Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Tale Of Three Females and Charles

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

EXTRA! EXTRA! EXTRA!

Charles has a new mate!  Her name is Olivia and she has been with Charles since early October and they first mated on December 7!  Here she is on November 18. What a beauty!


I will be discussing this great turn of events and another huge owl-related milestone at 12:00pm CST tomorrow, Wednesday, December 30 on St. Louis on the Air on St. Louis Public Radio, KWMU 90.7FM.  If you are not in the St. Louis area, you can listen live on the web here.  Thanks go out to KWMU and the St. Louis on the Air team for having me back on to discuss the owls and my work with them!

UPDATED: Radio appearance and corresponding story now online here.  Thank you, KWMU and St. Louis on the Air, I had great time once again!

Before I go into what I hope will be a fun and fascinating post about what Charles has been up to in the last few months, I must take a moment to thank all of you who via conversations, e-mails, and other means took the time to express your kind condolences about the loss of Sarah.  The outpouring of grief, compassion and kindness continues to warm my heart and demonstrate the impact these owls have on so many people.  I feel Sarah's loss daily but her passing is softened by the kindness of her many admirers. Thank you.

This fall's owl doings amazed, intrigued, challenged, delighted and occasionally frustrated me but I would not change it.  I expected the fall to be like this and it exceeded my expectations.  I find myself often feeling like I am back in 2005-2006, my first year observing these owls, as so many new things occurred and new wrinkles and aspects of behavior witnessed.  My knowledge base of observation and research helps but only so much as it is a whole new set of circumstances.

I wondered when the owlets would disperse and if an adult female would be seen and court with Charles only after dispersal took place.  I soon had my answer.  An adult female Great Horned Owl arrived on September 1. Completely amazing to see this!  Large but not quite as large as Sarah, her darker coloration and massive talons still reminded me of Sarah.



She landed in The Jungle Gym Tree Near The Overlook Hotel Tree only a short distance from Grace; the older owlet. Stunned to see another female, what happened next took things to another level. Grace, who had just made a predatory attempt and had not vocalized before this female made her presence known, now began to make begging cheeps towards this female.  Did Grace think this female that resembled her mother was in fact Sarah?  This thought was mournful and heart-tugging. Almost immediately a more tactical possibility came to mind. Was Grace's begging the legendary opportunism of Great Horned Owls coming into play and Grace seeing if she could cadge a free lunch?  Either way the begging fascinated.

The shorter, softer, higher and numerous notes in her hoot confirmed this new adult's sex as female.  As with a human voice, the hoot of each Great Horned Owls is unique.  The tonality of this owl's hoot was unusual as it had a liquid/aquatic edge to it as is she was hooting while blowing bubbles or gargling.  Whether in the wild or via video clips, I have never heard a hoot like this. Everyone who heard her hoot has said the same thing.



This tree was regularly used by Sarah,, however this female landed in a section of the tree not used regularly by Sarah but it was still odd to see a different female in this tree.  Grace's begging continued to such a point that she flew and landed right next to the female, who promptly flew away from the hungry owlet. This behavior was quite like Sarah and although I had made the call that Sarah was gone, part of me kept a small window open that this might be her.  Overall though, I knew it was a different and new female.  One aspect of her behavior, which struck immediately was how uncertain she was in her movements and overall posture.  Not for the first time, I wondered if she was a young adult, just under or over a year old.

Charles was not found that night.  Perhaps he carefully observed this new female from a hidden vantage point.   I had an owl talk the next night but thankfully my friend and all-star owl mentee, Brenda Hente, was in the park.  She did not see Charles but saw both owlets and had her first sighting of the new female. I could not wait to return the following day and observe the owls.

After searching without success a wide area on my own, I ran into Brenda and we agreed to split up to cover even more territory.  We eventually saw two owls but by then it was quite dark and neither owl vocalized.  Despite this lack of information from what we did observe of them we decided it was either both owlets or one owlet and the new female. While we did not see Charles that night, we were glad to hear him hoot several times.  Knowing the distinctive hoots of the owls is a huge asset when observing and documenting them.

The next night, September 4, was a big night. It got off to a great start with an early and close view of the new female near The Permanent Puddle, her large talons in clearly evident.



I soon found Grace in the Jungle Gym Tree Near The Overlook Hotel Tree and the new female moved to this tree before going to The Jungle Gym Tree itself. Again Grace begged at her while the female hooted from this jungle gym tree's namesake location.  By now I was joined by Brenda and my girlfriend Wendy Schlegel. What happened next took things to the next level and it was quite correct to have these incredibly important owl folks with me.

We began to hear Charles hooting from the 2010 OP (Observation Post) Trees.  The new female soon flew towards him and they began to duet for the first time!  


This was my first time seeing courtship behavior between two Great Horned Owls and more specifically, seeing Charles court for the first time.  Beyond exciting to see Charles back in the ring! I knew that it was too early to call them a couple but the excitement of seeing this behavior could not be denied. They had a solid duet and then went their separate ways. 

With Sarah's passing Charles was more vocal in the late summer/early fall than he usually would be. This period of time is when the adults begin to vocalize more but this was a noticeable increase from years prior.  I think this served two functions. One: without Sarah to help him declare and defend their territory with hooting, he had to make up the difference.  Two: hooting solo with no female to duet with may have helped him declare his status as a single and territory holding male.  More on this point later.

The next several days passed with great interest and no lack of variety. Sometimes I saw Charles, Grace, Harold and the new female and on other days, just one or two of them.  While leading an owl prowl on September 11 I saw the best, closest and most intense duets so far between Charles and the new female.  Charles was on the right and the new female on the left.





Another good duet took place on September 14 but still I refrained from calling them a couple or the new female, the new mate of Charles.  I tend to err on the side of conservatism when it comes to making such calls.  That said, my track record is sufficiently robust to defend this pattern.

Throughout this time, one of the challenges continued to be finding the owls each night.  One of the joys of the late summer-early fall period is having so many owls to observe and conversely it is one of the biggest challenges as well. This challenge was markedly increased with significant variations and inconsistencies in perch/roost-site usage.  Patterns would emerge only to fall apart and then re-emerge. Still the challenges, as always, were worth the candle especially when rewarded like a sight like this of Charles hooting on September 20 silhouetted with pink clouds.



September 21 was a noteworthy evening in several respects as it was the first part of a collaborative project between the St. Louis Zoo, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Forest Park Owls.  I led two Zoo personnel, Rachel Killeen and Whitney Collins, on an owl prowl/filming expedition to obtain footage for an upcoming St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert with whom St. Louis Zoo was collaborating.  This would have been sufficiently cool but our evening began by finding a third adult owl even before we found Charles and the new female.  This owl was near the two of them but I never observed it vocalize even when a hearty duet started between the other two. It may have been another adult female trying to court with Charles or an owlet dispersing from another territory or an intruding adult male trying to obtain a territory.  This well-concealed owl's silence and lack of movement made it appear to say, "Nobody here but us owls."


Our time in the park concluded with Charles and the new female meeting to duet in The Jungle Gym Tree By The Overlook Hotel Tree before heading off yet again.


Rachel and Whitney were able to film this same moment and thanks to discussions with them and their supervisor, Kim Hoorman, I was able to see their footage while the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performed for a large audience on a Sunday afternoon in Powell Hall. The performance was preceded by several educational displays including an owl table hosted by your humble servant. All of this along with seeing the words, "Thank you to Mark Glenshaw and Forest Park Owls" on a large projection screen behind the orchestra made for one of my owl outreach highlights of the year and in general.  In addition, the footage was used for several subsequent concerts attended by thousands of local school children. 

An owl prowl on September 22 yielded another solid duet between the new female and Charles but I had no idea how quickly things could change.  The following night I had to work much later than usual and I stopped by the park well after sunset, hopeful but doubtful I would see much owl activity. As I parked my car, I saw Charles perched thirty-forty yards ahead of me, which was a jolly nice coincidence.  Grateful for my lucky find I got out and observed him in this large Cottonwood.  He flew south-southeast up a hill and as I walked quickly to try and catch up with him, I heard him hoot followed quickly by a female hooting.  It was a different female!  This now newer female had a much more conventional female hoot; quite reminiscent of Sarah's in all respects.  She and Charles began to duet in a glade of trees just opposite the 2010 Nest Tree. 




This brief but intense duet concluded with Charles flying off while hooting in short, sharp notes known in the literature (thanks to the world's leading expert on GHOW vocalizations and a huge owl advocate and expert, Karla Bloem) as staccato hooting,


I had no doubt that this was a different female but it was good to get supporting feedback on the above videos from Wendy, Brenda other owl friends/fanatics/mentees.   Was this second female the third owl seen, but not heard on September 21 or another individual altogether? I missed the next night due to an owl talk, my fifth one for the Maplewood Public Library (thank you, MPL for hosting so many of my talks!) but Brenda was in the park and reported a brief duet with the now newer or second female.   The next few nights yielded no additional sightings of this female or the first one.  Thoughts, theories and the like whirled around as I tried to remember to just keep observing and documenting as that would provide the best evidence and possible answers.  

During this time is when the owlets dispersed. As they were close in age I was reasonably confident that Grace and Harold would disperse close together.  That said, I think they dispersed later than they otherwise would have due to Sarah's death.  Without both parent owls duetting, refusing to feed the owlets and, if necessary, chasing the owlets away from the parents' territory, Grace and Harold remained in their natal territory.  Dispersal is always a bittersweet time in the owls' breeding cycle. It is vastly important that dispersal takes place both to ensure the health of the population of prey in the parents' territory and to keep the gene pool deep and wide.  Still though one cannot help but miss the owlets and their antics that accompanies their slow maturation.  The fact that Grace and Harold were the last owlets that Sarah ever had made this time more poignant than usual. 

September 29 found Charles again solo but a memorable night was made when it began to rain. When the rain arrived, Charles was perched in his former favorite conifer, one of The Quartet Conifers.  This tree and another of this foursome died in the last few years and while sad to see formerly regular perch/roost sites fade away, I have come to learn that perch/roost sites (and nest sites) come and go.  Usually when it rains as the owls are getting active, they tend to stoically endure the precipitation but not tonight.  For only the second time in over nine-and-half years of watching these owls, I saw Charles use the rain and take a shower in rather dramatic fashion. See for yourself!


When discussing the owls and my work with them, be it in a formal talk or with a passerby in the park or a colleague, I try to emphasize that one of the reasons that myself and others return to see the owls so frequently is that, every night is different and you will never know what you will see. This remarkable and beautiful bathing behavior by Charles in the drenching (yes, I was drenched too) rain I think is a stellar example of this aspect of the owls' allure.

The following night proved noteworthy as well. I found the newer female early on and after walking right past him him at least once, I saw Charles. The two owls were close together and the female began to hoot regularly.  (Kindly forgive the blurry videos)



Despite his proximity to this female, Charles did not respond. He watched her carefully but nothing more. She landed closer to him and hooted at a greater pace but still he did not respond.  Charles flew off a short distance east before blasting far off south.  I decided to follow him and I reacquired him in The Hilly Wooded Area, where upon he began to hoot for the first time that night.  I did not hear the newer female respond to him. Charles then blasted off flying east. Seconds after his eastward flight, which immediately took him over a tract of nearby woods occupied by a pair of Barred Owls, a large owl flew out of these woods going north-northwest.  I tried to find this owl but, to the best of my knowledge, was not successful.  I then heard the newer female calling from the Barred Owls' tract of woods and I found her there.  I watched her until I did the classic take your eyes off the owl for three to five seconds and you look up and the owl is gone. I looked around several areas but did not find Charles, the newer female or the third mystery owl. Was the latter owl a Barred Owl or another Great Horned Owl and if so, was it another female, a dispersing owlet, etc.  I have no idea but I remain fascinated by the possible permutations.  Subsequent days of observing Charles solo told me that the newer/second female was gone.  

While I believe my conservative approach about waiting to make the call about a variety of developments is the right way to proceed, my observation and documentation of the new females did not exist in a bubble.  While I did not update my blog during the last few months, sadly not the first or last time this occurred, I had numerous discussions with many people about these new females, their courtship with Charles and what might or might not come to pass with them.  It is heartening to recall the enthusiasm and vigor of these discussions, which again demonstrates the depth and breadth of the owls' impact on people.  

One topic that came up immediately as the first female made her appearance was what to call her and then the second female.  My friend and colleague, Julie Portman, both in jest and in seriousness stated matter of factly, that the first female should be named Julia as the name is obviously a superior one.  Julie referred to this owl as Julia demonstrating her human resolve and good-natured kidding.  Without too much contemplation my response to the many and kind name questions and suggestions is that I would not name any female until I saw her and Charles mate thus making them a couple and her his new mate.  Thankfully, people understood my, for lack of a better word, policy and approach.

Of the many challenges stemming from Sarah's death was how to talk about it when I giving talks on the owls.  I decided to do so after I posted about her passing, that way it was "officially" out in the public sphere.  From there, I decided to give my talks in the usual fashion but then just before the very end, tell my audiences that she died, how I saw that unfold and the two important silver linings of her passing (the owlets at the very cusp of independence and never seeing courtship behavior).  Even with this plan and the appropriate slides in place, it was tough each and every time to bring  up and discuss this sad turn of events.  The audience responses to Sarah's death are remarkable.  In front of a packed house at the Daniel Boone branch of St. Louis County Library I heard gasps of shock when I turned to her passing.  A kind woman attending my talk at the Festus Public Library came up to me insisting that I get a hug while plainly but endearingly saying, "I cried when you talked about Sarah."  With a cracking voice and tear in eye during this portion of this particular talk was the nearest I came to becoming emotionally overwhelmed in the moment.  

On a lighter but hopefully no less interesting note, one of the more curious aspects of Sarah's passing and Charles' subsequent courtships has been the questions people ask about these developments and how the questions are delivered.  For the most part the questions are solid, fact-gathering questions without any other agenda than obtaining information and understanding.    On the other hand, many questions are asked with people layering the question with their baggage, biases and the like especially when it comes to romantic/reproductive relationships.  For example, quite early on a woman asked me in all seriousness and with an abundance of vehemence, "Do you think Charles has betrayed Sarah?"  I was literally speechless for a few seconds after that one.  During the Q&A period of a talk, a lady asked me a long question and while I cannot remember her exact words, it was so baggage laden that I could not help being a smart-ass. I started my reply by saying, "Well enough about you and your boyfriend..."  She blushed crimson but to my credit, I did answer her question in full.  Many women and men upon hearing about Charles and the courting say things like "Wow-he doesn't waste any time."  or "Already playing the field, eh?"  To these and all similar comments and questions I try to first remind people about the nature of nature by paraphrasing the character, Matt Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfus, in the film Jaws by saying,  "All he does is eat, fly, hoot and make little owls."  

Being mindful of this and keeping an open mind as to the possibilities and permutations is vital but not without its challenges.  We all want a nice clear-cut narrative with easy answers to challenging questions but it is best to keep the jump to conclusions mat in its box.  With this in mind, why did the courtship fail with the new female and the newer female?  I do not know and the literature, while describing courtship behavior in detail, does not give much insight on exactly how a mate is chosen.  From what I have read and now observed I think it is a two-way street, it takes two to tango scenario. In this case, Charles must demonstrate that he has a territory and that it is a good one as well as his fitness, in general, so that a female will decide to invest her time, effort and genes to mate and nest with him.  From his perspective, a female has to show that she has the ability to successfully mate, nest, defend and raise young so that his reproductive efforts and massive food provision responsibilities will be worthwhile.  The first or new female seemed clumsy and uncertain of herself perhaps demonstrating a young age and subsequent lack of poise and polish that did not click for Charles.  The second or newer female courted well initially with Charles but the courtship stopped so quickly.  I am still fascinated by the disparity in the time that the two females were around; the first for three weeks and and the second for a matter of days.  I would love to know what accounted for this.

Speaking of the literature, mate replacement is a frequently observed phenomenon and one that often occurs quite quickly after the death of a mate.  That said, the literature is quick to say that it is not understood how mate replacement takes place.  One of the fun and beneficial things about doing intensive naturalist work with a particular species for a long time is that you begin develop your own thoughts and ideas on such poorly understood matters.  Even before Sarah's death, I considered how mate replacement might take place. To begin with in all owl species there is a significant pool of single, un-mated owls.  These owls are called floaters and while we have learned more about floaters and how they live and interact with mated pairs there is still much to learn.  With this in mind, I think that in the case of a dead male, the male floaters are listening for the hoot of a male owl in a potential territory.  Not hearing the male hoot they investigate the territory and find the surviving female still in the territory.   This indicates that the territory is available, it has a female on it and now courtship can take place.  If the courtship is successful the new male has a mate and a territory.  

In our case, with the female gone and the male still on the territory, I think the female floaters heard Charles hooting but having not heard a female reply the floaters knew that he was a single male with a territory.  I have likened this process to the following joke I heard the late, great Robin Williams tell while being interviewed by David Frost.  There's a woman living in Miami Beach and she's been in this one neighborhood for years and years. She knows everyone and everything there. One morning she sees a new man there so she says to him, "Oh, you're new here."  The man replies, "Yup, I just moved in a few days ago."  The woman has a quick follow-up question, "Really, where did you move from?" The man shifts his feet and says, "Well, it's embarrassing to say this but I just got out of prison."   Taken aback the woman still pursues her line of questioning by asking, "Really, what did you do?" Even further mortified the man says, "Well I hate to admit it but I... murdered my wife."  The woman pauses but does not move her eyes from him before she smiles, touches his arm and asks him, "So, you're single?"

In my post about Sarah's passing and in talks and discussions over the last few months, I have continuously put out there that Charles might be on the older side of the equation and having not courted for many years, may not have the stuff to play the courtship game successfully.  In recent talks I have described this in terms of human courtship by saying that "Hey, baby-what's your sign?" may have been a successful opening line in 1977 but less so in subsequent decades.  

With the departure of the second, newer female I wondered what would happen next.  With summer ended and the owlets dispersed Charles hooting became a daily and more pronounced behavior.  I continued to observe and document and as if often the case, the work paid off handsomely. 

October 7th was a mild and sunny autumn day and I arrived at Charles' territory at my typical time; an hour or so before sunset.  I was near The Quartet Conifers when I heard an owl hoot.  It was not Charles, that much was clear, but I was not sure what kind of owl it was.  I heard it again, now louder and I thought, "The length and number of notes sounds like a female Great Horned Owl but the tonality sounds like a Barred Owl."  Hearing it a third time gave this same impression and no clearer identification.  On a few occasions I have seen the neighboring Barred Owls in the Great Horned Owls' territory but I had only once heard them call from there.  What was clear was where the hoot was originating, in the general vicinity of The Training Area; part of Charles' territory which includes several important trees used by the owls including The Eastern Tree, The Overlook Hotel Tree, The Rain Tree and The 08-09 Salon Trees.

As I headed down to The Training Area I felt more certain that it was a female Great Horned Owl and not a Barred Owl.  The hooting became louder and the position of the owl more distinct. There in The 08-09 Salon Trees was a new female Great Horned Owl!  


I knew I could get a better angle on her and I moved accordingly and could see her close from her left side.  She continued to hoot and her hoot pace quickened. 


Secure in the knowledge that this was a female Great Horned Owl and now the newest or third female. I observed her hoot more closely.  I noticed that her first several notes were especially close together but her last two notes were quite pronounced and long.  Her tonality kept striking me as a mix of female Great Horned Owl and Barred Owl.  


She continued to hoot but I was not hearing or seeing Charles yet.  This latest female then flew east out  of The Wooded Area and across a nearby road.  I heard some Northern Cardinal calling near The Eastern Tree and The PX Tree.  Searching there did not pay off but I gratefully heard Charles hooting not too far away in The Middle Tree or its neighbor; The 08-12 Nest Tree.  I headed that way and found him in the latter spot.  Charles had not perched in either of these trees for several weeks now so to find him here again led me to shake my head at his recent variations in perch/roost usage. He flew to The Middle Tree and then to The Nest Tree (formerly known as The 06/09/11/13/14/15 Nest Tree, nesting there 6 out of 10 times more than qualified this tree for its more efficient name).  I could not tell for certain but he may have landed in The Nest Hollow.  A short walk confirmed that he had landed in this hollow and was now perching at the ledge while hooting, his hoots often proceeded by guttural clucking/gulping sound.


The female began to respond in the distance.  I was amazed to see Charles in this hollow for a couple of reasons: 1) He had not been in this hollow for months now after Grace and Harold fledged from it in the spring  2) With the other two females I had not seen him hoot near any previously used nest sites and here he was hooting from his and Sarah's most fruitful and recent nest spot on the first night with this female.  Was this indicative a new level of courtship with this female?

Courtship went up another notch as this female moved closer to Charles flying to and landing in The First of The Three Trees putting her about twenty meters from Charles.  Right away I wondered if Charles was luring her in not only with his hoots but by his position in a former nest spot; one that might be used again.  I was so excited to see the female come closer to Charles that I took my eyes off him and lost sight of him.  He continued to hoot and I knew he was nearby possibly down deeper in the hollow.  The female flew past The Nest Tree and they continued to duet. I finally concluded that once the female arrived in First of Three that Charles turned around and went deeper into the hollow.  While puzzling I had seen him engage in this seemingly contradictory, playing hard to get behavior with Sarah on many occasions.  I still do not understand this behavior but having precedent is always helpful.  

My friend and owl mentee, Rusty Wandell, arrived and I quickly caught him up on what had happened so far.  Just then the courtship continued to ramp up as the female now flew over to The Nest Tree and landed on top of The Nest Hollow a few feet from Charles!  Simply amazing! 


After several minutes of close quarter duetting, Charles flew out of the hollow going east/southeast.  She moved over to The Middle Tree and then The 08/12 Nest Tree.  She stayed in this last tree for some time and we pointed her out to several park visitors.  

We began to hear Charles calling from the northeast about a hundred meters away.  The female blasted off in his direction and we followed her.  Rusty and I reacquired her and Charles and they resumed their duet with a few memorable flights.  We decided to leave them to their courtship and we headed back to our cars shaking our heads with delight at what we had witnessed.  

The next several nights continued with some of the patterns from this first night: Charles flying into The Nest Hollow to hoot often proceeded with guttural/clucking notes, then luring the female into close proximity to duet, Charles disappearing into the hollow and duetting continuing in The Arena and other nearby spots.  October 10 provided some memorable sights as she flew to The Second of Three Trees and I was able to photograph her from several angles and get a good luck at this beautiful female.  







I noticed early on that while darker than Charles she was not as dark as the first female or Sarah.  More striking was her smaller size.  In species of owls and most birds of prey, females are larger than males. This phenomenon is known as reverse sexual dimorphism.  At the same time, within any species of animal you have smaller to larger individuals.  Charles is a very large male Great Horned Owl, 20-22 inches tall. Sarah was a huge female, 22-25 inches tall.  This new female looked about the same size as Charles.  It took me a while to see them close together but when I did it proved my initial impression to be correct.  This female is about the same size as Charles and she might be ever so slightly smaller.  To me this underscores how big Charles is for a male and how massive a female Sarah was. 

Variations in duetting and perch sites began to grow over the subsequent days with a big new turn taking place on October 14.  I was with Brenda and we found Charles on the western edge of The Wooded Area, a spot he had rarely used this summer and fall, in marked contrast to prior years.  We began to hear the third female from near The North-South Path but we could not see her.  Eventually Brenda's sharp eyes and ears led her to find the female in an incredibly well-hidden spot.  The below photo is one of the "best" I was able to get of her that night.  A hive of leaves and branches all but completely obscured this massive but well-camouflaged bird. 


She used this spot for the next few days and I found Charles in an unusual spot near The Rain Tree. Now here is where things began to get interesting and not for the last time either.  Charles began to use her well-hidden spot on some days and other days she was in it.  When Charles used it, she sometimes used the spot near The Rain Tree and other times was in The 08-09 Salon Trees or elsewhere in that general vicinity.  Among the many things I would love to know was this trade off of perch spots done easily and politely in a "No, after you" manner or with competition or even contention. I often tell people how perch spots vary seasonally and some spots are used over and over again while other spots come and go.  This well hidden spot of the female's, now regularly used by Charles was a completely unprecedented spot, regardless of season.  Thankfully with time and effort, I was able to find angles where I could look for one of the owls in this spot and even film and photograph them there.  With more time and application, I could even look sometimes see an owl perched there in the morning as I drove to work.

Here is Charles in this perch on October 17.


Here is the third, newer female on the same perch on October 26.


As the fall progressed her perch sites began varying making her harder to find.  I found her in places as varied as the western side of The Wooded Area,  The Rain Tree, The Overlook Hotel Tree, The Great Northern and more.  Another unusual challenge in recent years arose when I had several nights of not finding her or Charles.  I had two nights in a row like that and four overall from October 31-December 22.  As my ESL (Experience, Skill and Luck) has grown I will usually go many months and often years between nights of not finding any of the owls.  Not seeing them so often this fall was especially odd as they are quite vocal at this time of year as they declare their territory and court or maintain their pair bond. 

Speaking of vocalizing, there were some interesting variations in their duets.  Their early duets occurred in and around The Nest Hollow for the first few weeks but began to vary in location, some typical others less so.  I noticed quickly that she was quick to respond to him on most nights when he began to call.  Also, they switch off hooting first much more than Charles did with Sarah.  Charles still hoots first most of the time but I have had several nights where the first hooter is Charles, then her, then back to Charles and so forth.  

On November 7 she had been there for a month, a week longer than the new or first female.  I was thrilled that she was still with Charles but I still not making the call that she was his new mate and related to that, I had not named her.  The more time she was there and the more they duetted, the happier and more hopeful I became but I maintained this conservative approach.  I often joked that the invitations had not been sent yet and the owls were not registered anywhere.  

A moment the following night, November 8, displayed another possible good step forward towards couplehood. I was leading the monthly, public owl and we had heard and seen both owls.  I went to get a closer look and then have the prowlees join me when all of sudden I saw a third Great Horned Owl flying fast over the tops of the trees of The Wooded Area pursued equally fast by Charles and the third female.  They were chasing this intruder out of the territory!  I saw Charles and Sarah do such territorial defenses several times over the years but they were a mated pair.  Perhaps the third female was demonstrating her commitment to and investment with Charles and the territory.  While this was fascinating to see, we did not find the owls after their blazing fast flights making it an intense but brief owl prowl. 

In November Charles also began to use a regular fall perch spot, Sarah's Autumnal Perch.  Sarah began to use this spot in the fall of 2009 and in recent years Charles has used this spot a great deal in the late fall.  The tree retains its leaves for a long time and offers great concealment.  One night in October I saw the third female in this tree but not in the usual spot.  I was thrilled to see her in the usual spot on November 20 and even more thrilled when I saw them perched together there on November 23 (Third female on the left, Charles on the right).  



As November was ending and December approached duetting began to increase in intensity, some of it focused around the hollow in The Third of The Three Trees.  I will talk more about this hollow in an upcoming post. The hooting began to get so intense that on several nights in late November-early December that I thought mating might occur at any moment.  One aspect of their duetting that I noticed as the days went on was that while one would often fly closer to the other, sometimes neither would budge from their respective spot.  I wondered if this was a contest of wills or another part of the whole courting process.  Still I watched and waited.

December 7 began promisingly with the third female perched in Sarah's Autumnal Perch and Charles nearby in The Trio Conifers.  They began to duet and Charles flew down to the Third Tree Hollow. She moved a little closer but the physical proximity part of the duet hit one of the aforementioned stalemates. Things looked less promising when she flew out of my sight going deeper into The Wooded Area.  I kept a little hope alive when Charles flew to The Crossroads Tree, a large and prominent tree in an especially visible location.  He hooted regularly and I thought I may have heard her reply.  Not for the first or the last time, I briefly took my eyes off of him only to turn back and find him gone. I cursed my lapse in attention but kept ears, eyes and mind open.  I soon heard him hoot from the area where I though I heard her minutes earlier.  I moved in that direction and I began to hear both of them in the vicinity of The Trio Conifers.  I found her in The Jungle Gym Tree Near The Overlook Hotel Tree and he was nearby, to the left of her.  The duetting intensified and he flew over, landed on her and they mated!


The cold air was not the only reason my eyes watered just then!  So exciting to see them mate, to see all of Charles' courtship come to fruition and a new couple made!  I quickly texted Wendy, Brenda, Barb, Chris, Robin, Julie and Rusty the great news and my phone exploded with joyous replies. Bloody hell-what a night!

The above folks and many others knew that if/when mating occurred that is when I would name the female.  I had a name in mind but after consideration and consultation, the name was withdrawn.  As such it was back to the drawing board.  Suggestions still came in including a suggestion to have a contest to name the female. I appreciated aspects of that idea but ultimately I knew the name had to be my call.  To stimulate the brain and research name meanings/origins, I consulted an Oxford name dictionary at my job at the Taylor Library at Fontbonne University.  I found some good names but no slam dunks appeared.  Then one day, the name Olivia popped into my head. It is a beautiful and classic name. Although a tad trendy right now it is a name that sounds, looks and feels great. I had not come to the Os in the name dictionary but I certainly looked it up there and in other sources.  In English usage as early the the 13th century as a female form of olive, it came to greater attention as main character name in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.  As a film fan I quickly thought Olivia de Havilland and Olivia Wilde.  As a martini drinker, I prefer olives to lemons or onions. I consulted with Wendy, Brenda and Julie about the name and got a strong thumbs up from them. I began to mention the name to others and use it a little in my recorded journal entries while in the field. And now I happily present Olivia to you all!  

There is so much more to say about Olivia, Charles and the last two-and-a-half months such as her pre-sunset eastward adventures, she and Charles duetting throughout the territory, her use of some of the exact same hunting spots that Charles uses and Sarah used, and more.

I have now seen them mate six times including last night and while it is too early to know if they will nest, I hope to write about that big topic.

Thank you for reading and for your support of the owls and my work with them.  Happy Holidays!

4 comments:

  1. Fantastic!
    We are so happy for Charles and Olivia.
    Mark, thank you for your dedication to them.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words and support. I greatly appreciate it!

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  2. We heard an owl (Great Horn? sounded like Charle's hoot) last night and found your blog. Fascinating. I've been glued to your site all morning.

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    1. Bravo on hearing an owl recently! I hope it was a Great Horned Owl but all owls are fantastic. I greatly appreciate and am honored by your kind words about my blog. That is darn decent of you and I hope you continue to enjoy it!

      Sincerely,
      Mark

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