An epic highlight occurred last night-the Charles and Sarah mated for, to the best of my knowledge, the first time in this breeding season! In the last two breeding seasons, they mated earlier than I had ever seen before, November 26, 2011 and November 30, 2010. Before these years, they had begun to mate in December. As we got into late November, I began hoping to see them mate. As I approach my seventh year of watching these owls, I know a decent amount about these owls and Great Horned Owls in general. However, there is a galaxy of knowledge yet unknown about GHOs. Case in point, their behavior over the past few weeks has vigorously challenged my knowledge. This behavior has made me even balder from all the head scratching I've done! Among the unusual and interesting behavior, for these owls, has included consecutive nights of intensive territorial duetting (hooting as a pair) in a space occupied by Barred Owls followed by nights of little initial duetting with each owl going in a different direction early in the evening only to reunite for more typical duetting. On two nights, one of them this week, it took me over an hour to find Sarah. Each time I did not know where she had perched as I found her duetting with Charles away from her usual perch sites. As in years past they have checked out previously used nest sites, which I have not read about but I suspect that there is some ritual-esque side to this behavior as a way of preparing for another breeding season. Other nights have been more typical but through it all no mating.
Due to the severe drought that we had here and occurred throughout much of the U.S., I was open to the possibility that they would not nest. Great Horned Owls will not nest if conditions are not right-mostly prey populations being low because it takes so much prey to support a breeding pair and their progeny. Studies by Dwight G. Smith and others show that nesting attempts and success track well with rainfall and/or the health of prey populations. The drought produced noticeable nasty effects in Forest Park. Despite heroic efforts made by horticultural crew of Forest Park Forever and the parks/forestry/rec department of the City of St. Louis, many trees were lost this summer. I've noticed fewer Eastern Grey Squirrels and Eastern Cottontail Rabbits, two staples of the owls' diet, in the park. Last year a glade of oaks in the owls territory was so fruitful in producing hard mast (acorns) that this glade was rife with Eastern Grey Squirrels. I would often see 10-20 individuals with such frequency that I dubbed the glade Squirrel Land. This year, Squirrel Land has been relatively unoccupied by these arboreal rodents. The needles of Charles' Favorite Conifer are not their usual ripe green but a blanched and thirsty orange. Charles has taken up using another conifer in The Quartet Conifers lately and we all hope is favorite conifer flourishes once more.
With all this context, I arrived to observe them cautiously optimistic that the owls would mate in the near future. Charles was in his new conifer and Sarah was in the tallest of The Trio Conifers. Sarah has mostly been alternating between this tree and Sarah's Autumnal Perch. They began to duet but the duet came to a stop after a while. I thought that one or both of them might have a pellet on the way up, a process that will prevent them from hooting. No pellets were ejected, it was just a pause in the duet. The duet resumed and Sarah flew off to The Arena landing in one of The Three Trees. Her departure was on the early side, another thing that she and Charles have done in these past few weeks of interesting, puzzling behavior. Charles made his own way to The Arena, landing somewhere in The 06/09/11 Nest Tree. I too headed to The Arena and found Sarah in The First of The Three Trees. (As always be sure to double click on the photos to see a larger image)
Charles was ensconced in The 2011 Nest Hollow. They had each visited this hollow numerous times this fall including several times within the last week.
Charles was staccato-hooting. I used to call this Choo-choo Hooting until I learned the term staccato hooting from Karla Kinstler, one of the premier GHO experts especially regarding their vocalizations. Staccato hooting indicates excitement. Most times I've heard Charles this has been just before or after mating. This was the second time in about the last week that he was in this hollow staccato hooting with Sarah nearby. Unfortunately, while I heard it with my own ears, on both nights this hooting was very soft and my distance from him too great to capture it on video. What was different last night was that several times he interrupted his near constant staccato hooting with a loud regular hoot. Over a celebratory meal later at Dressel's Pub, I explained it to my girlfriend, Wendy Schlegel, that it was like hearing Miles Davis playing constant 1/16th notes before going into a more conventional melody of longer notes. Sarah responded to these hoots but Charles remained in the hollow. Sarah went flying off east well out sight. Charles flew east a shorter distance landing in another favorite Cottonwood near the river system. He then followed Sarah but did not go as far. Charles landed high up in some tall conifers that grow right within one of the park's cultural institutions.
He began to hoot intensely. I removed my hat to hear better but try as I might I could not hear Sarah even though it the night was still. Imagine my delight when a few minutes later Sarah came flying back and landed in the same tree as Charles. In this picture Sarah is on the left and Charles is on the right.
The duetted intently but without the intensity that usually precedes mating. Unfortunately, I was right but thankfully only for the time being. Charles blasted off again heading east and out of sight. Sarah waited a brief spell before heading out in the same direction. I had to move quickly as there was no direct path to get where they had gone. Damn, I wish I could fly or at least teleport to avoid these long way round journeys. I finally got to a point where I might observe them and I heard Charles hooting loudly. He was in one of the main natural areas in the park and within a specific section of this natural area that I call Raccoonville. I've had many of my best Raccoon sightings in this area with its large Cottonwoods with hollows and snags that the Raccoons nest in, much like Charles and Sarah do with their own Cottonwoods. One of these Raccoon sightings in Raccoonville involved Sarah making a predatory attempt on one of the Raccoons. (Yes, GHOs can and will eat Raccoons and I have seen several such attempts over the years-intense and memorable to put it mildly!)
I began to hear Sarah reply. She was on the other side of the river system from Charles. I was about 100-150 yards away from Charles and I made my way down a hill while watching and listening and filming. Care was taken in my descent! Sarah flew over towards Charles and I heard the duetting go up a gear. A few seconds later I heard the high pitched vocalizations that Sarah makes when they mate. Listen carefully between the 29-32 second marks.
Fantastic! Awesome! It was great to finally observe them mating this season after the many hour spent watching and hoping. Now mating does not mean nesting necessarily but it is a great lead in that direction!
I headed into Raccoonville hoping to reacquire them. As I did I thought that it was a touch rude that the owls had mated in Racconville, not only do they hunt the owls hunt the Raccoons but they have mate in the Raccoons' neighborhood! In my excitement I ended up walking right past Sarah who was perched high up in one of the most prominent trees in this area. I found her later as I made my around the northeast portion of Raccoonville. This was likely the tree in which they had mated so it was great to find her even as I kicked myself for my earlier haste. A nice couple was passing by and I conducted some owl ambassadorship with them. They were thrilled to see an owl for the first time and were amazed by her large size. While talking with the couple, Sarah vanished. We said our goodbyes and I went back walking through a restored prairie in the natural area, hoping to reacquire the owls. I came to the end of the prairie and turned back to where a lake empties back into the river system. Near some riffles at this aquatic intersection are some favorite hunting spots of Charles and I had seen him there recently with my friend and owl mentee Brenda Hente. My ESL (Experience, Skill and Luck) were rewarded last night as there at end of a Sycamore was Charles. He was facing me but something behind caught his attention behind me. His head did a full 180 and he even head bobbed in this position. He pivoted his body and flew off east-I hope his hunt was successful! After a night of many highlights, I decided to head home. Wendy kindly suggested a celebratory meal and we had a great one at Dressels Pub. Thanks for reading!