Monday, August 24, 2009

Where in MO is Mo?

April 14, 2009

As I had the previous days, I began my search with Mo. Yet unlike the days previous, I did not find Mo at first. I checked the trees in which I had seen him and many others that were within the realm of possibility. A key lesson about wildlife observation,that I have learned from my time with the owls, is the importance of keeping one's eyes and mind open. While I have learned many of the owls favorite perches and spots, they are known to mix it up when you least expect it. I have had a few incidents that have brought home this point. I won't pretend and say that I always keep my mind and eyes as open as I should but I get better as time goes by.

I hoped that Mo had rejoined his family in The Wooded Area so I headed there next to test this hope and locate the rest of the family. I soon found Charles in that special tree known as Charles' Favorite Conifer. Keeping my eyes and mind open, I next located Sarah. She was perched high in the tallest of The Trio Conifers. I had looked for in this tree but did not find her until I looked at the tree from a different vantage point. This "angle-dependent" phenomenon is one of the trickier things to which I have learned to adapt and use in my time with the owls. Finding the right angle or vantage point can make or break finding them and observing them with the greatest success.

Having located Charles and Sarah, I now to keep my eyes extra open for the owlets and their protective mother. Female Great Horned Owls are fiercely protective mothers and it is not unusual for them to attack humans that get too close to their young. As I looked for the owlets I frequently looked behind me to see if Sarah was showing any signs of alarm or attack. It was more than a little unnerving to look for the owlets with her behind me as I was well aware of how fast and silently she could get to me if I came too close to her youngsters. At one point, I turned with alarm to a wooden clacking sound only to find it was a woodpecker (most likely a Red-bellied Woodpecker) burrowing into a tree. Thankfully, it was not angry bill-clacking by Sarah. I have heard owlets bill clack when excited or at play but I'm just fine that I have not heard the adults bill clack. Bill clacking by the adults t would mean that they were unhappy, quite possibly with me. As I continued to look for Mo, Charles began to groom himself.

I continued my search by entering The Wooded Area via an obscured path I call The Cut In. I found this path in the summer of 2008, when it became an invaluable entryway into a different but important vantage point inside of The Wooded Area. I looked in vain for the owlets but due to my past success in finding owls and owlets in this area and this day's atmosphere, I could palpably feel the potential for seeing owlets.

Cutting out of The Cut In, I wound my way around The Wooded Area until I was north side of the area. Once there I saw a an owl flying that may have been a youngster but my glimpse was too brief to be sure. Making my way back to The Trio Conifers and The Quintet Conifers, I heard Charles hoot what was likely the first hoot of the evening. Sarah was no longer in the tallest of The Trio Conifers and I wondered if it was her I saw flying. In addition, not knowing where she was even more disconcerting than earlier when I knew where she was!

My concern for Sarah's location abated slightly as I saw at the pinnacle of Charles' Favorite Conifer the wavering, near-frantic wingbeats of an owlet trying to maintain its balance. The owlet's presence was confirmed by a typically rasping begging cheep. Now the question became, which owlet was this?

The owlet flew down from the conifer to a tree that had lost much of its height through disease or storm but formed a nice low horizontal platform. I reacquired it and saw that it had joined Sarah who had some prey! Sarah began to feed the owlet, tearing off pieces of the prey that the owlet would then grab from Sarah's mouth and bolt down. I could not tell which owlet it was at this time.

I saw Sarah feed last year's owlets several times on this deciduous dining room table. This feeding session did not last long as Sarah flew off out of The Wooded Area with a large portion of prey in her massive talons. The owlet did not give chase but I did as I was curious to see if Sarah was taking the prey to feed the other owlet.

From my vantage point, it looked Sarah's flight took her to The Mixed Glade, a group of conifers and deciduous trees. I walked around to this side of The Wooded Area (again) but could not find her in The Mixed Glade. I looked around carefully and much to my surprise I found her in The Bushy Tree. Not only was she in a spot I did not expect (it looked like she had flown past The Bushy Tree) but the prey she had carried was nowhere to be found! The only conclusions that came to mind was that she had cached the prey or given to a yet unseen owlet before flying to The Bushy Tree.

I should mention that as it was mid-April, The Bushy Tree was bare and not at all bushy. This tree is a Catalpa and in the summer it becomes extremely bushy with dense leaves that make finding owls in it rather tricky. This tree has been a favorite summer perch for the owls for as long as I have been watching them. I had not seen any of the owls in The Bushy Tree for many months so it was stimulating to see Sarah but I was still puzzled about what she done with the prey.

I went back to area near The Quintet Conifers and saw Charles expel a pellet from out of his mouth. I missed filming this act by seconds but the loud impact of the pellet on the ground below indicated that it was a good size pellet. I realized that Charles had been rather quiet so far and that the pellet that was on the way up was responsible. Pellets are a compressed mass of undigestable materials such as bones, fur and feathers. When a pellet is on its way out of the gizzard and back up an owl's throat, it restricts their ability to eat or vocalize. On several occasions, I have seen one of the owls remain utterly silent until they pass a pellet whereupon they vocalized with vigor.

Charles took off flying beautifully for a short distance until he came to the northern edge of The Wooded Area, not far from the north-south path that runs through the middle of the area. I readjusted my position and was able to see Charles, Sarah and Mo all in their respective perches from one spot, a rare occurrence. By this point, I was feeling more certain that the owlet was Art. I now headed back around The Wooded Area to look again for Mo.

As I got to the northern side of the area, I found Charles who was perched in an in a much higher than normal spot in a deciduous tree. I looked back at Sarah in The Bushy Tree and saw her head bob. While owls have incredible visual acuity, they will bob their heads from side to side and up and down to improve their depth perception on an object of interest. Sarah then flew through The Wooded Area until she landed near The Trio Conifers and The Quintet Conifers. I reacquired Art and Charles before heading off to look for Mo. Despite the approach of sunset and having expelled a pellet, Charles remained silent.

I returned to the starting point of my prowl and while I still had not found Mo. I did see a Great Egret, a Green Heron and a female Wood Duck. Even though it was cool and grey, seeing the egret and the heron reinforced the certainty of spring's arrival. The Wood Duck was perched on a tree, always a somewhat surreal but pleasant sight. I enjoy seeing Wood Ducks land in trees, marveling at their ability to land on a branch with their webbed feet lacking the articulated toes of most birds.

I was even more pleased soon after by sighting two humans, my friends Barb Brownell and Chris Gerli; two of the most dedicated owl and wildlife watchers I know. I hoped they had found Mo and they had! Barb and Chris had seen him make several good flights and emit a number of begging cheeps. They had even seen him make a few attacks on sticks on the ground. We speculated that this was more than predatory play but a very real quest for food by a hungry owlet out on his own. I was glad to know Mo was alive and under keen-eyed observation.

We found Mo again as he was on the ground further west than he had been the past few days. His current position was just next to one of his parents' favorite perches on this side of the lake. I let Barb and Chris know about this perch and that I had spent many hours watching Charles and Sarah in this tree, as recently as this fall and winter. On a number of occasions, I have been able to see them in this tree from the other side of the lake, a distance well over 100 yards.

Chris had heard Charles hoot earlier and was curious to find him, so Chris headed off back to the other side of the lake. Just as Chris left, Mo made a long flight along the very edge of the lake until he landed in a small deciduous tree. At first, Barb and I were apprehensive as it looked like Mo was going to try and fly across the lake and we were concerned that he would not be able to make that distance. Even at the thinnest part of the lake, the distance is a pretty long way for a recently fledged owlet to fly. Mo made two other long flights along the edge of the lake and we could hear him making loud begging cheeps.

We decided to head for home and as we headed for their car (Barb and Chris are kindness itself and always give me a ride home when we run into each other. Thankfully, I don't take them too far out of their way) Barb saw one then we all saw both of the parent owls along the road. I made a rough judgment as to which owl was which and we headed in for a closer look. The closer look revealed an an understandable error. The owl that Barb spotted was not an owl rather it was a rather large, owl-shaped branch on a Cottonwood. I told Barb not to feel bad as that branch had tricked me three times before I could remember to not be fooled (again) by this branch. Throughout my time watching the owls there have been branches and other structures that fool my eyes and make me look closer at something that looks like but is not an owl. We all had a good natured laugh at Barb's well-intentioned but mistaken sighting and head for home.