Friday, November 29, 2013

Thanksgiving Park and Owl Outing

Friday, December 6, 2013

I wrote this post a week or so ago just after Thanksgiving about what I saw in the park on Thanksgiving but due to operator error, much of the post was lost. This is a revised/restored version of that post.

As we enter the holiday season, the owls are busy as well.  We are approaching the mating and nesting season.  If all goes well, Charles and Sarah will mate and nest again for the ninth consecutive season.  As part of the build up to mating and nesting, the owls spend many weeks hooting together in duets.  Duets are thought to be a territorial behavior as well as pair-bonding exercise. This fall has been no different with many nights of great duets.  With time off from work for the holiday, I headed to the park on Thanksgiving to see the owls but first to see some other areas of the park. That is after I had an opening salvo of great Thanksgiving food.

I began in the Steinberg Prairie area, right nearby the Steinberg Ice Rink, which just reopened for the season. Regardless of the time of year, this is always an immensely scenic area of the park and the bright, sunny conditions helped out in this regard.  As always, be sure to double click on the photos to see bigger versions of the photos.

Due to our recent but unmistakable transition to winter, thin patches of ice covered parts of the river system. In some of the open areas, many ducks congregated to feed including three Northern Shovelers.  My friend and owl mentee, Brenda Hente, had seen these visiting ducks one day earlier.  Last winter I saw this species a few times in the exact same part of the river system.  Presumably this area has the food and other conditions just right for this duck with a noticeably larger bill than most ducks.

Leaving the big-billed birds, I came across a stretched out Eastern Grey Squirrel.  I just had to get a photo of it for my squirrel-loving and squirrel-like girlfriend, Wendy Schlegel.  She is a credentialed member of the cognoscenti of the cute.  As I expected, Wendy loved the picture.

I continued on and again a Brenda Hente sighting came to mind.  I arrived at the Victorian Footbridge and saw a bevy of birds including Northern Cardinals, Mallard Ducks, Mourning Doves and White-throated Sparrows.  Not for the first time, I remembered that Brenda had seen Cedar Waxwings in this same vicinity some months earlier.  I had never seen this striking bird in Forest Park before but was happy to see them once in Connecticut a few years ago.  While I did not expect to Cedar Waxwings, I kept looking and saw 4-6 birds making rapid movements among the trees and shrubs along the river system.  With some effort, I managed to get them in my binos and delighted to ID them as Cedar Waxwings.  With noticeably more effort I got them in my camera and few decent shots and video were captured.

I headed over to the fish hatchery ponds hoping to find some more migratory ducks.  This did not come to pass but I did have two fleeting glimpses of a large hawk, likely of the genus Buteo.  A few weeks earlier on November 17 I had my first positive identification (PID) of a Red-shouldered Hawk in Forest Park.  This was a long sought bird in the park for me and I had a great view of him.

I hoped for a repeat sighting but my glimpse of the hawk on Thanksgiving was just too brief to PID it.

As I completed the first half of my loop around the fish hatchery ponds I heard a loud splash near my foot. Unless it was an exceptionally gutsy and cold weather tolerant Bullfrog, I figured I had inadvertently spooked a Muskrat.  I kept my eye out for this aquatic rodent as I began the second half of my pond perambulations. I was soon rewarded with a good view of a Muskrat as he groomed vigorously before swimming away and having some Thanksgiving greens.

I concluded my loop of my ponds by taking a shot of a probable Muskrat lodge that I had seen earlier from a less distinct angle.

From the Lafayette Bridge I saw a Belted Kingfisher for the second time that day from this spot but this time I was able to get a better shot of one of my favorite residents of Forest Park.  The female has a rusty belt across her stomach, which gives the species its name.  In my experience they often do not show the front of the bodies so that you can sex them accurately.  This time was yet another such experience.

On my way to see the owls, I stopped in my tracks when I spotted a large raptor on the goal post of a playing field.  I did not get a full, 360 degree look at this hawk but I am reasonably confident judging by its size and plumage that it was a Red-tailed Hawk.  

I arrived at The Arena, part of the core of the owls' territory.  I heard the charming, chittering call of a Belted Kingfisher. This time I was able to get a good view of its front and determine that it was a female.  

I began looking for Charles in The Arena. The day before I had found Sarah quickly in The Trio Conifers but I could not find Charles.  Finally I heard him hoot from The Arena.  I was not able to determine exactly where he was because he soon flew closer to Sarah in The Wooded Area.  I guessed that he had been in the low hollow in The Third of The Three Trees.  With this in mind and having heard a loud Charles hoot from this vicinity as I engaged in some owl ambassadorship with an enthusiastic park goer,  I began my search at this hollow.  I checked the hollow from a couple of angles but no Charles.  I heard another hoot and knew that he was in The Arena but I still could not spot him.  

With daylight fading, I went to locate Sarah, hoping to find her quickly so that I could devote more time to find the recently invisible Charles.  True to recent form, Sarah was in the tallest of The Trio Conifers doing her best pine cone impression. 

I resumed my search for Charles which was made simultaneously easier and more difficult as he continued to hoot.  I ran into Brenda Hente and we conferred and agreed that he was again being an invisible but audible owl.  We checked places old and new but without success.  Finally, at almost the same time, we spied him in a rarely used tree.  It is a small deciduous tree that still had most of its leaves.  He was perfectly hidden in it. I had walked right past him three times!  For those of you playing at home, this tree is between The Fleur des lis Tree, The Three Trees and The Eastern Branch Tree.

I had never seen the owls use this tree as a daytime perch or roost and only occasionally as an dusk/evening spot.  As part of our transition to winter most of the deciduous trees have shed their leaves.   The owls have taken to perches in conifers or deciduous trees like this one; still possessing many leaves. We marveled at Charles' new spot and wondered if he had been there on Wednesday and if this would be a recurring spot for him.  In subsequent nights, he has not used this perch but I have made to sure to look for him in this slight but useful perch spot.  

Brenda and I continued on to see Sarah, who by now had flown to a recent favorite fly-to perch; The Jungle Gym Tree by The Overlook Hotel Tree.  Charles continued to hoot and she responded in kind, her massive talons evident to all. 

Shortly after, Charles flew to another rarely used tree, one closer to Sarah, and their duet continued.  

They both left the immediate core of their territory on the early side of things.  First Charles and then Sarah blasted off south into The Hilly Wooded Area.  We gave chase, aided by their continued duetting.  I have learned and taught to Brenda their duet spots in this area of the park.  We found them in such a spot and at one point Sarah maneuvered to an open perch high atop of one of these trees.

The duet was getting more intense and intimate with fast hoot exchanges and Charles adding a purring edge to some of his hoots. Either that or he was practicing rolling his Rs for his Spanish class.With Sarah in plain view and with the intense, intimate duetting we hoped mating was next. No such luck. They both blazed away eastward with us following.

We found them duetting in a large deciduous tree near a carton containing gems, precious stones and the like. Sarah flew low and fast southeast before I could get a picture of her and Charles.  Here is Charles in full hoot. Notice the white feathers of his gular sack (throat) and how they add a visual display to the vocal display of hooting.

Charles followed suit southeast but at a much greater altitude.  His clear hooting gave us a good heading to follow and I soon found him from at least two-three hundred yards away.  He was perched at the top of one of the lighting fixtures of an aeronautical pitch.  I had never seen the owls on these particular light fixtures prior to this. It was great to add another man-made structure to the list of artificial perches I have seen them use over the years.

We followed him and got a closer look at Charles in this perch with its commanding view.

Sharp-eyed Brenda found Sarah in neighboring light fixture and before I could take her picture, she flew over to Charles and they continued their duet. While their duetting does not have some of the dancing behavior that other birds have, given the owls' perch you could say that they were tripping the light fantastic.

They duetted for a while before they each flew northwest.  Sarah went first and I managed to catch some of her awesome and simultaneously ephemeral flight on video.

We again followed and we heard Charles hoot from not too far away.  Our search continued but we did not see them again that night.  The night before Brenda and I followed them a mile northwest from their perch spots. This night they went a half mile southeast.  Definite territorial re-proclamation, declaration, border guarding, etc.  We left the park to our respective homes.  I eagerly joined Wendy for a larger closing salvo of Thanksgiving food.  It was great to see the owls but great also to return to hearth and home.

Thank you for reading and I hope to see you in the park soon!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Owl Update, The Last Public Talks of 2013, and Owls Hunting

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Charles and Sarah continue their autumnal activities of vigorous duets to re-declare their territory and re-cement their pair bond.  Here they are duetting last night, Charles on the left, Sarah on the right. Be sure to double click on the pictures to see a bigger version.

It is fun and fascinating watching them also vary their perch spots.  Sarah has mostly been perching in The Overlook Hotel Tree but with some variations including for the first time this year, her Autumnal Perch.  I found her there on Monday, November 4.  Here is Sarah in The Overlook Hotel Tree on Saturday, November 2.

Notice the leaf on her head.  Was she channeling Julius Caesar? Carmen Miranda?

Charles has been even more variable in his perch spots.  Sometimes he has still been in The Sandwich Tree (his favorite this summer), other times in several different trees near The North-South Path, a couple of times in The AYU Tree and most interestingly, in The Lesser Northern. He perched frequently in a well-hidden spot in this tree, which is next to The Great Northern, in the summer of 2011.  It took me a while to find him in that tree that summer.  I thought he might use it in subsequent summers but he has not.  Only occasionally would I see him there in other seasons.  Here he is in this tree on Saturday, November 2.  You especially have to get the angle right to find him in this perch.

If you look on the left side of my blog, you see that I only have two talks listed for the remainder of 2013. These are the last public talks of 2013 and I hope you can attend one of them! The first one is this Saturday at 11:00am in Clayton, MO at the Mid-County Library Branch of the St. Louis County Library system.  This is my fifth talk for this great library system in 2013.  I am excited for this talk because my girlfriend and I are regular patrons at this location and it is the system's branch closest to Forest Park.  More information and registration information for the talk can be found here

I do have several other private talks scheduled for November and December for a wide variety of organizations including the Great Rivers chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalist program (of which I am happily now a member and intern level Missouri Master Naturalist), Wild Bird Rehabilitation, and Captain Elementary School. All in all, I will give 28 talks in 2013, which quadruples the seven I did last year.  Quite chuffed about that!

With the trees losing their leaves it is easier to to follow the owls, reacquire them and watch them hunting.  I did just that last night and had a great time doing so.  Both owls flew from the core of their territory in generally the same direction and only a few minutes apart.  I found Sarah on top of the goal post of one of the park's sports fields.  That was a new man-made spot on which to see them.  Here she is:

Over the years I have seen them on: a softball backstop, three different bridges, a bandstand, three different buildings and a pipe.  These interactions with man-made places and objects are always intriguing. 

Sarah disappeared on me but then I found her in a Sycamore along a lake, a particular hunting perch that Charles often uses.  I had looked in this spot before I saw Sarah on the goal post and no one was there.  So I was pretty sure this was her.

I looked from another angle, one not good for photos, and I was quite confident that it was her.  I stepped onto a rock in the lake to get a better view of her and moments later I saw a large mammal swimming in the lake.  My first thought that it was a giant among Muskrats, then I thought it might be a Beaver (there was one in the park in 2009), but a closer look with my binoculars revealed a striped bushy tail indicating that it was a Raccoon.  I had never seen a Raccoon swim so it was another first for me on the same night.  It was also the second sighting of a Raccoon I had in under week.   

I continued watching Sarah and marveling, not for the first time, at the thrill and privilege of watching them hunt.  They are paragons of patience and observation and when you see them hunt, you understand that this is their time, their place as well as how challenging it is to hunt.  She flew off towards where the lake rejoins the park's river system.  I did not see her land but I know some places from which they hunt in this area.  I soon found an owl in a regularly used Sycamore along the river system. 

I thought it was Sarah but as I watched the owl more, I began to doubt that it was her. The owl looked more like Charles and this is a hunting spot that he uses more than Sarah.  I went to the other side of the river system for a clearer look at the front of the owl and sure enough, it was Charles.

This made me slightly doubt my IDing of Sarah in the first Sycamore by the lake but I am 89.45838% certain that it was Sarah in that tree.  My new view of Charles was a great one and it was exciting to have reacquired both owls.  I soon departed as my own hunger needed addressing.  I returned home and eagerly feasted on one Wendy's famous omelettes, copiously stuffed with spinach, Jack Cheese and bacon.  Yum!

Thanks for reading and I hope to see you at a talk!