Saturday, December 29, 2012

Seventh Owliversary!

I reached a new milestone tonight. Tonight marks the seventh year since I started to observe and document the owls with great consistency. After first observing the owls one evening in late August-early September (I wish I had written down the exact date), I had a few months of inconsistent sightings. Thanks to networking, research and dogged persistence, I began to see the owls consistently on December 29, 2005. I did write this date down and since then it has been my anniversary or owliversary. I remember hitting the one year mark and then the two year and so on. Observing and documenting Charles and Sarah and their progeny is a great joy as well as a great deal of work and dedication.  The owls never cease to amaze, delight, confuse, confound, fascinate and intrigue.  

As in years past, some number crunching is in order.  Between December 29, 2011 and tonight, December 29, 2012, I went to the park 261 nights to see/observe/document/do outreach with the owls. That is 71.5 %  of the days of the year.  A bit of drop from last year but not too shabby.  Travel and such in February, June and a variety of activities and furnace-like temperatures from May-August dropped the overall number and average.  This was undoubtedly the year with hottest winter and summer temperatures.  We had days in the summer with temps as high as 105 degrees Fahrenheit.  Like the previous year, this year I had a 100% success rate.  Every time I went to look for the owls, I saw at least one of them.  I have never had two consecutive years of a 100% success rate.  

This was one of the best years for outreach about the owls and my work with them.  I led 49 owl prowls this years, almost one a week.  These owl prowls ranged from "private" owl prowls for folks that contacted me to well-established events like the 2012 St. Louis Bioblitz. The 49 owl prowls I led does not take into account the scores of people to whom I showed and educated about the owls.  

As the owls nested this year in an easy to see/great to photograph spot, the owls got a great deal of attention from local nature aficionados and local media.  Local media attention included my first TV coverage on KTVI/Fox 2, a cover story in The West End Word, one and two nice mentions in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and a nice piece about winter owl prowls in the St. Louis Family portion of St. Louis Magazine

Furthermore, I gave 7 well-received talks for organizations ranging from Forest Park Forever to two local Kiwanis Club chapters to the St. Louis Audubon Society (my first keynote speech) and the Webster Groves Nature Study Society.  I already have 3 talks booked/in the process of becoming booked for 2013.  The first one is a talk at the Maplewood Public Library on Thursday, January 24, 2013.  I hope to see you there!  

Other highlights of the year include having the Forest Park Forever tribute tree (a Cottonwood) that my girlfriend, Wendy, bought for me planted in the owls' territory, receiving an incredible birthday present of a book of photos of the park and the owls accompanied with touching testimonials about the owls and my work with them (a book splendidly conceived and organized by my friend and owl mentee, Brenda Hente) making contact with my first long-distance owl mentee, Pam Dimeler, having a Great Horned Owl named after me by my owl mentees, Barb Brownell and Chris Gerli,  getting to release a Great Horned Owl much like this one, getting a great new job at Fontbonne University, and sightings of a wide-range of wildlife in Forest Park including Common Snapping Turtles, Baltimore Orioles, Bald Eagles, Mink and Eastern Bluebirds.  

I hope to see you all in Forest Park soon and please feel free to contact me contact me at if you would like to go an owl prowl or have me give a talk on the owls.  Thanks for reading!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Mistletoe Works-Much More Mating By The Owls! Part II

December 25 and 26 were amazing evenings.  Charles and Sarah mated twice on each night and each night had interesting similarities and differences.  I began on the 25th by heading to the western portion of the park hoping to see some of the Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls that reside there.  No luck on the GHOs but I did see a Barred Owl in a glade of white pines that had again become a reliable spot to find this species.  It is great to see them here again after several years of absence due, almost certainly, to human disturbance.  I could not get a good angle on the owl without strongly risking disturbing it but you can see for sure that it is Strix varia.

I approached Charles and Sarah's territory from the northwest and I began to hear Charles hoot.  From the direction of his hoots, I could tell he was in The Quartet Conifers.  I headed there, possibly hearing Sarah respond nearby and I found him in his new favorite conifer grooming away.  Check out how he is cleaning one of the nails of his talons.

I found Sarah in the tallest of The Trio Conifers but in a more exposed spot than usual.  I did not even have a time to get some stills of her before she made a short, graceful flight landing in The Jungle Gym Tree by The Archy Tree, a short distance away from Charles.

They began to duet intensely and I moved quickly to get the best angle of Sarah as I thought mating could happen at any point.  I was not fast enough to film the beginning of their mating but I got most of it, unfortunately a little out of focus.  Everything happened so fast!

Charles flew down to The 06/09/11 Nest Tree.  They had mated at 4:18pm, 27 minutes before sunset.  This was the earliest I had seen them mate so far this breeding season.  Most of their matings have been well after sunset, which is less typical for them.   This was also the first time I had seen them mate this season in The Jungle Gym Tree by The Archy Tree.  They frequently mated in this tree during the previous breeding season, so much so that I sometimes referred to it as The Marital Bed Tree.

Sarah began to groom.  I was in a close, concealed spot by her and was able to get some nice shots of her grooming.  Kindly notice the immense size of her talons. Bloody hell.

I went to find Charles and found him at the edge of the 2011 Nest Hollow in The 06/09/11 Nest Tree.  

I ran into my friend and owl mentee Brenda Hente.  She was stunned to hear how they had mated already and well before sunset.  We watched Charles and we even managed to find an angle where we could see Sarah and Charles.  Sarah continued to groom and eventually flew off to The Hilly Wooded Area, presumably to hunt. Charles began to staccato hoot interspersing these rapid hoots with his usual hoot.  Charles flew out to The Middle Tree and began to hoot more.  He blasted off to The Hilly Wooded Area just as Sarah had.  

We headed off to reacquire Charles and/or Sarah.  We entered The Hilly Wooded Area and heard Sarah make a hunger demand call in a tree in front of us.  Brenda's sharp eyes found Sarah in a tree parallel with The 2010 Nesting Tree.  She flew off south towards The Southern Branch Tree, one of Charles' favorite hunting spots.  It looked like she landed in this tree but was still flapping her wings as if she was struggling to keep her balance.  Then we heard the high-pitched mating sound!  We realized that she had landed near Charles and they were mating! This second mating was at 5:13pm, just under an hour after their first mating.  Seconds later Charles landed about 40 feet from us horizontally and 10-15 vertically.   

He had flown so fast and so quietly it seemed that he had just appeared from a completely different trajectory.  We even wondered if there was another male out there.  Thankfully we were able to go over what we each had seen and we worked out that it was indeed Charles.  Charles blasted off east and we went to watch Sarah.  I had never seen Sarah in The Southern Branch Tree before, which made this a neat sight.  She did not stay long before blasting off, also in a easterly direction.  We decided to call it a night.  I returned home and had a delicious Xmas dinner that my girlfriend ,Wendy, had made. We had a beef shoulder roast, baked potatoes and green beans as I told her all about the amazing evening with the owls.  

The next night, December 26, was another incredible night with Charles and Sarah mating twice that night. 
I headed to the east side of the park, which I had not been to for a little while.  I saw some Crows, Mallards, Eastern Grey Squirrels and the below raptor I have not positively identified yet, possible a Merlin.  I welcome any and all input on IDing this raptor. (I cropped in the picture to give more detail)

I continued to the owls territory and Charles was in the 2011 Nest Hollow in The 06/09/11 Nest Hollow.  He was giving me the "I am not happy with you, please go away" look and I reacted accordingly and went elsewhere.  

In my experience, if an owl is giving you this look, go away and come back a while later.  I went to look for Sarah in The Overlook Hotel Tree but she was not there.  I returned to see Charles and he was fine with my being there.  I took another tack to look for Sarah by heading up to The Trio Conifers.  She was there and in a more typical, hard to find spot than she was the day prior.  

She was not there much longer. Charles and Sarah began to duet.  As they were a decent distance apart and with one on top of a hill and the other at the bottom of said hill, I tried to find a spot where I could observe both of them.  I was partially successful.  I missed Charles at some point because the next thing I knew Sarah made a low gliding flight landing in The Training Area of The Wooded Area and a second later Charles was mating with her.  

They had mated a 4:28pm, eighteen minutes before sunset.   Charles flew back to The 2011 Nest Hollow.  I found Sarah in a unusual albeit not unprecedented perch in a tree between The Fleur-des-lis Tree and The 08/09 Salon Trees.  I had a great view of her and I took a look at Charles in The 2011 Nest Hollow.

After a while they began to duet again.  Charles moved to the 06/09 Nest Hollow.  Sarah remained in her approachable perch.  Charles flew closer landing near me and Sarah.  Even though the light was fading I still had a good silhouetted view of Sarah.  I hoped that they would mate in this perch so I could film it.  Well, one out of two is not bad.  Charles flew deeper into The Training Area but was out of sight as their duet intensified. Sarah flew towards him and they mated at 5:15pm a little over forty-five minutes after their first mating.  Charles flew and landed directly above me, staccato and regularly hooting as he flew and then perched.  I took up a less close position and he flew right over me in a typically gorgeous and breath-taking manner. 

I looked for Charles for a little but headed home for another amazing meal from the beef shoulder roast.  After enduring intense cold on December 24, I went up to six layers on my torso and made sure I had a thermos of hot tea with me.  These measures helped...immeasurably.  

Charles and Sarah mated again last night, Thursday, December 27.  It took them a while to get their duet going but what made this mating special was that I was leading an owl prowl.  Mary Butler had contacted me  and I happily led a prowl for her and her family.  Brenda came along and as always was quite helpful, chipping when I forgot a key point as well providing a good pair of eyes and ears.  

I'm going to conclude this blog post in a slightly different manner so be sure to watch the next two videos to see/hear the post's conclusion. Thanks for reading/watching/listening!

Mistletoe Works-Much More Mating By The Owls! Part I

Even though I am more of a fauna person than a flora devotee, I am reasonably comfortable in saying that I have never seen mistletoe in Forest Park.  That said, there must be some near the owls' territory as they are mating and mating some more.  I am more confident that they will nest so frequent is their mating.

In my last post, the last mating was observed was on December 19.  Charles and Sarah did not mate while I was watching them on December 20.  The next time they mated in the same place as they had on December 17, the glade containing The 2010 OP (Observation Post) Trees in The Hilly Wooded Area.  Check out this footage and listen closely at the 20 second mark for the high pitched that female GHOs make when mating.

They did not mate on December 22 despite some intense duetting and even perching immediately next to each other in The Middle Tree for several minutes.  Starting on December 23 they have mated every night including last night.  On December 25 and 26 they mated twice on each night!  I have seen two matings in one night before but this may be the first time I have seen it in consecutive nights.

The mating on December 23 was interesting and demonstrated something a behavioral point I have seen in prior years, namely that where the owls are matters when mating.  Charles and Sarah had a great duet and met up in The Middle Tree on the same branch, mere inches from each other.  However, where Sarah was perched made her, for lack of a better word, inaccessible.  Several branches above her prevented Charles from hopping on her back to mate with her.   Sarah solved the problem but hopping over Charles as if she was playing checkers and he promptly hopped on her and they mated.  Unfortunately it was too dark when I was filming to see this but you can hear my narration and hear them mate below.

December 24's mating was wild because I was doubtful that mating would happen.  Thankfully due to patience and perseverance by Charles and your friendly neighborhood Owl Man, mating was observed. The night began on an interesting note.  Earlier that day my friend and fellow owl devotee Robin Street-Morris had been to see the owls and posted some photos of them on Facebook.  Judging by the photos, I was pretty sure where the owls but asked Robin for confirmation, which she kindly gave.  In Robin's photos, Sarah was in her recent favorite perch in the tallest of The Trio Conifers and Charles was perched at the edge of the 2011 Nest Hollow in The 06/09/11 Nest Tree.  Of late Charles has been using this hollow a great deal, sometimes perched edge and other times deep within this cavernous hollow.  I arrived at their territory and headed to look for Sarah first.  No Sarah, at least not in The Trio Conifers.  When not there she has also roosted lately in The Overlook Hotel Tree.  No dice and no Sarah.   I tried to look through The Wooded Area for a long distance, needle in a haystack view of Charles in The 2011 Nest Hollow.  I trained my binoculars to find Charles only to find myself looking at Sarah's back.  She was in an unusual perch in a tree between The Fleur-de-lis Tree and The 08/09 Salon Trees.

I headed down to The Arena to see Charles and get a better look at Sarah.  Charles was at the edge of the 2011 Nest Hollow but as soon as I trained my camera on him, he turned around and went deep into the hollow.  Check out his gorgeous tail feathers.

With Charles out of sight I went to look at Sarah.  She began to groom as you can see her here grooming her leg or pants, as my girlfriend, Wendy, would say:).

As sunset approached, the owls hooted a few times but as time went on they never got into a duet groove.  Sarah flew to a couple of different perches including The Eastern Tree and hooted but at this point Charles was not responding.  Sarah flew off northwest landing about 100 yards from Charles.  I had not given up hope and I was thrilled when Charles finally emerged from the hollow.  My hopes were diminished not because he did not hoot, on the contrary he was hooting at his peak rate, 3-4 hoots per minute, but because of where was hooting.  Instead of landing in a nearby spot and hooting he landed in The Jungle Gym Tree by The Overlook Hotel Tree.   He was now 150-200 yards away from Sarah.  While it was jolly cold that night there was only a light wind so I am reasonably certain that Sarah could here the now vastly vocal Charles. She did not reply at all.  She eventually flew off going further northwest but then I saw a largish shape head back closer The Arena but I was not sure if it was Sarah or not.  Charles continued to hoot and I decided to stick with him. 

The cold was biting and nasty, eating through my five layers on my torso, balaclava, hat, two pairs of gloves, two pairs of socks and boots.  I lamented my decision not to bring a thermos of hot tea with me. In an effort to stay warm, I changed positions, which helped keep the blood flowing.  This can be a risky move as an owl can fly off so quickly and quietly that you can never know the direction in which they flew unless you see them depart.  I was in mid-position change when I noticed the tempo and tonality of Charles' hoots change.  His calls came faster, more trilling/purring and softer.  I realized that Sarah must be nearby.  I didn't hear her hoot but the next thing I knew I heard them mate. Charles then flew right over me, staccato hooting as went. He landed in The Middle Tree and Sarah made a hunger demand call.

They had mated 31 minutes after Sarah had flown off northwest! Sarah made a few more hunger demand calls before flying off northwest.  Charles hooted triumphantly and moved to the 06/09 Nest Hollow, eventually disappearing deep into the hollow.  I headed home grateful to have seen them mate and grateful to be walking home fast and feeling my body warm up gradually.  Be sure to check out part two of this post, thanks for reading!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

More Mating and Save The Date

After mating on December 7, the owls, to the best of my knowledge, did not mate until December 15.  The mated that night, December 17 and last night, December 19.  Each mating was different in all respects, where, when and the behavior prior to and occurring after each mating.  Seeing them mate more as the mating season progresses makes me more hopeful that they will nest.  Furthermore, I am more confident that after mating and nesting early the last two years, they are back to a more conventional time frame of mating (and hopefully nesting). At the end of this post I will post videos of all three mating moments.

In just over a month, I will be giving a talk on the owls and my work with them at the Maplewood Public Library in nearby Maplewood, Missouri. Please save the date:  Thursday, January 24, 2013, 7-8pm.  I would be honored to see you at this talk.  This will be my first and hopefully not last talk of 2013.  Perhaps in 2013 I will eclipse the six talks that I gave in 2012.  I give talks to nature organizations, schools, scouts, churches, you name it.  If you know of a group that might be interested in a talk, please have them contact me at  . I use my photos and videos to show the owls and their behavior and I do a decent job of connecting with a wide range of audiences.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Owls' First Mating Of The Season Observed Last Night!

Don't let my many months away from my updating my blog (aka business as usual for the world's worst blogger) fool you.  The owls continue to fascinate and delight and I continue spend many hours observing and documenting them and doing abundant outreach work.

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!