Saturday, February 22, 2020

Sad News About The Nest

February 22-23, 2020

I wish I had better news about Charles and Danielle's nest but sadly it has failed. For better or for worse I saw it actively failing Tuesday night and then both on Wednesday morning and subsequent evenings I saw all too emphatic reinforcement of nest failure.  I strongly suspect Raccoons as the cause of the nest failure.  

I arrived in the park on Tuesday night 2/18 and met up with Bill Chamberlin, who had heard of the owls from our friends in common, Tom and Mary DeBenedetti.  Over 30 years ago, Bill had rehabilitated a Red-tailed Hawk in Wyoming and was curious to learn about the owls and my work with them.  I am grateful for Bill's presence that night as he was a great blend of observant, patient, empathetic and curious.  

After rendezvousing with Bill we headed to check out the nest and Danielle was noticeably higher last night than her already higher position of the last several days; an often positive sign of successful hatching.  Given her behavior and timing of when I suspected eggs were laid, I was confident that hatching had occurred in recently.  [Please be sure to double click on the photos to see a larger version]

Charles was nearby in The Vine Hide Tree, his almost always perch site during this year's nesting.  The VHT is at the eastern edge of The Wooded Area just next to The Fleur de Lis Tree.  

We watched both owls from a couple of different angles and the bright sunny conditions made for great views and light.  

Charles had done some early hooting but then hit the snooze alarm so we went back to check on Danielle in the nest.  As we did a pair of Red-tailed Hawks flew past the Pagoda Circle side of the nest not overly close to the nest.  Charles woke up and hooted at them and the hawks passed out of sight.  Bill soon noticed that Danielle was out of the nest. She was not far from the hollow but it was odd to see her out of the nest at 5:15pm-a good 25 minutes before sunset. The last time I saw her leave the nest was on Sunday night and that was around 6:30pm.  

At first I interpreted her being out of the nest as a response to Charles' early warning hoot to the hawks' presence.  This interpretation swerved some when she flew with prey in her talons landing in The First of The Three Trees and began eating.  I thought she might be taking advantage of being out of the nest to take one of her few breaks from the nest. 

She stayed there for several minutes before back to The Middle Tree; the tree closest to the nest.  I hoped she would head directly to the nest but she spent quite a while in The Middle Tree even moving within it. Finally Danielle flew to the nest tree landing close to the hollow before flying to the edge of the hollow. 

She lingered at the hollow and then turned around and flew back to The Middle Tree. I optimistically thought that she may have had a hard time finding a safe path to jump back into the nest. 

This optimism soon faded when she flew back to the edge of the hollow and bill clacked before flying back again to The Middle Tree.  She was soon joined by Charles who hooted intensely as he has often done in this tree during this nesting period but there seemed to be a different edge to his hooting.  The bill clacking behavior is a very aggressive behavior in response to threats and danger and to see her do it at the edge of the nest was a not at all good indication of things being well.  

To compound this, she had been out of the nest for well over 30 minutes.  While GHOW eggs are hardy, up to a point, in cold weather, newly hatched young cannot maintain their own body temperature and are incredibly vulnerable to the cold. It was not a freezing cold night but it was by no means a warm one either with temperatures in the high 30s and falling.  Bill and I kept a close watch on the owls and the nest but never saw anything in the nest. A frustrating lack of data that could not be helped as we could only see what we could see of the nest. While I have never seen Raccoons in this particular nest tree, they are all over the immediate vicinity of the nest and often in high numbers. 

Danielle began a pattern of flying to the nest tree and then flying off to The Middle Tree or The Multi-trunk Tree; another tree close to nest.  

Sometimes she landed at the edge of the nest and other times landed on a nearby branch.  Her times at the edge of the nest were always brief. There was another moment of bill-clacking during one of her returns to the edge of the nest. Charles stayed in The Middle Tree for a while before flying southwest presumably to hunt.  She continued this pattern and Bill had to take his leave and I resolved to stay to see what would happen.

Danielle continued her pattern of trips to the nest tree before returning to The Middle Tree or The Multi-trunk Tree. I heard Charles call from The Wooded Area and soon after he was close by in a tree catty-corner from the nest. He hooted intensely and Danielle responded by making the begging-cheep like call the nesting females can use. It was one of the few times I had heard her make this call and I could not help but wonder if she used it to express panic and desperation. Charles flew to the nest tree and hooted more. Things happened quickly and vaguely when I lost sight of Charles and did not hear him hooting. This was followed by Danielle flying off towards The Multi-Trunk Tree and then out of sight.  I circled the area but did not hear or see either of the owls.  By now Danielle had been out of the nest for a little over 90 minutes.  Not at all good. I headed home with barely an optimistic thought or feeling. 

I left for work earlier the next morning, Wednesday, 2/19 so I could stop in the park and check on the owls. Unfortunately Danielle was not back on the nest .  She was in The Vine Hide Tree with Charles nearby in Eastern Branch Tree. She flew to The Middle Tree which gave me some hope but then she got harassed by a Cooper's Hawk and then twice by a Red-tailed Hawk-it was crazy!  She then flew just into The Wooded Area behind The Vine Hide Tree and then quickly went to The Trio Conifers; where she often perched prior to nesting. It was like seeing a door slammed shut. (I did not have my camera with me) 

All of this is a terribly sad development after such high hopes and positive developments of this nesting season.  I am curious but doubtful that a second round of mating and nesting will occur as it did with Charles and Samantha when there nest failed well into 2017-2018 nesting season.  I had never read of or seen such behavior before or since so its rarity may be especially high. 

While the loss of the nest is a most unwelcome and crushing development, I do not want to excoriate or spew vitriol at the Raccoons.  Just like Great Horned Owls, Raccoons are highly adaptable animals with their own important ecological role.  Furthermore, GHOWs do kill and eat Raccoons-both young and adults. In fact during the entire nesting cycle I saw several predatory attempts by the owls on Raccoons; most of them by Charles and two by Danielle. As such the relationship between GHOWs and Raccoons is a complex and fascinating one. There are no heroes or villains in nature, just organisms trying to survive and reproduce. 

Since Wednesday morning I have seen nothing that makes me think that a second round of mating and nesting is in the offing but I keep a window of hope open. Charles has been perched in several different spots deeper in The Wooded Area and has been quite vocal. That said,  I have not seen or heard Samantha on Friday, 2/21 or Saturday 2/22. I also am concerned that her presence and my ability to find, observe and document her will be hit or miss as it was for the vast majority of the time from her first appearance on 4/5/2019 until mid-12/2019.  

Thank you for your time and support and sorry to be the bearer of such bad tidings.

Friday, January 3, 2020

One Chapter Ends Sadly, The New Chapter Takes An Exciting Turn

January 2020

With the start of the new year and decade I am ready to relinquish my crown as The World's Worst Blogger, which I have worn for the last three years. My apologies for the lack of updates and I hope you enjoy this update. The lack of updates was not for a lack of fascinating developments in the owls' lives or amazing and confounding behaviors observed.  Furthermore, as developments .unfolded, there was some news I wanted to share only when I was more certain of a few key aspects.  In addition, my outreach work continues to grow and grow, leaving limited time for blogging.  In the past few years I have been averaging 50 owl talks and over 70 owl prowls per year. The geographic range of owl talks continues to expand with highlights including my first talks in the Chicagoland area and in Indiana in 2019 and my first talk in Kansas is coming up in May. I have also increased outreach via social media and my YouTube videos have had over 152,000 views and I now have just over 250 subscribers.  

As the title of this post states there is sad news and a new chapter with exciting news.  The sad news is that Samantha has died.  She died on April 3, 2019 of a large and aggressive bacterial infection that had spread to multiple vital organs.  The cause of the infection could not be determined but candidates include an injury or wound or something she ate. Samantha received superb treatment from the World Bird Sanctuary in an effort in which Forest Park Forever and the Humane Society of Missouri played vital roles.  Unfortunately, her condition was so dire and advanced that this great care gave her respite but could not cure her.  To compound the sadness of the loss of Samantha, she died just shy of the date when I first observed her in 2016 on April 10.  She and Charles tried very hard to have successful broods of owlets these last three years but their efforts did not come to fruition. There is much to say about the last few years with Samantha and her decline and death but in the meantime, I would like to thank  Forest Park Forever, World Bird Sanctuary and Humane Society of Missouri for their amazing help with Samantha.  If you are so moved please donate in the name of Samantha, the Great Horned Owl of Forest Park, to one or more of these amazing organizations. You can use the links in the previous sentence to do so.  I must also take a moment to thank my friend and all-around owl expert and advocate, Brenda Hente, in being a vital part of Samantha's treatment.  As an award-winning volunteer for World Bird Sanctuary, Brenda was able to get updates from the amazing staff and her fellow volunteers about Samantha's condition and pass them on to me and our friends who are all fellow Forest Park owl addicts.  I will write more about Samantha but for now I want to pause here with a video of her sleeping last November. Thank you for letting us see some of your amazing life, Samantha! You are much missed and much loved!

The new chapter did not take long to begin.  On April 5, 2019, two days after Samantha's death and week after her evacuation from Forest Park, I went to observe and document Charles.  I quickly found him in The Trio Conifers.  I was talking aloud to my camera as I do to record notes about the owls' behavior, whereabouts, weather conditions, etc and I wondered if and when another female would show up.  I pivoted over to The Quartet Conifers and there was perched a huge and gorgeous female Great Horned Owl!  Bloody hell!  (Be sure to double click on the pictures to see a larger version of the photos) 

This female is Sarah's size-23-25 inches tall-as large as Great Horned Owls grow.  She is only one of a few females of this size that I have seen over the years both in the wild and in captivity.  

That night she and Charles duetted and he even showed her the 2018-2019 nest site, a new and thus unprecedented spot. Talk about a first date!  The name Danielle quickly came to me for this female. I have always liked the name and it also references my family's cat, Daniel, with whom I literally grew up as well as the cat-like appearance and behavior of owls, which hooks many people on owls.  

The exciting turn in the new chapter is that as of December 31, 2019 Danielle is nesting!  She is nesting where Sarah nested in 2008 and 2012 the accordingly named The 08-12 Nest Tree, now named The 08-12-20 Nest Tree. Here is cropped photo of Danielle nesting on New Year's Day 2020-what a beauty!

(If you know this nest location, please be sure to watch from a safe distance of at least 40-50 yards away while dressed in dark, muted colors and speaking quietly. Nesting requires quiet and peace and you do not want to anger an animal that eats Raccoons and Great Blue Herons)  

I am especially excited that she is nesting because I was concerned that nesting would not occur. I had not seen mating and the courtship behavior I had seen was inconsistent and rarely at the level of intensity and frequency that I saw with Olivia and Samantha. To compound this, since she arrived in April 2019 Danielle's only consistency was being around inconsistently.  Throughout the spring, summer and fall I had many days of not seeing or hearing her. The most intense was two periods in the fall, one of ten days and one of sixteen days, when I did not see or hear her at all.  I finally began to see her with more expected consistency starting in the second third of December 2019.  Even then the courtship was mild and inconsistent and I did not see mating, which usually begins in early-mid December here in Missouri.  Seeing her nesting on December 31 told me that they had been mating but when I was not around to see it!  I did finally see them mating on January 1, 2020.

There is a TON more to discuss about the last few years not the least of which is how Charles moved his territory a half mile to the east in the summer of 2019 and moved back to his historic territory in October 2019!  I wanted to keep this post to around 1000 words and I hope to come back soon with more news and updates on went down in 2017-2019 as well as what is happening in 2020.  Thank you for your patience and for your reading and support!