Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Fledgling + Two Owlets in the Nest=Three Owlets!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

An amazing night last night! One of the owlets has fledged and there are two owlets in the nest! We have three owlets!  This is the first time that I have seen Charles and Sarah have three owlets in consecutive years. I could not stop grinning last night.  I am still open to the possibility that there are four owlets given Sarah's longer and earlier time out of the nest and earlier and frequent hunting.  There may be less room in the nest and more mouths to feed.

 After a successful and enjoyable talk on Tuesday for the Miramiguoa Chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalist program I was keen to get to the park last night.  Lisa, her husband and Judy were watching the nest.  I asked them if they had seen Sarah and they replied that they had not seen any owls or owlets.  I reminded them of the importance of locating Sarah so as to remain safe and not disturb her and the owlets.  I also prodded them gently that carefully searching the woods was a key thing to do.  After checking the recently expanded hollow in the nest, which both Charles and Sarah have used a little recently, I headed into The Wooded Area.  I soon found Charles in the tallest of The Trio Conifers. Be sure to double click on the photos to see a larger version of the shots.

I reminded myself to look carefully for any fledglings and I was immediately rewarded with my first glimpse of the first fledgling!  I found it in the exact same area where I have first found fledgings every year starting in 2011-incredible!  What a beaut!  The thrill of seeing the first fledgling, like so many aspects of observing the owls, is amazing no matter if it is the first time seeing it or, in this case, the ninth.

I took another look from another angle be careful to move slowly and quietly.  I was happy to get a good angle with a great view of, as my girlfriend Wendy calls it, The Fluff.

I was confident that Sarah was nearby keeping a close eye on her fledged but still vulnerable owlet.  I found Sarah about thirty yards from the owlet.  She soon began to do an Escalator Stretch.

If you come to the park to see the owls please be extra cautious and careful.  Do not get close to the fledged owlet and be mindful of Sarah's whereabouts at all times.  Do not risk incurring her protective wrath. Remember that Sarah went for a Red-tailed Hawk that got close to the nest the other day.  You would not mess with a hawk, do not mess with an animal that does mess with a hawk.  Wear dark, muted clothes and cover your head if you have blond or white hair and make as little sound as possible. Fledging is one of the most dangerous times for a young Great Horned Owl.  They are not strong fliers yet and dangers abound.  As I said last year when the first owlet fledged, fledging is comparable to a human parent watching its child take its first Times Square.

I headed back to the nest where by now one owlet was visible.

 I could not help myself when I deadpanned to the now slightly larger group of nest watchers, "I didn't see much in the woods-just Charles, a fledgling and Sarah." They were blown away but what I found in the last ten minutes. I showed them my photos and then I took them to see the fledgling.  Just before we left Sarah came and landed in a high branch just above the nest hollow.  We watched the fledgling from a good safe distance and they delighted in seeing it.

These observers headed for home but I soon ran into my buddy, Lloyd Robinson who, with his girlfriend Ginny, are becoming regular owl observers.  I showed Lloyd the fledgling, which caused his own non-stop grinning.  Throughout the night, Lloyd asked me great questions about the owls and my work with them.  He listened closely and I am thrilled and honored to learn that he has been carefully reading my blog and has been hitting the books to learn more about owls. We headed back to the nest and by now Sarah was in The PX Tree.

Charles began to hoot from his piney perch.  We headed back for another look at the fledgling and heard Charles hoot from a different location.  I thought he might be in The Rain Tree judging from the direction of his hoots.  Lloyd found him there in an unusual spot high on the northeast side of the tree. Returning to The Arena, Charles delighted us with a gorgeous flight landing in The First of The Three Trees.

We moved back to look at the nest and I was a met with two owlets staring back at me!!  Three owlets!!  Amazing!  

By the time I tried to shoot video of the two owlets just one was visible.  Several people had asked me in recent days if it this year the total was two owlets and I told them that last year's slow reveal of three owlets, which only happened after two owlets fledged, taught me to be even more careful and conservative about "making the call."  I am glad I listened to my own advice.

Lloyd and I were joined by J.R. Robinson, who has been an owl observer for a couple of years.  I met Lloyd and J.R. separately and while they have they same last name they are not related but they are roommates and both of them are scientists. We told J.R. how to see the owlet and he headed off to find it.  

Charles went for something in mid-air and Sarah flew to the same area and they both landed in The Middle Tree.  I think it was a tag-team predatory attempt.  I did not see what they were going for but I am confident that it was a predatory attempt.  Sarah is higher on the left and Charles lower on the right. 

Sarah flew back into The Wooded Area a little later and Charles flew off to hunt, heading west. We went back for another look at the fledgling and ran into J.R. who had manged to find it with our guidance.  Lloyd had another great spotting, when he saw Sarah near the owlet.  She flew off and we watched the owlet become more active.  We saw him do two Escalator Stretches and a few times he flapped his wings a few times to maintain his balance.  Sarah returned and we began to hear Charles hoot in The Arena.  Perhaps a prey exchange had occurred or Sarah had found food on her own or Charles was hooting because of some other, yet unknown, reason.  After over eight years I still have so much to learn about the owls.  It is a process with unceasing rewards, challenges and delights.

We again returned to the nest area and saw one owlet "hitting the gym"; exercising its wings to build up their strength prior to fledgling.  During then night I had sent two texts out to Wendy and owl friends and mentees about the fledgling and the third owlet and I got a nice flood of enthusiastic responses.One of the folks I texted, my friend and owl mentee Brenda Hente, had news of her own. She could not find of the three owlets that her owls, Will and Kate have, but she did get to see one of the owlets fledge!  This was a first for her to see the actual moment of fledging and her concern for the unseen owlet was mixed with awe and gratitude for seeing fledging. I echoed her mixed emotions and congratulated her on her great work.  I am honored that she has named on of the owlets, Xavier, after one of my middle names.

Lloyd and I decided to head home. I had a blast showing Wendy the pictures of the owlets and listening to her coo with joy over these gorgeous youngsters.  I cooed with gratitude at the lovely meal she had kindly had waiting for me, which was especially welcome after an intense and amazing night of owling.

Thank you for reading!

P.S. Shameless plug:  I have a talk tonight on the owls' mating, nesting and owlets tonight, Thursday, March 27 at 7:00pm in St. Ann for the Rock Road branch of the St. Louis County Library system.  I did talks at six different county library branches in 2013 and each one was a distinct pleasure. Rock Road was one of the first of these talks and they are the first of three, so far, to have me back.  Lots of cute pictures and videos tonight-I hope to see you there!  Full details here

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Two Owlets! [And quick recap of UCity Public Library Talk]

Thursday, March 13, 2014

After much patient waiting by myself and many others, I saw two owlets last night!  I got to the park marveling at the difference between Tuesday, when it was sunny to cloudy and a high of 77, and Wednesday, with some sun but mostly cloudy, windy and a high in the low 40s! The park felt almost empty after the happy throngs of people on Tuesday.  I came to my first nest vantage point and there were two owlets looking back at me! What beauties! [Be sure to double click on the photos to see a larger version]

Amazing!  The one higher up on the left used that position the last few nights and while I had not seen the owlet lower and on the right, it looks, judging by the development of its facial disk, that it might be older than its loftier sibling.  Here is a video of the gorgeous pair.


I only stayed at this close vantage point for a hyper-brief time as to not disturb the owlets and Sarah. Sarah was perched nearby in a tree roughly between The Fleur des lis Tree and The Eastern Tree, keeping a close eye on her progeny.

I arrived at the vantage point that gives the most insight into the nest, or as I sometimes call it, the least worst spot.  Very importantly, this spot is sufficiently far from the nest so as not to disturb its inhabitants. I could see the two owlets but no more.  Not that this was disappointing in the slightest!

Around this time I ran into a father-son pair: Bob and Rick Smith.  Bob had kindly attended my talk at the University City Public Library the night before with our mutual friend, Taffy Ross, and Rick is an avian keeper at the St. Louis Zoo. I delighted in showing them the two owlets and Sarah and we had a nice time chatting about a whole host of topics.  Bob generously complemented me on my talk and manner of presenting. As he is a retired art professor at my alma mater,Washington University in St. Louis, and, as he put it, "someone who knows some things about talking", I greatly appreciated his comments. Charles began to hoot from the vicinity of The Trio Conifers, his spot of choice lately.  We all enjoyed hearing his mellifluous hoots .

Sarah flew out of The Wooded Area and landed in the 06/09 Nest Hollow.  She looked in the hollow, which is one of their prey cache sites, but did not go inside the hollow.  Perhaps the cupboard was bare.

She flew back into the woods, making a hunger/food-related call as she did.  By now I could tell, based on the direction from which Charles hoots boomed, that he had relocated.  I guessed that he had moved to The Rain Tree and a quick look confirmed my guess.  He had made a similar transition in recent weeks and it was interesting to see this again as The Rain Tree, so far, is not used regularly as a fly-to perch. Sarah quickly re-emerged from The Wooded Area and now with prey in her talons.  The wind was so strong that she could not land in the nest but landed on top of the hollow branch.

I figured that she had possibly uncached prey from The Great Northern, a frequent cache and feeding tree. To get to the nest, Sarah transitioned to nearby branches now with the prey in her bill.  After I took pictures of her, I zoomed in on them and saw that the prey was the head of an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit; one of their favorite types of prey. Nothing like a little brain food to help the owlets get ahead.

Sarah flew into the nest and undoubtedly was eagerly met by the owlets whose intense metabolism demands frequent food.  In the below video you get a nice, albeit brief, look at Sarah's legs or as my girlfriend Wendy calls them, "pants."


Sarah disappeared into the nest and I saw one owlet and then no owlets as they were likely getting fed.  Bob and Rick took their leave. I hope to see them again watching the owls. Charles continued to hoot and I went for my first close look at him.  Here he is perched in The Rain Tree, thus called because this arching branch with several small branches coming off it is a frequent perch site for the owls when it rains or snows.

Here is a video of him hooting and then doing an escalator stretch.


Sarah flew out of the nest to The PX Tree and I went to look in the nest and saw one owlet looking back at me.  I noticed that Charles had not hooted for a while and sure enough he was gone.  He has been disappearing on me quite a bit lately.  Even after over eight years of observing these owls, the challenges of doing so are abundant.

I started to head out but took a moment to capture Sarah in The PX Tree.  Such a joy to see the second owlet last night!

I headed home and crashed early.  I was happily tired from a full day of work on Tuesday, followed by my talk at the University City Public Library and another day of work on Wednesday and the night's owl observations.  I am thrilled to report that Tuesday's talk at the UCity Public Library went very well.  86 people attended the talk, making it one of their most attended events in recent memory. The response from the audience was fantastic.  People were keen to learn about the owls and they enjoyed how I presented my work to them.  Here are a couple of shots from the talk taken by friend and owl mentee, Brenda Hente.  Thanks, Brenda!

I would like to thank: Claire Birge and everyone of the Library Friends Board for inviting me, Library Director Patrick Wall and his staff for their great assistance, Wendy, Brenda, Barb Brownell, Chris Gerli, Taffy Ross, Bob Smith and everyone for attending and Rusty Wandell for keeping me posted on the owls after I had a brief look in on them earlier in the afternoon.  I hope I can present again at this superb library!

Thank you for reading!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Upcoming Owl Talks, Intense Predatory Attempts, and An Overdue Quote

Saturday, March 8, 2014

I am especially excited about three upcoming owl talks this month. I hope to see as many of you as possible at one of these talks.

The first one is the second talk in 2014, so far, that had to be rescheduled due to the winter weather.  This talk is at the University City Public Library next Tuesday, March 11 at 7:00pm.  The talk is a special Friends of the Library event and I am thrilled that we rescheduled it.  Weather not only canceled the original talk on February 4 but forced the library to close early that afternoon.  A map of the library's location in the heart of the UCity Loop can be found here.

The second talk is for Gateway Greening, a local gardening and urban agriculture advocacy group, and is part of their Pints 'n' Plants lecture series.  It is on Wednesday, March 19 at 5:30pm at the restaurant Mangia Italiano on South Grand in St. Louis.  Full details are here.

The third public talk in March is on Thursday, March 27 at 7:00pm in St. Ann for the Rock Road branch of the St. Louis County Library system.  I did talks at six different county library branches in 2013 and each one was a distinct pleasure. Rock Road was one of the first of these talks and they are the first of three, so far, to have me back.  This talk will focus on the owls mating, nesting and owlets. Lots of cute pictures and videos!  Full details here.

This is shaping to be another great year for owl talks.  Other upcoming highlights include a talk at a local school, more library talks, talks for chapters of the Missouri Master Naturalist program (of which I am now a certified member), a guest lecture at an animal behavior class at Webster University, my second talk in Illinois and a talk in Kansas City!  

I saw the owlet three-four times this week (one of them was a possible sighting-no binos at the time).  Sarah continues to spend much time out of the nest.  The warming, for now, weather is likely partly responsible but I wonder if the nest is especially crowded with owlets.  The last two nights I have led owl prowls and on each night intense predatory attempts occurred.

On Friday I arrived with my group to see a large Red-tailed Hawk fly from the eastern edge of The Wooded Area to The Jungle Gym Tree Near The Overlook Hotel Tree.  The hawk's flight led our eyes to find both owls in different spots of The Overlook Hotel Tree.  We watched the owls as I detailed the owls' natural and personal histories.  A little while I saw a Red-tailed Hawk, quite likely the same one, come out of the east side of The Wooded Area heading in the general direction of the owls' nest.  The next thing we knew Sarah was after it with immense intensity.  I was too slow to get it all of it on my camera but I got the tail end of the attempt, in which the Red-tailed Hawk turned tail and veered away, landed in The First of Three Trees before bolting away further.  Check it out!

I think this attack had a dual purpose; defend the owlets from a pernicious predator and to try and catch a big meal.

Last night it was Charles' turn.  He had just joined Sarah in The Eastern Tree when a Great Blue Heron came flying through The Arena.  I saw a smaller bird coming fast behind the heron and I thought it was a goose or duck.  I finally realized it was Charles going like a bullet for the heron! Charles eventually veered off because I think he decided that he did not have the speed and power to catch up with and kill the heron. The heron veered off to live another day.  Thankfully, I was able to capture most of the encounter with my camera.

To see two such predatory attempts two days in a row was too cool!  Both attempts kicked my adrenal glands and heart rate into high gear.  Each of the prowl groups were amazed to see these intense predatory attempts.  It did not take me much to communicate to my groups how special it was to see these attempts! Owl prowl groups are amazed to hear of the predatory prowess of Great Horned Owls but these two groups saw it firsthand.

For the past few years I have been meaning to quote on this blog a great description/reflection on the nature of the nesting behavior of Great Horned Owls.  The quote comes from the book Views From The Back Forty by James P. Jackson, an avid naturalist, teacher, writer and photographer.  This excellent book is about how Mr. Jackson and his family bought a back forty of an old farm near Columbia, Missouri and the joys and challenges they faced revitalizing it and studying its ecology.  He describes a back forty as the area of a family farm not accessible by road and usually least productive and suitable for cultivation.  In chapter nineteen, Woodland Nocturnes, Jackson writes, "On dark nights during the depths of winter the woods are apt to be deathly silent.  But when a moon appears in late January, be it only a crescent, the neighborhood pair of great horned owls will report with muffled hoots that it is nesting season.  Then, even with sub-zero temperature or enveloping snow, the female is certain to incubating tow or three eggs; the very thought of such dedication chills me to the core."  The quote is evocative and I like how he notices the owls' dedication. However, I would argue that said dedication is more warming than chilling.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

First Sighting Of An Owlet In 2014!!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

I will cut to the chase and happily broadcast that last night I saw the first glimpse of Charles and Sarah's 2014 owlets!!  I saw one owlet and estimate it to be two-three weeks of age.  Here's the original shot followed by a cropped in version of the same picture (Be sure to double-click on each photo to see a larger version). What a gorgeous owlet!

Like every year the first sighting of an owlet was a moment of pure joy.  I could not stop grinning as I saw this grey/white youngster, first with my naked eye and then followed by binoculars and camera.  I said, as I often say about so many different aspects of Charles, Sarah and Great Horned Owls as a whole, "It never get old."  I quickly texted the news to my girlfriend, Wendy, and other friends and owl addicts.  I do not know how many owlets they have had this year (2-3 is average for the species and for Charles and Sarah) but as of now, I have seen them have nineteen since 2006. I am beyond being quite chuffed!

It was an amazing night out in Forest Park.  I was leading an owl prowl for David Brunworth.  David is a good friend of Danny Brown.  Danny is a fisheries biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation and a superb wildlife photographer, both as a freelancer and as a frequent contributor the department's magazine, Missouri Conservationist.  I first met Danny in 2010 and was immediately impressed with his knowledge of and dedication to Missouri's wildlife.  I recently had the pleasure of attending a workshop he gave on wildlife photography in Missouri and it was simultaneously humbling and inspiring.Suffice to say that a friend of Danny's is a person worth knowing and David more than proved this maxim. I told Danny about Sarah nesting and that, if all went well, hatching had occurred in mid-February and that I hoped to see my first glimpse of an owlet this week.

We saw that Sarah, as she has been doing for the past couple of weeks (thank you, friends and owl mentees, Brenda Hente and Rusty Wandell, for keeping an eye on the owls last week while I was out of town), left the nest in and around 4:40pm.  We looked in the nest hoping to seen an owlet but no such luck.  As we watched Sarah we heard Charles hoot, not from The Trio Conifers-his recent preferred perch place-but from The 06/09/11/13 Nest Tree.  A couple of weeks ago, I saw Charles fly from this tree but not from the 11/13/14 Nest Hollow but from one of the other hollows in this immense, much-favored Cottonwood.  I did not know which hollow but hoped to see this again.  Now tonight I had my chance.

David and I changed vantage points hoping to see Charles.  ESL (Experience, Skill, Luck) paid off and I saw Charles hooting from a hollow in this tree.  This particular hollow had existed for some years but due to damage incurred in a storm this past summer, it gained both size and a second point of entry/exit.  In August 2013, I saw Charles attack two "teenage" Raccoons in this hollow. Here's Charles in the hollow last night.

Around this time, Sarah began to attract more attention from a group of American Crows returning from their days foraging to their rookeries.  The attention turned into a fully-fledged mobbing of Sarah.  David, who was amazed to see Charles in this hollow, was now completely intrigued to see and learn about mobbing.  The mobbing continued at a high intensity and I saw Sarah possibly prepare to fly.  Fly she did back to the nest with all the crows in pursuit.  Check it out!

While it was interesting to see this mobbing and chase, it is worrying that the crows may have learned of the owls' nest spot as the crows can be a threat to the owlets.  That said, I have great trust in Sarah's ability as a protective mother.

With Sarah back in the nest, David and I took another look at the nest.  Sarah was squeezed into the nest.

She eventually began to move down further into the nest and that's when we saw the owlet!  David was utterly thrilled to glimpse the youngster and kindly profuse in his gratitude for this owl prowl.  Not to belabor the point but I let David know that seeing the first glimpse of an owlet, Charles in new hollow/perch spot and Sarah chased back to the nest by crows made for a very good night of owl observation.  He heartily agreed. The owlet moved out of sight just as my friend Amy Wilhelm came into sight.  I showed Amy my picture of the owlet and she broke into a happy burble of baby talk.   Amy took the words out of my mouth when she reflected on the owlet and simply said, "Life."

David had to depart due to a prior commitment but was more than clear about his desire to return to see the owls soon and with his wife Diane, who was unable to attend this prowl.  We continued to watch Sarah and then we ran into Brenda Hente.  She had received my text and was excited to learn the news.  Brenda has been watching Charles and Sarah with me for just over three years and her own pair of Great Horned Owls, Will and Kate, for well over three years.  As in 2013, Will and Kate began to mate and nest a little earlier than Charles and Sarah.  Accordingly, Brenda saw her first glimpse of their owlets this year a little earlier than my first glimpse of Charles and Sarah's owlets.  With the difference in nesting and hatching times, Brenda has been able to determine that for the second year in a row, Will and Kate, have three owlets. Brenda paid me the great honor of naming the oldest of the owlets after me, using one of my middle names, Xavier.  This is the second owl that has been named for/after me and it is truly an immense honor. Brenda had just come from seeing her owls and their trio of owlets and she filled us in on the family's doings of the day.

Brenda, Amy and I all got another quick look at the owlet before it, as Wendy says, got a case of the shys and headed back in the nest.  Amy departed and Brenda and I watched Charles and Sarah for a while longer before leaving the park.  I returned home and regaled Wendy with all the news and her face just lit up when she saw my pictures of the owlets.  I always love sharing the first owlet glimpse with Wendy!

Thanks for reading!