Saturday, February 25, 2023

A Chapter Ends Too Soon And A New Chapter Already In Progress

February 25, 2023

When I posted on December 24, 2022 about Virginia, Charles's new mate, and how she was nesting, I had no idea that this would be the last day I would see Virginia.  The complete lack of observations of Virginia for over two months now and the progression of Charles's behavior in this time makes it all to clear that Virginia has died.  We do not know if she became ill or was injured and we are so far unable to check the nest for any possible insights into her demise.  Adding sadness to sadness, without being incubated and rotated by Virginia, the eggs she began to lay in mid-December did not make it either.  After the excitement of a new mate and the start of nesting with the hope of owlets, the loss of Virginia and her eggs is a very sad development.  As always though, life continues on.  Charles has been courting with a new female for well over a month now.  The window for mating and nesting has closed for this year but I hope that this courtship is the draft phrase of a new chapter with a new mate for Charles.

On December 24, I went to the owls' territory and quickly found Virginia in the nest. 

Virginia nested in a frequently used nest site.  Sarah first nested in this site in 2008 having three owlets-Bart, Lisa and Maggie- and then again in 2012 with two owlets-Christopher and Velvet.  Samantha nested there valiantly but unsuccessfully in 2020.  Sophie nested in this hollow successfully in 2021 with two owlets-Neil and Lyle and again in 2022 with two more owlets-Betty and Sidney.  

I was happy to see Virginia, both in general and because I had not seen her come out of the nest the night before, December 23, for one of the few brief breaks that a nesting female Great Horned Owl takes.  She and Charles had a good duet that night-hooting together for quite a while but not seeing her go out of the nest for a break was unusual and unsettling.  Virginia had been regular in taking breaks after sunset and frequently heading to The Three Trees, where a growing spread of her whitewash (droppings) was taking shape.  On both December 23 and 24 I waited well past sunset for a sight of her taking a break but it was not to be.  My fears and concerns were somewhat allayed by the fact that it was bitterly cold and that she may have been especially conservative with her breaks.  Simultaneously, my concern grew because on December 24, Virginia did not hoot back to Charles, who was his usual nesting season self and was quite vocal even hooting, as he often does, directly across from the nest.  As my time in their territory came to a close on December 24, I wished them both well and hoped the next day would bring more answers and positive ones at that.  

I returned on December 25 and I did not see the female in the nest but she had shown that she was very good at  staying low in the nest, demonstrating her PhD in hunkering down.  I could not find Charles but some helpful folks had found him and pointed him out to me.  Once I saw him, I was not surprised that I had not found him on my own!  Charles was in an especially unprecedented and very weird spot immediately north of the nest.  I have seen him perch in low spots many times but I had never seen him in this tree, which is in quite an exposed spot.  Here he is this spot in mid-hoot.

I did not like seeing him in this tree as it is very close to a busy intersection of the park's roads and being so low in this tree made this location even more dangerous.  Charles eventually transitioned out of this spot safely but it was still scary to watch.  So far and thankfully, Charles has not reused this tree.  That night Charles was vocal but again I did not hear her and after a long wait in the freezing cold, I did not see her leave the nest either.  I was concerned but again the bitter cold was my explanation for not observing Virginia at all.  

Over the next few nights my owl friends/mentees and I continued not to see or hear Virginia.  Charles varied his perch and roost sites sometimes perching in a low spot in The Middle Tree directly across from the nest, which is something he had already done in the last several weeks prior to this.  Charles was vocal to very vocal during these nights and I waited well past sunset in the biting cold but still no sight of or sound from Virginia.  My concerns grew with each night but hope remained.

Greater clarity and less hope about Virginia were to be found on December 30 and an unexpected development blew my mind!  I was leading an owl prowl that night and I found Charles in The Middle Tree.  We were soon joined by my friend and owl mentee Brenda Hente.  Charles demonstrated the incredible opportunism of Great Horned Owls when hunting when he blasted off flying low and to the north some twenty minutes before sunset.  Brenda and I turned to each other and said, "Predatory attempt."  We all followed him and I soon found him on the ground about 100-150 yards north of The Middle Tree and the nest.  No sooner had I found him when he came flying towards and past us with prey in his talons.  Brenda saw that it was a songbird but it was too obscured to identify further than that.  Charles landed about 20-30 yards away from the nest and hooted proudly declaring his predatory prowess. 

Charles did not take the prey immediately to the nest but when he did so he hooted intensely at the edge of the nest and then he went into the nest with his hooting continuing at an intense rate.  But we did not hear Virginia return any of his hoots.  When a male Great Horned Owl delivers prey to the nest and hoots the female hoots back in return often for many minutes.  To not hear Virginia hoot back to her dedicated mate bringing prey to the nest and so early too was very disconcerting.  

Charles dropped off the prey and flew out of the nest landing in The Northwest Span Tree when an unexpected development occurred and the start of the next possible chapter began.  Charles was hooting when a female came flying in from the north and landed in the branch above him.  They began to hoot together and I was not sure if it was Virginia or not.  While the hoot of each owl is unique some hoots are more distinct than others and in the heat of the moment it was hard to tell from the hoots if this was Virginia or not.  The female's behavior soon made it clear that she was not Virginia.  She and Charles spent the next hour or so flying around his territory and duetting.  The duets were intense and confusing.  Several times it seemed like they might mate but then Charles would fly off in his playing hard to get manner but it became clearer that he was not interested in this female.  In a latter stage of this whole process, he landed in a new spot and she landed right next to him and he took off immediately.  I have seen Charles do this with all of his mates and potential mates but there was something about his behavior that made me think that he really was not interested in her and still holding out hope for and about Virginia.  All of this action made for one of the most intense nights of owl activity I have ever seen since I began to study the owls in December 2005. It was a mix of excitement and sadness though as it was clear that this female was not Virginia but a new and different female.  

I was more than confident that this was not Virginia because we had not seen her leave the nest or return to the nest.  Furthermore, a nesting female would not be out of the nest and flirting with her mate for well over an hour for on a bitterly cold night putting the eggs at risk to predators and/or the cold.  While watching Charles and this female I also noticed that this female was especially large.  Virginia was bigger than Charles but not a huge female like Sarah and Danielle and this new female was a huge one.  Subsequent analysis of the hoots of Virginia and this female demonstrated that this female was not Virginia.  The new female ends her hoots with 1-2 especially long notes which Virginia did not.  

Over the next few nights, we continued to not see or hear Virginia.  We saw the new female on December 31 and right in the core of the territory on January 1.  On January 3 we saw a behavior from Charles that sadly underlined the passing of Virginia.  That night, Charles went to the nest and took prey out of the nest.   A male Great Horned Owl would not do this if all was well with his nesting mate.  

My owl friends/mentees and I have wanted to work with one or more agencies/organizations like the World Bird Sanctuary, Forest Park Forever and the Missouri Department of Conservation to take a close look into the nest for possible signs of Virginia and insight into her demise.  We have been unable to do so because Charles often perches close to the nest and we do not want to disturb him.  By now, if Virginia had died in the nest there would be very little in the way of remains left to examine but some information would be better than the little we have. 

Virginia was only in the area for less than three months and she and Charles were a mated pair for just six weeks.  This is the shortest length of a time I have seen with one of his mates.  Despite this short time, Virginia made a big impact on Charles and all those who watch and love the owls of Forest Park. We love and miss you, Virginia and thank you for letting us observe and document you and you and Charles together!!

Charles and this new female continue courting but we have not seen them mate.  Furthermore, while Charles has showed her the nest several times, she has not inspected it. We have only seen her perch twice in the core of the territory: on January 1 and January 13.  We will have days in a row of not seeing the female and then days in a row of seeing the female.  We see the female in two ways: Charles runs into her when he flies out west-northwest or north OR she comes from the north into The Arena-one of the core spots of Charles's territory.  We have not found her perch/roost sites but this is an area needing more time and work.   We have also had two nights of the female and a second female, January 13 and just last night February 24.  Never a dull moment studying owls! 

Since Great Horned Owls nest so early as their young take an incredibly long time to mature and we are almost in March, the window for Charles and this new female to pair up, mate and nest has closed for this year.  It is too bad that there will not be owlets but we have had years without owlets before this. Charles and company are more than fascinating and beautiful to observe and document without owlets even though we delight in those fluffy, fuzzy, and  silly youngsters.  I have seen Charles pair up with new females in the spring well after that year's nesting window and well before the next year's nesting window.  He did this with Samantha in April 2016 and Danielle in April 2019.  If it becomes clear that Charles and the new female are a pair, I will name her then but not before that.  As always, I will keep observing and documenting and working with my owl friends/mentees to try and understand as much as we can.  

Thank you for reading and for your interest and support!