Monday, May 25, 2009

One muskrat+one owlet feather+owls=a great night

Monday, April 6, 2009

In my video narration I noted that it was "ridiculously cold and grey" and that earlier in the day we had experienced snow, sleet and freezing rain. Thankfully, the weather held off enough for me to venture into the Forest Park and look for the owls.

I first made my way through Kennedy Forest. Yet again, I did not see the other pair of Great Horned Owls that I first saw in Kennedy Forest in early February. It had been several weeks since me or anyone else, to my knowledge, had seen this pair. I was close to making the call this day that these owls had moved on or otherwise change status. However, my optimistic side allowed a few more visits after today's before making the final call.

I continued east stopping at the point of Post-Dispatch Lake where the south bank meets its western counterpart. This general vicinity can be a great spot to find Muskrats especially in the early morning and early evening. My ESL level (experience, skill and luck) was soon rewarded with the sight of a Muskrat swimming the south bank of the lake to the south bank of Wilderness Island. I even managed to shoot some video of this large rodent. Please to enjoy a Muskrat:

The nest was my next destination. Despite looking carefully from the some of the best viewing points, including Barb's Post (located by Barb Brownell) and Edward's Landing (located by Edward Crimm), I could not find any clear indication that Mo was in the nest. I was not discouraged as it was a good hour before sunset, when the owls are often enganged in their early evening routine of stretching, grooming, calling and waste management.

I headed off towards Charles' Favorite Conifer and other parts of the southern end of The Wooded Area. I had only gone a few steps when I found a feather, most likely from the owlet Art. In my time watching the owls, I have found relatively few feathers. As this feather was the first owl feather I had found in quite a while, I was especially glad to chance upon it. The softness of an owl feather has to be experienced. Doing so, redefines the word soft. Along with the construction of the feathers, the softness of owl feathers allow them to interact without making sound. Not all owls fly silently but the vast majority do and this silent flight is a key part of their hunting strategy. Silent flight not only allows an owl to approach its prey undetected audibly, it also allows the owls to sort through the maze of sounds without adding its own sounds to the maze thus providing the owl with a auditory tabula rasa with which to work. This feather I found was most likely a body or contour feather.

Just as I saw the feather, I heard Charles hoot. I headed towards his favorite conifer and he hooted four times in quick succession even though it was well before sunset. Perhaps the cold and cloudy weather made Charles more active than he would have been on a clear day. In my observations, the owls "start of the day" activity tracks closely with the level of light. In general, they become active earlier on a cloudy day than they do on a clear day.

As I reached Charles' Favorite Conifer, I saw an owl fly within the glade that contains this tree this tree. The flight was just brief enough that I could not ID it. Just then an owl, perhaps the same one, flew south/southwest inside of The Wooded Area. I still couldn't make an identification.

My luck improved minutes later when I saw an owl fly also south/southwest with something in its talons. It landed in a particular dead tree between The Cut In and The Second Catalpa. Last year, I was privleged on several occassions to see Sarah feed that year's owlets, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, in this same tree. Now seeing an adult fly to this same tree with food in its talons, I thought that this owl was most likely Sarah. I quickly but cautiously approached closer to this tree and saw that it was definitely Sarah. Her dark coloration, massive size and astoundingly thick black rings around her eyes are some of the main hallmarks I use to ID her.

I was excited that she had food as I hoped this would let me see her feed Art and perhaps Mo too. That is if Mo had fledged but remained yet unfound so far by me. I saw an owlet fly within The Wooded Area and I heard a few begging cheeps but no owlet joined Sarah in this feeding perch. Sarah began to feed, holding the prey down with her powerful talons as she used her bill to tear pieces of food to swallow. The prey was a bird or mammal but I could not tell anything beyond that. As Sarah removed the fur or feathers, some pieces of this exterior layer went flying by me. Charles hooted a few times while she ate and I heard a few begging cheeps from an owlet too. Sarah fed for a few minutes before flying off east with the prey in her left talon, perhaps to feed the begging youngster.

As I followed Sarah, I found Charles in the tallest conifer of the glad that contains his favorite conifer. I had seen him in this tallest conifer only occassionaly including a few times this winter so it was curious to see him here again. He looked very animated and on the alert.

Moments later Sarah flew up to the top of the tree, joining Charles. He was just beneath her on the same side of the trunk until he moved to a lower branch on the opposite side of the branch. Sarah bent over and rubbed her bill along a branch. This is a cleaning technique that many birds use to keep their bills clean after eating. I've only seen the owls do this a few times so each time is noteworthy.

Charles hooted some more and I continued to hear an owlet emitting begging cheeps. Charles moved to an even lower branch and fluffed out all of his feathers, an always charming sight. I looked at first in vain to locate the begging owlet. I moved further away for a wider view and my move was rewarded. There in large branch of Charles' Favorite Conifer was Art, very fluffy and fluffed out.

I changed position and took some photos of 3/4 of the family group. Let's play "Find The Owl!"

While I looked closely at Art with my binoculars, Sarah disappeared on me. As closely as I watch the owls, on countless times I will glance away from them for a few seconds and in that time, they fly off at great speed and a complete absence of sound. If I'm lucky, I might catch the direction in which they are heading but often I will be bereft of any information. Sarah's exit was one of this type. While I watched Art, I heard begging cheeps to the east of him. I thought it might be Mo, as yet unseen. I kept in mind that owlets are superb ventroliquists, throwing their voices so their calls do not pinpoint their location for potential predators.

As I scanned for Mo, Sarah flew out of the depths of The Wooded Area and landed on the December 17th Tree. Here again, she did some bill grooming and I managed to get a picture of her doing this interesting behavior.

A park ranger who I had met recently and showed the owls to, Ranger Brown, drove by, stopped and asked about the owls. He liked hearing about Art fledging and seeing Sarah just above him. As much as I enjoyed seeing Sarah, Charles and Art, I was curious about Mo's whereabouts. I headed to the nest but despite my best efforts, I could not find him.

I walked along the north side of The Wooded Area hearing Charles hoot when I saw Art fly eastward from his perch. It took me a moment but I realized I had just seen my first owlet flight of the year! All things considered, it was a pretty decent flight and landing for such a recently fledged owlet.

Next I went back to the area containing Charles' Favorite Conifer. Charles was still in the same tree when I left but he had moved yet again. Sarah was still long gone and after a while Charles disappeared on me. I looked around Mo inside The Wooded Area but he was not to be found. At somepoint Charles left but Art took his place in a high branch of this tallest conifer. Many begging cheeps continued to be heard from many different areas within The Wooded Area.

I then saw Charles in the December 17th Tree. Had he he gone there and I didn't see him or did he go somewhere else and then go to this tree? I hope it was the former as the latter indicates a lack of vigilance on my part! I try to prevent myself from being complacent or lazy but sometimes it happens and you can overlook an owl without meaning to do so.

Still eager to find Mo, I started to head back to the nest. As I did so, Charles defecated and launched off heading west/southwest. Before I could resume my trip to the nest, Sarah flew back into The Wooded Area with prey in her talons landing in the dead tree in which she had fed last year's youngsters on several occassions. Art flew around the center of The Wooded Area and Sarah flew off in his direction. I did not see them rendezvous but minutes later Art was presumably eating as no begging cheeps were heard!

I headed back to the nest and was actually able to get there this time. Like before there were no clear signs of Mo in the nest. However, there was still more to see of the owls. I found Charles in The Middle Tree and Sarah flew there a short while later and landed near Charles. Sarah flew back to the nest tree with prey in her talons. She began to feed while perched on a large branch. Perhaps she fed there in an effort to lure Mo out. Sarah then flew off with prey to The Wooded Area. Did the parents do a food exchange in The Middle Tree or had Sarah caught something or uncached some prey on her own? I'm not certain but I think it was a food exchange. This was the third time I had seen Sarah with prey that night, which is a record for me.

After Sarah returned to The Wooded Area, Charles hooted and eventually took off, blazing over McKinley Drive. Exhausted but thrilled with all that I had observed, I left for the warmth of home.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Flickers, frogs and hawks. So much for alliteration

Sunday April 5, 2009 Part II

Where was I? Oh yes, Edward Crim and I were just east of Deer Lake and I saw a Northern Flicker. Just as I began to take a photo or two, a second Northern Flicker landed to the right of the first. In a flash, the newly arrived flicker hopped on to the back of the other and they mated! To say that the mating was brief is to define an understatement. This made the brief mating of Charles and Sarah (which I have been extremely privleged to have seen well over twenty times) seem lengthy in comparison. What turned out to be the male flew off and the female remained on the branch. The mating was so fast that neither Edward or I got a photo of it. Here is a photo of the pair just before mating.
Over the past few months I have seen several animals mate, Great Horned Owls and Cooper's Hawks in Forest Park and Northern Watersnakes at the Peggy Notebart Nature Museum in Chicago and now Northern Flickers. Perhaps I should refrain from carry the boombox blasting out Barry White around with me.

We continued on heading towards Steinberg Skating Rink. Near the rink, the park's waterway terminates in a small pond. Even with the day's cold temperatures and blustery winds, I thought it was worth taking a peek at this pond. We were pleasantly suprised to find three frogs, either Bullfrogs or Green Frogs, hanging out despite the bracing air. This pond is one of the best places in the park to see frogs but even now I am impressed that we saw them on this cold day. Check these hearty frogs out here:

Not to keep going on about the day's weather but as much as I hate to admit it, I was unprepared for the weather. I often say, "I was never a boy scout but I'm usually prepared." On this day, I could not make this claim. For whatever reason, I did not bring the proper clothes for the climate. As we continued our exploration of the park, the weather became more and more of a factor for me. Edward was properly attired, smart man that he is.

We moved next to the under-renovation golf course of the Triple A Golf and Tennis Club. I pass this golf course every morning on my commute and the progress on the course's renovation was and continues to be intermittent. On the plus side, the unfinished state of the course gave us the opportunity to tread where we often would not do so. As we crossed the golf course, a spitting rain began. This rain was just sufficient enough for me to put my still camera and binoculars away but not bad enough for me to prevent me from shooting some video and stills with my video camera.
One destination in this area was foremost on our minds and we headed directly for it; the nest of a pair of Red-tailed Hawks. I first saw this nest three years ago but it was not until last year that I saw it in use. My friend Chris Gerli was the first to tell me that the nest was active last year and this year. Both years, we were able to positively identify the hawks as Red-tailed Hawks. The subtle differences in hawks of the genus Bueto, makes discerning the species accurately a substantial challenge. Here's a shot of this classic stick nest of a Red-tailed Hawk:

We saw one of the adults pop its head momentarily out of the nest and we were thrilled by this glimpse. It is worth noting the many intersections between Red-tailed Hawks and Great Horned Owls. The two are the most wide-spread, commonly found birds of prey in North America; one diurnal and the other nocturnal and also crepuscular. They both eat a wide variety of prey and display great adaptability and range in nesting sites.

That said, the Great Horned Owl is the more powerful of the two and subsequently impacts unfavorably on Red-tailed Hawks. Great Horned Owls often take over Red-tailed Hawks nests and are known to eat both chicks and adults of the species. That said, Red-tailed Hawks and other hawks of the genus Bueto are a threat to Great Horned owlets. Among the amazing things I saw with last year's owlets, one of the most amazing involved a Bueto hawk.
I arrived at The Wooded Area after work and soon found some of the owlets and Sarah. Sarah flew off a short distance. Moments later, a Bueto hawk landed in the same tree as one of the owlets, a mere twenty-thirty feet away from the vulnerable owlet. Milliseconds later, Sarah came blazing towards this tree. The hawk blasted off, flying away as fast it could. This encounter vigorously underlined the protective nature of female Great Horned Owls and the intersections of these owls and Bueto hawks. It is worth noting that this hawk nest on the golf course is around a half mile from Charles and Sarah's territory.
As dusk came closer, Edward and I headed back to The Wooded Area to look for the owls. We found the owlet Art in a mostly bare deciduous tree not far from the glade of conifers containing Charles' Favorite Conifer. This deciduous tree was one of the first places I saw all three of last year's owlets, in The Wooded Area and it heartened me to see an owlet in this tree again. Here's Art in this tree:

We went for a closer look but as we did so sharp-eyed Edward saw Sarah barely visible in a nearby tree. We kept our distance not wanting to risk the wrath of Sarah. The weather continued to deteriorate so we headed back to the nest. We took a look for Mo in the nest from several different vantage points. In spite of our best efforts, we could not see Mo. Edward and I said our goodbyes and headed for home. I was glad to see three of the owls but I was anxious to know what Mo was doing.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Extra! Extra! "Owl Man Gets Great Press"

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Several weeks ago, I ran into my friend and colleague, Mark Rank in the hallway and he said he had some news for me. His younger daughter, Katie is a writer for her school newspaper and for the final issue, the paper was seeking stories about interesting people doing interesting things in the St. Louis area. Having gone on a few owl prowls and observations led by me with her Dad, sister Libby and mom Anne, Katie knew of the owls and my study of them. Mark told me that Katie pitched a story about the owls and me to the editors for the issue and she would learn the results of her pitch in a little while. I was quite chuffed that Katie thought of the owls and me for such a piece.

In addition to being a prominent and respected member of the faculty of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, Mark is one of the longest-serving and passionate members of the owls' booster club. An avid cyclist, he gets to the park with some frequency and enjoys the observing the wildlife as he makes his way. I can't remember now how animals became a topic of discussion between us but we quickly discovered our mutual interest in critters and their doings. We have traded animal observations and even experienced some together on campus for years now, most memorably when a hawk of the genus Bueto plucked a squirrel off a tree and then flew to a building ledge. The hawk had one foot on the ledge and the other on the squirrel, dangling off the roof. Classes let out just then and soon scores of students gave the full panoply of reactions to this predatory moment, everything to revulsion and sympathy to amazement.
After my girlfriend Wendy, Mark was one of the first people to join me on owl prowls in late 2005. This was back when my owl prowls prominently featured absolutely no owls whatsoever. Happily, Mark was also one of the first people to join me after I found Charles' then perch site on December 29, 2005. As I mentioned earlier, his family have come out for several owl prowls over the years. They even saw some of the fledging behavior of last year's owlets; Bart, Lisa and Maggie in the third week of March.

A couple of weeks later after Mark told me about Katie's story pitch, he let me know that the pitch was successful. Thrilled with the news, I worked with Mark and Katie to set a date for an interview conducted by Katie followed by an owl prowl. I have found that Sundays tend to be the best days for owl prowls as they provide me with the most time to show my fellow prowlers as much of the owls and their history (that I know) as possible.

We set the date for Sunday, April 12 and we met at George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis because, y'know, Katie's dad and I both work there and it is close to the park. While Mark and his older daughter Libby waited patiently in Mark's office, Katie conducted her interview with me. She was well prepared with a list of questions and a tape recorder, with which she adroitly conducted a pre-interview test.
Katie and I took a deep breath and began the interview. She impressed me immediately with her questions, which sought out the essential who, what, when, where, how and why vital to journalism of all sorts while simultaneously looking for depth, nuance and complexity. The challenge to me was for me to convey the most information and insights without going on too long as I am apt to do. While I have talked to scores of people about the owls both in the park and outside of the park, it is another thing to do it when the tape is running and their is a definitive end goal to questions. My own modest journalistic experience was also on my mind, knowing how it is one thing to interview a person and yet another unique challenge to take the recording and make something out of it. I did my best to keep my answers brief but informative while including key dates, observations, anecdotes and references to the literature.

Katie came to the end of her questions and we thanked each other before collecting her dad and sister for part two of the afternoon-an owl prowl. As it was Easter Sunday, the Rank family was hosting Easter dinner for a number of family members and could not prowl for owls at dusk and beyond. Thankfully, my ESL (experience, skill, luck) is such that I can often locate the owls before they become active at dusk. ESL was at full strength and we found Charles and Sarah and the two owlets, Art and Mo. The Ranks were excited to see Art and Mo for the first time. Katie took pictures of the owls and me for her article.

As the latter afteroon approached, the Ranks said their goodbyes and departed. I stayed on in the park and headed out to various points and saw a bevy of animals, which I hope to write about soon.

Shortly after our owl prowl, Katie contacted me and asked me if I could provide her with some contacts who she could interview about the owls and me. I am lucky to have several people who have spent hours with me watching the owls and have to come to know me and them well. With my owl friends blessing, I happily gave Katie names, numbers and e-mail addresses. Over the next several days a couple of my friends let me know that they had spoken with Katie.
As the article was written and laid out, all by Katie, Mark kept me appraised of its progress while joking that Katie had written an expose' about me. I put Katie in touch with Don Love, a photographer friend, of Edward Crim's, as she wanted to use a photo of Sarah that Don had taken with an amazing lens of his. Don graciously gave his permission for his great photo to be used.

At last, the publication date arrived and a few days later, Mark stopped me in the hallway and let me know that he had a copy for me. I stopped by his office and eagerly read the piece. Like me, I'm sure you will all be impressed by the excellent job Katie did in all respects: the writing, the photos and the layout. She took a lot of information and condensed it nicely and deftly incoporated quotes from Wendy and Barb Brownell, that helped flesh out the story.

You will find the story below in 2 parts as jpeg photo files. If you would like a PDF of the article, please contact me at:
Enjoy reading! Thank you, Katie and well done!!