Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bye-bye to boots, hello to owls, egrets, Edward and more

Sunday April 5, 2009 Part I

Between Barb and Chris' exciting observations of Mo and the rest of the Great Horned Owl family and my short visit to the park the day before, I was itching for a nice long venture into the park.

Before I headed out, I had an important switch to make in my go-to-the-park gear. After many months of great use and much wear and tear, I had to replace my boots. These boots served me for well countless miles and through every terrain and weather the park could throw at them and me. I was reluctant to replace them but a hole in the toe area of left boot's sole became the proverbial straw.
I had patched it but with the rain and mud of spring coming on strong, I needed a completely sealed pair of boots. Thanks to my sharp-eyed girlfriend, I was able to get a replacment pair of the same type of boots, Timberland Men's Waterproof Flume Mid Hiker Dark Brown, and a new pair of running shoes for a song. So I took some more photos of my boots, kept the one without the hole, and washed the pair of laces to keep as back up.

I shouldered my back-pack and head into the park, shaking my head at the change in weather. The day before was bathed in gorgeous sunshine but today was dramatically cloudy and windy and more than a little cool.
I headed straight for The Wooded Area and soon found Sarah in one of the large deciduous trees in the eastern third of the area. Her talons looked especially large as they grasped the branch that made her perch.
The talon spread of a Great Horned Owl is 4-8 inches in diameter and the claw part of the talon can be up to 1.25 inches in length! The leg muscles are structured in such a way that when the talons close they just don't close but lock in place. The talons close with up to thirty pounds of pressure and once closed and locked, almost nothing can unlock them. In one of the seminal books on the Great Horned Owl, The World of the Great Horned Owl by Austing and Holt, the authors relay the story of a Great Horned Owl kept as a labratory animal at a university. An inexperienced student working with the owl inadverdantly caused the owl to sink its talons into the students arms. The owl would not let go and the labratory staff were forced to cut the tendons of the owls legs before it would release its grip.

Charles was keeping post in his Favorite Conifer, tufts sharply pointed up and with his right eye open and his left eye mostly closed.

Since I arrived early to the park, I had plenty of time to go exploring in several locations before heading back to watch the owls at dusk, when they wake up and begin the evening's activities.

I walked around the "front" of The Wooded Area and as often happens, I ran into Edward Crim. I introduced Edward and his great photo blog Forest Park 365 in a recent posting of mine. We were catching up when I spied something coming down the road that I knew Edward would want to photograph. It was Mr. Talanya of Talanya's Pizza fame on his trippy, tricycle. I've seen this man on this outsize, pump-action tricycle many times over the years but it was only recently that someone identified him to me. I've most often seen him going down the backside of The Wooded Area as I am watching the owls. This bike makes an odd sound and an odd site and I have been known to think to myself, "That's a somewhat odd chap." I then go back to standing next to a tree watching owls. Mr. Pot meet Mr. Kettle.
Now instead of just shooting a few discreet photos from a distance, Edward went up to Mr. Talanya and introduced himself and began chatting with about his bike and Forest Park 365. While I am no shrinking violet about pointing the owls and other critters out to people, Edward makes me look shy! Edward and Mr. Talanya chatted for a while as I took photos and Mr. Talanya even gave Edward a coupon for Talanya's Pizza.

Edward and I continued east stopping around the "moat" around the Nathan Frank Bandstand, where we saw saw a Great Egret and it's smaller cousin the Snowy Egret. These were among the first of each species that we had seen this year and we welcomed them back to the park. Once by the little waterfalls east of Deer Lake we saw another Snowy Egret hunting at the bottoms of one of the waterfalls. These and other small waterfalls are among the best places to find egrets and herons as they wait patiently for fish or other potential prey to appear on the veritable prey conveyor belt made by the waterfall.

The air soon became filled with interesting birds and bird happenings. We looked up and saw a large bird gliding along the gusty winds. I identified it as a Black Vulture and not the more frequently seen Turkey Vulture. That said, in my observations, vultures are uncommon in and around the park. I have probably seen fewer than 10 so it was great to see one. I snapped away with my camera and it wasn't until I uploaded them that I saw that vulture was not just flying...

The vulture flew off and my attention was caught by a Northern Flicker. Along with the Downy Woodpecker, the Northern Flicker is the most commonly found woodpecker species in the park. Its plumage is a fascinating combination of colors and patterns that in satorial terms somehow works for them. More to come...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A busy Saturday night without me

Saturday, April 4, 2009

As Wendy and I had plans cinematic, gastronomic and social for this evening, I knew I would not seen the owls around my usual visiting time of dusk. That said, I still wanted to get to the park, count heads, and see what I could see and generally enjoy the park.

Like the day before, it was a beautiful day but it was more windy. I reached The Wooded Area just as a group of kids led by adults walked through the eastern portion of the area. This group of visitors unwittingly caused Sarah to flush twice in short succession. I was a tad disappointed by this as it might put Sarah on edge especially in regards to Art. Female Great Horned Owls are famously aggressive defenders of their young especially as the young get older and the parents have invested untold energy and time in raising the young. I looked carefully for Art and soon found him, well-concealed in the upper reaches of a conifer. He was in the tallest of a group of three conifers that I have begun to think of as The Trio Conifers. The Trio Conifers does not contain Charles' Favorite Conifer. That tree is found in a different but nearby group of conifers, whose numbers I need to carefully note so that I can dub them with the appropriate label. I am not a betting man but I would wager that their number is sufficient to earn the name The Quintet Conifers. It heartened me to see Art in a conifer as they offer abundant cover and camouflage; just what the doctor ordered for a young and inexperienced owlet.

I took a closer look at Sarah and saw that she was gular fluttering a little, perhaps due to heat and/or stress. Gular (pronounced "goo-lure") fluttering is the owl (and for many other birds) equivalent of sweating or panting. When they gular flutter, they rapidly move muscles in their throats to increase evaporation of excess moisture from the moist areas of the mouth and throat. It is a interesting process to observe and consider.

Of the owls most easily found most of the time, I found Charles last and in his Favorite Conifer to boot. I was reluctant to get closer as that Charles was quite near Sarah and Art and that would put me perhaps too near Sarah and Art. Since I knew that time was short I consoled myself with a brief glimpse of Charles' impressive plumage from below this favorite needled perch of his.

Keenly aware that Mo would most likely be deep in the nest hollow and all but invisible, I went to the nest hollow to look for him. I did not see him but was happy to find the other three early in the afternoon.

Before departing for home, I spoke briefly with Chris Gerli. He told me that he and Barb Brownell, his sig other, planned to watch the owls this night. This cheered me to no end as the two of them have proved themselves to be among the most dedicated owl watchers and Forest Park boosters.

While I introduced Chris in my last post, I did not give sufficient space to Barb. Professionally, Barb is the Speech-Language Pathologist for Nipher Middle School in Kirkwood, MO, a southwestern suburb of St. Louis. Through the wonders of online research, I have learned that she was celebrated as one of the 2006-07 Teachers of the Year of the Kirkwood School District. This confirmed what I already knew about Barb from spending many hours with her and Chris watching the owls. Namely that she is a great listener and observer, taking in details and broad strokes with equal aplomb. She shares her observations with equal scope and care all the while with a hearty laugh and appetite for noting norms and divergences.

I was even more chuffed when I checked my e-mail the following morning and saw a short but extremely detailed e-mail from Barb about what they saw that night. With Barb's blessing from here on are her observations with only the slightest of tweaks by me. Exciting stuff-enjoy!

Charles in his favorite conifer - grooming like crazy, stretching, periodic hooting. Art up high in conifer on the rise of the hill at the edge of The Wooded Area. Chris hears a distant hooting towards direction of Upper Muny parking lot.

We return to the nest area. No sight of anything at all in hollow. (Barb is concerned - where's Mo?) Chris sees flight of what we assume was Sarah (obstructed by the trees in The Wooded Area) fly from general area of upper Muny parking lot, to the edge of The Wooded Area towards general direction of Charles and Art.

Chris heads back to that area. Barb keeps vigil in hollow area. Chris calls on cell phone to report seeing Art in same conifer, Charles gone, and Sarah now in conifer next to Charle's Favorite Conifer. Chris then observes Art make a short but rather skilled flight and landing, from conifer to deciduous tree (closest deciduous tree to conifer he was in - has a split trunk - on rise of the hill). Sarah later flies out of her conifer towards Post-Dispatch Lake.

Meanwhile, back at the hollow, as darkness had definitely set in, Barb views, emerging from the hollow - Mo! He perches on the edge, looks around, stretches his legs, stretches wings, does some wing flapping - but mostly just sits and looks around. He watches the cars goes by, looks down at the ground, spies a passing plane, head bobs, sometimes faces back with head towards hollow (more room to stretch out wing), turns back around. Barb leaves momentarily to drive Chris back to his van and upon returning, catches for a second, a glimpse of one of the adults flying low to the ground away from hollow and back into The Wooded Area. No sign of Mo in hollow now. Could he be down in the hollow perhaps eating food that may have been delivered? Within minutes however, Mo emerges back on edge of hollow and remains perched, does some wing flapping but mostly just sits and takes in the scene. Barb, bids Mo a goodnight, and tears herself away from park at 9:15.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

More to come but in the meantime check this out...

Fear not, I am working on updates to the blog especially as Charles, Sarah, Art and Mo are very active. At the same time, I wanted to try embedding a video I put up on YouTube of Sarah making a fast flight a few weeks ago. Enjoy and be sure to watch the birdy!

Monday, April 6, 2009

(Partial) Fledging Friday!

Friday, April 3, 2009
This was a busy weekend in the park. As it got off to an early start on Friday, I'll start there. Thanks to a long day the week before, I had some overtime coming to me. I left work at 2:30 and headed to the Visitor's Center, enjoying the sunny skies all the while.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a kind request via e-mail from Chris Ferre, the Nature Reserve Technician for Forest Park Forever. He explained that tree maintenance and removal was ramping up and he wanted to prepare for it. Chris asked me if I could point out to him trees that birds or other animals were using so that he could work with other park personnel to avoid removing active nests and perches. I happily accepted his invitation and once we set a date and time, I looked forward to our outing for days.

I met Chris at the Visitor's Center and we headed off in a gator, a small, gas-powered vehicle used by Chris and his colleagues to venture into many different types of terrain in the park. Naturally, our first stop was the owls area. I was able to show Chris several trees that while on the ropes, have been and continued to be used by the owls for perching, hooting, duetting and more. We found Charles in his Favorite Conifer. Over the next few hours, we went to several other locations and checked out a number of additional trees. As is want to happen between two nature enthusiasts, we spent a healthy amount of time exchanging information about different species observed with anecdotes a plenty. When we were in the owls area, our conversation became sufficiently animated that we accidently flushed Sarah! She flew out of The Wooded Area and across the road. Sorry, Sarah! Chris was happy to share a great deal of his expertise about particular trees, tree diseases and all sorts of wildlife and I was eager to learn from him. Here is a picture of him showing a budding branch of an invasive species, the Tree of Heaven:

We headed to a point along the waterway and saw a Snowy Egret, one of the first, but not the first I have seen this season. As we continued our tour and chat, I spied two turtles of the species Red-Eared Slider, the smaller of the two basking on the larger. I have only seen this behavior a few times in the wild so a picture was in order:

Chris and I headed back to the core of Charles and Sarah's territory so that I could point out a few other trees to Chris as ones to avoid removing, if possible. In the midst of our engaging tour and conversation, we found that time had run out on us. Chris needed to head for home and I was ready to go on with the rest of my extra-long park sojourn. We agreed that our chat was not over and that we should try to meet up again for additional exchanges of information and insights.

Just as we prepared to go our seperate ways, we ran into a mutual friend and fellow Forest Park enthusiast, Chris Gerli. Chris is the proprietor of City Cycling Tours, which rents bikes and leads bike tours of the park and the city as a whole to visitors and locals alike. As such, Chris is one of the most knowledgeable people around about all aspects of Forest Park. Chris and his sig other, Barb Brownell, are longtime eagle watchers and two of the most sincere and dedicated observers of Charles and Sarah. We have become friends through many evenings watching the doings of the owls and their progeny.
Barb had e-mailed me earlier stating that they planned to come and watch the owls. While Chris F and I caught up with Cris G, Chris G let us know that he and Barb would not be coming out tonight as they had forgotten about a previous engagement. Pity. I had been looking to watch the owls with them. We all went our separate ways and I thought about what I would do before sunset began to arrive.
Memory fails me a little now but either I called Edward Crim or he called me and we agreed to meet up and watch the owls and anything else that caught our fancy. Edward is a new park and owl friend. In a short time he has abundantly proven his enthusiasm for the park and its inhabitants and visitors. As you can see from his website, Edward is a professional photographer of great skill and range. Ingenuity is also part of his toolbox as he has turned the slow economy into an opportunity by launching his project, Forest Park 365. For this project, Edward goes to the park every day (which he began on December 31, 2008) of 2009 and takes photos of anything and everything. By doing so, he has created an ever-growing and consistently stunning gallery of the park's nature (both plant and wildlife), architecture, attractions, visitors and even yours truly (many times beginning in early March). Here is Edward with one of the tools of his trade:

When Edward and I spoke on the phone, he was on the west side of the park while I was near its center. Given the beautiful day, the hundreds of people on the park and the distance between his starting point and our RV point, never mind Edward's magpie eye for brilliantly photographing and everything, I knew it would be a while before we would join forces! With that in mind, I took a closer look around my surroundings and took some photos including some of the budding Cottonwoods that make up many of the owls favorite trees.

After a while, Edward joined me and we discussed our options. We decided to check out the Red-tailed Hawk's nest about a half-mile from the owls' territory. I noticed this nest a few years ago but last year was the first time I saw it in use. Both last year and this year, Chris Gerli tipped me off that it was active and he also positively identified the hawks as Red-tailed Hawks. This is a key point Red-tailed Hawks and other American hawks of the genus Bueto are notoriously difficult to identify correctly. We found the nest quickly and saw one adult lying deep in the nest while its mate perched in a nearby tree.

Encouraged by our sighting of the hawks and with the sun setting, we headed off to see the owls. We found Charles ensconced in his Favorite Conifer and then saw another owl in a large deciduous tree not far from Charles perch. Edward thought it was Sarah but I took a look with my binoculars and saw that it was too pale and immature to be Sarah, thus revealing a big surprise. It was not Sarah but Art, one of the owlets!! Art had fledged! Just two days before he had left the nest for the first time and here he was not just out of the nest tree but fledged and hanging with his parents in the Wooded Area. This quick fledging is at least twice as fast as any of the owlets fledged last year! Even now, I amazed at how quickly Art fledged! Here is Art in all of his fleged glory:
I found in Sarah in a deciduous tree that the owls rarely use, just east of The Salon Tree. Edward went for a closer look at Art and Sarah and Sarah flushed deeper into The Wooded Area. She didn't stay there for long as she flew back towards Art and perched within a few feet of him, making for a beautiful sight of parent and progeny.

Around this time, I heard my first begging cheep from an owlet in 2009, in this case from Art. One of the best ways to find owlets, especially as it gets dark is to listen for their begging cheeps. In Great Horned Owls, it is a raspy, slightly hiss-like call. The begging cheeps let the parents know that the owlets are hungry and roughly where they are located. Charles had not been inactive during all of this. He hooted beautifully and flew off a short distance, landing in the December 17th Tree for the first time in many weeks.

This tree received its name after December 17, 2006, when I saw Sarah and Charles conduct a long duet in this tree whilst perch next to each other. It was one of the first, longest and best views I had of them within close proximity to each other. That day gave me great insight into their differences in size and coloration. Over the years it has remained one of their favorite fly-to and singing perches in the fall and early winter.

A little while later, Edward and I decided to head back to the nest tree and see if we could see Mo, who, at that point remained unseen that day. As we approached the nest tree, I saw a familiar person scoping out the nest, Christine Torlina. Christine and her husband Gary Schimmelpfenig are both avid naturalists and teachers at The Forsyth School, just across from my workplace, The George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. Christine and Gary were frequent owl watchers during the last nesting season and had been by a number of times this season. Along with Barb and Chris, they kept an eye on the owls when I was out of town for several days in February. I introduced Ed to Christine before he headed for home and Christine was very interested in Edward's Forest Park 365 project.
Christine and I looked carefully but could not see Mo in the nest. I told her about Art fledging and we headed back to the area around Charles' Favorite Conifer. Christine had never been in that area and she was excited to know about it and see Art and Charles. We watched them for a while before heading back to the nest to look for Mo. Christine departed to pick up her son and I kept watch on the nest.
I often tell people that this hollow plays tricks on one's eyes due to the variety of the wood color and texture inside the hollow. This night the branch that contains the hollow fooled me. While looking through my binoculars, I could have sworn that I saw an opossum or raccoon heading up to the nest on the underside of the branch. I looked back and saw...nothing. I checked the branch out from several different angles and distances and still saw nothing. To this day, I still don't know what, if anything, I saw.
I looked some more of Mo but saw nothing that indicated that he was in view. After six or so hours in the park, it was time to head home. I was thoroughly but pleasantly exhausted and I had much to tell Wendy especially with Art having fledged. Thanks for reading and please feel free to comment!

Friday, April 3, 2009

It's raining, it's pouring...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Rain threatened all day long but after checking the radar and seeing a break in the line of precipitation, I went to the park only for the first drops of rain to hit before I got to the owls area. The rain picked up so I kept my camera bag in my backpack but took out my binos. I was able to have my umbrella deployed and still look around with my binos. While this was an effective method, I must have looked a sight.

I found Charles in his favorite conifer in a lower branch than usual. I found Sarah the fourth of The Four Trees. A little later, I saw her fly gracefully into The Wooded Area. I reaquired her in The Salon Tree. This tree got its name from the fact that during this nesting season and last year's this has been Sarah's favorite tree for grooming, stretching, defecating and expelling pellets. One of the most amazing things to witness is Sarah's dedication to her progeny, which is typical of her species but no less remarkable. When she is incubating the eggs and when the owlets are very young, she will come out of the nest for mere minutes per day. She takes care of her grooming and excretory needs and returns to the nest to keep the eggs or young owlets warm and secure. Here is a picture of Sarah in The Salon Tree from March 27, 2009:

I headed out to the nest tree and began to look for Art, the owlet that had left the nest the day before. I looked carefully around the nest tree and many other trees in the area but I could not find him. I even ventured cautiously into The Wooded Area, mindful of the aggressively protective nature of Sarah and female of the species in general. Still, I was unable to find Art.

Not finding Art, I turned my efforts to locating Mo in the nest. Like last year, I have found it helpful to look at a nest from several different vantage points to achieve a good variety of views into the nest. Despite visiting the various Stations of the Cross (cue lightning), I did not get a clear view of Mo. Charles made me feel better as I heard him hoot from The Wooded Area. Even though I have heard thousands of individual hoots, hearing him hoot remains enchanting and thrilling.

At this point, the rain had been coming down quite well for quite some time so I decided to head home. I jumped on a bus and arrived home with my pants soaked up to the ankles and a little concerned but hopeful about Art and Mo.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

One owlet out of the nest

While the owlets were busy on Tuesday, 3/31, I never expected them to be so far along in their development as to leave the nest. As soon as I arrived at the nest tree last night, I immediately saw one of them way out of the nest! It was still in the nest tree but VERY high up and VERY far away from the nest itself. Of the two owlets, Art and Mo(more on their names later, I promise), I think this owlet is Art. I am amazed at how high up Art was in the tree. I am a tad bummed that I did not see how Art got out of the nest and all the way up to this perch. True to form, Mo was quite shy and reticent last night but eventually I saw him and quite clearly too. He is still in the nest. Sarah and Charles were both in The Four Trees and at one point Sarah flew into the hollow, perhaps to check on Mo. I hope all goes well and perhaps we will be able to see Mo leave the nest and both of the owlets fledge. Thanks for reading