Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy Fifth Owl-iversary

December 29, 2010

Tonight is a superbly significant milestone in my time with and study of Charles and Sarah. It is now five years that I have watched and documented these awe-inspiring animals. I am simultaneously amazed and humbled that this milestone is achieved. I am amazed that I have spent so much time, seen and learned so much and been able to share the owls with so many people. I am humbled that there is still so much to learn about not only this species but also these individuals and that there are so many people I want to connect with these owls.

These last five years have been five of the best years of my life thanks to these owls and my work with them. My appreciation and understanding of nature has grown significantly. Many new friendships blossomed and many old friendships blossomed anew. I know a hell of a lot more about how to dress and prepare for extensive periods of time outdoors in all kinds of weather. I have nowhere near the skills and know-how to call myself a photographer but I can take better pictures and video than I used to. I used to be more of a summer person but I now have become more of a winter person as the owls are so active in winter. I have more answers to questions I did not have prior to watching and studying these owls. I also have no shortage of questions to be answered after watching these owls for so long.

This year has had no shortage of highlights but time is short so allow me to share some data about this past year.

From December 29, 2009 until December 29, 2010, I have:

* Made 271 observation trips to the park to watch these owls
* This means that I got to the park rate 74% of the time over the course of the year
* Which yielded an average per week rate of a little over 5 times per week.
* Of the 271 observation trips I made, on 267 of them I saw the owls, which makes my success rate 98.5%

  • I went to the park the most in January 2010, 27 times
    * I went to the park the least in November 2010, 16 times (not too shabby considering that I was out of town for 11 nights of this 30 day month!)
    * The most nights I went in a row was in February 2010-14 nights in a row
Huge thank yous to anyone and everyone who has been to see the owls, read about the owls and/or had their ears bent by yours truly going on and on about the owls! The biggest thanks, as always, go to my girlfriend Wendy. Her support and encouragement on so many levels has been there from day one. Thank you, Wendy and thank you, everyone!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Two Upcoming Talks on the Owls

December 17, 2010

The owls continue to amaze with even more mating, house hunting and hunting for prey. Despite the freezing temperatures, I watched them tonight and again they mated! This was the ninth time I have observed them mating this season!

While I'm busy as always observing and documenting the owls and their behavior, I am also preparing for two talks I am giving on these amazing animals. The first one is tomorrow Friday, December 17 for members of St. Louis OASIS, "a national education organization dedicated to enriching the lives of adults age 50 and older through lifelong and service." This will be the second time I have given a talk about the owls, both in general and for St. Louis OASIS. Members of this fine organization serve as volunteers at The St. Louis BioBlitz (among many other events) and I met some of these volunteers when I led an owl prowl for the 2006 St. Louis Bioblitz, the first of three I've led for this superb event. The volunteers put some of the staff of OASIS St. Louis in touch with me. The staff graciously invited me to give a talk to the organization's membership as part of a series of classes held at and about Forest Park. I gave this talk in October 2007 and it went well. At that point, I had been watching the owls for just under two years and it was a challenge to condense all my work into an hour. Now after over more than four-and-a-half years of work with the owls, it will be even more challenging to be informative AND concise. It is a good challenge to undertake and I am looking forward heartily to this talk. Registration for the series of classes of which this talk is full but another talk is coming up in the near future.

At this year's St. Louis Bioblitz in September, I met Karen Meyer who is an at-large member of the board of The St. Louis Audubon Society who handles their membership matters. We only had a few moments to talk but I managed to peak her interest and slip her one of the packets of owl photos and information I gave out to the folks going on my owl prowls. I was pleased to get a phone call later in the fall asking me if I would like to give a talk to the Society on the owls and my work with them. I heartily accepted the offer and the date, time and place are all set. The talk will be on Tuesday, January 18 at 7:00pm at the Dennis & Judith Jones Visitor Center in Forest Park. The talk is free and open to the public and I invite and encourage one and all to attend! It is a great honor to be asked by the Society to speak to their members and the general public. Here is a listing of the talk in the current issue of the Society's newsletter.

Thanks for reading and I hope to see you in January!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Charles and Sarah Mate Again and Charles Does Some House Hunting!

December 2, 2010

Another amazing night with the owls! I was able to get to the park a little earlier last night, which gave me more time to find the owls; always a nice thing to be able to do. It was a bright, clear and cold day and I debuted my balaclava for the first time this year. My "winter plumage", my beard, is less than a week old and still has some growing to do to help keep me warm!

I was hoping to find Charles in his Favorite Conifer as it is one of his his perennial perches, especially in cold weather. Alas he was not there even though I found some recent whitewash underneath this conifer. I first looked for Sarah in her Autumnal Perch but again was unsuccessful. I kept ears, eyes and mind open and an owl sixth sense moment gave me the nudge I needed to find Sarah perched high in the tallest of The Trio Conifers. I had not seen her in a conifer for many months so it was a pleasant sight.

I looked for Charles in several different areas including on the east side of The Wooded Area but came up empty. I returned to Sarah's perch and I heard her hoot and then Charles replied. From his hoot, I could tell he was on the east side of The Wooded Area. I headed that way and found him in unusual spot; a small deciduous tree at the eastern edge of The Wooded Area. I must have walked right by him earlier but did not spot him. D'oh!

Charles and Sarah continued to duet but only for a short while. Sarah continued hooting but Charles did not reply. Often when one of them stops their part of the duet, it means that they have a pellet coming up and thus cannot vocalize. I thought this would be the case but Charles would prove me wrong. As I watched him, he flew right over me to the second of The Three Trees (these used to be The Four Trees until one was cut down this summer). Check out the video below, at the 12-13 second mark Charles fills up the entire frame. He must have been five-ten feet directly above me!

He landed low in the second of The Three Trees, which gave me a great close up view of him.

Some crows flew by and a few noticed Charles and began to mob him. However the mobbing was done almost casually and rather briefly. I think it was late enough that the crows' focus was more on returning to their rookeries for the evening than on mobbing owls. Charles seemed especially focused on the hollow in the third of The Three Trees and I kept a close eye on him. My vigilance was rewarded when he made a short flight to the hollow and got inside it. Amazing!

He looked around in the hollow for several minutes and I was able to get a some shots of him inside the hollow. There is something comforting about seeing an owl in a hollow or tree snag.

How about a little background on this hollow? Very well. This hollow has been in this tree for as long as I can remember. A few years ago, I did see Charles and Sarah on the edge of this hollow but they did not go in it. In June, I saw Charles again at the edge of the hollow for a brief moment before he flew away. With these sightings, I kept this hollow on a list of possible perch or nest sites. That said, I was a little skeptical that it would be used mostly because it is quite low to the ground and close to human traffic as the tree is by a road and a bike path. Still, I try to remember my "owl observation mantra": open eyes, open ears, open mind.

The hollow underwent some changes this summer as an intense thunderstorm made a second opening to the hollow (you can see it on the exposed wood at the fore of the picture). This same storm also removed some exposed branches high up in this same tree that were some of the owls' favorite perches for singing. In typical Great Horned Owl fashion the owls adapted and began using and continue to use some perches in the second of The Three Trees.

The possible use of this hollow became more likely when in the late summer/early fall, I watched Sarah examine this hollow. She gradually and almost reverentially approached the tree and then flew to the hollow. She checked it out from several angles but did not get inside of it. I was able to watch this unfold from an extremely close distance, which made for a stunningly intimate perspective on this behavior.

I changed my observation position and saw that Charles had emerged from the hollow and was perched just on its edge. He flew a short distance east, over the road and high into a Cottonwood that they often use in this immediate area. I followed him and for a moment it looked like he was eating something in the tree but I could not be certain. He quickly flew off southeast and I went to follow him when I was pleasantly interrupted. My friend Chris Gerli stopped by in his van on his way home from a run and we had a good chat catching up on owl and park matters.

As our conversation drew to a close, I thought I heard Charles hooting near The Three Trees. Chris and I said our goodbyes and I headed to The Three Trees. Sure enough, Charles was hooting from their new singing perches in the second of The Three Trees. After his small amount of hooting earlier, it was good to hear hooting in great voice. He flew off northwest at great speed and I headed off after him. I could hear him hooting ahead of me so I was hopeful that I could reacquire him. As I got closer, I heard Sarah calling and I found her in a large Cottonwood between the waterway and the field. After another hoot, she flew off continuing to head north.

I went a fair distance north, getting close to the northern border of the park but I could not reacquire Sarah. I decided to turn back and try a few other parts of the park that I have seen the owls use on the north side of the lake. I crossed over the water way to the tamer of the two islands found in the lake. I quickly found an owl in one of the spots I have seen them use; one of two Sycamores on the south bank of the island. I thought it was Sarah but once the owl hooted, I realized that it was in fact Charles.

Charles took a short a hop to a branch above him and it struck me as a somewhat unusual perch. More often than not, they tend to hang on to the end of a branch perhaps because it allows them to move without navigating between other branches and sub-branches. The unusual nature of this perch was compounded when he began to hoot at a regular interval. When hooting, they usually are on a exposed perch, which gives their calls greater sonic presence as well as a stronger visual element. They like to be on stage!

As Charles hooted from this more unusual and subtle location, I wondered if his hooting was more of a communicating to Sarah act than a communication to other owls. My wondering bore fruit when Charles began to hoot more frequently and I then began to hear Sarah hooting in response! She was further northwest of Charles but judging by her hooting volume, she was not far. They duetted for a few minutes when her hoots became even louder, meaning that she was even closer to Charles (and me). Moments later, I heard her hoot and saw her fly towards Charles and next to him on the Sycamore. They hooted for another moment or two and then Charles hopped up on to Sarah's back and they mated!! Amazing!

This was what I dubbed last year as "Peaches and Herb Duetting" (aka "Reunited And It Feels So Good."

Charles flew off immediately heading north and a few minutes later, Sarah headed east. As I walked to reacquire her, I realized that I never seen them mate in this part of their territory! The forty-odd matings I have observed have occurred mostly in and around The Wooded Area with a few taking place in The Deer Lake Wet Savannah. I found Sarah again about hundred meters from where they had mated but she flew off again heading east at great speed. I decided to head for home, amazed at all the fascinating behavior I observed. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Charles and Sarah Mate For The First Time This Season!

December 1, 2010

I returned to St. Louis on Tuesday, November 30, 2010 after ten days in the Cape Town area of South Africa where I joined many members of my family to attend the wedding of my little sister, Mary. It was a great trip and it had some cool owl and other nature moments as well. It was the longest I had been away from my girlfriend, Wendy, and the owls too! Needless to say, while I enjoyed my time in South Africa (the first time I had been there in nineteen years), my mind was often on my favorite birds, Wendy, Charles and Sarah!

Despite a 30 hour journey from Cape Town to my home, I had enough energy to go to Forest Park and look for Charles and Sarah. After the vast realms of green of late spring in Cape Town, it was intriguing to see the park with its many trees bare or almost bare. As I approached their territory, I heard Charles hooting, which warmed my heart to hear again. I got to The Wooded Area and I saw one of them just southeast of The Great Northern. Even though about eighty yards away, I correctly identified the owl as Sarah and after Charles hooted again, she responded with a hoot of her own.

I found Charles in a well-concealed spot that I have often seen Sarah use the past few falls that I have finally dubbed Sarah's Autumnal Perch. I was able to see both of them quite well but in a flash, Sarah was gone. Thankfully, I could hear her hooting, now closer to Charles. I adjusted my position and found her in the Jungle Gym tree just by The Overlook Hotel Tree. They continued to duet and the duet became more and more intimate, with trilling, purring hoots by Charles and rapid responses by both owls. Sarah flew past Charles and landed in one of the 2008/2009 Salon Trees, on a very exposed branch. This caught my eye and I began to wonder if mating might occur. They duetted more and the already high level of intimacy increased and the next thing I knew, Charles flew over, landed on Sarah and they mated. Amazing!! It was the earliest in a year I have ever seen them mate by a large margin. Last year, they mated for the first time on December 10, which until yesterday was the earliest in a year I had seen them mate. Check out the video of last night's mating:

I had to wonder if they had mated while I was in South Africa or if they had "waited" for me. Either way, it was amazing to see them mate. Charles headed off towards The Four (Three) Trees and after a few minutes, Sarah flew southeast out of The Wooded Area. I went looking for both owls and saw what was almost certainly Charles flying east, high over The Muny. I tried to reacquire him and came up empty but I was thrilled to be back in the park, to see the owls and observe and document them mating for the first time in this mating season!