Friday, July 3, 2020

Charles Is Gone

July 3, 2020

I have not seen Charles since Thursday, May 14.  This is the longest I have gone without seeing him by a huge margin.  With the great help of friends I have searched wide and far for him   I decided to search for a six week period through Thursday, June 25 and I have done so and without even a a hint of his presence. With a heavy heart I have concluded that Charles is dead.  I am leaving the window of possibility slightly cracked and that Charles has moved to an as yet un-found area but only as a remote possibility.  It is awful to write these words and beyond sad to know that he is gone. I cannot fully express how much I miss him and will continue to do so.  Nor can I completely express the impact he made on my life and the lives of many others. I can only try to do so.

This is one of my favorite photos of him. He was in a low branch of The Third Of The Three Trees on August 7, 2016. (Be sure to double click on the photos to see larger versions of them)



But to continue I want to first describe what I saw of him on May 14 and what I saw in the subsequent six weeks.  In no way did Charles appear to be ill and/or injured.  He seemed perfectly healthy and behaved in his normal and always fascinating and beautiful manner.  On May 14 he woke up, he stretched and groomed, ejected a pellet and then flew off to hunt after sunset. A perfectly normal and average night but as any one who has seen Charles an average night of his defies the meaning of the word as it utterly compelling and beautiful.

I found him in a Sweetgum tree immediately next to the western edge of The Wooded Area.  It was interesting to find him in this tree for several reasons. Over the last few years I have seen him perch in this and other nearby Sweetgums in the late spring-early summer but not at all this year.  For a number of summers several years ago, he used this tree in predictably unpredictable manner as a summer perch spot. It is a large tree and you have to especially work the angles to find him.  This night was no different.  The warning calls of American Robins alerted me to the possibility of his presence but it took a while to find him by working the angles.  Even when I had located him and fine tuned the angle my view of him was still obscured by the many leaves on the tightly spaced branches.



As he woke up, stretched and groomed the previously cloudy conditions cleared and a stunning sunset emerged in its latter stages.



A little while later Charles pivoted his position in the tree and the fading rays of sun illuminated him for a brief but always memorable manner.


A chap passing by wondered what I was looking at and at a safe social distance I pointed out Charles to him.  He was completely captivated by Charles; an effect that he consistently has on people and one I am always thrilled to witness. The chap, who's name I learned was Mike, asked me many questions and as we chatted I learned that he is very passionate forager for morel mushrooms.  I do not like mushrooms even though I am a fun guy 😁 but I have always been curious about the folks who forage so diligently for them. As such I had many questions for Mike and we got quite a good conversation going as we shared about our respective passions and areas of expertise.

I noticed throughout the night that Charles was not hooting but the reason for this became clear when he ejected a good-sized pellet ten minutes after sunset. This was on the later side of the pellet ejection timeline spectrum.  He still did not hoot but I think since it was so late that he had to progress both behaviorally and alphabetically and skip hooting for hunting. As it got even darker, Charles flew south into The Wooded Area.  Mike and I were enjoying our conversation and given the dark conditions I knew it would be hard to find Charles. The robin warning calls had never stopped throughout the night and as Mike and I chatted I heard the robin calls surge northward most likely following Charles as he went off to hunt.  My own hunger was mounting and I needed to start my own hunting in my kitchen. Mike and I said our goodbyes and I left the park over an hour after sunset after a little more than two hours in the park. A perfectly normal, groovy night with Charles.

On Friday, May 15, I went out at the normal time, about an hour before sunset, and spent 90 minutes searching with no success. I was not worried that I had not found him. Over the years I have learned that such nights will happen. Most recently I had two nights this April and one earlier in May in which I had not found him.  I could only get to the park in the afternoon for a short visit and search on Saturday, May 16. My success rate in finding Charles on such short and early visits is quite high given the two time related limitations. This night was an unwelcome exception to this pattern. Again, though I was not concerned. Just as I have a night here and there when I don't find Charles and his current mate, over the years I have had periods of 2-4 nights of no success. I really do not like such periods as they do get me worried but having had several of them I know that they do occur.

The following night, Sunday, May 17, was frustrating and it was when I began to become more puzzled and concerned about not finding him.  The first frustration was not finding him especially when we had some strong robin calling in an area where he had been doing a fair amount of hunting of late. We could not find him or figure out what the robins were calling about and their calling eventually faded away.  The second frustration involved the we in the previous sentence. Almost after I started looking for Charles that night I ran into a recent owl prowlee, Han Li, and her boyfriend (David, I think-sorry! I am so bad with names as I happily meet so many people via the owls but sadly do a bloody awful job of remembering names!) who were looking for Charles too.  Han had joined me earlier that week on Tuesday, May 12 for an owl prowl. Thanks to a faint, short bit of Northern Cardinal warning calls I found Charles thirty seconds later in an obscured spot in The Double-barreled Tree. Han was duly impressed by this and as the night went on, she had an especially cool prowl as we saw many amazing behaviors of Charles's.  The highlights included a close, fast fly-by and watching him hunt past sunset from some low, man-made structures and on the ground.  I had never watched Charles hunt from these particular spots before this. Here are two of my favorite shots of his hunting exploits that night.




I could tell that Han was hooked on the owls and now seeing her with boyfriend visiting from out of town cemented this impression.  Unfortunately we had a very different experience on this night. Instead of finding Charles in thirty seconds, they patiently and kindly accompanied me for ninety fruitless minutes as we covered a wide search area only to find no one.  I frequently repeated my puzzlement and then my apologies for the no-show owl but my inner monologue was one of growing concern and confusion about his absence.

May 19 was another unsuccessful night but it did get me thinking about the last time I could not find Charles for a long time.  It was almost a year ago to the date. In May 2019 I did not see Charles from May 16-30.  I finally found him on May 31 in part of his hunting range.  As some of you know, he ended up spending the entire summer in this area of his hunting range a half mile east/northeast of The Wooded Area, the core of his territory.  Thankfully he moved back to The Wooded Area five months later in mid-October 2019. I remain bewildered about this move in territory but it now in May 2020, I thought I should expand my search area. I started to do so on May 20, 2020 by searching The Wooded Area and the Summer 2019 Territory.

May 20 was another bust but on May 21 while I did not find Charles, I had a fortuitous meeting with a fellow park goer and nature lover. I had just started searching the Summer 2019 Territory when I ran into a lady who asked me how the owls were. I asked her how she knew about the owl and she replied that she had been on a few of my owl prowls over the years.  As happens too often, I could not think of her name so I asked for it as I apologized for lack of name memory. She replied kindly that we were friends on Facebook and the her name was Alexis Miano. That sufficiently jogged my memory. Alexis told me afterwards that she was on the phone with a friend and recognized me and told her friend that she had seen The Owl Man and had to ask about the owls. I explained about Charles being MIA and that I was expanding my search area.  She joined me for the rest of my search of the Summer 2019 Territory and she even got a photo of me as we searched Raccoonville.


I briefed her more fully about the last few days and last summer.  With no luck finding Charles in this area, I needed to head to The Wooded Area and she was heading home so we said our goodbyes.  Alexis messaged me the next day asking if I had found Charles. I let her know that I had not. Very generously, she  let me know that she is a regular cyclist in the park and would keep her eyes open for Charles. Even more kindly, she asked if there were areas that I would like her to search. I eagerly replied in the affirmative and we made a plan of attack.  The additional help and time/places searched was a major and most welcome development!

On May 25, Alexis messaged me saying that she was quite certain she had heard two hoots of a male Great Horned Owl (GHOW) from an area adjacent to the The Wooded Area; another stretch of woods that is home to Barred Owls. I searched that area for the next two nights but while I did not see Charles or another GHOW I did see and hear Barred Owls and Red-tailed Hawks. On May 25, the Barred Owls were in the very heart of The Wooded Area; something I had seen in May 2019 when Charles was not in this part of the core of his territory. Both in 2019 and 2020 the Barred Owl hooted together in a duet, which is not something they would do if Charles was there.  In the six weeks I searched for Charles without success, I saw one or two Barred Owls on four different nights in The Wooded Area. All of these sightings underscored that Charles was simply not there.

I continued searching as did Alexis and we kept in touch about what we saw.  In late May I sent out an e-mail out to my core group of owl friends updating them on the Charles's situation and asking for folks to help out so we could search even more areas.  Over the next month, several folks were able to join me or lend moral support from both near and far and for that, I am hugely grateful. Alexis quickly became the Rookie of the Year as her regularly cycling trips and her multiple evenings of owl searching per week allowed us to greatly expand the search area.  I took time and care to show her the spots in The Wooded Area that Charles had used recently while showing her search methods and techniques while pointing out other bird and mammal calls and sharing more about Charles and his history. In short she became my newest owl mentee and even more importantly a new friend.

The next several weeks were incredibly tough as we continued to not find Charles. Each night became a slog of not just not finding him but the added toll of yet another night with no Charles. With each night that we did we did not find him, the potential to find him felt less and less on subsequent nights. With other life/work stresses and the pandemic, not being able to find Charles was a most unwelcome and crushing addition to these worries. When the pandemic began and continued on and on, going to the park and seeing Charles and reveling in his beauty and fascinating behavior became even more precious. But to not find Charles night after night made these other challenges even more intense.  Here's a shot of me by Alexis taking during the stressful weeks of not finding Charles. We were searching in the immediate vicinity of The AYU Tree and The Archy Tree. Looking at this photo I can practically see and feel the mental and emotional burden of not finding him while dealing with everything else that life has thrown at us in 2020.


It goes without saying but I must say it anyway that the most helpful and important person during these weeks was my girlfriend Wendy Schlegel. Wendy listened carefully and sympathetically to my daily report of the previous night's efforts to find Charles. She knows how much Charles means to me and she has her own deep love for him as she has known of him as long as I have. I felt awful one morning when I called earlier than usual her to discuss some matter that I cannot even remember now. Given the early timing of my call she thought I was calling with good news about Charles and she answered the phone by saying excitedly, "Did you find Charles?!?"   As I do in more normal happy times, on some days I would look for Charles during the day so that I could spend the evening with Wendy. These nights were even more important and welcome than ever.

Summer is the hardest time to find owls with them being even harder to spot with the trees all leafed out and the adults are not as vocal, overall. One huge help in finding owls year round but especially in the summer is the warning calls of a variety of birds and mammals. GHOWs are powerful and dominant predators and are feared by the vast majority of animals in their range.  The summer is the best time to use these warning calls and other mobbing behaviors because the other birds have young that they need to protect and educate about the threat posed by GHOWs and other predators. In earlier paragraphs, I mentioned the warning calls of American Robins.  The calls of these ubiquitous birds in Forest Park have been the most helpful for me for finding Charles and co. during the summers.  Like the second half of May 2019, the six weeks I searched for Charles recently were eerily quiet with little to no robin calling every night.

In one of the bitter ironies of this summer, in the last few weeks a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks have made their presence known right in the immediate vicinity of my home in St. Louis. I have seen and heard more of Red-Shouldered Hawks in the last few weeks than I have in my life cumulatively before now. The hawks draw plenty of attention and warning calls from the local robins and on most days I will have 4-6 hours total of robin calls with the calls often being non-stop for hours at a time.  It has been great to see and hear the hawks but bloody awful to head to Forest Park and not only not find Charles but to hear little or no robin calling.

Another challenge of the past six weeks is that I have been the bearer of bad news to fellow park goers and nature lovers asking me "How are the owls?" and I have had to reply about not finding Charles and the serious concerns stemming from this. They kindly ask the question with a smile and I quickly turn that smile into a frown that does not depart for some time.  I had a period of a few weeks of an influx of e-mails from folks asking to schedule owl prowls. The e-mails came a welcome mix of prior prowlees like the lovely McCauley family, for whom I have led owl prowls several times for three generations of this great family, as well as new folks interested in the owls after seeing my videos on YouTube.  I had to let all these kind folks know that I was not leading owl prowls now as I was worried about Charles and had to concentrate my efforts on not finding him.  To a person they all replied that they understood and they too were worried about Charles.  I feel bad that I spread concern and worry to so many folks but I am grateful for their sympathy and concern.

Thursday, June 25 became my last night searching for Charles.  My search that night began with noticing some consistent robin calling, which raised my hopes but instead led me to a Great Blue Heron up high in a Cottonwood. Knowing that this night was the last night I would be searching for Charles, as I looked for him in the different trees and regions in the woods, each of these places became not just a place to search but a place to recall and reflect.  Without success and with a heavy heart I returned home. The following morning I e-mailed my core group of owl friends and told them that my search had ended and that while leaving the possibility that we had not found Charles, he was dead.  I want to take a moment here and thank all of my friends for the support over these hard weeks and for their lovely e-mails of support and sympathy.  These e-mails kept me going on especially in the most difficult periods.

As to the cause of death, I will likely never know. Again, Charles displayed no sign of illness or injury in the last days on which I saw him.  Adult Great Horned Owls essentially do not have any natural enemies unless they are ill, injured or caught with their pants down.  Over the years my biggest concern about the owls' well-being and safety is cars. Whether it is a field, a lake or a road I have seen the owls regularly fly 50-70 feet high and just as regularly seen them fly 6-12 inches low.  I have seen too many close calls with all of the owls and cars.  Several months ago in the late winter I saw Charles fly 1-2 feet over one of the park's roads a mere second or two ahead of an oncoming car's headlights.  When I began to drive to the park I also began driving home by taking a route that took me away from where I last saw the owls so I would be one less car near the owls.

One silver lining in this sad time is a simultaneously similar but slightly different silver lining that occurred with Sarah's death in 2015.  That year Charles and Sarah had two owlets: Grace and Harold. Sarah was last seen and likely died on July 20.  At this point, she and Charles had already stopped feeding the owlets; an important stage in the owlets' road to dispersal from the parents' territory and the owlets' eventual independence. If Sarah had died in June or earlier the owlets would likely have died from lack of food. Once the owlets fledge (leave the nest) the female GHOW will begin to hunt t as the male continues to hunt in their herculean efforts to feed their ravenous young. With GHOWs, there are a few documented cases of one of the parents dying but the surviving parent still able to provide for the family.  These cases are very much the exception to the rule that the owlets would likely die from starvation with only parent to hunt for them despite the best efforts of the surviving parent.  This year Charles and Danielle nested unsuccessfully. However, if they had done so successfully and  the owlets had fledged successfully too only to have Charles die in May-June, the owlets most likely would have died too.  I think it is important to keep this mind.

How old was Charles? The longer I studied Charles, the more this question understandably came up as I lead owl prowls and gave owl talks. If I could have asked him one question it would have been: How old are you?  I do have a minimum age, which is no small thing.  Charles was at least 16-17 years old and I have that figure from two good points of data.  Great Horned Owls generally do not have young until they are 2-3 years old as it takes a while to find a territory and a mate.  Charles and Sarah had young in the first year I studied them in 2005-2006.  I studied Charles for over 14 years.  Taken these two data points together, I arrive at his minimum age of 16-17 years old.  Where things get tricky is that despite being the most widespread, commonly found owl in North America, there is still a great deal that we do not know about GHOWs including average lifespan.  We know records for longevity in the wild and the records show GHOWs living into their 20s with the highest record being around 30 years old. Records are helpful up to a point as they show what is possible but by definition they are not the average.  Given all of this Charles may have been 19, he may have been 25.  I wish I knew.

With this in mind, Charles was at least past middle age.  In the last few years this knowledge of his advancing age had a profound impact on me.  I knew that each night, week, month and year represented, to borrow a phrase from the late, great Anglo-American writer Christopher Hitchens,  more and more from less and less. I became painfully aware that there was less sand in the hourglass in my time with Charles. Each night became more and more precious.  I frequently voiced this understanding whether to myself when studying him on a regular night with him or when leading an prowl or giving an owl talk and questions about his age arose.  When on my own, I would often reflect on how lucky I was to know him and to have been able to get know him over so many years and I would thank him for the glimpse I had into his life and for all the joy, fascination and wonderment he brought to me and many others. Now at the end with Charles I am glad that I reflected in this way and expressed my gratitude.  It is a slight but comforting cushion in the grief from his death.

While I knew Charles was at least past middle aged, he never showed any signs of slowing down.  I say this with as much objectivity as I can muster but in his behavior and appearance he looked no different this year than he did three years ago, six years ago, nine years ago and beyond.  He flew just as fast, was just as keen to mate and nest, and hunted as masterfully as he always did.  While it was sad and tough to see Sarah and Samantha's decline at least we knew that they were ill or injured-we knew something was wrong-we had some data.  With Charles it was here one day and gone the next.  I prefer to have some data and not knowing what happened makes it all the harder.

As to Charles's most recent mate, the huge and beautiful Danielle, I wish I had more information to share with you. Ever since she arrived in April 2019, she has been a very different female GHOW than what I have experienced and read about.  She has regularly spent long periods of time unseen and unheard and not in the vicinity, to the best of my knowledge, of Charles. In the fall of 2019 I expected her and Charles to duet intensely and regularly as they courted and bonded more on the path to mating and nesting.  Much to my surprise, I had two periods that fall of over 10 consecutive days when I did not see or hear her at all. One period was for 12 days and the other for 16 days. It was only when the mating period approached even closer that I began to see her with more consistency.  The most consistent period I  have ever seen her was the six weeks she spent in the nest!  Of late, she has not been observed for a long time, even by her standards.  I have not seen definitively seen her since March 13.  I had a possible sighting on April 16 but nothing since then.  I hope she is well and I keep my ears, eyes and mind open for her.

It has been just over a week since I stopped searching for Charles and it has been a sad, weird and tough time.  Initially, I took some time off from going to Forest Park, which is tough in its own right but after six arduous weeks it was important to take a bit of breather.  My first night going back to the park was odd in that I was not looking for Charles. While I do go to the park and do other things besides studying Charles, it was odd to go to the park at my usual owling time and to not have looking for him on the evening's menu.  While I think it was important to set a date to stop searching for Charles and while the search over the six weeks was incredibly challenging there was still an element of possibility and hope.  As I said at the beginning of this post, I am leaving the window of possibility cracked that Charles has moved to an as yet un-found area but only as a remote possibility.

Several people have asked me what is next for me with studying Great Horned Owls. As I responded to them, my work will continue in ways both similar and different. I am going to keep an eye on The Wooded Area and see what happens there. I am curious to see if the Barred Owls expand their territory into this area or if a new GHOW moves into this highly desirable GHOW habitat.  There are other GHOWs in the park and I may well start to study them.  I will also keep a look out for Danielle.  Before I stopped searching for Charles and not far from The Wooded Area, I found a new male GHOW on June 10 and I have been studying him with modest frequency since then.  It is too early to say if he will be the focus of this new chapter in my work of studying GHOWs in Forest Park. but a new chapter has certainly begun.  There is more to stay about this new chapter but I want to, I have to conclude by reflecting on Charles and his multi-faceted and far-reaching impact on my life and lives of many others.

When Sarah died in 2015 I wrote and often said subsequently, that I may never see another female Great Horned Owl as amazing as her. I feel the same way about Charles. I have been very lucky to have seen many male Great Horned Owls but I have never seen one that I felt was his equal and I do not think I ever will.  From his immense physical beauty to the power and grace of his movements and flight to his prowess as a predator to his dedication and care as a mate and parent, he was a male Great Horned Owl beyond compare.  Every time I saw him was a joy and to have studied him for so long and with such intensity was a labor of love. The more I saw of him the more I learned but the more I was fascinated, challenged and sometimes confused and bewildered.  The most average night with him and his mate at the time was spectacular, which is a contradiction but one that fits in this case.  The amazing nights were out of this world and the truly exceptional nights are beyond all superlatives.

Charles taught me so much about studying owls in particular and wildlife as a whole by taking things I knew or thought I knew and revealing greater depths and breadths to them. Things like patience, perseverance, camouflage, quiet, open-mindedness, documentation, care and respect, and of course research.  In turn, I do my utmost to pass on these things to the people I have mentored as well as folks who go on an owl prowl or attend one of my owl talks.

Through sharing these things with other people Charles and co. generated friendships with people that may otherwise may not have ever met.  A whole community of people has grown around Charles and co. and the impact they have had is multi-faceted and simultaneously easy and hard to measure.  One of my favorite illustrations of the owls' impact on my life and the lives of others comes from a moment I had at a party a few years ago. The hosts were my good friends Danny and Joyce Brown. I met Danny in the spring of 2010 when he was looking for Sarah's nest.  He wanted to photograph her and Charles and the three owlets they had that year: Reese, Malcolm and Dewey. as part of his work as a truly incredible wildlife photographer and nature writer.  As I looked at the other guests at the party I realized that most of us had met via Charles and co.  We are folks from different parts of the St. Louis region, different ages and stages, professions, and more but we all became connected via Charles and co. and I am beyond grateful for that.

In addition to this core group of friends of Charles and co., a wider community has grown around the owls via not only owl prowls and owl talks but by what I call owl ambassadorship.  This is my name for the process of pointing out the owls to passersby or answering questions like "What are you looking for/at?" Some of these folks regularly return to look for the owls or they start to look for owls closer to their own homes.  One of my favorite things to see occur with my fellow humans is to point out Charles to someone out for a run or a walk or a bike ride in the park and to see that person come back on their own and/or alternate their usual route so that they can see more of Charles and co. In small and big ways, Charles and co. changed people's lives.

The sheer aesthetic appeal of Charles is intense and a huge part of his magnetism for both for myself and for many others. Look at how absolutely beautiful Charles is whether caught in the setting sun or as the sun is below the horizon.



Even sleeping his beauty is unmistakable!



Charles's beauty cannot be overstated. It was not just in his markings and intense eyes but in his posture and bearing. All of these things added up to a striking effect that did not diminish with time but rather grew and grew.  I often found myself shaking my head at how gorgeous he was and how lucky I was to study him.  When leading owl prowls I enjoyed seeing how women often reacted to seeing Charles whether for the first time or the seventh time. I heard more than a few gasps and "Wows" and I could practically see and hear women say things like "Well, I do declare..." or "Call me." I saw more than a few of the sig others of these ladies grip their lady's hand a little tighter when they saw how their lady reacted to the utterly sublime Charles.  I was never surprised by this and it was always amazing to see such reactions.

Over the years, I have been lucky and privileged to share Charles and co. with fellow naturalists as well as professional biologists and zoologists ranging from such esteemed institutions as The St. Louis Zoo, Missouri Department of Conservation, The World Bird Sanctuary, Forest Park Forever and more.  These experts, many of them with years of experience with many Great Horned Owls, were often happily dumbstruck at the beauty of Charles.  When they regained their voices, they quickly expressed how beautiful he was.  All of this reinforced to me, time and time again, that Charles was an especially gorgeous Great Horned Owl.

His beauty was not just in his physical appearance but in his hooting as well. His hoot was without  peer either as it combined his stunning tone and volume with his physical beauty.








In the late winter and early spring of this year, there was an intruding male Great Horned Owl showing up in Charles's territory; often quite close to the edge of The Wooded Area.  His hoot was quite similar to Charles's. In fact, on one night when I had as yet not observed The Intruder I mistook him for Charles just by the hoot. It was only when I heard Charles hooting in reply that I realized that I was hearing two male GHOWs and one of them was not Charles!  The Intruder was definitely making his presence known and Charles was not happy about this and the similarity of their hoots made things challenging too. Finally on one night I was able to get closer to The Intruder and listen closely to his hoots.  I was able to hear some objective differences: The Intruder's notes were not as long and had a less rounded, more pinched quality to them.  Naturally, I observed some subjective differences too; The Intruder's hoot was simply not as beautiful as Charles's. [P.S. I am quite certain that new male GHOW I found on June 10 is not The Intruder as the new male GHOWs hoot is clearly that of male GHOW but it would not be mistaken for Charles's hoot]

Even when you could barely see him, Charles's hoot was a joy to witness




Watching Charles stretch and groom as he began to wake up was one of my favorite things to observe and document.  Here is doing The Escalator Stretch on each wing.




In-depth talon cleaning was not an every day occurrence so it was always a treat to see.



One of my very favorite to see owls and Charles in particular do is to fly. The speed, power, silence, grace and ethereal nature of it make it unforgettable and simultaneously ephemeral.  Having seen Charles, his mates and many other owls fly literally thousands of times there is still something about it that you do not quite believe your own eyes.





To see Charles hunt even unsuccessfully was to watch a master perform his art and craft.  I have seen Charles hunt Click Beetles on the ground, Great Blue Herons on the ground and on the wing, Raccoons in trees and on the ground, bats in midair and squirrels everywhere.  One of my favorite examples of his predatory prowess that I was lucky to observe and to document reasonably well occurred last April.  I had watched him wake up, stretch and groom, and hoot and fly to his next spot.  Something caught his attention and he flew down to the ground...


He caught this Eastern Cottontail Rabbit at the very beginning of his night; an incredible example of the opportunism and predatory power of a hunting GHOW.  Notice how you hear absolutely no sound from the rabbit.  I have never heard an injured rabbit but I have heard from many people that it is a horrible and all too memorable sound. This rabbit most likely died in a near instantaneous fashion from a combination of penetrating wounds and the intense trauma from the impact of Charles's massive and powerful talons. 

Charles was also an exceptional mate and father owl.  He and Sarah had 23 owlets in 10 consecutive nesting seasons, which was simply amazing on so many levels. While Charles and Olivia, Samantha and Danielle did not nest successfully, it was not for lack of trying or effort.  I never thought I would see the owls mate especially as GHOW mating was not documented until the 1990s!  I have been very lucky to have seen Charles mate with all four of the mates I saw him with and to have seen and filmed mating hundreds of times.  One of my favorite mating episodes that I was able to film was on New Year's Day 2019 with him and Samantha, which you can see below. 


Charles's care and devotion to his nesting mate and their young was a wonder to behold.  When a female GHOW is nesting she will only hunt if an opportunity presents itself-I saw this three times over the years with three of the females- or if the male is not bringing home the bacon.  The responsibility for the male GHOW to feed his mate and then her and the young is a huge responsibility and was one to which Charles was more than equal. My three favorite examples of this come from the first night of the nesting seasons in 2009, 2010 and 2018.  On each of these nights seeing that his mate, Sarah in the first two examples and Samantha in the third, was nesting he went out hunting and quickly caught some prey and returned immediately to the nest to deliver it to his mate. Of these three nights the most intense and striking was at the start of the 2010 nesting season.  Charles flew off to hunt traveling a good 300-400 yards. Thanks to a happy accident of topography I was able to follow his flight and see him pull up and land. I did not know exactly what tree he had landed in but from what I saw I knew the micro-region in which to search.  I strode off walking as fast and quietly as I could to catch up with him.  I had gone about 40-50 yards and I looked up to see him with prey in tow flying past me now on his way back to the deliver the food to Sarah in the nest.  He had caught and returned with prey mere minutes after leaving the vicinity of the nest. I will never forget that. 

While I was incredibly lucky to study Sarah for just over nine-and-a-half years to have studied Charles for just under fourteen-and-a-half years was not just lucky in the general sense.  Doing so allowed me to see even more incredible GHOW behaviors.  One of my favorite aspects of studying these owls is that every night is different, every night is unique. Sometimes in very small, subtle ways and at other times in wholly unexpected ways.  There are some behaviors I have seen thousands of times and other that I have seen once or twice.  One of my favorite examples of the latter was seeing Charles in the rain and not just enduring and dealing with the rain but taking it advantage of it by spreading his wings and tail feathers to take a shower.  I saw this behavior once but I did not film it but luckily I got another chance on September 25, 2015. It had not rained for two weeks and the park was bone dry.  It began to rain as it became closer to sunset. Charles moved to the top of a dead pine tree and he spread out his wings and tail feathers. As you will see and hear below this was no slight early fall sprinkle but rather capital R Rain.  I got completely soaked but it was more than worth it!


A more recent example of especially unique behavior is something I have never seen any bird do ever.  On April 3 of this year, I found Charles in The Great Northern Tree and I was able to get a good level angle on him and I watched him wake up.  He stretched and groomed as I filmed him and took photos.  At one point I turned my head away from him and when I turned back to him I saw that he had a large feather of his, most likely a flight or tail feather, in his talons and that he was grooming his bill with the feather! He mostly used the calamus or hollow shaft of the feather but also the feather's vane. This went on for a few minutes and I was able to film much of it.  


Simply amazing to see this! I reached out to several local, regional, national and international owl experts who I have been very lucky to get to know over the years and I asked them about this behavior. Everyone of them kindly wrote back and said that they had seen captive owls do this behavior and for me to see a wild owl do it was no small thing.  

As you can tell, I can go on and on and on about Charles. He was such a beautiful, fascinating and compelling Great Horned Owl. I am confident that I will never see a male Great Horned Owl as incredible as him.  There is no shortage of amazing aspects and behaviors to share but I must complete this post; one I knew I would have to write someday and have dreaded for years.  Thank you for reading this and please share it with others that would find it of interest.  The support of everyone who has seen and come to love Charles has made this tough time easier to bear.  Thank you! 

Thank you, Charles for letting me spend so much time learning about you and sharing your life with others whose lives you also touched in innumerable ways and times. Thank you for your patience and tolerance.  Thank you for being such an amazing owl and an ambassador of your kind in this world we share.  I love you and miss you.  - Mark.


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!