Sunday, December 29, 2013

Eighth Owliversary!!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

This is always I day I look forward to and about which I have some dread.  Today makes it eight years that I have been consistently observing Charles and Sarah, the amazing Great Horned Owls of Forest Park! To learn more about the night that began this owliversary process, please read this blog post from 2009
I always look forward to the day and marking another milestone but I always have concern about not seeing the owls and just making sure all is well with them.  

Thankfully, it was another fascinating and fun evening with them.  I stopped by to see if I could see if Sarah was where I left her last night (see previous post).   She was not there and nowhere to be seen to boot.  I headed out to other areas of the park and despite the radical temperature drop from low 50s yesterday to low 20s today, I had a great time.  I saw many Mallard Ducks, a Mourning Dove, two Belted Kingfishers, a few European Starlings, several Canada Geese, five Northern Shovelers and a female Pie-billed Grebe all before seeing the owls.  I returned to the owls' territory, did a quick hollow recce and then headed to The Trio Conifers to look for Charles. He was not there nor in The Quartet Conifers or some of the miscellaneous cypresseseses [:)]. Puzzlement and concern grew.  I wondered if he was in The Fleur de lis Tree and as I headed that way, I saw him in the 11/13 Nest Hollow, where I had just looked and seen nothing no more than fifteen minutes earlier!  

Charles has used this hollow several times in recent weeks, most often in inclement weather but other times on perfectly lovely days. He took a while to wake up but eventually did so even flying right towards me and landing directly above me in The Eastern Branch Tree.

Charles began to hoot more and Sarah eventually responded from one of the hollows in The 06/09/11/13 Nest Tree. But I do not know which one.  Despite Charles hooting for the better part of a half hour she did not show her face.  Charles flew off to hunt and I waited 45 minutes for him to return and or for her to come out of whichever hollow she was in this night.  Neither occurred in this time. And why yes, it was cold. On the plus side I saw two Raccoons and a Mink while I waited, watched and worked to maintain body heat.  I returned home and gave Wendy a condensed version of the night's events.  Later, we clinked glasses to commemorate eight years of consistent owl observations.  Wendy continues to be my biggest and most important supporter of my work with the owls,  Huge thanks and hugs, my lady!

As in previous years on this occasion, some number crunching is in order. Between December 29, 2012 and tonight, December 29, 2013.  I went to the park to observe, document, and do outreach with the owls 302 nights.  That is 82.7% of the days up from 71.5% last year.  January 2013 was my biggest month with 30 visits while out of town trips in June and July dipped me down to 22 and 19 visits, respectively.

My success rate took a small but simultaneously noticeable hit this year from 100% to 99%.  I did not see the owls on November 18, 2013.  Happily I saw them the following morning.  This lack of sighting ended a streak of consecutive sightings that began in June 2010.  For the better part of three-and-half years, I had in the neighborhood of one thousand consecutive sightings of at least one of the owls.  I am quite chuffed at this streak.  

By any yardstick, 2013 was a banner year for owl outreach.  2012 had me leading 49 owl prowls which I eclipsed this year with 57.  The 7 talks I gave in 2012 was quadrupled by the 28 I gave this year.  I already have 10 scheduled in 2014 with more in the works.  2013 featured my first out of town talks with talks in Farmington, Rolla and Columbia as well as my first talks for the St. Louis County Library System and three talks alone for Maplewood Public Library.  Other venues for talks included my workplace, Fontbonne University, Missouri Nature and Environmental Photgraphers (MONEP) and Captain Elementary School in Clayton, MO.   

2013 was also a big year for taking additional steps as a naturalist.  I completed the 12 week basic training course this summer and fall to become a Missouri Master Naturalist intern.  I am well on the way to become a certified MMN with additional advanced training and my many hours of volunteer work.  I had the distinction and immense honor to present the advanced training at the first meeting I attended as new member of my MMN chapter, the Great Rivers chapter.  My talk on the owls was well-received and I have also led owl prowls and will give talks for other neighboring chapters.  

In October I began to co-lead the monthly Beginner Birder Walk in Forest Park.  This is a joint venture of Forest Park Forever and St. Louis Audubon Society.  I have been going on the walks for a few years now and helping out where and when I could.  In the summer I was approached by the walk's co-leaders, Jim Wilson and Amy Witt, to see if I would take Jim's place as he winds down toward retirement.  I was and continued to be honored that asked me and amazed that I was the first person they asked and not the twenty-first.  There is no way I can fill Jim's immense shoes but hopefully I can lend my own perspective and energy to these walks.  This is a new role for me as I begin my fourth year as a volunteer for Forest Park Forever. My owl prowls continued to generate donations to Forest Park Forever as well as being featured as silent-auction items for organizations including Gateway Greening, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, and Wild Bird Rehabilitation.  

I know I am forgetting a few other highlights but the most important highlight was observing and documenting the owls and sharing them in a number of different ways with so many different people.  Tomorrow's appearance at noon on "St. Louis on the Air" on KWMU, 90.7 will be a great way to commemorate my eighth owlivesary. 

Thank you for reading and thank you to everyone that came on a prowl, went to a talk, or just asked me about the owls.  Your time and spirit are most appreciated!  

More Mating, Possible Nesting, and Exciting Owl Outreach Opportunity

Sunday, December 29, 2013

If all goes well I will be updating this blog with a new post later tonight ...

In the meantime, an update.  Charles and Sarah have been mating up a storm since my last post.  Eleven matings since my last post to be exact.  This includes me having seen them mate every night from December 19 - December 27 as well as mating twice on December 22 and 25.  It is fascinating to see the variations of when they mate and the behaviors leading up to mating.  Recently, I have seen them mate as early as twenty minutes before sunset and as late as ninety minutes after sunset.  Sometimes mating has followed a long, multi-stage duet and others occurred after a few Hoos hoo. Except for one mating that I missed filming by a second or two, all of the matings are available on my YouTube page.  I will highlight a few below.  I encourage you to check them all on out on my YouTube page.

Mobbing by crows has been an almost daily happening.  On December 19, the mobbing was especially intense but Charles and Sarah mated. Or did they? Notice how Sarah does not make the high-pitched call that females make when they mate.  Was it a maybe mating?

Female humans are often amazed at the brevity of Great Horned Owl mating.  I was telling this to two human females, Robin and Mary Ann, on December 20.  Minutes later, Charles and Sarah mated very early and as per usual, briefly.  Notice how the two human females say almost simultaneously, "Is that it?"

As in the 2012 and 2013 breeding seasons, Charles and Sarah, so far, have been mating in multiple spots but concurrently repeating a certain spot.  I have been calling these trees The Marital Bed Trees.  On December 25, however, the first of the two matings I witnessed that night, happened in last year's Marital Bed Tree.  I was pretty close to them so I got a decent video of the process.

The other big news is that Sarah is nesting. Probably. I will explain.  On December 26, I led an owl prowl for my friend, Kim Rois, and members of her family.  As we arrived in The Arena we heard Charles calling from The Trio Conifers.  Imagine our delight when we heard Sarah calling from inside one of the hollows in The 06/09/11/13 Nest Tree.  This tree has received the most nest shopping visits so far this year but it was not clear which hollow they would pick.  My money was on the 11/13 Nest Hollow due to the frequency of nest shopping visits it received as well as its many qualities: high, deep, discreet.  We took a close look at Charles and then returned to this nest tree. Sarah poked her head out from the 11/13 Nest Hollow. Sweet!

I could not stop grinning and was amazed to see that she, for the first time I had seen, had picked a nest spot that they used the previous year.  That said, I was not absolutely, double-bubble certain that this was the spot because, not for the first time,  later that the evening she spent a while in the 06/09  Nest Hollow.

My uncertainty was compounded when I arrived at the park early the next day, December 27, to see Sarah and Charles both perched in the The Overlook Hotel Tree getting mobbed by crows.  Had she been in the 11/13 hollow and come out early due to the warm weather or had she been perching in The Wooded Area all day?  Yet again, she spent a noticeable amount of time in the 06/09 Nest Hollow later in that night.

I arrived at the park yesterday, December 28, ready for Sarah to be almost anywhere.  Sure enough, after not seeing her at first, I saw her begin to emerge from the 06/09 Nest Hollow.  

Uncertainty received another shot in the arm when later on she flew to yet another previous years' nest hollow.  Bloody hell!  It is fascinating but puzzling and even at times frustrating to see these changes in nest spots.  Ultimately, I am more than confident that Sarah will pick the right place for her and the hoped for youngsters. The track record of Charles and Sarah, eighteen owlets since 2006, speaks volumes.  

Last but not least, I have a great owl outreach opportunity tomorrow, Monday, December 30.  I will be on the radio on the St. Louis NPR affiliate, KWMU 90.7 FM  I will be talking about the owls and my work with them on the air at noon on the program, "St. Louis on the Air" hosted by Don Marsh.  I cannot wait! For those of you not near a radio and/or not near St. Louis, you can listen to it online here

I had the pleasure of meeting Don Marsh just over a week ago thanks to my friend and former colleague, Maggie Vogelweid.  Maggie and her husband Greg have an amazing holiday party every year and Wendy and I are continuously honored to be invited to and attend this great soiree.  Maggie and Greg are neighbors of Don Marsh.  Maggie steered me to Don, I introduced myself and said something like, "I have a story that you may well find of interest."  Don is not only a journalist of wide and deep experience he also frequents Forest Park.  We talked for a while, I gave him my card and he said that he was most interested and would see what he and the station wanted to do.  Don even e-mailed me later that night and a few days later, one of the show's producers, Mary Edwards, contacted me to let me know that they wanted me on the air and to discuss dates.  We settled on tomorrow and I am greatly looking forward to this.  The owls and my work with them have received solid press coverage over the years but this is the first radio coverage. To have it on such an august program and network is a genuine thrill and honor.  

Thank you for reading and I hope to be posting later tonight! 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Owls Mate For The Fourth Time-First Consecutive Mating Nights of The 2014 Breeding Season!

Tuesday, December 16, 2013

Charles and Sarah mated for the fourth time last night.  It was the first time in this breeding season that I have seen them mate on two consecutive nights!

Moments after arriving in their territory I heard the owls hoot in a duet.  Their hoots told me their location: in or near The Trio Conifers.  I paused to look fruitlessly for the pellet that Charles cast on Sunday before heading up to their be-needled bivouac. Spying Charles in an obscured spot in The Tallest of The Trio Conifers, I moved to get better angles. He was hooting regularly and with good volume and projection.

Like Sunday, Sarah was in the tallest of the three and was tough to see. Another least worst picture of her!

On the cool side, she and Charles were only about ten-fifteen feet from each other in the same tree. This entire time, they were duetting with great consistency, especially as it was still relatively early, both chronologically and in terms of the photo period on this mostly clear day.

The commuting American Crows, returning to their rookeries following their day of foraging out west, gave Charles and Sarah some grief but not vigorous mobbing.  Not a drive by but more of a fly by.  This was to change.

Sarah moved in her perch and took up a new position looking down at the ground.  I managed to get a rare (for me anyway) shot of her with her nictitating membranes in action.  This third eyelid helps keep their eyes moist and protected. A more conventional view of her is next.

I was too slow on the draw to film her swooping down in a short but striking flight.  She landed in a perch she used on Friday in a tree between The AYU (As Yet Unnamed) Tree and The Overlook Hotel Tree.

She and Charles continued their duet and I thought given Sarah's easily accessible perch and their solid duet that mating was imminent. However, it was still early enough that the crows commute was not complete. With Sarah more visible, the crows now began a more vigorous mobbing of her. The mobbing still had a fly-by nature to it as it was getting later for the crows.  Yet I was impressed by their large numbers that seemed to come in wave upon wave.

Charles' hooting continued unabated.  I often wonder if the hooting draws more attention from the crows and whether or not Charles gives a, well, hoot or is it more important for him to keep on trucking. Or hooting.

The crows mobbed, mostly in the fly by mode but some lingered and even perched near Sarah. Sarah did not hoot at all during the mobbing.  I wondered if she stopped just to decrease her presence or if she had a pellet.

Eventually the waves of crows ceased and Charles and Sarah resumed their duet quickly.  Faster than I thought, Charles flew over to her and they mated.

By only moving a few feet I could see where Charles had landed after mating.  He continued to hoot as Sarah groomed and adjusted.

I thought the last of the crows had come and gone. I was wrong.  Charles was mobbed by this last group before he flew into The Arena landing in The 06-09 Nest Hollow. Sarah flew into The Arena.  I followed and found her in The Middle Tree. She hooted once and I heard Charles return the hoot from deep within the 06-09 Nest Hollow.  I wondered if a second mating would occur.  I have seen this a few times over the years.

Charles emerged from the hollow.  Both owls have been checking out this damaged hollow quite a bit this fall and winter. Before this branch was damaged in an intense storm in the first week of June 2009, Sarah nested there in 2006 and 2009.  She had two owlets each year.  I do not rule out that they might nest in it again but with the other hollows and snags available to them, it seems on the less than likely side of things.  Why pick the pup tent when you can have a suite?

Charles flew off southeast and even though I had a clear view of him, I soon lost him in the trees. I could not tell if he had landed or was still flying further.

Sarah was still in view and I went to get a better look at her. As has happened too many times to count, I took my eyes off her for a moment and she was gone with no indication of her directional heading.  Grrr.  The growling is directed at me not her. Knowing roughly where Charles had gone, I headed off and soon found him just as he flew off into the heart of a well-attended but not in season song-and-dance solarium. He landed on one of their new, as of the 2013 season, fans.  I had seen the owls on the old fans before but this was the first time on the new ones.

As I got a closer look, I wondered if might be Sarah. Size and shape seemed indicative of her larger form.  I went for a better look but the owl was gone.  I did see a Great Blue Heron flying north over this same building.  I headed south and then east and then beyond hoping to find the owls again.  I did not but I still had some great sightings of other things including a large but not quite full moon,

a couple of Raccoons including this one in Raccoonville,

and a Great Blue Heron in the river system.

Almost a mile-and-a-half later I called it a night, grateful to have seen the owls mate for the first time on consecutive nights this breeding season.  Thank you for reading!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Owls Mate For The Third Time

Monday, December 16, 2013

The owls mated again last night!  I really thought they would mate on Friday even though it was raining but no such luck.  Charles and Sarah did some more nest shopping last week including in The 06/09 Nest Hollow, The 11/13 Nest Hollow and the hollow in the The Third of Third Trees.  I had an owl prowl yesterday but before I met my group, I went to another wooded region of the park to look for owls.  I found the resident pair of Great Horned Owls together in one of their favorite spots.

My friend Robin Street-Morris found these owls in July 2011.  It was good to see them.  It had been a few months since I had done so.  I hoped to find some of the Barred Owls but no such luck.

I met my group, members of a Meet Up group called STL Nerdy Girls and my friend and owl mentee Brenda Hente.  I was happy to meet them and even happier to see them well-prepared for a prowl in the cold and snow. As we headed out we were treated to the sight of two Great Blue Herons perched high in two conifers.  Last fall and winter I saw this species more than I ever had before in those seasons.  This year I have seen them a decent amount but nothing with the frequency of last year.  They are quite hardy birds in the cold weather.

I showed the prowlees the the 08/12 Nest Tree and then I soon found Charles in The Fleur de lis Tree.

As we watched him everyone but me saw him drop a pellet.  I was too busy futzing with my camera!  The area around the The Trio Conifers had received mobbing attention from commuting American Crows so we headed that way. We found Sarah tucked away in an especially obscure spot in the tallest of the trio.  This is my least awful photo of her.

The crows paid her some mind but soon found Charles in his more exposed spot and they mobbed him for a while.  We took up a new position in hopes to see both owls. Sarah came blazing out and landed close to Charles.  The owls had not hooted together so far but they made up for lost time by jumping into a duet.
We found Sarah a few trees away from Charles and the duet continued to pick up speed.  Charles flew to an atypical spot on The First Three of The Three Trees.  Sarah joined him in a more typical spot in that tree.

We hoped that mating would occur as they were pretty close to each other.  Charles flew over us, the underside of his wings illuminated by the streetlights.  The duet continued and our excitement grew as Sarah flew over us and joined Charles.  Before I could focus my camera, the owls mated!  Listen at the 13 second mark for the high-pitched call that Sarah (and other female GHOs) makes when they mate.

After mating Charles bombed off heading east.  We found Sarah perched before she followed Charles.

Everyone was thrilled to see the owls mate!  I gave the members of the group the option to look for the owls or head home.  Some decided to depart but others, including a young owl addict, decided to look for the owls some more so off we went.

We followed the trajectory of the owls with no initial success.  Thankfully we kept ears, eyes and minds open and this was rewarded with hearing Charles.  We honed in on him just to hear a hunger-related call from Sarah as she flew over to join him in a good sized coniferous tree.  They duetted some more and we thought that a second mating might occur.  Instead Charles flew off a short distance west.  We changed positions and saw that Sarah was feeding!  We surmised that Charles had caught something and called to her to give it to her as part of their mating/courtship/pair-bonding exercise.  We could not tell what she was eating but we saw her take some good-sized bites.  Our best guess was a squirrel-sized mammal or dove-sized bird.

While she ate, Charles flew south and she followed him after some more eating.  We delighted in reacquiring them and seeing some more fascinating behavior.  We headed home even happier than before and excited that the owls had mated again!  Thank you for reading!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Owls Mate For The Second Time!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The owls mated for the second time last night!  It is great to see them back in the breeding swing of things. I did not see them mate on Tuesday, December 10.  They had a good hooting duet going and then Sarah just stopped hooting.  Charles continued to hoot but eventually flew off southeast. I suspected that one of the possible causes of her silence was that a pellet was on its way up for her to eject.  Sure enough she ejected a pellet, which was good to see as she seemed especially hungry the night prior.  With Charles gone, Sarah headed off south to hunt.

Back to last night, I led an owl prowl for my fellow member of the Great Rivers chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalist program, Donna Scott, and her pupils Natalia and Emily from the Science Club of Rosati Kain High School.  Soon after we arrived in The Arena we heard Charles and later Sarah hooting from the vicinity of The Trio Conifers.  We headed that way and found Charles in the shortest of The Trio Conifers.

Once we all had a look at Charles we searched for Sarah who was in her preferred conifer, the tallest of the three.  Sorry, I didn't get a share-worthy of Sarah but she was high up on the southeast side of the tree. Charles hooted non-stop but Sarah had a little pause in her hooting.  Charles flew out on the early side of thingsto a spot near Sarah's Autumnal perch.  Sarah resumed her part of the duet and we went to look at Charles in his more exposed perch.

The duet grew in intensity and intimacy and I hoped mating was on the menu.  My hopes were soon rewarded. Sarah flew to The Jungle Gym Tree near The Overlook Hotel Tree.  My prowlees noticed the difference in color and size between the owls.  The prowlees got a little distracted and I had to direct their attention to Charles flying over to Sarah.  He landed on her and they mated.

I told my prowlees that they had just seen something that not many people had seen in person.  I added that mating of Great Horned Owls had not been observed and described in the scientific literature until the 1990s. They were suitable impressed.  Charles flew east to the edge of The Wooded Area.  He hooted vigorously. Sarah groomed thoroughly as she often does after they mate. Charles flew back our way passing Sarah and us and hooting in flight, which is always a treat to observe.  He landed in The Hilly Wooded Area and hooted a few times.  Sarah turned around and contemplated her next move.

She followed Charles south into The Hilly Wooded Area going low at first and swooping up in a possible predatory move.  We headed out to look for the owls and saw what was likely Sarah making another possible predatory flight before going further south.  I showed the group one of Charles' favorite hunting spots in this area, The Southern Branch Tree, and he treated us to a hoot from nearby.  I found him in one of their favorite duetting spots.  He hooted a few more times before blasting eastward.  We heard him hoot once more from his new location a few hundred yards away.  He covered this distance in no more than ten seconds.  The powerful, fast, graceful and silent flights of the owls impressed the prowlees.

With Charles close by but hard to get to, Sarah being invisible and the temperatures frigid, we decided to head back to our rendezvous point.  On the way, I got a call from my friend and owl mentee, Rusty Wandall. He joined us by, I said my goodbyes and thanks to Donna, Natalia, and Emily, and Rusty and I headed out again. By now a fair amount of time had elapsed and we knew our odds of reacquiring the owls was slim. Indeed, our search yielded no owls but we still enjoyed being out in the park on this cold, crisp night.

Thank you for reading!

Monday, December 9, 2013

First Mating of the Owls This Season! [short version]

Monday, December 9, 2013

Here is a quick piece about the owls mating tonight for the first time this breeding season!  I hope to write a longer version out in the foreseeable future.

A little after 5:00pm tonight, Sarah flew to The Jungle Gym Tree By The Overlook Hotel Tree.  She had perched in the tallest of The Trio Conifers with Charles.  Their initial duetting was tempered by mobbing groups of American Crows.  Once the crows vacated the premises, Charles and Sarah began to duet in earnest.  She flew out to this exposed spot and the duet hoots were fast, intense and intimate. I had a perfect view of her but I am also aware that Murphy's Law is a powerful force.  True to form, Sarah, in clear view bobbed her head, possibly checking out potential prey, hooted, defecated, hooted again and flew next to Charles.  Moments later, Charles jumped on top of her and they mated.  I missed the initial mating but was able to catch the end of this always brief encounter. The high-pitched vocalization is made by Sarah.

Charles flew off and hooted for a while before disappearing on me. Sarah flew southwest and I ended up following her hunt for a while.  Without the benefit of hearing her hoot, I found her in six different places that had me cover over a mile on foot.  I often wish I could fly or at least teleport.

Last year, the first mating I observed was on December 7, 2012.  The first matings in 2011 and 2010 were November 26 and 30, respectively.  I have seen other first matings in mid and late December.  I checked my records of last year's breeding season and last year I observed and documented them mating 27 times.  That is a record so far.  Let's see what happens this year!  This is always one of the most exciting and challenging times of the year. Damn cold out there but well worth the time and effort!

Thank you for reading!