Sunday, December 09, 2007
A month later I'm finally getting around to posting Part II of my European owl adventure. As you can see, I'm not a die-hard blogger by any stretch of the imagination.
It was tough saying goodbye to all of my new (and old) friends at the end of the World Owl Conference, but I know I'll see many of them again. And e-mail is always a great way to keep in touch.
The day after the conference I flew to England to meet up with Tony Warburton, founder of the World Owl Trust. I had met him in March when he came to our Festival of Owls to be inducted into the World Owl Hall of Fame. He invited me to come visit him in England if I ever got the chance, so I was taking him up on his offer.
I met Tony at the airport in Manchester (we were on separate flights back from the conference) and it was a 2 1/2 hour drive back to his place near Ravenglass in Cumbria. It was late, and there were tons of fireworks. (Fun to think that they were in my honor, but I suppose most would say it had something to do with Guy Fawkes Day.) The icing on the cake was seeing wild Barn Owls out hunting along the road in different locations near Tony's house--the first wild Barn Owls I had ever seen!
I felt so at home staying with Tony and his partner Jenny Thurston. Their house is out in the country (like I'm used to), there were birds coming and going from the feeders like crazy (including a very out of place and exciting Water Rail!), their house is loaded with owl everything, and I had an incredibly comfy bed to sleep in. Ahhhhh!
Tony didn't mess around. After he stuffed me with one of his excellent English breakfasts we were off to the World Owl Centre. I met the staff and spent a long time seeing all the owls on display and talking to Tony about everything owl and then some. The Centre has something like 40 different owl species...including many I had never heard of before, and most of which I had never seen.
I was really hoping one of the pairs of South American Great Horned Owls would do some hooting so I could hear it in person. As part of my vocal study on the species, I am looking at regional variation in their territorial hoots. From the recordings I've collected from sound labs and individuals, South American birds have a different phrasing than North American birds. And here was my chance to hear it in person!
No luck on getting them going, though Tony sure tried for me. He did get the North American birds going though!
The next day was The American Tour of the Lake District. Tony drove Jenny and me all over, explaining that their mountains are called "fells" and the loose rock on them is called "scree." We stopped at a nature center, had a "tatie pot" (lamb stew) at a little pub, and finished the trip with an unbelievable drive over a mountain pass. Wow, I can see why people there don't have large vehicles!! Those incredibly tight turns on a VERY steep one-lane road would freak out my husband for sure. Thankfully I had the utmost confidence in Tony's driving abilities, even though Jenny didn't!
The day ended at The Ratty Arms pub where we met Clive Mojonnier (who had come to Houston with Tony in March) and his wife Jill for supper. Fish and chips were excellent, but I have to admit I had no idea that "chips" were fries!
The next day we were back at the World Owl Centre, this time touring the cages of breeding owls that are not open to the public. Since I'm seriously considering growing the Houston Nature Center into the North American Owl Center, I had question after question about staffing, boards, caging, and more. Tony patiently and honestly answered all my questions from his years of experience. He is truly a wealth of knowledge.
Tony and Jenny took me back to the airport the next morning, where I was told my flight back to Amsterdam would be delayed at least an hour. We spent some extra time visiting, but it was hard to say goodbye. I had spent so much time talking with both Tony and Jenny, and felt we had become dear friends. Thank goodness for e-mail, but it's not the same as hearing someone's voice, or a real hug in person. But I headed off through security, and hope I will see them again someday.
Thankfully my flights over to Europe were no problem, but my flight back left me a more seasoned traveler. My flight to Amsterdam was actually delayed several hours, so I missed my connecting flight to Minneapolis. There were no more flights back to the U.S. that day, so the airline put me up in a hotel overnight. My Minneapolis flight the next morning was still delayed about an hour, so when I got there I had to run through baggage claim and customs to catch my flight to LaCrosse, WI. I made it with just a few minutes to spare, but was the last one on.
It was great to see my husband waiting for me when I got off the plane in LaCrosse. I got a BIG hug, and was not surprised to find that my suitcase didn't make the connecting flight to LaCrosse. I filled out the necessary paperwork and we headed home. Alice was hooty when I got home, but then again, she'd been hooty since before I ever left! I was asleep by about 6 PM. My luggage was delivered to our house at 10:30 PM. Now THAT'S service!
It took a week or so to fully adjust back to our time zone, but here I am. In some ways my time in Europe seems like a dream, but one I will never forget. I'm already looking forward to the next world owl conference in Uruguay in 2010!
Monday, November 12, 2007
I guess we have to start with Alice, since this blog is mostly about her anyway. Hormones have kicked in big time and she just hoots all the time. (Just call me if you don't believe me...I can guarantee she'll be hooting in the background.) She follows me all over the house now, and packing was no exception. She even tried to sneak into my suitcase, as you can see.
I flew out of LaCrosse, WI to Minneapolis to Amsterdam with no troubles at all. Denver Holt (from the Owl Research Institute in Montana) said he'd meet me at the train station in Amsterdam, but after two hours of waiting I gave up on him and took the train to Groningen, where the conference was being held, by myself. I had to ask a police officer how to manage the buses, and with help from a few other folks I eventually made it to my hotel...exhausted. My welcoming committee in the lobby consisted of Tanja Jovanovic-Grove (originally from Serbia, but now moving from Arizona to North Carolina), David Johnson (Director of the Global Owl Project), Jim Duncan (Great Gray Owl biologist from Winnipeg) and his wife and mother-in-law, and yes, Denver Holt was there too (claiming he was too tired to wait up for me.) I've forgiven Denver, but I'll never let him live it down. :-)
We met up with a few other conference organizers and went to a Japanese restaurant for supper. (I also later ate at Chinese and Thai restaurants too, but heck if I could locate a restaurant that served Dutch food! Go figure....)
Tanja and I knew each other well from e-mail and phone conversations, but had never met in person. We felt like we had known each other forever, so stayed up late yakking every night.
The next morning the presentations started. Despite a major lack of sleep (all of us from North America woke up between 3-4 AM every morning), I thought I was doing great. That is until they turned the lights down for the first presentation. I thought I was going to die of fatigue before noon. My first experience with jet lag! I made it through lunch but had to go back to the hotel for a nap in the afternoon.
The next day was my presentation on the vocalizations of the Great Horned Owl, with you know "hooo" as the basis of my study. Despite another presentation in another room at the same time, I had a good-sized audience. I had to cover 14 different vocalizations in about 15 minutes, and those of you who have heard me give presentations on owls before know I can be awfully chatty, so I had to work hard to be exceedingly concise. Everyone got a kick out of the recordings I played, and a couple of biologists came up to me afterwards to say they had heard some of the less common calls but didn't realize they were from Great Horned Owls.
Those of you who know me will also be shocked to hear that I wore a DRESS for my presentation!!! Don't worry, it wasn't mine...I borrowed it from a friend.
I needed a nap again that afternoon, and regretted missing presentations to do it. It wasn't possible to get to all presentations anyway, since there were two presentations going on at all times.
I spent some time visiting with Claus Konig (probably the overall world authority on owl vocalizations), Wolfgang Scherzinger (a prominent owl biologist from Germany who has worked extensively with captive owls of many species) and Loic Hardouin (a young French biologist who has done vocal work on Little Owls.) It was incredible to be able to sit down and have discussions about my Great Horned Owl vocal research with these folks!
There was a day of field trips during the conference, and I opted to go to the Dutch Owl Day in Meppel. I didn't quite know what to expect since it would be entirely in Dutch (the conference was mercifully in English.) It didn't take long before Tanja, her friend Milan, and I realized we weren't going to be able to understand much of anything (and Dutch isn't exactly an easy language to pick up!), so we skipped out and hit the shops down the street. It was really fun to experience Holland more first hand. Believe it or not, they were selling shirts with US colleges on them! I was on the lookout for a souvenir for Ken, who was at home being driven mad by a hooting owl. I found just the thing too--chocolate owls! (See photo.)
I could go on forever about all the incredibly cool owl biologists I met (there were nearly 200 people from 33 countries there!) and all the things that happened, but I don't think I could begin to relate much of anything short of writing a book. Suffice it to say that after Tanja kept speaking to me in Serbian, I learned how to say "What???" in Serbian, she introduced me as "Alice" about four times (not to be funny either!), and I now have a great fondness for Dutch accents, even though my understanding of Dutch is strictly limited to "Ja, ja, ja." There are canals all over in Holland and the sheep look like they're cartoons--they're so fat and have pencil legs. No wooden shoes, and I only saw one windmill.
So that's the super short version of what I did the first week of November. Stay tuned for details on my English adventure.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
As the parking lot at the nature center vacated about a month after the flood, reality set in: I only had about a month left to prepare my presentation and paper for the World Owl Conference in The Netherlands. Where had the time gone???
So for the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on some aspect of my trip nearly daily. Clothes, flight schedules, reviewing data, sifting through sound recordings, making sonograms, writing...there’s so much to do! But as I was going through my recordings to pick out the best of each type of vocalization, I realized I was missing two vocalizations: the greeting hoot and screaming chitters.
The greeting hoot is just what you’d expect—it’s a hoot that’s given after an absence. Alice may give it when I get up in the morning, when Ken gets up in the evening, or if we’ve been gone for the evening. The tricky thing is now that we’re getting into fall, hormones are kicking in again and instead of greeting hoots, sometimes I get the repetitive tail-cocked hoots instead. I did, however, manage to get an OK greeting hoot recorded the other morning.
But then there was the matter of screaming chitters. Chitters run on a continuum from soft little clucky grunts in the nest to a little louder and mildly annoyed to high pitched and ear piercing. It was those high pitched, ear piercing ones that I needed to record, and the only way to elicit such a call is to REALLY tick an owl off.
Well, I have an owl and a husband. So I asked Ken if he would be game for bear hugging Alice to see if I could record her doing a screaming chitter. Whether he’s so devoted to me or insane I’ll probably never truly know, but he agreed to the plan for the sake of science. Whatever works!
Since the vocalization would be really loud, I set up my recording gear in the spare bedroom, with Alice perched out on the hall railing. When I gave the word, Ken slid up to and put his right side next to Alice and wrapped his right arm snuggly around her body, making sure to keep his hand on her chest to avoid her talons. And scream Alice did!
If you’ve seen Alice’s video at the nature center, you have a general idea of how much she doesn’t like being cuddled. But this was a level or two above that. Wow did she scream! Ken said she was repeatedly trying to grab her with one of her feet, and would have stabbed some serious holes in him if she had made contact with something. She always bites in situations like this too, and Ken used his free left hand as a target to keep her beak from biting anything else. And yes, she bit him good!
The exceedingly brief recording session ended when Alice slipped out of Ken’s grip and hopped/flapped away. I’m sure I didn’t get more than 20 seconds of recording, but when I put on my headphones and reviewed things, it came through beautifully. Not too loud to distort, but easy to hear and identify with a bare minimum of other sounds in the background.
And thankfully Alice is an owl who is quick to forgive in situations like this. While she wasn’t ready to let Ken give it a second try, she was fine with everything once she hopped back up on the railing and shook out her feathers in a good rouse.
Upon inspection of my research accomplice, we didn’t find any talon holes, but there was a nice beak scrape on his left hand. Ken said it felt deep, and sure enough, there was a nice, deep bruise by the next day.
So if you know of anyone who gives out purple hearts for wounds inflicted in the name of owl biology, I’d like to nominate Ken. Come to think of it, probably most serious owl biologists have wounds and scars from their research subjects. I’m sure my day will come.
I suppose I should given Ken some credit for the screaming chitter recording in my presentation at the World Owl Conference….
Sunday, September 23, 2007
I soon learned the bridge leading into our valley was intact, but there was no road left on either side of it. The two homes by the bridge had been flooded, and there was a mudslide across the steep little minimum maintenance road leading out the back of our valley. The only "damage" to our property was an inch or two of water in our unfinished basement because it rained so hard.
The Houston Nature Center summer intern, Kevin Anderson, was able to make it in to work that Sunday since he lives up on the ridge near Spring Grove. Miraculously I still had phone service, so we worked out what he should bring home with him by phone, because the City of Houston was being evacuated. The Root River was at its highest level ever recorded, and if we received the three inches of rain predicted for that night, the water would top the levee.
We didn't get the additional rain, thank God, so Kevin returned everything to the nature center after people were allowed back into Houston. Alice and I took five days off from work since we couldn't get to town without driving 48 miles through an assortment of tiny roads that managed to remain intact. (We only live 5 miles from town.)
I was back to work Friday since the road to our bridge was patched late Thursday. I had two days of catching up before the next chapter of the flood episode started on Sunday: the nature center became home for a Samaritan's Purse disaster relief team and two FEMA disaster housing inspectors.
Four to five Samaritans, mostly from the southeastern United States, slept in the Houston Nature Center's meeting room for a couple of weeks. The Samaritan's NASCAR hauler and two campers were parked in the parking lot, along with their trucks, Bobcat, and other equipment. The FEMA inspectors from Maine also had a camper set up in the parking lot. The center's showers got heavy usage, and I had to ask Tri-County Electric to override the load management control so everyone could get warm showers, which they obligingly did even though they were in a temporary location since their offices in Rushford had flooded.
Life settled into a busy schedule. The Samaritans generally headed out for the day as I came into work. The FEMA inspectors popped in and out all day to use our phone lines to transmit reports and get more inspections since their wireless connections didn't work in Houston. I'd chat with them when they were in, and sometimes visited with the Samaritans when they'd come back just as I was leaving. A large number of shorter term Samaritan volunteers came in to meet Alice and watch the "At Home With Alice" video. I stopped in a few evenings for chats with the Samaritans (and started to pick up a bit of a drawl!) and visits with the FEMA inspectors. It was great fun to be surrounded by so many wonderful people! (Not that I was getting much work accomplished, but it was fun.)
A few days before the Samaritans left my husband and I were invited to their evening meal. We were treated to a steak dinner and were presented with shirts (Alice got her own--see the photo), a Bible signed by all of the Samaritans, and a GPS unit. The Samaritans had purchased everything on the nature center wish list short of an owl mascot costume for us, plus made a significant cash donation. Wow!
Things got a lot quieter after the Samaritans left. The nature center building returned to normal, and by now there was only one FEMA inspector left...Scott. As his work load slowed down we were able to chat more, and Alice got quite comfortable around him. Check out the photo of the two of them hanging out together after work one day.
Yesterday Scott headed back to Maine and it felt really weird to drive into work only to find a completely empty parking lot. I did, however, find the donations Scott left for my Great Horned Owl vocal study research and money towards an owl mascot costume. Today Judy, a FEMA inspector from Michigan staying in La Crosse, stopped in to transmit some work. Whew, at least I'm not completely alone again yet!
What a wild ride....
Visit http://www.rootrelief.org/ to find photos and more information about the flooding.
Thanks to all of you who checked in with us to make sure we came through the flooding in one piece. :-)
Sunday, July 29, 2007
So my mind started dreaming....
I'm getting deeper and deeper into this Great Horned Owl vocal study thing. I'll be presenting the results of the repertoire end of things at the World Owl Conference in the Netherlands this fall (http://www.worldowlconference.com/). And I've started getting more serious about the regional variation in territorial hooting by teaming up with Bruce Marcot (http://www.spiritone.com/~brucem/index.htm), the vocalizations team leader for the Global Owl Project.
One thing that I'm finding virtually impossible to do is record vocalizations at the nest before egg laying, during incubation, and the sounds made by the itty bitty nestlings. Hence my scheme....
I'm planning to get a pair of permanently damaged Great Horned Owls that can't survive in the wild to use as a captive breeding pair in an outdoor cage. I would build cages to Kay McKeever's specs (I doubt anyone has done more with cage design for breeding injured owls in the world than Kay--see The Owl Foundation's website at http://www.theowlfoundation.ca/), and outfit the cage with a night vision camera controlled by a joystick, complete with audio recording capabilities.
I would also need a release training cage so the young can naturally "disperse" from Mom and Dad in the fall, and I can then train them to hunt on live critters in their cage. I would retain the young until spring to hear their practice and eventual mastery of their territorial hoots, then release them to the wild.
Over the years I should be able to get a good handle on how an individual's hoot develops and what resemblance it bears to the parents' hoots. Plus I'll be able to record all the quiet vocalizations that happen around the nest and get a good understanding of what Mom and Dad have to say to each other.
This is no tiny dream. It will likely be a lifetime commitment, and will require investing thousands of dollars in cage materials and A/V equipment. (Just in case you still fostered any hope that I'm not totally kooky, this should take care of that...I don't exactly have thousands of dollars just lying around waiting to be used for cage building!) And I hope I can get a male and female who will accept each other as mates on the first shot! (The owls do have a say in these matters.)
Also required for this dream to materialize are the blessings of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Permits are most definitely required, and this is not a normal permit request.
I've spoken to Kay McKeever about this, and she seems wholly supportive of the idea and what I can learn from it. She also fine tuned the cage design I had been looking at in her owl rehab "bible" - Care and Rehabilitation of Injured Owls. We're looking at a breeding cage that's 36 feet long by 14 feet wide by 12 feet high connected by an 8 foot long corridor to a release training cage that's 60 feet long by 10 feet wide by 14 feet high. It's basically 2x4 construction with various coverings of fiberglass board (for total privacy and wind protection), spaced wooden boards (for some privacy), and chain link (so they can see what's going on outside of their cage.) The whole deal will be covered with screening to exclude West Nile Virus transmitting mosquitoes.
I've attached a photo of one of the cages at The Owl Foundation from my visit there in November of 2004. It gives a good idea of what the cage construction looks like--and what I hope to have in my backyard sometime soon...complete with owls!
Yes, Alice will likely have something to say about new neighbor owls at first, but the site I've selected is fairly well screened from Alice's usual lookouts by quite a few trees, despite being fairly close to the house. Could be loud for a while, but I'm learning to dream BIG!
Monday, June 11, 2007
Since the sun comes up EARLY these days, Alice is raring to go and wants attention just as early. This led to fairly regular 5:30 AM wake up calls.
These wake up calls started with scratching on the bedroom door. Then a l-o-n-g pause. More scratching. Pause again. This continued until the bedroom door swung open about 12 inches...just wide enough for Alice to squeak in.
Apparently morning greetings are a required part of doing business. As soon as she was in the room, Alice would hop up on the foot of the bed and hoot. If I didn't sit up and hoot with her, pretty soon I would feel big feet with sharp talons walking their way up my body to my shoulder, then a poofy "plump" sound as Alice hopped onto my pillow right next to may face--eight talons less that six inches from my eyeballs. Then she would lean forward and hoot in my face.
If that doesn't wake a person up, nothing will.
So to preserve my vision, I exchanged a few hoots when she came in. There was no use leaving the shades pulled down on the windows at the head of the bed, since Alice would scratch at them and otherwise make noise until I pulled them up. She would occupy herself watching the birds nesting in the pine trees just outside the window for a while, but then wanted more attention. So just as I had started dozing off again, I got a faceful of feathers on my pillow again and more hooting.
Female owls get what they want and have ways of making their needs known. Alice bites or grabs when I'm the problem and I'm close enough for her to get at me (thankfully not hard.) Not good when my head is lying on the pillow she's standing on.
So I tried sleeping with my head at the foot of the bed when she came in. I tried sleeping in the spare bed. But once she woke me up, I just couldn't get back to sleep with the sun up.
Then Alice started doing something she's only rarely done before--pooping on the bed. For whatever reason, her habit was to go to the foot of the bed and poop off the end onto the well-placed carpet protector there. But this nice little habit came to an end. After washing sheets two days in a row and lacking sleep for a week or two, I decided it was time to ban Alice from our bedroom.
The bedroom door has never really latched since we moved into the house 13 years ago. It's never been an issue, so we've never messed with it. I figured it would be a major pain in the but to fix, since the door is warped. But to my delight, all I had to do was loosen the screws on the latch plate and insert a little spacer to push the plate out toward the door a bit more. Now it latches.
The bedroom ban has been on for about a week. Alice didn't try to come in to the bedroom until a couple of days ago, after I had gotten up. She spent about a half hour in the hallway trying to figure out why she couldn't get in before giving up. She tried again this morning (at 5:30 AM), but only gave it a scratch or two before giving up.
I feel a bit bad since she enjoys the time together and the behavioral observations are quite interesting, but I'm not willing to risk my eyeballs so she can have a view out of south facing windows. If it's that important, she can go downstairs to look south.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
I've been really busy lately too. Everyone seems to want educational programs with Alice in April and May. Then I did the Crane Count early one morning for the International Crane Foundation (http://www.savingcranes.org/) and also participated in the Western Great Lakes Spring Owl Monitoring Project through Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve (http://www.hawkridge.org/). That involved driving my nine mile route, stopping every mile to listen for owls, three times during March through April.
Oh, and a producer for the Martha Stewart Show contacted me too! They were looking for a photo of a Great Horned Owl using an artificial nesting platform to use on their owl segment that aired this past Monday, but all I could do was direct them elsewhere since my artificial nests have yet to be used!
In between it all I've managed to spend some time observing owl nests and get some more recordings for my Great Horned Owl vocal study. This is tricky to do, since it can't be too windy, rain would be noisy, and it involves staying up all night so I can't have any evening commitments that night or any commitments the next day, since I need to sleep! (I don't do well on the night owl schedule--I'm a morning person.)
In late March I spent a night on a golf course 65 miles from here observing an owl nest. This pair of owls has nested on this particular golf course for at least the past three years. (Photographer Ron Green has spent much time with this family and gives me regular updates, including excellent photos!) They usually use old squirrel nests, since there are no nice stick nests for them to use, and the nest has usually disintegrated by the next year.
For owls that I observe with some regularity, I try to give them names that have some meaning. I know some people find this objectionable, but it provides an easy way to refer to each bird. It's also very helpful since territories move and birds die, so just referring to a bird by location, such as "the Rochester golf course female" will not work long term for individual birds, as you'll find out shortly.
I recently settled on "Foxy" for the female of this pair. She has a nice "foxy" red facial disk typical to Great Horned Owls in this area. Plus to get to the nest, I follow a maze of roads that have names like "Fox Croft", "Fox Chase", and several other confusing "Fox" names.
The male has a more blond facial disk, and Butterscotch kept coming to mind. But it's a long name and didn't really hint at gender. So I shortened it to "Scotch." The name "Tiger" had come to mind, since Great Horned Owls are known as "flying tigers" and he lived on a golf course so there was the Tiger Woods connection. But frankly, his personality did not seem to be anything like that of a tiger. He generally was pretty skittish. So Scotch it is.
Our March visit was pleasantly warm for Minnesota. It only got down into the 40s that night. A Thermarest mat, sleeping bag, wool sweater, long underwear, and winter coat just barely kept me warm until 5 AM. It was worth it, though.
Foxy didn't spend too much time at the nest with her owlets, which I guessed were around two weeks old. I could only see two, but later Ron Green informed us there were three squished into that small, cramped squirrel's nest in a snapped off pine tree. Scotch was on hunting duty, as was Foxy.
Foxy did a lot of squawking throughout the night. This seems to be a contact call with the owlets to let them know she's around. But it also may serve to keep Scotch on hunting duty. Whenever Scotch had some food to drop off, he flew into another tree just above us and hooted. Foxy arrived immediately, squawking. She took the food from Scotch and delivered it to the squawking owlets. Scotch never went to the nest. Apparently females don't let them take food to the kids until they are much older.
At any rate, we got some good recordings and left chilled and exhausted.
On April 16 I got a phone call from Ron Green. The day before, his wife's boss had been out golfing on the course. He stopped over to check on the owl family and found Foxy lying dead at the base of the tree. The kids seemed fine, and Scotch was in attendance.
With a nest in such a public area, foul play could always be a possibility. As could a host of chemicals used on most golf courses. So I sweet talked Ron into picking up Foxy's body and delivering it to me so we could get it necropsied.
A million phone calls and a few days later I had the results. There were many little nodules all over her liver and spleen, both organs were enlarged, and they had ruptured into her body cavity. This apparently is often caused by bacterial and fungal infections. So at least nothing human-induced had happened to her.
But that leaves Scotch with the daunting duty of trying to raise three big owlets with enormous appetites all by himself. They were old enough to accept food deliveries directly from Dad now, and he certainly seemed to be doing his best. But THREE kids? Uff da. One would certainly be doable, but three seems impossible.
So one week later, this past Monday, I spent another night at the golf course. Scotch was doing a high pitched squawking call that seemed to be a contact call with the kids. He didn't do this last year when the owlets were branching, as they were that night. Maybe the male only does this if his mate dies?? Although he made a few quick stops at/near the nest, I don't think he delivered any food (or if he did it was only small stuff, since I never heard any telltale crunching sounds of food being torn up.) One owlet kept up a loud, all-night squawking. The other two only squawked a bit here and there. One never left the nest.
I had my night vision along (courtesy of a grant from the Wilson Ornithological Society), and could see that the owlets seemed perky, and not lethargic. So that was good. But I was concerned they aren't getting enough to eat.
Ron Green had reported three rabbit heads under the nest two days after Foxy died. There were now at least four, along with a duck head, but I can't say that they were all fresh rabbit heads. I suspect three were the same ones Ron had seen earlier. Judging from the pellets on the ground, though, Scotch was focusing his efforts on large prey and skipping that little vole-sized stuff that he catches earlier in the nesting season.
Phone calls to Marge Gibson of the Raptor Education Group (http://www.raptoreducationgroup.org/group.org) and Kay McKeever of The Owl Foundation (http://www.theowlfoundation.ca/) didn't offer much hope for the situation. Supplemental feeding would be very difficult since the kids are branching and could leave the tree prematurely if we tried to get food into the nest for them. And they likely wouldn't eat it if we just put it on the ground. Scotch should be keyed in on live prey, but there's a small chance he would find and use food offered up on a platform off the ground.
At any rate, I've got two freezers full of dead gophers that could be used, but we need permission from the golf course to do anything. We may not be able to do anything until the owlets weaken and wind up on the ground.
Who knows how this will turn out. I guess it's a bit like an owl soap opera. Will the owlets survive? If so, how many? When will Scotch try to find a new mate? Will he continue to use the golf course for nesting after losing Foxy this year? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, I've been tipped off to a Great Horned Owl nest only 20 miles from home that's early in the nesting cycle, right next to a little-traveled road, and it even has a single parking spot right under it so I can use my car as a blind! And did I mention the landowner has worked at a state park for 20 years, so he's interested in wildlife? I hope to make some good observations at that nest when time allows.
Saturday, March 17, 2007
I don’t think I’ll ever understand how it works, but beaks and talons grow in a way that makes them self-sharpening. And another aspect of beak growth has been fascinating me lately—that somehow beaks “know” how to flake and break to maintain the proper shape.
Alice’s talons get trimmed every couple of months or so, but her beak is an every year or two kind of a thing. It’s been a couple of years since it’s been coped (trimmed.)
Her upper mandible flakes off on the side to maintain its narrow size (most Great Horned Owls have wider beaks than Alice does.) And the tip of her beak almost “pinches off” and breaks when it gets a bit long. Her lower mandible has notches on the side—it has “sides” up to maybe the last few millimeters, then the sides drop off and there is just a “bottom.” These notches adjust themselves, too, as the beak grows by breaking off where appropriate.
Alice’s lower mandible has been overgrown for quite some time. I hadn’t done anything about it because I could clearly see the notches moving themselves backward and a notch forming where the front part was going to break off…in just the right spot of course.
But her lower mandible had gotten to the point that she couldn’t close her mouth completely. This didn’t seem to affect Alice at all. She could still eat fine (and is actually at the heaviest weight she’s ever been at since I got her 8 ½ years ago), and somehow she manages to hoot just fine too, even though hoots are made with the beak shut. (She must use the back of her tongue to cut off airflow to her mouth or something.)
I didn’t want to do anything before the Festival of Owls, since lopping off the chunk of the lower mandible that needed to go might be quite a radical change for Alice. But Tony Warburton, Honorary President of the World Owl Trust, said it really needed to go and that it would be a piece of cake to do it with the dog toenail trimmer I use on her talons. He said it would just pop right off if I cut where it was working on breaking off anyway.
Well, I finally got up the guts to try it. I had visions of splitting her beak, or really having to crank on it to get it off. But I gave it a shot.
Standard operating procedure for doing anything that Alice doesn’t like involves the use of a dog to get her just alarmed enough to let me do just about anything to her. So we walked next door to Korey and Jennifer Kinstler’s to “borrow” Sully, their black lab. It's handy to have relatives with a dog next door!
We changed Alice’s jesses (the leather straps on her legs) not long before the Festival with Sully’s help, so the big, black dog was fresh in Alice’s memory…even before she saw him. My husband Ken went into the garage to get Sully settled, and Alice went into full alert mode. Time to do the deed!
So I fitted Alice’s bill into the trimmer, got it lined up with the spot where it was going to go, and gave a cautious snip. It popped right off, just like Tony said it would! I shouldn’t have been surprised since Tony has been working with captive owls for 40 years…. The straight cut actually only went a few millimeters before the rest just broke off where the “abscission layer” was forming.
Sully wasn’t even out of the garage yet, so I hollered to Ken and picked up the chunk of Alice’s lower mandible. It was a sizeable chunk to have removed! Then I had a look at her beak: she could now close it properly again! That had to feel different. And when Sully came barreling out of the garage to welcome Jennifer home from work, I found out that Alice’s “clacker” didn’t work anymore.
When very alarmed, owls clack their upper and lower mandibles together, making a “clacking” sound. When you mess with the beak, it can screw up the clacking sound. Alice made no noise as she tried to clack. This will correct itself as her beak flakes, wears, and adjusts to the new length of her lower mandible.
Check out the photos to see just how much came off!
Sunday, March 11, 2007
OK, so it wasn't THAT dramatic. But Alice flew for the first time in her life this past Sunday, with much assistance from flight instructor Dale Scobie of Spring Grove, MN.
Alice broke her wing when she fell from her nest at only three weeks of age. Her wing damage is permanent, leaving her unable to fly or live in the wild, hence her job working at the Houston Nature Center. So she has never flown....
Several people were quite concerned that flying in an airplane would be anything but fun for Alice. Marge Gibson, Alice's rehabilitator, has transported Bald Eagles in small aircraft before, and they spent the whole time looking out the window. It seemed likely Alice might like it too, so we did a trial run taxiing around on the runway to make sure Alice would be OK with it, and it didn't phase her one bit.
Again, the weather was sunny and nice, but this time the runway was clear and we were good to go.
I think Alice was a bit stressed by the noise and commotion of getting airborne (she had her beak open just slightly), but once we were up, she took it like a drive in the car. No big deal one way or the other.
Wednesday, March 07, 2007
Photo (c) Alan Stankevitz, daycreek.com
Denver Holt, Karla Kinstler, and Alice the Great Horned Owl's back
The Festival of Owls may not be the hugest event in Houston, but it sure does draw people (presenters, award winners, and participants) from all over Timbuktu. Flights were due in from England, Alaska, Jamaica, and Montana. I myself have only flown once in the last 15 years, but I figured out how to set up e-mail notifications from the airlines if our expected flights were delayed or canceled. Those notifications only worked all too well.
With everyone here safe and sound, we started to get cancellations for the banquet. But the caterer could make it, and since rescheduling would have been virtually impossible, the show went on with about 75% of the people attending. Their trek through bad weather was well worth it.
(c) Alan Stankevitz, daycreek.com
Mary Bethe Wright, Owly the Short-eared Owl with the Lady Gray'l award, and Karla Kinstler
(c) Alan Stankevitz, daycreek.com
Tony Warburton with the Champion of Owl award and Karla Kinstler
(c)Alan Stankevitz, daycreek.com
Marge Gibson and Little Bit the Northern Saw-whet Owl
(c)Alan Stankevitz, daycreek.com
Monday, February 05, 2007
Alice still likes to hoot with me in the mornings when I get up. It's not long sessions...a few minutes will do. But sometimes when I hoot with her, Alice's pupils get enormous.
Unlike humans, owls have control over the size of their pupils. They are forever adjusting the size of their pupils if they are really looking at something. And they adjust a zillion times faster than our pupils. They even work independently of each other, so they can have one large pupil and one small pupil at the same time, which is great if one eye is in a shadow and the other isn't. Kinda funky looking to see, though.
But Alice's pupils can get enormous, too, to the point you can just barely see the yellow ring of her iris around her pupil. This usually happens in the morning, at the end of a hooting session, or sometimes when she's in her nest.
Light levels are normal, lights-on-in-the-house light levels or morning sunshine, so she's not doing this because it's dark. I wonder if it has something to do with the whole mating thing.... She's not receptive when she has big pupils, but she does seem to want me to just be with her. But then again, maybe she's just tired.
I've attached a somewhat dark and fuzzy photo of Alice with her big pupils. It's hard to get a good photo of her like this, since the camera makes interesting sounds and prompts her to snap out of this trance-like state. It's a bit fuzzy because using a flash on pupils that huge up close is just nasty, and owls have atrocious red eye. Red eye reduction? Get real. It's not possible with owls.
If you're looking for some real owl action, check out one of the FOUR (count 'em four!) Great Horned Owl nest cams on the internet:
Baldwin Energy in Alabama: http://cam.liveeyenet.com/ospreycam.aspx
Yes, it WAS and osprey cam, but no more. This cam is in color and updates once per hour from 6 AM to 6 PM Alabama time. This owl has been on eggs for a while...not sure how long.
Colorado State University:
This one is in color and streaming, so it updates every second or two. You may need to find a place to download certain software to get this to work. My computer has what it needs, so I can't tell you what you need or where to get it. I think this lady recently went down on eggs. Her nest is a natural nest in the lower right hand side of the image, and well camouflaged. Usually you just see the back of her head.
Excel Energy's Valmont, Colorado plant:
This cam had infrared (so you can see what's going on at night!!). It updates every 2 minutes, and there is an archive of images from the past 24 hours that can be viewed. These guys haven't laid yet, but they both spend time in the nest box (originally for peregrines) almost every day.
California State University at Bakersfield
This one has been offline for a few days. It's also in color and streaming, so it's very fun to watch. It also requires special software to view, but again, I've already got it on my computer, so I can't tell you what you need or where to get it. She's been on three eggs for weeks already.
I would highly recommend checking out the Bird Cam Forum at http://www.raptorresource.org/forum/index.php?board=1.0. Here members post observations, comments, and photos from all kinds of owl cams around the world. You'll find threads for the above mentioned owl cams, so you can see the highlights of what's been going on, even if you don't have time to watch the cams yourself. It's wonderful!
And since I'm pretty much eating, sleeping, and working the Festival of Owls for the next month, I simply have to remind you about it! It's March 2-4 in Houston, MN, and Alice will be celebrating her 10th hatch-day. Another extremely exciting point of the Festival is that we will be presenting the World Owl Hall of Fame awards--one to an owl and one to a human who have done extraordinary things to make this world a better place for owls. BOTH winners will be there in person (or in the feather) to receive their awards! One is flying in from overseas, and the other from about as far away as you can be without coming from overseas. It will be incredible. Awards will be presented at the Friday night banquet, and half the tickets are sold already with almost a month to go yet. Don't wait to get your tickets if you plan to attend.
For Festival of Owls details go to www.houstonmn.com/owlfest.htm.
For Owl Hall of Fame details go to http://www.globalowlproject.com/ and click on "hall of fame."
Sunday, January 14, 2007
This no-flight status will change on Sunday, March 4, 2007, during Alice's 10th hatch-day party (weather permitting.) Flight instructor Dale Scobie from Spring Grove, MN has agreed to take Alice up in his airplane for her first flight ever. We will need to spend some time on the ground beforehand getting Alice used to the noise of the plane, and likely building her a special travel box to use in the plane, so she can watch out the window comfortably without the danger of her spreading her wings and trying to hop around inside the small plane.
Before setting this up, I consulted with Alice's rehabilitator, Marge Gibson. Marge has flown in small aircraft holding Bald Eagles before (I believe when she was in charge of the Bald Eagle Health Assessment Project after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.) She said the birds loved to watch out the windows of the plane, and thinks Alice likely will too.
What will make this flight doubly special is that there are four seats in the airplane. One for the pilot, one for me, one for Alice, and one for someone else. That "someone else" seat will be auctioned off after the Festival of Owls banquet on Friday, March 2 as part of the live auction. So the lucky person who gets to go up with Alice on her maiden flight could be you! Even if you don't get to go up with Alice, if you attend the Festival of Owls you'll get to see Alice fly over town, announced by the city's siren.
Alice and I will be meeting with the pilot this week to get Alice used to the plane, and work out the logistics of the flight. I'm a bit nervous about how Alice will react, but I think she'll be fine once we're airborne. She instinctively knows to lean into corners when riding in the car, so I'm sure she'll lean into the corners in the airplane too. She's gotten to perch in a small oak tree at the top of a 300-foot bluff overlooking Houston, and she thought that was great. So I'm hoping even higher will be "even greater" for her.
Don't worry, even if you can make it to witness Alice's first flight, I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.
Monday, January 01, 2007
But during this time she got less interested in hooting together and made her irritation known by biting me every time I tried to put my hand on her back.. I started to think her hormones were ebbing and we might not get an egg this year. But those belly feathers kept falling to the point that she often looks like she had a cowlick between her legs since so many feathers are missing.
I've tried to get my fingers up into Alice's abdomen feathers to see if I could feel a brood patch. From what I understand, the skin thickens and becomes filled with blood vessels to warm the eggs. (I've only felt the brood patch of a dead Great Horned Owl.) Of course Alice doesn't like it when I attempt to stick my fingers into her belly feathers, but once she got distracted and I was able to do it. Felt just like bird skin always feels.
Then in the last week in December she dropped her left outer tail feather. Not a good sign. From what I've read, female owls hold off on molting their flight feathers until AFTER they're done incubating eggs. And we don't have an egg here (other than the replica in the photo that Alice isn't interested in.)
Then she dropped the next outer tail feather on her left side. Then one more! She now is missing one quarter of her tail...all on the outer left side. So much for a symmetrical molt, but I suppose she's not exactly exposed to normal light and dark cycles living in the house....
Alice has also started to molt all kinds of body feathers. Every time she does a big rouse (puffing up all of her feathers and shaking like crazy), a small blizzard of feathers goes flying. (This explains the feathers we get in our furnace filter.)
I'm pretty much giving up the ghost on an egg this year, but doesn't that replica egg look nice in the pile of belly feathers she lost in December? But then again, I've learned that there's a heck of a lot I don't know about Great Horned Owls, and for all I know Alice could be right on schedule to lay an egg in a month. Only time will tell, but I'm not holding my breath.