Monday, September 7, 2015

Sarah Is Gone

Monday, September 7, 2015

It is with a heavy heart that I must report that Sarah, that most amazing Great Horned Owl, is dead.  I have not seen or heard her for seven weeks and when I last saw her she looked ill or injured. These last weeks have been an agonizing time of continued searching, hoping against hope and keeping a window of possibility open for some good but unexpected news.

 I will try to summarize while providing key details.[My apologies to my  friends Robin Street-Morris and Chad Henry for plagiarizing from an e-mail I sent them but hey-if you cannot plagiarize yourself, from whom can you plagiarize?]

My friend and owl mentee, Brenda Hente, and I saw Sarah on July 14 and she was her usual amazing and beautiful self. I did not make to the park on 7/15 as I had an early evening talk. I was making dinner on 7/16 so I only had time to stop by the park for about 30-40 minutes right after work. I found Harold but no one else. Not surprising given the early hour and the brief time. I did not get to the park on 7/17 due to a social outing.  Thus there is a gap in data and that is most unfortunate.

I came out on 7/18 and after finding  Charles and Harold  I heard some low-key Robin alarm calls, that led me to the Barred Owls' portion of the Successional Woods. There in a perch 15-25 off the ground was a Great Horned Owl. Just recently I found Charles hunting in a tree close to where this owl was perched but when I did so it was close to or after sunset. This owl was there well before sunset, which was odd.  Odder still was how it was perched. Instead of the more forward facing stance, it was leaning over to the side in a slight but discernible manner. The owl's eyes were partially open.  Almost immediately I wondered if the owl was ill or injured.  I did not see any visible trauma or injury though. The owl looked like Sarah and like Grace.  Grace is huge and dark like Sarah and this owl had that but I was seeing more blond, owlet-like feathers especially on the head.  I thought that there was an 80% chance it was Grace and a 20% chance it was Sarah.

 I continued watching the owl as the sun set and my concern and puzzlement grew.  It did not stretch or groom and while its eyes changed some in position, they were never in wide awake state or position.  Finally it defecated and it moved up on its feet as if to fly but it never flew and continued to remain perched.  I was there until almost an hour after sunset and it never moved nor hooted, begged or squawked.  I went home full of worry and confusion and told my ever-sympathetic girlfriend, Wendy, all about it.

I went out the next morning 7/19 and the owl was still there.  This was weird and worrying. I have seen owls leave a perch at night and find them in that same place the next day but I had not seen this owl leave and it looked like it had not budged.

 The owl seemed more alert and I was able to get some pictures of it from the front.  This angle showed me more blond feathers and the owl opened its eyes and gular-flutted in the heat.  It looked much less like Sarah and it seemed better than it did 12-14 hours earlier.

I showed Wendy my pictures from the morning and she was surprised that it was the same owl given the differences in appearance.  I had a prowl that night and I told my prowlees about this situation and our concern. We found this owl again and not changed its perch but its stance had rotated some more. It looked more like the night before than it did that morning, which was depressing.

We found Harold and then Charles.  Charles landed 20-40 yards from the mystery owl and began to hoot.  I went to observe how this owl reacted to Charles hoots and I saw no reaction at all.  We headed home with this owl again not having groomed, stretched or called at all.  I still thought it was more likely Grace than Sarah.

I spoke with Brenda, who was out of town, and she shared my concern and puzzlement.  I sent her these pictures and other pictures and she agreed that IDing the owl was challenging.  Brenda and I are both certified Missouri Naturalists and volunteers for Forest Park Forever but Brenda also volunteers for the World Bird Sanctuary; one of the nation's premier bird of prey rehabilitation and education institutions. Brenda called WBS and spoke with Roger Holloway, the Director of Operations.  With care and concern, Roger listened about the situation and encouraged us to be patient, careful and thorough.  Roger confirmed our thoughts that it would be more harmful to try and extricate the owl out of its perch.  Such action would stress the owl far too much. Brenda went on to tell me that Roger told her that if the owl was found on the ground to contact WBS and that they would contact some of their folks and have them retrieve the owl and bring it to WBS for treatment. This generous offer greatly impressed Brenda and me as we knew it to be contrary to standard WBS policies and procedures. They simply do not have the resources to pick up injured birds of prey.  The acknowledgement understanding of the widespread knowledge of and love for these particular owls that Roger and WBS expressed is most touching and appreciated. It is especially appreciated and heartfelt as this period of time was a trying one for WBS as their founder and executive director, Walt Crawford, passed away on 7/17.  I never met Walt Crawford and I wish I had but I am a great admirer of his work and that of WBS.

I stopped by before work on 7/20 and again the owl was there.  For the first time it was facing forward but I did not have my camera with me.  In this sighting and all the others of this owl I never saw any expressions by this owl that made me conclude-yes, it is Sarah.  I know her looks and facial expressions quite well and I never saw any of them definitively from this owl.  While at work I received an e-mail from the previous night's prowlee, Melissa, saying that she had returned to look for the mystery owl but could not find her.  I thought that there was good chance that Melissa, had not remembered where this spot was and was looking in the wrong place.  I stopped by that afternoon and sure enough the owl was gone.  I went home, got my gear and began searching around the area, both in the trees and on the ground, where this owl was perched.  The perch tree is close to one of the mitigation areas of these woods so there is much water and mud and dense vegetation.  I scoured the area but knew that that were was so much I couldn't see given the vegetation.  I looked for the other owls and found Charles and Harold but not Sarah or Grace.

Since then I have regularly seen Grace, Harold and Charles but not Sarah. Grace looks well and her behavior indicates health too. I have been out most every night since 7/18 and it has been an emotional, intellectual and physical drain to look for Sarah and continuously not find her. The more time that has gone by and the more I continue to see Charles, Grace and Harold but not Sarah I can only conclude that the ill/injured owl was indeed Sarah. Having not seen her for seven weeks it is all too clear that she is sadly dead.

Even with this denouement to concluding that she is gone her passing is a crushing blow on so many levels that I continue to grapple with it. I spent so much time watching her that I cannot help but to still expect to see her when I go to Forest Park.

At the same time I knew this day would come.  Early on in my work with the owls my friend and then colleague, Mark Rank, said to me, "You know, Mark, one day you are going to go the park and one or both of the owls will be gone.  I replied, "I am way ahead of you.  Every day in a small way I prepare my self for this eventuality."  My first goal each night was and continues to be finding each owl; counting heads and making sure that it is well.  Experience has taught me that some nights you will not find all of them but I always feel that much better finding them all and seeing that they are in good shape.  It is a unpleasantly surreal experience to go out looking for the owls now knowing that one of them will not be there.

One of the challenging things, which is both engaging and frustrating, about Great Horned Owls is that there is much that we do not know about them. Prominent in this body of ignorance is that we do not know the average life expectancy of this species.  In all my research I have come across a few pieces that kinda, sorta took a stab at average age: 8-10 years, 10-14 years, 8-12 years.  Unfortunately the data is not there despite the species being the most widespread commonly found owl in North America. We know the record age for a Great Horned Owl: 28 years, 7 months.  But even with this owl there is some grey area as it was banded at an unknown age as an adult. Of course, a record is an outlier, an exception not the rule.

I often tell people that if I could ask the owls one question it would be, "How old are you?"  Charles and Sarah are at least 11-14 years old.  Great Horned Owls typically mature sexually around 2-3 years old. As I have been watching the owls for over 9-and-a-half years and they have had owlets every year they are at least 11-14 years old.  However, given the record age of owls it is possible that the owls are older than that.  Nor do I know if they are the same age. Was Sarah 20 and Charles now 17?  Or Charles 22 and Sarah 18? One of the unavoidable facts is that as the number of years that I observed and studied the owls happily grows and grows the number of years that the owls have to live sadly shrinks and shrinks.  It is quite possible that Sarah died naturally of old age.

Great Horned Owls can suffer from and die from diseases including the West Nile virus but my greatest point of concern with the owls was and is cars.  Most of the time the owls will fly 50-80 feet over the many roads in the park.  All too often they will fly lower than that and sometimes as little as two-three feet over the road.  I have witnessed too many close calls with the owls and cars. One with Sarah was unpleasantly memorable.  It was the spring of 2014 and I saw her eyeing an Eastern Grey Squirrel that was at the base of a tree quite close to a road. I thought, "Sarah if  you go for that squirrel and miss, your momentum is going to take you right over the road."  Sure enough, Sarah missed her quarry and flew low over the road threading her way through two cars.  I aged a couple of years in a few seconds.

Of the many what's next questions the biggest one is what will Charles do?  From everything that I have read Charles will likely remain in the territory and try to attract a new mate.  It is well documented in the literature that when one of a pair dies, the survivor is able to find a new mate and sometimes quickly.  As many different behaviors I have seen of the owls one of the biggest I have not seen is courtship.  When I found Charles and Sarah they were already an established pair and while I saw them renew and maintain their pair bond, which was always amazing to behold, I did not see their initial courtship.

Charles has been challenging to find of late.  I might find him 2-3 days in a row and then not find him for the couple of days.  His perch spots have varied from different spots in The Arena to different spots in The Hilly Wooded Area.  On the days I have not found him, I wonder if he is checking out other areas of his territory, perhaps looking for or advertising for a mate.  As is typical in the summer he is not hooting a great deal but as we get closer to to fall he is hooting more. Here he is hooting on August 22.

As I discuss Sarah's death with many kind and concerned people, I am quick to point out that the potential of seeing initial courtship behavior is one of two important silver linings in this sad saga. The other one is that if she had died earlier than mid-late June, her death would have also been a death sentence for the owlets; Grace and Harold. They would not have had the amount of food and protection necessary for survival during their slow maturation process.  The literature mentions a few documented cases of successful single parenthood but they are the exception to the rule.

Overall the owlets are doing well, looking healthy and well-fed but Grace and Harold are still in the territory and Sarah's passing is a likely factor in this.  The last two years the oldest owlet has dispersed before July and the second owlet before September.  With Sarah gone the owlets have only half the parental push to encourage them to leave the territory.  Overall, the owlets beg little from Charles but some strong exceptions to this occur.  On August 23rd my friend and owl mentee, Rusty Wandell and I saw what was likely Harold follow Charles out north and even give chase.  On September 5th, Harold perched in a tree next to Charles and begged intensely but did not give chase this time instead he flew away from Charles.

During their lives so far, the owlets have been sometimes been easy to tell apart but mostly it's been a challenge to do so.  This pendulum of recognition has swung throughout the spring and summer.
Here they are on August 29, Grace lower down and Harold higher in the tree.



The dispersal period is always a bittersweet time but I do hope the owlets move on soon so that Charles can move on with his life in his territory.  I will miss the owlets as I do each year.

Before I conclude with some thoughts and reflections on Sarah I must take some time and thank some people who have beyond helpful during this challenging and stressful time.  As always, Brenda Hente demonstrated why she is my owl friend and mentee supreme.  Her care for and knowledge of the owls is simply amazing. Her help on so many levels ranging from analyzing pictures of Sarah to working with her contacts with the World Bird Sanctuary and many others to spending hours searching for Sarah and thinking about her with me is beyond appreciated.  Barb Brownell and Chris Gerli are my oldest owl friends and mentees and their care and concern for Sarah and me is incredibly touching.  Early in the search for Sarah, Barb was out of town and she sent me a carefully crafted and superbly considerate e-mail and I am grateful for her heartfelt and compassionate words.
Any and every time I have seen Chris during this time he always with great care and empathy about Sarah.  My friend and former colleague, Chad Henry, is one of the longest supporters of my work in Forest Park.  His wife, Sarah, and their twins, Sean and Maddie, are the inspiration for Sarah's name so the Henry family is closely connected with the owls.  Chad delighted me by telling of their younger daughter, Camille's, recent statement.  Having just turned four and delighting in her status as a big girl, she asked, just out of the blue, "now that she is 4, if she is old enough to hang out with Mark and watch the owls." Chad has sent me several immensely kind and sympathetic e-mails about Sarah.  One night during my search for Sarah the owl I ran into Sarah Henry with her mom and Sean and Maddie as they were on their way to The Muny.  It was great to see them but gut-wrenching too having not seen Sarah for many days at that point and then to see her namesake.  Sarah the owl is gone but it is great to have her human namesake nearby.  Both Sarahs could teach clinics on combining brains, beauty and motherhood.  Rusty Wandell was an instant owl addict, friend and mentee and his keen eyes, sharp brain and love for the owls are always welcome but have been a great boon during this time.  Both he and Brenda, as they often do, kept an eye on the owls and me updated about them when there were nights when I was not in the park.  My friend and fellow owl addict, Robin Street-Morris was kindness itself vie e-mail, text and phone.  Robin and her husband Jerry are former St. Louisans now living in San Diego.  It was bittersweet to meet up with them recently in Forest Park and see the owlets and Charles but no Sarah. My friend and colleague, Julie Portman has become a hummingbird addict in recent years and her kind concern for Sarah and me is lovely.  My brothers Paul and John happily let me bend their ears and offered warm and welcome words over the phone.  My mom sent some terrifically kind and empathic e-mails about the loss of Sarah.  She has always encouraged my passion for wildlife ever since I was a young boy so I am confident that she has the type of insight on what the owls mean to me that only a mother could have.   Of course, the biggest thanks go to my girlfriend Wendy.  Since my first forays into Forest Park to the night when I first saw the owls and the now literally thousands of nights with the owls, Wendy continues to be my biggest supporter on so many levels. Her love for the owls and the silly man who watches them is cherished.  Throughout this search for Sarah, Wendy's support has been without end. The second day that I saw Sarah unmoving in the tree, July 19, was brutally tough.  I came home utterly drained from the emotional rollercoaster combined with the brain-wracking work of observation and documentation while recalling the literature to decide what to look for, do next, do if this or that occurred, etc.  This was also a period of high temperatures and higher humidity levels thus making my drained state both literal and figurative.  A warm and fragrant scent greeted me as I entered our home and it lightened my load as I walked upstairs.  After a much needed and welcomed shower, I all but inhaled the perfumed gnocchi with a sausage sauce that Wendy had prepared. It was not that food was ready for a Michelin star but that it was made with love.

I am considering the idea of a public memorial service for Sarah since she touched the lives of so many people.  I welcome your thoughts, opinions and questions on this matter.

Sarah's death makes me reflect on many aspects of her. I do not know if I will ever see a female Great Horned Owl as amazing, in all respects, as her. Every aspect of what she did, she executed with such amazing skill, dedication, effort, and ultimately, success.  In the time I was privileged to spend with her she nested successfully in ten consecutive seasons fledging twenty-three owlets.  Simply amazing.  As I often say when I give talks on the owls, the reproductive success of the owls is indicative of the individual and combined skills of Charles and Sarah and perhaps more importantly the ecological health of Forest Park.  But attention must be paid to Sarah’s skills.  She was the Beethoven of brooding, the Fellini of feeding, the Salinger of safety, the Newton of nest-selection, the Camus of camouflage, the Prometheus of prey-exchanges, a Hemingway of hunting, and the Mahler of mating.  She was the apotheosis, the exemplar, the standard-bearer supreme.

Sarah’s physical beauty cannot be understated. Her feathers with their deep browns, autumnal oranges, alabaster whites and anthracite blacks combined with her deep yellow eyes and overwhelmingly massive talons presented an unforgettable image.  Sarah was between twenty-three and twenty-five inches tall; as large as a Great Horned Owl can be.  I have never seen an owl of this species, be it in the wild, in captivity or a specimen, of size equal to or greater than Sarah.  In some ways, I hope I never do.  Sarah also had massive shoulders with gave her a distinctive diamond-shaped profile that made her sometimes easy to identify by shape alone.  This distinctive silhouette was very shoulder-pads, very 80s, very Dynasty. In flight her massive wingspan often made her look as if she was doing an award-winning imitation of a B-52 Stratobomber.  Sarah’s eyes had a more hooded looked to them which while not only were distinctive from Charles seemed, at times,  to communicate an ironic and patient outlook on the world around her.  Or at least on her mate, her owlets and those silly humans who watched her for years and years.

As well as I got to know her, I never felt that I knew her as well as Charles.  There are good reasons for this difference in knowledge. When I began to see the owls consistently in late December 2005, it was Charles that I began to see in this way as Sarah was nesting.  As such she was only seen for short periods of time when she took her brief breaks from the nest to stretch, groom, eject a pellet, etc.  The fact that she nested every year meant that she was seen very little each year for a few months each year.  Even in 2008 and 2012 when she nested in a incredibly visible hollow, she was nowhere near as active as Charles due to the difference in their roles during nesting.

Even when the owlets would fledge there was still a distance maintained with Sarah due to the protective nature of female of the species when it comes to their young.  Until early summer and even then with great caution, my mantra when it came to finding the owlets was to find Sarah as fast as possible so I knew where to be and where not to be.  I resolutely avoided putting myself between Sarah and her recently fledged owlets.  Early on my research taught me not only the protective nature of female Great Horned Owls but the massive power and predatory prowess they possess.  My care for the owls and Sarah was mostly about their safety and well-being but also a little about my own.
Once the owlets were older and Sarah’s guard not quite as intense I could then see her and her owlets at closer distance and in greater detail.   Still though the cumulative effect was that I did not know her haunts and habits as well as I know those of Charles.  This is not a complaint or a regret but rather a fact that merits explanation and elucidation.

Despite this distance, Sarah treated me to two of the closest most intense fly-bys I have experienced with the owls.  One night in the fall of 2007, Charles was messing with me.  It was past sunset and he was in and around The Training Area hooting.  He was messing with me by hooting from one spot and I would move closer to this spot only to hear him hooting from a different spot after flying unseen to this new location.  I thought of a Curly-esque response and as I did I felt a gentle but discernable push of air on my left side like a localized breeze.  I looked up and flying six to nine feet above my left shoulder was Sarah.  She pulled and landed in a low nearby branch.  I had two immediate thoughts. One: “Wow that was a beautiful flight. Gorgeous. Amazing example of the owls’ silent flight.”  Two: “…And my pants are dry.”  There was not an element of threat or aggression in her movements but to have her fly so close and to only discern her awesome presence by a movement of air was incredibly intense and more than a little alarming.  

One evening in the fall of 2012 I had found both Charles and Sarah in The Wooded Area.  They began to duet and a little later Charles flew off a modest distance.  I decided to follow him.  As I walked up the hill towards him I looked up and my entire field of view was filled with the underside of Sarah as she flew over me at a blazingly fast speed.  As in the previous flyby there was no sound and nothing aggressive in her approach. She was merely flying between point A and point B and I was in the middle.  Unfortunately, I was too slow on the draw to film her flying over me but I took a quick video note of what happened.  When I played the video back the following morning I could clearly hear my heart rate and adrenal glands in my voice as I told of this stunning flight.  Memories like these will keep Sarah alive in us.

Thank you, Sarah for letting me spend so much time learning about you and sharing your life with others whose lives you also touched in innumerable ways and times. Thank you for your patience and tolerance.  Thank you for being such an amazing owl and an ambassador of your kind in this world we share.  I love you and miss you.  - Mark.