, the air is filled with squirrel warning cries. I have seen both Charles make numerous predatory attempts, none successful so far, on these squirrels. I have seen Sarah make a few predatory attempts on Eastern Grey Squirrels on milder days. I hope this a reflection of her taking advantage of the warmer weather to have some more activity and perhaps keep her hunting skills sharp and not an indicator that Charles is not providing enough food. Here's Charles making a predatory attempt on a squirrel on January 6, 2010, one of five he made in a span of five minutes that day:

Charles has been fascinating to watch but not without his challenges. His daytime perch sites varies between his favorite conifer and a few different deciduous trees close to The Nest Tree. On Monday, January 25, he was in an unusual but not unprecedented spot in the middle of a large cypress that made him look like a Christmas tree ornament. When he his in his favorite conifer he transitions from out of The Woody Area to trees close to The Nest Tree. Sometimes he stops at an edge of The Wooded Area near The Second Catalpa, other times he makes a non-stop flight.

Over these past few weeks, I have see many of these transitory flights and they have been master classes in speed and precision. Unfortunately, my luck at capturing them on video has been poor. On January 23 he was in his favorite conifer. I moved to a spot between this hallowed conifer and The Nest Tree and kept the camera trained on The Wooded Area. He hooted regularly but remained in his needle-covered nook. I hit record on my camera and chided him gently for not flying out yet. The next thing I knew, he was flying past me about twenty yards away. I managed to get the camera trained on him for the last portion of his flight. I later realized that since I was recording before I saw him, that I may have captured some more of this stunning flight. I reviewed the footage and sure enough I got some of the beginning of the flight and its end but missed the middle. Look at the right sight of the screen and at the twelve second mark, look for Charles come blazing out of The Wooded Area!

Charles evening routine is basically unchanged but no less intriguing. He stretches, grooms, hoots and then goes off to hunt. Sometimes Sarah will respond in kind to his hoots and I have observed duets, both short and long. Sarah continues to duet from within the snag/hollow, a mode that I have described as "diva duetting."

With the plethora of Eastern Grey Squirrels in and around The Nest Tree, Charles' hunting often begins close to home; what a locavore. One of his favorite perches near the nest tree is on the end of a dead branch belonging to a tree that faces the opening of the snag/hollow. Seeing him there with his impressive silhouette is never less than memorable.

When he does leave the immediate area of The Nest Tree, he has gone south more than any other direction. He tends to stay within The Hilly Wooded Area for a while when he goes south. Over the years I have learned some of the owls' favorite hunting and singing perches in The Hilly Wooded Area. This helps make reacquiring them possible but even still this is one of the trickiest areas in which to reacquire the owls. The number of large trees, loud crunchy leaf litter and rolling hills all add up to create this challenging course. This also makes reacquiring them a memorable and rewarding experience.

A few weeks ago, I followed Charles off south in The Hilly Wooded Area. I quickly reacquired him in the low branch of a tree no more than fifteen feet off the ground and about forty feet feet away from me. Despite my best efforts to approach silently, the frozen ground covered with crunchy leaves and sticks announced my presence. Charles did not seem to notice me and I was glad that he had not. I took up an observation position next to a nearby tree. If I can, I like to have a tree or some other large structure between me and the owls in case I need to take cover.

I continued to watch Charles when I began to hear something rustling in the leaves behind me. Charles took notice of this noise too and he turned around, facing me to get a better take on this sound. I saw him prepare to fly in my direction and I realized I had a second or two to decide my course of action. I chose to move behind the tree and as I did Charles flew low right past where I had just been standing. He flew so close to me that as he passed by me I could have touched him! I was confident that he was not threatening me or threatened by me but I was puzzled that he seemed not to notice me until he flew past me and veered off slightly to the left. Whatever the explanation, it was one of the closest encounters I have ever had with the owls and it left me breathless even though it was mere seconds in length. Such encounters underline a thought I have often; while the park is our park, for the owls and all other fauna and flora it is their home and it is important to be mindful of this distinction.

Sarah Is Nesting! Part II (Lots of Videos!)

January 31, 2010

To recap, I first found Sarah in the The Possible Nest Tree on December 31, the night she and Charles mated twice; the first time I had ever seen them do that. After seeing her in this tree again on January 2 and 3, I made the call that she was nesting. The Possible Nest Tree was now The Nest Tree or to give it a more chronologically accurate name to account for past and future nest trees, The 2009-2010 Nest Tree.

While I made the call that nesting had begun, I kept my mind and my eyes open for more mating. I'm glad I did. On January 3, Sarah emerged from the nest and continued to duet with Charles. Within moments Charles flew in from fifty yards away, landed on Sarah and they mated, after which he flew off north/northeast. See for yourself:

While I appreciate the owls' biological instincts, I thought that Charles was less of a gentleman for not giving Sarah more than a few moments out of the nest before mating with her. Naturally, my associative brain took the keyword "gentleman" and linked the word with a line from a movie, in this case Caddyshack featuring the late great Rodney Dangerfield. Tender ears beware.

But they were not done just quite yet. On January 6, they had a nice duet going when Sarah flew close to Charles and they mated! This was the last time I saw them mate this season.

Overall, I saw them mate thirteen times between December 10 and January 6. This ties last year's record of the most matings seen in a season but it was the longest mating period yet. I have
now seen the owls mate over forty times over the last four years.

So after mating some more and the nest choice made, now what? First off, the eggs would need to be fertilized within Sarah and then gradually formed and then laid. I'm still learning more about this process so I do not want to give incorrect information about it. However, it is fair to say that this process takes several days. Owls lay their eggs asynchronously i.e. at different times. For Great Horned Owls the period between each egg laying is usually one to two days but can be as many as seven to ten days. As the eggs are laid at a different times, so do they hatch at different times, creating a discernible difference in age and size of the owls. This difference in size and age is understood to be a way to ensure that at least some of the owlets will survive the challenging first few weeks and months of their lives.

Sarah keeps the eggs warm and safe. This is an epic task and Sarah handles it with devotion and aplomb. While few animals would take on an adult Great Horned Owl, there are many animals that would love to get to their eggs; squirrels, crows, raccoons, opossums, snakes and a number of birds such as crows and jays. Great Horned Owl eggs are reasonably hardy and able to survive cold temperatures for brief periods of time without being incubated. That said, it is imperative that the eggs stay incubated for the vast majority of the average of thirty-two days it takes for them to hatch after being laid.

Sarah stays on the eggs or with the new owlets all day and night except for a few short breaks. When I come to watch the owls at dusk, Sarah flies out of the nest to a nearby perch and stays out of the nest, on average, for three-six minutes. In that brief time away from the nest she stretches, grooms, defecates and perhaps expels a pellet and then it is back to the nest for many more hours. On slightly warmer days she will stay out up to ten to fifteen minutes and might fly a little more. She may take another break or two during the full twenty-four hour course of the day. From what I have have observed and read I would wager that she is on the eggs for well over ninety percent of a full day through rain, snow, frigid temperatures and more.

As the snag/hollow is not covered on top, Sarah literally acts as the roof of this area. Females Great Horned Owl in exposed nests have been found buried in snow and ice keeping their eggs or young owlets safe and warm. We recently had many day of stretch of weather well-below freezing including some days with temperatures adjust for wind chill below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Several people assumed that I was not going to the park in such cold weather. I corrected them by stating, if the owls can mate and nest in the depths of winter, then I can observe them! That said, it was jolly cold.

Since the owls are nesting in a new (to me) tree and locale within their territory, observing and documenting them during this time and for the coming weeks is and will continue to be a stimulating challenge. I am learning the best places to watch them, where Sarah goes to groom, stretch and expel waste, and the like. At the beginning of the nesting period, I was watching the nest tree at a safe distance from different position in which I could see the opening of the snag/hollow. This year's nest shares a trait with all but one of the other nest locations that I have seen Sarah use; you cannot see inside the nest thus you cannot see Sarah (or anyone else) until they are at the very opening of the nest. It is a classic game of now you don't see it and then you do.

My early viewing post in which I could see the opening of the snag/hollow did not work too well. I was able to see Sarah emerge from the snag/hollow, look around for a few moments before flying away to attend to her toilet. However, as I was looking east she quickly disappeared in the minimal horizon line. I was hesitant to go look for where she perched temporarily due to the poor visibility as I did not want to intrude on her unwittingly.

After a few days at this viewing post, I decided to watch from the other side of things, looking at the nest tree as I faced south/southwest. This observation post was back lit by the setting sun and provided greater illumination and clarity to Sarah's behavior. Even still, as I could not see her emerge from the inner reaches of the snag/hollow, it was tricky to see and document her flying out of The Nest Tree. Finally, I had some luck on January 16 and several subsequent days documenting Sarah's departure from the nest. As you can see below, each day had its differences but all of them were exemplars of the sublime power and grace of Great Horned Owls.

January 16, 2010

January 18, 2010

January 22, 2010

January 24, 2010

Notice that when Sarah leaves the nest she is in free fall; she has to clear the nest tree before she can flap her massive wings. For an example of the reverse procedure, here's Sarah returning to nest on January 20, 2010

So when will the eggs hatch? My best rough estimate is sometime in/around/after February 10. Given the depths of the snag/hollow, I do not think we will see the owlets until they are a few weeks old; towards the end of February or the beginning of March. With the exception of the very visible nest location in 2007-2008, I have never seen owlets until they were at least a few weeks old. I am terribly excited that Sarah is nesting and at the prospect of owlets. Wish them luck!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sarah Is Nesting! Part I

January 22, 2010

While I am still working on detailing the events of late December and early January, I think I need to jump ahead a tad. For over three weeks now, Sarah has been nesting in The Possible Nest Tree turning it into The Nest Tree. If all goes well there will be owlets this year!! Here's out it went down...

As December drew to a close Charles and Sarah continued to be very active and amorous. I saw them mate several more times including a few times in the Deer Lake Wet Savannah. I had not seen them mate in that part of the park since the 2007-2008 mating/nesting season. On December 31, I joined Edward Crim and friends new and old for a morning walk through much of the park to mark not only the last day of 2009 but the conclusion of Edward's remarkable project Forest Park 365. Congratulations and a job well done, Edward!

During the walk we made a stop at Charles and Sarah's territory. I scouted ahead and found Charles in his favorite conifer. I showed Charles to the others in groups of two or three. Everyone was thrilled to see him and was amazed at his majestic beauty. I think the biggest takeaway they received was that the owls are just one of many gems in the park that while relatively unknown are there all the time. They just take more time and effort to find and observe. I was a little concerned that we did not find Sarah but I thought that maybe she had taken up a nest spot and that The Possible Nest Tree was a likely candidate. As we passed by this tree I turned to my friend and long-time owling cohort, Chris Gerli, and said sotto voce, "I wonder if Sarah is in The Possible Nest Tree."

The morning tour wound up superbly with one of our last animal observations being a Bald Eagle-amazing!

Chris and Barb kindly offered me a ride home, which I readily accepted. I asked if we could stop by the 2007-2008 nest tree. I wanted to itch a small scratch in my mind that hinted that Sarah might nest there again. They kindly agreed to the detour and we piled out to look at the hollow at which we spent many hours watching Sarah, Charles and that year's offspring: Bart, Lisa and Maggie. The hollow was unoccupied by any owls. We discussed the possible nest scenarios and then they showed me where they had followed the Great Horned Owls in Kennedy Forest after these owls had mated on an amazing evening just a few nights prior. That's right, there is a second mated pair of Great Horned Owls in the park. I hope to write more on that later. After a great tour, Chris and Barb drove my tired and grateful body back home.

I arrived home, changed clothes and headed out to run some errands with my girlfriend Wendy. Near the top of the agenda was to get some food into me. Even though I had eaten before the morning walk, the three-and-a-half hour walk had drained my fuel tank to its dregs. As a couple of errands took us south, we agreed that a late breakfast at Chris' Pancakes & Dining would go down a treat. By the time we arrived I was yawning non-stop. Wendy said it was a race between what biological imperative got to me first; eating or sleeping. Thankfully, breakfast arrived in a flash and was ingested at a not-much slower rate. Revived, we finished our errands and went home. I knew I would go back to the park; I had to find out where Sarah was. As sunset approached, I strapped on my go-to-the-park clothes, cameras and binoculars and headed to the territory of Charles and Sarah.

I found Charles again in his favorite conifer. After waking up he began to hoot and then flew off to an edge along the south side of The Wooded Area. He hooted directly at The Possible Nest Tree for several minutes. He then flew to a tree just in front of the snag/hollow of The Possible Nest Tree and continued to hoot in its direction. From within The Possible Nest Tree came the muffled sound of Sarah hooting from within the snag/hollow of this tree. She was doing what I have dubbed "diva-duetting", which I described in a recent post as, "It is as if Sarah is some great operatic diva like Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland or Kelly Clarkson. She refuses to go onstage due to some minor mishap but she still insists on performing for her adoring public... I always enjoy hearing diva duetting, as it seems to illustrate the deep bond between these two remarkable owls."

But unlike the events of Christmas evening described in said post, when Sarah flew into the snag/hollow and diva-duetted, on this night Sarah was already in the snag/hollow-a substantial difference. She had likely been there earlier in the day when we walked by it and for many hours before and since then. Sarah emerged from the nest and she and Charles mating shortly thereafter. This was the tenth time I had seen them mate since December 10, making it the second time I observed them mating 10 times or more in a breeding season. You can see them mate below, just move to the 1:25 mark.

I followed Sarah off northeast near when she reversed direction and headed back to The Hilly Wooded Area. I followed her again and as I got into this area, I was stunned and thrilled to have Charles fly directly over me, hooting in flight about twenty feet above me. After I caught my breath, I wondered if having seeing Sarah already in the snag/hollow that he knew that she was nesting. Knowing this, perhaps a biological/hormonal switch was thrown inside him telling him that he was on full-time food acquisition duty for both he and Sarah. Perhaps he may have been making his first food drop. I did not have to wait for long for Charles to return again. He flew right by me at great speed about thirty feet away from me. He and Sarah resumed their duet on a tree just in front of The Possible Nest Tree and they mated again!! This was the first time I had ever seen them mate twice in one night, in less than an hour in fact and I was completely flabbergasted. Even now I cannot believe I saw them mate twice in a night! Charles flew back near me and landed, making some short but intense and rapid hoots.

After I picked my now very sore jaw off the ground, I watched them for a little while longer before heading home to tell Wendy the amazing news.

While I was reasonably certain that Sarah was nesting and this tree was this season's nest tree, I like to be completely certain of such things. Long-time owl friends know that I like to give things like nesting or owlet dispersal a little more time before I "make that the call." With this in mind, I returned to the park on New Year's Day but a driving snow made me "make that the call" that I would not see the owls that night. Thankfully, Barb and Chris had more luck that night with the Great Horned Owls in Kennedy Forest; they saw them mate again and witnessed some close fly-bys and other heart-stopping owl behavior.

On January 2, I made way back to their territory and sure enough Sarah was already in the snag/hollow of the now very likely Nest Tree! I wanted to make sure that I saw her in this spot with my own eyes for three nights before I made the call that nesting was occurring and that this was the nest spot. I was back again on January 3 and again Sarah was in the snag/hollow. I made the call; Sarah was nesting and The Possible Nest Tree was now the The Nest Tree or The 2009-2010 Nest Tree.

More to come in part II of this post!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mating Owls Have A Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 25, 2009

After two rain-drenched days on December 23 and 24 filled with a great deal of Christmas shopping and no visits to see the owls, I was eager to return. We had some slight snow flurries in the morning and early afternoon, not enough for a truly white Christmas but enough to add an extra special touch to the day. After a great morning of presents (including several owl-related ones) and nibbling, it was time to go the park and see the owls.

I headed to the The Quintet Conifers but did not find anyone there. I wondered if it was time for the Thanksgiving Owl Mysteries to morph into the Christmas Owl Mysteries. The snow returned and in picked up in pace causing me to deploy my umbrella to provide a layer of protection to my cameras and optics. I decided to look next in The Mixed Glade and The Middle Conifers. I had just started in that direction when I realized I should check The Crossroads Conifers while I was in the area. No sooner had I changed my direction, then I heard Charles hoot from the vicinity of these recently named conifers.

Sure enough, I found an owl in The Crossroads Conifers but it was too obscured to get a positive identification. I saw flashes of Charles and Sarah but nothing definitive. After some more observation, the owl flew out of this glade of trees and landed in the top part of the tall dead tree in The Quintet Conifers. Its position at the top of this conifer looked the owl statue we at the top of our Christmas tree. Now in this exposed spot, I could tell by its dark plumage and massive size that it was Sarah.

I thought it was more likely that it was Sarah who flew out of The Crossroads Conifers. I have only found Charles in these conifers a couple of times but I have found Sarah there about ten-fifteen times over the past two years.

While I was glad to see Sarah, I wondered where Charles was especially as I heard him hoot. I did not have to wait long to find him. He hooted from The Hilly Wooded Area and I found him in a deciduous tree not far from The Crossroads Conifers. I know I had not looked carefully in that area so it is possible that he had been there and I had not taken notice.

I was happy to find both of them and just as I watch Charles, Sarah flew over and landed next to him, mere feet away, on the same branch. They duetted briefly before Sarah flew dove off the branch flying south. If Sarah had not left, I would wager that there was a good chance that they would have mated right there.

Charles began to hoot loudly and frequently, about once every thirty seconds. With his hoots competing with the strong wind, the neighborhood Eastern Grey Squirrels took notice. Their warning cries filled the air and one squirrel that was on its way to the tree in which Charles was perched managed to re-route its path sufficiently to avoid Charles.

He continued to hoot for a while longer before he defecated. In my observations of these owls, defecation is an almost guaranteed precursor to flight and fly Charles did. He flew a modest distance to a tree close to The Possible Nest Tree. His hooting continued undiminished. Judging by the muffled responses from Sarah, she was in the snag/hollow of The Possible Nest Tree.

This was not the first or last time that I have heard the muffled sounds of Sarah hooting from within a hollow. I call it diva duetting. It is as if Sarah is some great operatic diva like Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland or Kelly Clarkson. She refuses to go onstage due to some minor mishap but she still insists on performing for her adoring public. Unfortunately, on this night it was sufficiently windy that while I could hear her, the recordings I made did not pick up this diva dynamic. I always enjoy hearing diva duetting, as it seems to illustrate the deep bond between these two remarkable owls.

The deep bond between them was even better illustrated by what happened next. Sarah flew north out of The Possible Nest Tree and landed in a branch quite close to me; about fifty-eighty feet horizontally and about fifteen to twenty-five feet vertically. Charles did not waste any time. He flew over to this branch but instead of landing on the branch or elsewhere on the tree, he landed on Sarah's back and they mated!! Listen below at the twenty-nine second mark for the high-pitched sound that Charles makes when they mate:

Charles flew off west/northwest and it almost looked like he flew right down to the ground but instead he disappeared from my site within moments. This was the sixth time I had seen them mate this season, six times in fifteen days, and the first time I had ever seen them mate on Christmas! The very first time I saw the owls mate was on Christmas Eve 2006. Must be the mistletoe...

It became time for Sarah to depart, which she did in a northeasterly direction. I found her only a short distance away still in The Hilly Wooded Area. She groomed for a short while before continuing in the same direction. I reacquired her in the same tree, just slightly higher up, as I had before prior to her joining Charles, on the tall dead tree in The Quintet Conifers.

She did not stay long and went bombing off north. I went looking for her and Charles for a little while, hoping to spy them in some of their favorite spots in the around the road and the lake. My luck ran out but I was more than thrilled to have seen what I had. After many amazing things witnessed this evening and Christmas dinner in the offing, I headed for home to feast upon Wendy's superb meal of roast beef, creamed spinach (of the gods), and a great three-berry pie from our amazing local bakery, Sugaree Baking. A very merry Christmas indeed!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Owl Prowl With New Owl Friends

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Several days prior to this Tuesday before Christmas, a new colleague and friend of mine, Aaron Hipp, mentioned that he was interested in a return trip to see the owls. Several weeks prior, Aaron and another new colleague and friend, Stephanie Zayas, had joined me for an owl prowl. While Charles and Sarah did not duet a great deal that night, we had a good time following them to The Second Catalpa, The Right Hand Tree and eventually Charles to The Bare Tree on Wildlife Island. After the prowl, we enjoyed a beer and a bite at The Boathouse before we headed home.

As Aaron's work strongly involves public parks and I spend hundreds of hours in Forest Park, it was natural that we became friends and associates. Kudos go to our mutual friend and colleague, Chad Henry, for suggesting to Aaron that he speak with your friendly neighborhood owl man and park patron. Chad is a big booster of the owls, the park and my work with them.

As Tuesday, December 22 drew closer, Aaron mentioned that his charming wife Pam and Pam's mother Maria, who was visiting for the holidays, might join us. Of course, I welcome all interested parties but I reiterated to Aaron the need for proper apparel now that we would be visiting the owls one day after the first day of winter. I need not have worried. When Aaron and I arrived at the park and we met Pam and Maria, a four-time marathoner in 2009 alone, they were suitably decked out for cold-weather owl prowling.

In the course of many owl prowls, formal or informal, that I have led, I have always made a point to address the apparel one should wear especially in cold weather. Unfortunately, my advice has not always been heeded to the fullest:). An owl prowl is comprised of two extremes: fast, quiet motion or quiet combined with a complete absence of motion. In cold weather, this means that you must dress in quiet, abundantly warm clothes. Over the course of this evening's hour-long prowl, I did not hear a single whine, fidget or complaint from Aaron, Pam or Maria about the cold weather. Bravo!

I gave Pam and Maria a quick tour and history of the owls and their nesting spots and offspring. We began to hear Charles hoot so we headed for The Quintet Conifers. Both Charles and Sarah were in his favorite conifer. I directed them to close but discreet viewing positions and it was great to see their draws drop at the sight of these two gorgeous owls.

First Charles and then Sarah flew south to a large dead deciduous tree not far from The Bushy Tree and The Second Catalpa. They had used this tree a fair amount in recent weeks and did so this evening. They continued a duet that had begun in The Quintet Conifers. The duet increased, decreased and then increased again in pace, intensity and intimacy.

At several points I thought that mating would happen at any moment. Having recently seen the footage of Charles and Sarah mate on December 19, I could tell that my fellow owl prowlers were keen to see them mate in person.

Sarah flew to a nearby tree and the duet continued. From our perspective, I thought that her new position made her physically inaccessible to Charles for mating. Perhaps it was Sarah's position or it was not in the cards or our discreet but four person presence was too much but mating did not occur on our watch. Charles went bombing off east and the disappointment in not seeing them mate was palpable.

We still had Sarah in our sights and then she joined Charles by flying in an easterly direction. It looked like she was heading towards The Eastern Tree but may have paused on her way. Indeed she had paused as keen-eyed Aaron found her in a deciduous tree near The North-South Path. She stayed there briefly before she went flying off to The Eastern Tree. We hustled over and just as we reacquired her in The Eastern Tree she made a gorgeous flight past The Four Trees and over McKinley Drive.

As we reacquired her on the east side of McKinley Drive we saw a muskrat swimming in the waterway below us. Pam, in particular, was pleasantly surprised to see this aquatic rodent. This was a very gutsy muskrat as he seemed completely unfazed by us. Sarah flew off northeast and again we gave chase. We found her by Deer Lake but she continued on northeast. We finally reacquired her in the sloping tree immediately west of the Franz Siegel statue. Moments after we found Sarah she blasted off east, about as far east as I have ever seen her or Charles go.

We decided that we had pursued her enough and we headed back to where we had parked. I was preparing to walk home when someone suggested dinner at The Boathouse. We all agreed but found that they are only open for dinner Thursday-Sunday during the fall and winter. Rats. Plan Bs were discussed and we quickly agreed on the new Central West End location of the excellent pizza purveyors, Pi. Knowing that my life might be forfeit if I went to the new Pi for dinner without my girlfriend, Wendy, I asked the others if she could attend. They graciously and heartily welcomed her. I called Wendy and before the word "Pi" had finished escaping my mouth, she said yes. We drove the short distance to Pi, Wendy joined us a few minutes later and we had a great meal with engaging and wide-ranging conversation. Maria saved the best surprise for last when she generously and kindly treated us all to this excellent repast. Thanks, Maria!!

Friday, January 1, 2010

5th mating of the season observed!!

Monday, December 21, 2009

I arrived at the owls' territory later than I would have liked; about twenty-five minutes after sunset. The clouds that had covered the area had begun to dissipate before sunset, giving me a little extra time but I was still late. To my ears, it sounded as if Charles was hooting near The Bushy Tree and Sarah was responding in kind from The Wooded Area. I went in for a closer look and my eyes confirmed what my ears heard and my brain had analyzed.

Charles was indeed in The Bushy Tree issuing hoots that rang clear in the cold night air. Sarah responded readily making for a delectable duet. Shortly after I found Charles, he flew off south in a dramatic fashion before pulling up to land at the pinnacle of conifer in a mixed glade of conifers and deciduous trees. I could not help but exclaim at the amazing flight that Charles had made.

Just as Charles completed this flight a group of Canada Geese flew by him; a real visual treat. Shortly after Charles had arrived at the pinnacle of this conifer, Sarah stopped hooting. I worried that my exclamation had possibly scared her into flying away. I did not have to worry about Charles, he hooted consistently for a few minutes before going quiet but I could still see him. He flew off west, at first at a healthy altitude before dropping down low and flying close to the east side of The World's Fair Pavilion, possibly for a predatory attempt.

Curious about Sarah's whereabouts, I risked losing Charles and went to look for her in The Right Hand Tree. I did not find her there so I returned to look for Charles. I heard Charles call from The Hilly Wooded Area and I heard a muffled response from Sarah. Charles was in the same tree where they had mated the night before, a tree just in front of The Possible Nest Tree.

I decided to stay with him, wondering if the muffled hoot I heard from Sarah indicated that she was inside the snag/hollow of The Possible Nest Tree. Charles continued to hoot but I did not see or hear Sarah even when Charles increased his hooting rate from every forty-five to sixty seconds to one every thirty seconds. He groomed for a while and turned his attention for a brief while to a noise on the ground below possibly from a prey animal. Not for the first or last time, I wondered if they would nest in The Possible Nest Tree. Charles stopped hooting for a good four to six minutes as I pondered what would happen next.

While the owls can do their disappearing acts and frustrate and confound their faithful observers, wish fulfillment does happen. Seconds after I said aloud that I would love to see Sarah, out she flew north out of the snag/hollow of The Possible Nest Tree! There was a healthy chance that she had been there for a decent amount of time. She landed about forty to sixty yards away from this tree. I urged Charles to hoot but I thought that he may not have observed her leaving The Possible Nest Tree. I have seen at least one interaction between Charles and Sarah that might indicate that even Great Horned Owls cannot hear the silent flight of others of their species but that's another story...

I mentally urged Charles to resume hooting but telepathy was not happening the whole time this evening. I moved a short distance and found Sarah. She was in the same tree or one next to it when she appeared out of nowhere one night earlier. Charles finally resumed hooting and Sarah responded. In an almost exact instant replay of the night before, she flew flew back and joined him in the same tree and moments later they mated!! Listen at the twenty-seven mark for the high pitched sound that Charles makes when they mate.

Charles went blasting off past me going north/northeast doing short, possibly excited hoots as he flew. I went to watch Sarah and in another instant replay of the night before she did disappearing act. I could not complain too much as I had seen both owls and witnessed them mating for the third night in a row and for the fifth time in eleven days! In addition, I had agreed to be home by 6:30 so Wendy and I could decorate our Christmas tree. With the owls mating well after sunset all but once so far this season, I had worried that I would leave the park before they mated. Thankfully on this night they mated just after six and I was home at six twenty-five. The tree was decorated joyously as we enjoyed Christmas music, eggnog and of course, owls featured among the ornaments and decorations.

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.