Friday, July 31, 2009

An interview, two prowls, hawks, owls (two kinds), annoying rain and other fun!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

This was going to be a busy but fun day. The day was grey and a little cool but not too bad. It began on a different path than most Sundays in the park. I started off in the park but headed north and west to meet Katie, Libby and Mark Rank. Katie and I were meeting so that she could conduct an interview with me about the owls and my interactons/observations with them for her school newspaper. I wrote about this interview and how it came to be and how it turned out earlier and you can read all about that here.

After a stimulating interview and owl prowl, the Ranks headed for home and I continued my visit in the park. I first went to the other section of The Successional Woods to look for the Barred Owls that reside there. I found one but as I went in for a closer look going as quietly and cautiously as possible, the Barred Owl flushed and flew away. I have found these owls to be extremely touchy and easily disturbed. While I'm not too surprised by this, it can be frustrating. As a way of explaining my understanding of their behavior, allow me to quote an e-mail I sent in late 2008 to a contact of mine at Forest Park Forever. This person tipped me off about seeing Barred Owls consistently in this portion of The Successional Woods and they asked me about the Barred Owls being so close to Charles and Sarah and overlapping territories among the two species in general. Here's what I wrote (with a few corrections):

I really appreciate you contacting me and for asking for my input.

I have seen this Barred Owl in the portion of the Successional Woods you described but my last sighting of it was in the spring of this year. On several occasions this spring I had heard warning calls, mostly from American Robins, coming from that area so I went to investigate and I saw a Barred Owl. I don’t get deep into that part of the Successional Woods all that often but I always keep alert for this Barred Owl. I have never heard this Barred Owl vocalize even though I am often near this part of the woods. My best guess is that this Barred Owl is an offspring of the Barred Owl pair(s) in Kennedy Forest and this area might be a transitory residence before establishing their own territory.

I’m glad you have seen this Barred Owl with such recent frequency but like you I have only seen one there and yes, it’s proximity to the very heart of the Great Horned Owls territory is cause for concern. For example, one of the first encounters I had with Barred Owls ever in the park was in the winter of 2006/2007 and it was in the same part of the Successional Woods. At that time, the mated pair of Great Horned Owls (Charles and Sarah as I call them) had an active nest along Government Drive, right across from The Boathouse. Charles and Sarah were duetting and then I heard two Barred Owls call and respond to each other from within the Successional Woods. Within seconds, Charles headed to the very epicenter from which the calls emanated. I was unable to reacquire Charles that night but that was the first and only time I have heard a Barred Owl call from the Successional Woods and the only time I observed two in that area. I remember shaking my head knowing that the Barred Owls were putting themselves at risk.

In Wayne Kramer’s "Owls of the United States and Canada: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior", there is a stunning photo of a Great Horned Owl on top of a Barred Owl that the Great Horned Owl had killed. On a slightly smaller owl scale, Dwight G. Smith, in his book "Great Horned Owl" tells an anecdote of a study he was doing with radio-collared Eastern Screech Owls. One night, they followed the radio signal but could not find any owls. They eventually traced the transmitters-they were inside of pellets from a Great Horned Owl. In the same book, Smith gives a rundown of the different raptor species, diurnal and nocturnal, small, medium and large that Great Horned Owls have taken as prey. It is not a short list.

About the only raptor I have read about sharing or overlapping territories with tolerant Great Horned Owls are Red-tailed Hawks and even then, it’s a shaky peace. Red-tailed Hawks and Great Horned Owls are often described as diurnal-nocturnal counterparts. Great Horned Owls are frequently observed using old nests made by Red-tailed Hawks but even then the Red-tailed Hawks can be on the losing end of things; at best losing the nest and at worse losing their lives. While Red-tailed Hawks are a threat to Great Horned owlets, Great Horned Owls are a threat to Red-tailed Hawks of any age. This spring, a Red-tailed or other
hawk landed in the same tree of one of the owlets and within seconds, Sarah came blazing towards the tree and chased the hawk away from their territory.

I think the Barred Owl in the Successional Woods is able to stay safe and alive for two main reasons. One, it keeps a low profile. I have rarely heard it vocalize and I have never seen it outside of the woods. Two, in my observations, Charles and Sarah do not go into this part of The Successional Woods . The most I have seen them do is fly over the woods or fly to a high branch of a tree there for a short time before flying off east. Great Horned Owls generally like open areas with perches for hunting. With their daytime perches and the core of their territory in the other portion of the Successional Woods (what I call The Wooded Area), they may not have a need to use the Barred Owl’s portion of the woods.

In documenting the Barred Owl I realized that I had forgotten to upload the previous day's footage so I headed for home. It was a tad frustrating to go all the way back home but it proved worthwhile. I uploaded the footage and even had a bite to eat.

I came back to the park via the AAA Golf Course. Like last year, there is an active hawk nest right by one of the course's greens. I had noticed this nest three years ago and had kept an eye on it. Both this year and last year, my friend Chris Gerli told me that the nest was being used. On this day, both parent hawks were in residence. One of them was in the nest while the other was in a nearby tree.

There was some movement in the nest by an adult. Perhaps the adult feeding or brooding a chick but I could not see a chick. The rain that threatened throughout the day began to fall. The rain was mild enough that I could use my umbrella and the smaller of my cameras but strong enough that I packed up SLR.

I headed north and heard and then saw a Belted Kingfisher near the Vadenventer Gates. I had never seen them in that area before, which made this sighting even more enjoyable than usual. My next stop was to look for Barred Owls again but they remained out of sight.

I continued on to The Wooded Area. I heard a begging cheep close to The Quintet Conifers and I found Art in this area.

I reacquired Sarah in the same spot where I found earlier in the day with the Ranks. The rain was back on after a little pause, unfortunately. Charles was still in his favorite conifer but had moved within it to an unusual spot in the tree which brought him quite close to Art.

I then went to reacquire d Mo as the rain paused for a while. I found and I decided to stay and watch him. Chris Gerli and Barb Brownell came through the area with Chris' niece, Mia. Last year, Mia had joined them for an owl prowl and proved to be an adept owl finder. I had also met this trio earlier this year for an owl prowl. I'm glad that Chris and Barb continue to impart their passion for wildlife to Mia!

We watched Mo for a while to before heading over to The Wooded Area to find the others. We found Art shortly before Charles went flew off from his perch. Art did a great flight of at least 60-75 yards ending with a solid landing, all of which impressed us greatly. Barb, Chris and Mia had to head off and I decided to return, again, and watch Mo for the rest of my time.

The rain held off for a while but returned at a whipping pace. As I watched Mo, I heard Charles hoot from The Wooded Area. Mo did some more hopping around and position changes along with head bobbing followed by begging cheeps. He moved out to the end of a branch, which looked like a nice launching pad. The rate and intensity of the rain increased forcing me to I open my umbrella. Mo's begging cheeps increased in volume. He took off and landed in another tree. His flights while small were solidly executed. In the early stages of the post-fledging portion of an owlet's life, each of their flights is a big deal all combining to give the owlet the experience and skill to mature into an adult owl.

The rain continued but my battery power in my video camera began to ebb. I worried about the rain and its possible detrimental effects on Sarah and Charles finding food and sharing it with their youngsters. With the rain unceasing, batteries failing and a long, fun day gone by, I jumped on the bus and headed home.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A brief encounter on a bright day!

Saturday,April 11, 2009

I was not able to get to the park on April 9 and 10 due to weather obstructions and work/social obligations. In addition, an early dinner engagement with friends limited my time on this particular Saturday to a well before sunset visit but I would make the most of my time in the park.

It was another gorgeous day with abundant and welcome sunlight. In the interest of time, I stopped by The Wooded Area first to look for Charles, Sarah and Mo. True to form, Charles was in his favorite conifer enjoying a good sleep.
Looking quickly but carefully, I did not find Art and Sarah in The Wooded Area. I had a thought/hope that perhaps they were with Mo so I headed in that direction. I found Mo in the same tree that he was in on April 8, even on the same branch just further out on it. Mo looked especially fluffy today.

After seeing Mo, I ran into my friend and fellow owl enthusiast/park enthusiast Chris Gerli of City Cycling Tours. We had a nice chat and I told him all the latest about Mo and the rest of the owl family.

My time was running out so I headed home as I did I went by the western portion of The Wooded Area, which I had not been to yet this day. Just inside of this section of woods, was Art bathed in the bright afternoon sun. This was the first time I had seen him since he fledged in a different part of The Wooded Area and not in the area around The Trio Conifers and The Quintet Conifers.
I hurried home and upon arriving cleaned up and changed. Wendy and I enjoyed a good meal and good conversation with our friends at a neighborhood restaurant, La Gra Italian Tapas. Naturally, the owls were discussed.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

More Mo (and Charles, Sarah and Art) and a special guest appearance!

April 8, 2009

After finding Mo the night before well away from his family in The Wooded Area, my first priority was to find him again. The bright sunny day was tainted by blasting winds that were so intense that a wind advisory was issued.

While keeping my eyes and mind open to other trees, I went to the tree where Edward and I found Mo last night. I carefully circled the tree, taking it in from all angles, but I could not find Mo. I was just about to head off to The Wooded Area to search for the rest of the family when I turned back and took another look. About halfway up the tree was a good-sized bird. My first thought was, "It's a Wood Duck." I changed my angle slightly and realized that it was Mo! He was well tucked into the corner of a branch that transitioned from horizontal to an angled vertical incline. Mo faced west/northwest Mo slept with his eyes tightly closed against the setting sun. His buff and tan feathers and complete lack of motion kept him well-hidden.

That said, I was relieved to see him but anxious about his safety and well-being in both the long and short term. I found some whitewash under his perch and some astoundingly soft and fluffy body or contour feathers near the tree, possiblity indicating that he was getting fed and the maturation of his plumage continued.

My biggest fear about Mo was the lack of immediate protection from predators by his mother, Sarah. I felt confident that Sarah and Charles would continue to feed Mo but what could they do if a Red-tailed Hawk or other large hawk of the genus Bueto attacked Mo during the day, when he was scores of yards from his parents?

During last year's owlet cycle, I saw a dramatic example of the fierce protection that female Great Horned Owls provide their offspring. As I approached The Wooded Area not long after the owlets had fledged, I saw Sarah fly to the eastern edge of the area. Minutes later, a Bueto hawk landed in the same tree as one of owlets just 20-30 feet above the vulnerable owlet. Within seconds, Sarah came flying back, utterly blazing towards this tree and the hawk in it. The hawk lept off the tree and flew out of The Wooded Area as fast as possible.

Having found Mo, I went to look for the rest of the family in The Wooded Area. Sarah and Charles closely replicated yesterday's perch sites; she was in a big deciduous tree near The Trio Conifers and Charles was in his Favorite Conifer. I found Mo in one of the Trio Conifers, with the wind propping up his small but growing tufts.

Tufts are not ears, despite that they look like ears and some owl species with tufts are named in relation to their tufts such as the Long-eared Owl and the Short-eared Owl. Owls' ears are located on the sides of their heads. Don't feel bad if you thought that owl tufts were their ears, many, many people make this understandable error. Take it from someone that made this error-me! Tufts are thought to act as a camoflouge device and/or as a species-recognition tool. What I find particularly fascinating about tufts is that they are not just loose bits of feathers that hang about but pieces of muscled flesh that are covered by feathers that can be adjusted by their owner at will. Tuft position can help indicate moods, emotions and provide an additional camoflague tool. In my research, I have not found any literature that describes how the muscles of the tufts and the head adjust the tufts. I would love to better understand how these remarkable tufts move.

All three owls wove in and out of sleep as they tend to do at dusk. They can go from the depth of sleep to wide awake and every step in-between within minutes and even seconds. Charles, Sarah and Mo seemed pretty konked out, so I decided to reacquire Mo.

At first, I took a different approach from going right up to his perch. I went to the north side of the waterway and watched him from about 50 yards away for a time. As joggers, dog walkers and other folks passed by his perch, located right next to one of the gravel paths, Mo kept an eye on them but did not get too excited or active.

I moved back to Mo's side of the waterway and took up a concealed and close, but not too close observation post. A few European Starlings and Common Grackles began to mob Mo a little. Nothing too bad but I still felt sorry for Mo all out on his own and getting mobbed. The mobbing lasted only a short while and things improved from there.

My girlfriend, Wendy, called me and said that she was coming out to the park to see the owls especially Mo. Of all the kind and supportive people who encourage my owl observations, Wendy is by far the biggest booster. However, as a self-admitted "weather-wimp" she does come out to see the owls with great frequency. As such, all visits from her with the owls are welcome and special occasions. She arrived a short while later and reveled in watching Mo as you can see below. Please do notice the small look of annoyance (briefly furrowed eyebrows) she gives when she notices that I am filming her.

As a big, almost full moon rose in the sky, Mo became more active; looking around a little and stretching including a big double-wing stretch. His activity increased as he flew to a branch higher up in the tree. He began to head bob a little and he did some talon grooming, which was great to see. When owlets head bob, I try to keep an extra low profile as I don't want to appear too interesting to them. I would hate to have one fly towards me for a closer inspection and possibly injure themselves as they are still learning to fly and land.

As we watched Mo,Wendy and I exchanged story/hopes about helping Mo. She remarked that she would love to bring him some food. I mentioned a crazy notion I had of somehow capturing Mo then releasing him in The Wooded Area so that he could be rest of his family. The last step of my notion was to run like hell to escape the wrath of Sarah!

Mo changed positions on the branch a couple of times, exhibiting the awkwardness these owls have when walking, be it on the ground or on a tree, whether the owl is a youngster or a seasoned vet. This awkwardness may be a type of karmic compensation for their sublime grace in flight.

With the light rapidly falling, Mo became more active and is his activites included begging cheeps and wing flapping. He then flew to another deciduous tree and made a short hop within his new perch. Next he made a longer flight still within the same tree, which you can see below. At these stages of an owlet's development, the fledging and post-fledging stages, each of their flights is a significant event. Over the days and weeks you see their skills gradually improve. I was impressed with Mo's flying and I reminded myself that he had made it from the nest all the way over to his current abode on his own power.

Mo's activities continued with more wing flapping, begging cheeps and repositioning flights along with head bobbing while looking in our direction. Wendy made her own begging cheep for food; namely dinner. I have yet to observe an owlet with a begging cheep more insistent than Wendy's. Mo's begging cheeps increased at a more frequent rate. Thankfully, this did not attract mobbing by other birds. Wendy and I departed for the home or The Boathouse to sooth her begging cheeps. We left still concerned about Mo but guardedly optimistic.