The last twelve months may have been quiet on my blog, as it too often is, but the owls and my work with them have been anything but sedate. These months are quickly moving up the ranks to become one of the most astonishing, confusing, amazing, bittersweet, and delightful periods since I first saw Great Horned Owls in Forest Park in the late summer-early fall of 2005.
I am quite aware that my blog posts tend to be less blog-like and more akin to papal encyclicals. For the sake of brevity for those readers who need and/or prefer their updates on the owls in brief bits of bytes, I present the following bullet points. Abundant detail follows for those who prefer a feast to a snack or at the very least, a feast at a time of their choosing. Here we go:
- Charles and Olivia mated much longer and more times than I have ever observed (42 times in 14 weeks instead of the usual 17-22 times in 4-6 weeks)
- Olivia did not nest, no eggs were laid, no owlets hatched
- It was quite odd to not have owlets after ten consecutive years of owlets but at the same time it was fascinating to have a year without owlets, something I had never seen
- In mid-March 2016, Olivia began to spend time away from Charles, sometimes only a few hundred yards away, other nights over half a mile away, some nights I could not find her at all
- She would be with Charles for 2 nights, gone for 2, back for 1, gone for 3, back for 4, gone for 1-no discernible pattern, rhyme or reason for her absence. I never observed another male either
- I think Olivia not nesting and then spending time away from Charles, at a minimum, contributed to what happened next.
- In early-mid April, a larger and more aggressive female Great Horned Owl showed up in the middle of the territory
- After a massive territorial stand-off with Charles and Olivia, this new female quickly shoved Olivia out of the territory. I have not seen Olivia since mid-April and I hope she is well and flourishing.
- Charles was ticked about losing his mate and the audacity of this intruder. For about ten days. Then, being an adaptable male, he began to court her.
- Now, here is the weirdest thing about this:
- Territorial intrusions and courtship happen
- But not in April in this part of this species' range. This is late summer to early winter behavior. This occurring in April was both late and early; like trying to see a Cardinals game or a show at The Muny in January.
- Given this female's aggressive and rather forward nature, I named her Samantha, after the similarly behaving character on the HBO show Sex and the City.
- I miss Olivia but I am fascinated by this development
- Charles and Samantha kept up a low key courtship for the remainder of the spring, throughout the summer and into the early autumn
- Once we hit the heart of autumn they began to court more intensely.
- As of this writing they are courting but have not mated yet. Hopefully, they will mate, she will nest and owlets will hatch, fledge, thrive and eventually, disperse.
Okay, there's the brief catch-up/recap of what has happened since Olivia and Charles began to mate in December 2015. Now for the more in-depth review of what went down. For simplicity's sake, I am breaking down this time into several sections. The first one is:
Early Winter 2015-2016
After my last blog post about Charles and Olivia mating and becoming a pair, my main focus was to see if she would nest and have owlets. At the same time I did my utmost to notice everything they did beginning with perch/roost spots. The owls' perch spots vary by season and in late fall/early winter they often begin to perch in conifers. Unlike the now bare deciduous trees, conifers offer excellent concealment and protection from the elements and from unfriendly eyes. This year was simultaneously no different and vastly different. While they sometimes used The Trio Conifers and with even less frequency, The Quartet Conifers, and Charles delighted with occasional visits to Charles' Xmas Tree, they spent most of their time in The Crossroads Conifers. These conifers are within spitting distance of the aforementioned conifers but had been rarely used by Charles and Sarah over the years and almost exclusively by Sarah.
I enjoyed seeing Charles and Olivia use these conifers more frequently than I had ever seen. Olivia first began using this group of conifers. One day I found Charles but I could not find her until a lady kindly pointed out Olivia in The Crossroads Conifers. In doing so, I realized I had walked right past her at least once that day. As I often say, studying nature is a practice makes better not practice makes perfect endeavor.
As The Crossroads Conifers had only occasionally been used by Sarah over the years, I had not yet learned with any depth and precision the angles from which to look for, find and observe the owls. Another near maxim of mine is that seeing the owls (and other wildlife) is a game of angles and inches. You can have an owl directly in front of you and still not see unless you are watching from the correct angle and position. These conifers are a small glade but still I had to learn several new observation angles.
Here is Charles in one of the more well-hidden spots in these conifers on January 8. (Be sure to double-click on the photos to see a larger version of them)
A more easily observable spot but one that I still had to learn and remember became a frequent stop. Here is Olivia in this spot in the snow on January 19
On some days you could see both owls in these trees from one angle like this shot from January 25. Charles is on the right and Olivia on the left.
One of the conifers is completely dead and covered with a lattice work of Winter Creeper vines.especially around the flattened top of the tree. This flat top is an excellent perch and was often used as a fly-to perch as the owls began to wake up and begin their evening. Sometimes they would fly to this bare perch close to or after sunset, but some of these excursions were on the early side, which made getting photos easier. As such they would regularly be spotted by the commuting American Crows heading east as they returned to their rookeries. Mobbing would then occur as you can see below with Charles on January 8.
Given the open space around this perch and its proximity to daytime perch spots, it was used several times for mating such as here on January 21.
A few nights later, Olivia was perched on top of this spot and removed some of the dead Winter Creeper vines. I had never seen such "gardening" by an adult owl prior to this. Kudos to Olivia on her removing this problematic, invasive species.
Also in late December were the farthest excursions out east that I have ever seen the owls do. I think the hormones were flowing intensely as they kept duetting and moving to the eastern limits of Forest Park. Here is Olivia just west of Kingshighway on January 11,
On a couple of nights they even flew across Forest Park Parkway and the Metrolink tracks. One such night, I ran into my buddy and fellow owl devotee, Lloyd Robinson. He later messaged me to say that he had seen the owls on the far side of Kingshighway. While it was fascinating to see these unprecedented eastern escapades, I was more than a tad worried given the dangers poised to the owls by the multiple lanes and busyness of these roadways and train tracks. On these nights I was often mentally waving the owls back west to the safer confines of the park. I was always relieved to find them safe and sound back in their territory after these pernicious promenades.
Late Winter/Early Spring 2016
As the winter progressed, Charles and Olivia continued to mate but there were few signs that nesting would occur. For one thing, the most productive of the hollows and snags in the Cottonwoods where Sarah had nested was not available. On a handful of occasions during this period and even into the summer I saw a Raccoon in this hollow where Sarah nested in 2011 and 2013-2015. Here is one of these nights, which was on February 2
While Great Horned Owls eat Raccoons I do not think that even these powerful owls would try to go into a hollow and extricate a Raccoon with its back to the wall.
Now usually Charles would show Sarah a few potential nest locations performing his male role as nest real estate agent: "We have this in hollow but there is also this fabulous snag which is in a superb school district." However, with Olivia I only saw him show her one hollow during the mating period. This hollow is in The Third of The Three Trees and we call it The Third Tree Hollow. Longtime readers, owl prowl goers and/or folks who have attend my talks on the owls' mating, nesting and owlets may recall my concerns about this hollow. It is extremely close to one of the park's bike paths and even more worrying it is close, both in distance and height, to one of the park's roads. The owls can fly out of this hollow and be 20 odd feet above the road. However, far too often when they fly over the road they are only 2-7 feet above the road putting them at great risk of being hit by a car.
Sometimes Charles would be found early in this hollow as on February 15.
However, most of the time he would check out the hollow closer to if not after sunset as on March 6.
Just to take a pause from discussing mating and nesting, it is important to remember that, regardless of the season and its activities, the business of living i.e. hunting and feeding continues. I had a few lucky glimpses of this. On February 1, I followed Charles to a small glade of pines near the Upper Muny Festival and Parking Plaza. He swooped down to the branches of one of the pines and flew off with prey in talons. He landed on top of The Muny and began to eat his meal, an Eastern Grey Squirrel.
Two weeks later on February 15 while watching Charles and Olivia duet, she stopped hooting and made a short gliding flight to the ground. I carefully searched for her but could not find her nor did I see her fly. I changed positions and found her in The Great Northern eating.
In the faint light I saw that it was something good-sized and mammalian. The following afternoon I returned to that branch and found the leg and foot of an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit, one of their favorite prey animals. Note the white owl droppings; often called white wash.
Once February arrived and began to run its short course and Olivia still had not commenced nesting, the more convinced I was that the window on nesting had closed for the year. Great Horned Owls are one of the first if not the first birds to nest where ever they are found in their massive range which encompasses the vast majority of the Americas. The owlets take such a long time to become independent that the parents need all the lead time they can get to raise their young. Sarah usually began to nest in late December/early January and we would see the owlets in early-mid February. Here it was February and still no nesting by Olivia.
I still had some glimpses of hope that nesting might take place with moments like seeing Charles and Olivia together in The Quartet Conifers on February 5. Charles is on the left and Olivia on the right. Such gorgeous owls!
Another such moment was seeing them mate twice on February 10. The second mating occurred on the west end of Cricket Field. Afterwards Charles flew and landed on top of a large Bald Cypress and hooted in the falling snow. Beautiful!
Still the more days that passed without Olivia nesting, the more I knew that there would be no owlets in 2016. So why did Olivia not nest? She may have been a young female and still learning the ropes of what is to be an adult, female Great Horned Owl. Even if she was not young, Charles and Olivia were a new couple and perhaps needed more time to learn about each other and themselves as a pair. I do think that Charles showing Olivia only one nest spot did not help matters. I found this especially odd as, despite the Raccoons using the 2011, 13-15 Nest Hollow, several other hollows, both previously used and otherwise, were still available. A final possibility is that the populations of the owls' prey were low. The literature demonstrates in years of low prey availability, that fewer Great Horned Owls will nest and those that do have smaller clutches, i.e., number of owlets. I do not think that this was the case as I saw the owls regularly eat and eject pellets but perhaps it was a lean year.
Running parallel and perpendicular to the realization that nesting was not going to happen was that Charles and Olivia kept mating! The mating period is relatively brief, usually four-six weeks long. In that period if I see mating occur in the high teens to low twenties, that means the owls are doing well at their job and I am keeping pace with mine. I last saw Charles and Olivia mate on February 28, which made it fourteen weeks and forty-two matings! Why the kept mating, I have no idea. When telling people, whether on owl prowls and at owl talks or just folks asking for an update about this long mating period, there were many jokes about honeymoon periods and the like in response. Was Charles of the mindset of, "This is great, all of the sex and none of the massive hunting responsibilities and rearing of young!"
It was bittersweet to not have owlets in 2016. Bitter because after ten consecutive years of seeing Charles and Sarah have owlets I loved seeing owlets and their gradual maturation and all of the parents' work in making that possible. I never took owlets as a given each year as almost nothing is a given in nature but I never lost my amazement and gratitude to see new owl life each year. Furthermore, I was so used to observing owlets that it became part of the winter, spring and summer and just as we have smells, sounds and sights that we associate with certain activities and occurrences, I developed many such associations with owlets. Numerous were the days in 2016 when I would leave work and sniff the air, take in the weather and light and think, "This will be a great day to see the owlets...that are not there. Damn."
The sweet spot was that I had never had a year without the adults hatching young and I was curious to see what such a year looked like. This curiosity was heightened because in all my research I had read that, yes a pair of Great Horned Owls will not nest every year. This is reasonable enough, but I had never read ANYTHING about what such a year looks like. This is odd considering that when this species has young the entire reproductive cycle from mating to nesting to fledging to dispersal takes the VAST majority of the year. It stands to reason that a year without owlets would be significantly different. Why I have I not found anything in the literature about this? Perhaps my observations and documentation would help fill this gap.
Resigned to the fact that owlets were a no-go, I resolved to document the remainder of the year without owlets with care and industry. In no way did I expect the massive changes of the spring.
Spring sprung in a most unexpected manner. Olivia began spending time away from Charles in mid-March. At first I began to find her in a small, pie slice shaped portion of woodlands. In the winter and early spring, the owls began to fly to and spend time in this area-more than I had ever seen over the years. I soon began to call this area The Wedge. The Wedge is just east of the immediate core of Charles and Olivia's territory; just a few hundred yards away from The Crossroads Conifers. As time went on, Olivia also began to go further afield, sometimes over a half mile away from Charles. On other nights I could not find her at all. I never heard another male calling and the literature is quite conclusive that given the demands of raising their young, this species is monogamous. My own observations and those of other naturalists I know support this. I did not see any hostility between Charles and Olivia that may have led to her perching away from him.
Now beyond the intrinsic oddness of this behavior, it was compounded by the behaviors irregularity. Olivia would be away from Charles and then would be back with him again. Gone two nights, back one, then gone three and back four. No discernible pattern emerged in either the short or long term. It quickly became clear that I would not know where to find her on any given night. While the owls vary their perch sites by season and even within a season I had never seen such wide variations in distance of perch sites. My first goal each night with the owls is to count heads and everything else flows from that. Not being able to find her after extensive searching that covered much more ground than usual was alarming and not reassuring. It was all the more confusing to go out the following night and find her perched close to Charles.
Throughout this whole time of Olivia's here today, gone tomorrow behavior, she and Charles continued to duet. April 10 provided a cool moment with Charles and Olivia have a nice duet when he departed only to return to join her in Jungle Gym Tree By Overlook Hotel Tree.
However, the next night, April 11, I observed a duet that I almost completely failed at with my observation and analysis. I arrived in the owls territory and quickly found Charles and a cool new owl addict, Ken Shew. Ken, a recent transplant from California and and an excellent amateur wildlife photographer, joined me earlier in April for an owl prowl. He then began showing up regularly to observe and photograph the owls. I continue to be impressed with Ken's kind demeanor and his eagerness to learn, in a patient and thorough manner, all he could about the owls. Ken would often stay way past sunset and join me to follow and find the owls so he could continue to learn about them.
On this night Charles flew east heading to the wedge and Ken and I followed him there. We approached The Wedge when Charles flew past us backtracking west and landing on a nearby building. Ken and I reacquired him and noticed that he was hooting quite intently. I just missed getting a cool shot of him on this building when he flew back east into The Wedge.
We followed him and in The Wedge we began to hear Olivia. In fact, it was not her. It was a different female. I had broken out The Jump To Conclusions Mat too hastily and come to the wrong conclusion.
I even got a photograph and given the givens: a female in The Wedge and duetting with Charles- it made sense that that it was Olivia. They flew east and I still thought it was Olivia. Eight months later I am still mortified at my rush to judgement and my wrong conclusion. To my credit, later in the evening I did make note that this owls' hoots were faster and her last two notes not as pronounced as Olivia's and that I was not completely certain it was Olivia. In a Facebook exchange with Ken on the morning of April 12, I told him that I had reviewed some of my videos and was not sure it was Olivia but given the givens, it was most likely her.
To say that April 12 was eventful and significant is a bit like calling D-Day a trip to the beach with a dash of an airshow. I arrived and found one of the owls in an unprecedented spot in The Crossroads Conifers, As you can see the owl was quite obscured. From what I saw leaned towards IDing it as Charles.
I ran into my good friend and fellow owl addict Brenda Hente. Brenda has been studying Charles and company for just shy of six years now and knows a vast amount about them. If a bank safe falls on me, she becomes the world's leading expert on these owls. It is always a good thing to have Brenda's keen eyes, ears and mind on the case and this was especially true on this evening.
We had not found a second owl so we kept watching this well-hidden owl in The Crossroads Conifers. At it became darker the owl did not hoot and with little pre-flight grooming and stretching it exploded out eastward. We reacquired the owl and heard it hoot and immediately we both noticed the hoot sounded different, likely a female but different from Olivia's hoot. I commented that it sounded like the hooting done by Olivia last night. The owl continues eastward and again we reacquired it. Having seen more of this owl Brenda and I concurred it was not Charles but a female. Here is my first clear shot of this owl.
We then heard Charles east of this female and calling from The Wedge. The owl continues hooting and we are became more convinced it was NOT Olivia. Listen for yourself.
The owl flew closer to Charles, hooted for a few moments and then went north, still parallel to Charles. We found the owl still hooting regularly. We did not hear Charles for several minutes but then he began hooting again. Brenda and I agreed to split up, I stayed with the owl and she headed over to find Charles. Brenda called me saying that she had found Charles and as we talked, I see could see him. Brenda said she may have seen Olvia. Brenda called me beack to say that she definitely saw and heard Olivia. This confirmed that this is a third owl and one intruding in the very core of their territory. We were stunned by this audacious development!. I mention to her that this owl might, might be male with an odd hoot. While male and female Great Horned Owls can be usually be distinguished by their hoots, sometimes it is difficult to tell male and female apart. The owl continued to hoot at Charles and he responded to the intruder.
The owl flew east closer to Charles and Olivia (and Brenda) and I followed suit. I found the intruder and Charles. I continued over to Charles and Olivia (who I finally heard for the first time that night). I rendezvoused with Brenda who told me what I missed on my short journey over to her and the pair of owls. The intruder flew at Charles who was perched and went after him with talons out for the attack. Charles popped up extending his own talons. They passed each other in mid-air and the intruder flew back east and Charles and Olivia began non-stop hooting at the intruder. We had never seen another owl attack Charles! I wish I had seen it but I am sure glad that Brenda did!
Here is Charles pinnacling on a conifer duetting intensely as the intruder hooted back. This was a massive territorial stand-off, the likes of which we had never seen!
Brenda and I noted the large size of the intruder, roughly 21-24 inches tall, just a little smaller than Sarah. Females are larger than males and the hoot sounded more like a female. However, the aggressiveness of the intruder, especially in its attack on Charles, suggested that it might be an intruding male.
The stand-off continued for many minutes but Charles then flew northeast and Olivia followed him. We reacquired them and they still duetted intensely. The intruder's calls continued as well. We took up a post closer to the intruder. The duetting continued unabated and given the late hour and such, Brenda and I decided to head to our vehicles and drive back to our respective homes. By this point, I had been watching the owls for two-and-a-half hours. Our minds reeled with what we had observed and I could not wait to tell my girlfriend, Wendy, all about we had seen. Her mouth dropped as shared the evening's events with her.
I could not wait to get back to Forest Park the next day, April 13, to see who was there and where. I headed for The Crossroads Conifers and there again was the intruder in these conifers!
The audacity was amazing! In telling folks on owl prowls and at owl talks about this behavior, I put it this way. "Imagine that when you go home tonight, you find a complete stranger in your living room, waiving a glass and asking nonchalantly, "Could I get some more ice for this?"
Brenda called me saying that she had scoured the owls' territory including The Wedge and had not found Charles or Olivia. We agreed that I would check a few other spots, however unlikely, just in case the owls were using these spots. I found no owls and I returned to The Crossroads Conifers and the intruder had departed. I headed a short distance east and came upon some mating Common Snapping Turtles. Spring was springing forth!
I returned to The Wooded Area and found two owls, one in one of The 08-09 Salon Trees and the other a short distance away. It took me a few minutes but I realized that the former was the intruder and the latter was Charles. Charles was in a tense, forward position as he glared at the intruder. He did not stretch or groom or hoot-just glared intensely.
The intruder flew east a far distance as Southern Leopard Frogs began to chorus from The Permanent Puddle. More signs of spring! Charles flew north going a modest distance before going northeast much further. Brenda and I reacquired him as he hooted from a large Bald Cypress. Charles flew east and we hoped we would find Olivia with him. We found him near where we had left him the night before but did not hear Olivia or the intruder. Charles continued towards The Wedge and again we found him thanks to his hooting. Northeast of him we began to hear another owl and it was Olivia. Brenda mentioned that she had heard Blue Jay warning calls earlier in that exact vicinity. Charles flew over towards her and they continued their duet now at closer proximity, which was great to observe. Olivia flew closer to Charles and he flew off, as is his wont to do. We followed him as the male and their duet continued. W while we felt better hearing them duet but still we were concerned about the intruder.
We decided to head east to our vehicles and Charles flew ahead of us heading back to The Arena. He was not the only owl near us as we began to hear the intruder just east of The Arena. We heard the intruder and Charles call but after several minutes we did not hear anymore. For the second night, we went home both amazed and concerned with what we observed.
The following night, April 14, I had an owl talk in Rolla, MO, my second time presenting for the Ozark Rivers Audubon Society (thank you, kind folks!) so I only had time for a brief and early visit for the park. Happily I can often find the owls on such visit but sadly, this was not one of those visits! As such, I was especially keen to return on April 15.
On April, 15, thanks to him hooting, I found Charles semi-awake in The Rain Tree (but not one of the branches they use for shelter when it rains).
He moved to The Overlook Hotel Tree and continued to hoot. I ran into Brenda and we as watched Charles we thought we may have heard the intruder just east of Charles. We headed in that direction and Brenda thought she heard Olivia too! As we headed that way we definitely heard the intruder and shortly thereafter the intruder flew right at Charles and Charles flew off north. The aggressive audacity of the intruder! The intruder soon followed Charles and we reacquired the intruder.
We heard Charles now west of the intruder and the intruder headed out in that direction. We heard both owls and saw one of them head back east. We found the eastward bound owl and it was Charles. From what we saw we agreed that the intruder was chasing Charles and not the other way around. Was this a female owl or an aggressive male trying to grab Charles' amazing territory? We never positively observed Olivia that night. Another fascinating and head wagging evening in the park with the owls.
On April 16 I quickly found Charles in The Crossroads Conifers but in an unusual perch spot. It was heartening to see him in the living room of his territory. He took awhile to hoot and he called gradually. By now I had looked for Olivia but I did not find her or the intruder. As it got past sunset, Charles began to hoot more and I could hear the intruder just east of him. The two owls hooted back and forth with great intensity and speed. But this was not a duet but a vocal duel with Charles essentially saying, "Go away." and the intruder responding, "No, I will not leave." Just as quickly, both owls stopped hooting for several minutes. Charles' quietude became clear when he ejected a pellet. Once a pellet gets to a certain point on its trip out from the gizzard to out of the owl's mouth, the owl cannot hoot until the pellet is cast. Free of the pellet, Charles flew south towards The Jungle Gym Tree Near The Archy Tree. I reacquired him closer to The Jungle Gym Tree Near The North-South Path. He continued to hoot but I no longer heard the intruder. Charles headed north and I decided to head home. Once more, no sign of Olivia.
On April 17, Charles was in the same spot as the night before in The Crossroads Conifers. He dropped a pellet but again was slow to wake up. He hooted only a little at first. It was well after sunset before he flew at 8:40pm, when he made a short hop to a nearby conifer. No sign of Olivia or the intruder that night.
April 18: I found the intruder again perched audaciously in The Crossroads Conifers! Charles was not far away not in Sarah's Autumnal Perch but the tree that contains it-quite an atypical spot. They began to hoot at each other. After a while the intruder moved closer to him by flying to The 08-09 Salon Trees. Charles was quiet for quite a long time. Ken Shew and Brenda out that night and it was a pleasure to share with them and benefit from their presence. The intruder went quiet and then blasted off northeast. Charles went north and then northwest. No sign of Olivia.
April 19. Brenda was out earlier and called me to let me know that she had not found any of the owls. I searched widely without success. I decided to wait halfway up a hill near a creek and the park's river system and just watch and listen. I finally saw an owl going after Mallards in the creek. It was the intruder, who eventually flew east. No sign of Charles or Olivia. Again my concerns about the possibility of the intruder being an usurping male unnerved me.
April 20. I had an early visit to the park due to a trip to Columbia, MO to present for the Columbia Audubon Society. It was my third time presenting in Columbia but my first for CAS, which was good fun-thank you, CAS! The only downside was that on this early and brief visit to the park, I did not see any of the owls.
April 21. There were two owls in the tree containing Sarah's Autumnal Perch. It took me a little while to ID them as Charles and the intruder. It was great to see him for the first time in three days. Over the last several months I have used the row of descending white dots on his wing coverts as another way to ID him. On this night I got a great close up view of them.
The owls began to hoot and I wondered if it was a female owl behaving oddly aggressively to "land" Charles. They hooted quickly, faster than I had seen them in the last several days. The hooting was less declarative and more conversational. I wondered again if it was a female. I noted that Charles did some purring, cooing notes, something I saw him do many times with Sarah and Olivia and an indicator that the duet is growing in intensity and intimacy. The owls were also facing each other,. Was Charles thawing out to the in the intruder who was indeed a female?
There was a pause in hooting and the intruder had flown to The 08-09 Salon Trees. You can see them duet and their proximity here:
Hooting resumed and included a few first hoots by the intruder, who then flew to the eastern edge of The Wooded Area. Charles' hooting paused and the intruder resumed hooting. . Charles stretched and groomed. Now the intruder's hooting paused and then resumed hooting, Charles was quiet for over fifteen minutes. Judging from its hoots and the warning calls of American Robins, the intruder had moved position. Finally, Charles resumed hooting and thus did the duet with loud hoots and an increasing rate of hooting. Charles flew towards The Great Northern and away from the intruder. I did not find him there so I headed northwest hoping he went that way but I did not find him. No sign of Olivia.
April 22: I felt more convinced that the intruder was a female. I found the intruder near The Permanent Puddle and I heard Charles hoot once. It took me a while to find him-he too was near The Permanent Puddle and thus close to the intruder again. Wendy and Brenda joined me and we all discussed the growing likelihood that the intruder was a female. Charles dropped a pellet. After a little while they began to duet and we all thought it was more like a courtship duet. The female flew over close to Charles and it was like a switch was flipped-they both went into a full-on, no room for debate, courtship debate! Bloody hell! I was so excited that I missed filming it. This courtship told us, beyond any debate, that the intruder was a female! It's a girl!
Charles flew to The Three Trees and she followed, the duet going strong. Charles then went to The Third Tree Hollow-a potential nest site and she followed him; further proof that the intruder was a female and they were courting!
Relatively quickly the owls went their separate ways.
We all stood their flapping our gums at what we had just witnessed and the confirmation that the intruder was a female! I commented that the aggressive behavior of the intruder, especially its chasing of Charles, was not the intruder saying, "I am a male and I want your territory and female" but rather, "I am a female and let's party!" I revealed to Wendy and Brenda a name that had crossed my mind if the intruder turned out to be a female. I explained that given this female's aggressive and rather forward behavior with and towards Charles, she should be named Samantha after the similarly aggressive and forward character of the HBO series, Sex and the City. Wendy and I are big fans of the show and I was thrilled that my idea was met by a positive response by Wendy and Brenda. Over the months in conversations with other owl devotees I have shared this name gradually and the overall response has been a good laugh and much nodding.
At the same time, we had to reflect that we had not positively observed Olivia since April 13 and this change in females was a bittersweet development. Olivia was a sweet, beautiful female and we all loved her distinctive hoot and how she and Charles became a pair. In my research I have learned that fights to the death by rival males is not unheard of but quite rare. I have never read of fights to the death among rival females. I have not seen seen or heard Olivia in the intervening months and I hope she is well and flourishing and perhaps has a new mate and territory.
The amazing and fascinating nature of this event... in nature cannot be overstated. A new female and intruded into the territory, displaced the resident female and now courtship was taking place. Allow me to restate what I wrote earlier. Hhere is the weirdest thing about this:
- Territorial intrusions and courtship happen
- But not in April this part of this species' range. This is late summer to early winter behavior. This occurring in April was both late and early; like trying to see a Cardinals game or show at The Muny in January. It is both too late and too early!
In May I had the great honor and pleasure of sharing the owls and my work with them just north of Kansas City at a birding festival called Wings Over Weston; a joint venture of the Burroughs Audubon Society and Missouri State Park. One of the other participants was the University of Missouri's excellent Raptor Rehabilitation Project and it was a treat to speak with their staff and meet their education birds. I told their Project Manager, Abby Rainwater, about this intrusion, chasing and now courtship and as I did so her facial expressions went from, ". Hmm, interesting." to "Whaa....?" and then, "Huh? What?" before ending with, "What are you on?!?" I concluded by asking her, "Have you seen this, heard about this, read about this?" Her answer to all three questions was a resounding, "No."
Karla Bloem, the founder and Executive Director of the International Owl Center and one of the world's leading owl advocates and Great Horned Owl experts, has seen some serious Great Horned Owl soap operas over the years. Together with Brenda, we have traded notes on this electronically and we all hope to do so in detail and in person some day.
Seeing as I have already written some 6000 words, in the interest of time, I will have to keep the next few sections brief. I do not want to short change these months and the owls activities therein but they are easier to summarize.
With no owlets to watch as they gradually mature and eventually disperse, I knew this summer would be quite different. I was curious to see where Samantha would perch during the hot, humid days. For the vast majority of time she perched in The AYU Tree or in a nearby spot that I eventually realized was high up in Olivia's Tree. Within The AYU Tree she used a few different perch spots but one the vast majority of the time. Here she is in that spot on June 4.
It took me a little time but eventually I found just the right angle and spot to look for her in this perch. Over the years, I have seen The AYU Tree used as an occasional perch spot but I had never seen it become a regular perch spot as it did for Samantha. She would also use The Overlook Hotel Tree from time-to-time but never in a predictable manner.
Early in the summer, Charles used some spots in and around The Training Area and most of these were unprecedented, which was interesting to see. Once the main part of the summer commenced, I expected Charles to perch in The Arena as he had starting in the summer of 2010. He did so sometimes in The 08-12 Nest Tree but mostly in The Middle Tree. These large trees are micro-verses with many places in which to hide and in the The Middle Tree, I counted at least four different spots used by Charles. To demonstrate how challenging it is to find these well-camouflaged owls in the leafed out trees in the summer, here is my initial view of Charles in The Middle Tree on June 2.
Keep in mind that he is a little under two feet tall!
A point that I always try to make and emphasize about the owls' perch spots is that they use different perch spots in different season and often multiple spots within a season and some of these spots come and go. This summer proved to be a superb example of this on several fronts including Samantha's use of The AYU Tree but Charles also got into this mix as well. I was in a steady groove of looking for and finding Charles in The Arena when in mid-June he stopped perching there and never went back there for the remainder of the summer. I found him in The 08-09 Salon Trees as you can see from this shot from June 17.
No sooner has he started perching in those trees than he stopped several days later. Towards the end of the summer he returned to these trees for a little while but in different spots from mid-June. For the remainder of the summer he kept me on my toes by using several different spots.
One last example of perch site variation. The perennial summer perch, The Bushy Tree, used every summer, to varying extents by both adults and owlets, was not, from what I observed, used at all the entire summer of 2016. It was beyond strange not to see an owl in this tree for the entire summer. On some nights when I had difficulty finding Charles I would head there hoping to find him in one of his well-hidden summer spots. No such luck.
Among the most fascinating aspects of the summer was that Charles would often fly to The Third Tree Hollow. He would get in the hollow and hoot, sometimes for a while, other times just briefly and then emerge and perch at the edge of the hollow as you see him here on June 28.
Now while we had seen him show this to Sarah and Olivia as a potential nest spot in the fall and early winter, this was the most he had used it in a summer. For some parts of this summer he went there every night. Earlier I voiced my concerns about this hollow as a nest sight and even as perch or fly-to spot, I have the same concerns, most especially its close proximity, both vertically and horizontally to a nearby road. But there is something about this hollow and Charles. The least worst way I can describe it seems to be a nexus of courtship/sexual/mating/nesting behavior, perhaps with a side of "man-cave" usage. If I could get Charles on the couch or in a Barbara Walters interview, I would love to ask him about this hollow.
Charles also used this hollow as a launching pad for an annual summer happening-hunting insects on the ground. Great Horned Owls eat the widest range of prey of any owl in North America. Their prey ranges from worms, insects and other invertebrates to fish, amphibians, reptiles, small birds, small mammals and up to not-so small mammals and birds including, skunks, Raccoons, domestic dogs and cats as well as other owls, hawks, geese, ducks, egrets and herons. The great abundance of insects is too much of opportunity for these highly opportunistic owls to pass up. While the yield of an individual insect might be small, so too is the risk and many can be eaten for a substantial yield. Here's Charles doing this hunting on July 17.
On the other end of the prey size spectrum, I finally managed to get a video of one of the owls attacking a Raccoon. Feel free to laugh and my narration. I had been watching Charles and I thought he would fly from point A to point B. I did not realize that a Raccoon was in between these points.
This was the first of three attempts I saw the owls make on Raccoons in a matter of days. I had never seen so many Raccoon attempts in such a short span of time. The third attempt was notable in that on one of the three passes made that evening one of them was tag-team effort by Charles and Samantha. I had only seen such duo efforts by Charles and Sarah a handful of times over the years and I hoped this was a further sign of Charles and Samantha bonding.
A different behavior I was able to observe this summer was Charles and Samantha duetting regularly and sometimes quite intensely. With Charles and Sarah having owlets each year, the adults kept pretty quiet for most of the summer. If the parents call that tells the owlets where mom and dad are and the owlets come over and beg and bug the parents for food. Now as it gets later in the summer and the owlets are closer to dispersing, the parents' hormone levels and their need to proclaim territory and cement pair bonds encourages them to duet. This in turn leads to the owlets interrupting the duets with the food begging cheeps in a process I call, duettus interruptus. You can see such an episode from September 24, 2014
Charles and Samantha had no such concerns and it was fascinating to see duets all summer long.
It was an odd fall as the summer weather did not stop. Temperatures finally cooled a little but even in November we had many trees with green leaves on their branches. Charles began to spend most of his time in Olivia's Tree as he did last fall, when it was an unprecedented perch spot; regardless of season. Here he is sleeping there on October 31.
Samantha continued her use of The AYU Tree and The Overlook Hotel Tree but used some other spots on the west side of The Wooded Area. As we moved deeper into the fall, she began to use, all but daily, Sarah's Autumnal Perch. Sarah first began to use this spot in the fall of 2009 and it took me two weeks to get the right angle to see her in this well-hidden spot. She used it, to varying extents, each subsequent fall and in recent years Charles began to use it more. Olivia used it a fair amount last fall and now Samantha is using it almost exclusively. Three females, one perch and at the same time of year. I do not think this is mere coincidence. Even in a more typical fall, this tree holds on to its leaves well into winter. Here is Samantha in this spot on December 1.
I will have to tell you the full story sometime but in November and for several weeks Charles used an amazing perch spot. It was the lowest daytime perch spot I have ever seen him use and it was simultaneously easy to see and amazingly hard to find. It took me three days of concerted effort to find it but once I did, I was rewarded with some of the most amazing views I have ever had of him or any other owl. Just as a taste here a few glimpses of this spot and its magic. First from the last day I, so far, have seen him there, December 14, here is one of the closest views I ever have had him.
Here he is grooming extensively on December 3.
And doing an Escalator Stretch and hooting on November 21.
With fall finally arriving and not just in the calendrical sense, Charles and Samantha began to duet with greater intensity. This is a how a new pair of owls courts and how a pair, both new and longtime, declares their territory. While I do not take this to be a huge sign of pair bonding, it has been cool to see them perched together several times. While I have seen some great duets and even Samantha check out The Third Tree Hollow a few times, as of this writing, I have not seen the owls mate. Over the years both with Charles and Sarah and Charles and Olivia, mating usually began in the first two weeks in December. I had also seen it as early as late November and one year as late as Xmas Eve.
One pattern I have seen emerge is that Samantha is taking too long to leave and/or having difficulty leaving her spot in Sarah's Autumnal Perch so that she can get to a suitable spot for mating to occur. While mating is quite brief the owls must be in a branch that has sufficient space, both horizontally and vertically, that they can make their brief mating contact. On numerous nights, I have seen the duet build in intensity and Charles has moved to such mate-able branches, as I have begun calling them, while Samantha is still in her daytime perch which is by no means, a mate-able branch.
Upon hearing this, some people have wondered if Charles might be showing his age. To me he looks and sounds as vital as ever. I do not know old Charles is but he is at least 13-16 years old now. I base this on two good bits of data:
- I have now been watching him for eleven years (I had my owliversary on December 29th-thank you, Charles, thanks to all the owl fans and supporters!!)
- This species usually starts to have owlets at 2-3 years of age and he and Sarah were having owlets back in 2006 and perhaps earlier.
Now we do not know the average life expectancy of Great Horned Owls, one of many things we do not know, but the record age for a wild GHOW is around thirty. As such Charles could be 13-16 or 19 or 23-I have no idea but wish I did.
To my eyes and those of veteran owl watchers like Brenda Hente and Rusty Wandell, Charles appears undiminished and we hope that Samantha gets off the bench and into a mate-able branch! That said, if they have not mated by the second week of January, I do not think that there will be owlets this year. I hope they do have owlets but what will happen will happen.
Thank you for reading and for your time and support. One last photo!
Here are Charles(left) and Samantha (right) last night in Sarah's Autumnal Perch. Happy New Year!