Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Epic Saga of the Money Creek Owlets

me with the first owlet

The month of April was the timeline for The Epic Saga of the Money Creek Owlets. I deal with quite a few hawks and owls in need of help, but never have the rescue efforts turned into such a protracted and twisted plot.

The whole thing started with a phone call from a camper at Money Creek Haven just north of Houston (MN.) I was home, still recovering from a bout of bronchitis or something along those lines, so the call went in to the Houston Nature Center. Connie Verse was volunteering at the Center while I was home sick, and she's realized that whenever I'm gone and she's in charge, she always gets calls about birds in need of help.

This time the call was about a young owl on the ground at Money Creek Haven. Since it was so close to Houston and it was a young owl, she called me at home for a little guidance. In my professional opinion, there's nothing on the planet cuter than a young Great Horned Owl. And young owl calls are a tricky business to ascertain: Should they go back in the nest? Should they go into an artificial nest? Do they need to go in for fostering? Are they injured? Or are they perfectly fine and just need to be left alone? I decided that I could muster the energy to go check it out with my husband Hein.

We drove around at Money Creek Haven just a bit before we spotted Wayne Fitting, owner of The Haven. He was with Troy, a man who had expressed interest in learning how to pick up and transport injured birds to rehab facilities. They guided us right to the downed owlet, which really looked like a possum lying on a horizontal tree trunk sticking out over a tiny creek. It had apparently been there for a few days, judging by the poop and prey remains around it. And Mom and Dad were taking care of him.

I needed to check to see if the owlet was old enough to be out of the nest. Owlets always look too young to be out of the nest at first look, because their head and body is all fuzzy. But when they fledge, their wing feathers should be mostly grown in and their tail feathers should be partly grown in. They can't fly well for a couple of weeks after leaving the nest, but Mom and Dad take care of them on the ground, and they can actually climb trees. This little fellow was too young to be fledging yet.

Young owls are ALWAYS best off raised by their parents if at all possible, so I looked around for the nest. It wasn't hard to spot, since there was another fuzzy owlet in the nest. The "nest" was impossibly small and ridiculous...Mom must have been pretty hard up. It was nothing more than a spot where a bunch of little branches all came out of the side of the tree in the same spot. As the owlets grew, the space available didn't. There was no way this little squirt could fit back in the nest with his brother.

brother up in the "nest"

Even if fallen owlets can't go back into the nest for whatever reason, they're still better off being raised by their parents. That means putting up an artificial nest for the fallen owlet. As long as they're old enough to make their squawky/shrieky begging calls, Mom and Dad will locate the kids to stuff food in their beaks.

It just so happens that Hein and I had been discussing a design for a Great Horned Owl nest BOX. All the artificial nest structures I'd ever seen were open...more of a "platform" style. This is because they very often nest in Red-tailed Hawk nests and other stick nests. Rarely can they find a hole big enough for Mom and a couple of rapidly growing kids. But Alice, my permanently injured education bird that I use at the Houston Nature Center, gets insanely interested in any potential "cavity", no matter how small, when breeding season rolls around . She wedges herself into the tiniest of places, convincing me she doesn't have even a hint of claustrophobia. But it led me to think that Great Horned Owls would probably prefer a cavity if they could have one.

So Hein and I had previously discussed a design and rough dimensions for a prototype Great Horned Owl nest box. He had run off and gotten some plywood cut to size. It seemed it was time to put that box design to use for the fallen owlet. So we put the owlet in a cardboard box in the meantime and headed home to build the box.

Well, our rough dimensions were huge, so we had to totally revamp the size and design. A few hours later we were back at The Haven with our new Great Horned Owl nest box design, ready to install.

Wayne had brought over some extension ladders, but they weren't going to be long enough to get the box as high as we wanted in the nest tree. Enter Randy Meeks. Randy camps at Money Creek Haven, and also climbs utility poles for a living. He happened to be at The Haven, with his truck, super long ladders, and tools, and he was willing to help.

So all the king's horses and all the king's men worked to get that nest box up on the tree. The weather was warm and sunny, and Randy was later quoted saying "This is more fun than a barbeque!" I think he summed up everyone's feelings exactly.

Hein was the man at the top of the ladder. He realized that we had built a "left handed box", and he's right handed. But after contorting himself, he finally got the bolts into the tree. As he let go of the box to come down the ladder, the box decided it wanted to come with him! All but the back, that is. It seems we hadn't had enough attachment points for screws to hold the back onto the rest of the box. Needless to say, we aren't woodworkers.

So down the box came again, and with the help of Randy's tools, the design was reinforced.

Once the box was fixed, the box went back up again and then it was my turn. I got to be the one with all the glory: I stuffed the owlet into a cloth back, carried it up the ladder, and plopped it into its new home. He settled in nicely, and we were all quite pleased with the afternoon's efforts.

Over the next couple of days, we checked on the owlet regularly, as did Wayne. But our little owlet was an ungrateful little stinker...he hopped out of our super-cool nest box a couple of days later! Wayne spotted the owlet heading out to where we had found it, but when we went to look for it a couple of hours later, we couldn't find hide nor hair of the owlet. We found some pellets in the woods, but no sign of the owlet. I just had to hope the parents would take care of it like they had before while it was grounded.

We checked on the owlet still in the nest periodically, as did everyone else and their brother. This owlet family was locally famous. It sat there through rain, snow, and all manner of icky weather.

A week or more later I was contacted by British wildlife filmmaker Fergus Beeley. I was really surprised...it's not everyday I get e-mails from a person who makes films for National Geographic, BBC, and Discovery! It seems he's working on a Snowy Owl film and wants to contrast Snowies with Great Horned and Great Gray Owls. He was looking for a Great Horned Owl nest to film.

I told him about the Money Creek nest, Scarlett the wild female Great Horned Owl here who wants Rusty and gets mobbed by crows every day, and about Alice, my education bird. He was convinced he wanted to come to Houston to film. COOL! I figured it wouldn't be long until the remaining owlet fledged, so I told him to hurry.

His cameraman from England couldn't get a visa to travel to the U.S. to film fast enough, so Fergus recruited Michael Male, who has done work for many of the same big name projects as Fergus.

The afternoon before Michael was to leave his Virginia home for a two day drive to get here, the owlet in the nest was found on the ground. YIKES!! I called Randy again for his awesome ladders. This time he used the 38 footer so we could get the owlet back in the nest. I wasn't sure it would stay there, but if it behaved itself it was possible.

That's a LONG ways up there!!!

We checked on the owlet at 8 PM that night, and he was still in the nest. Neither Hein or I slept well though, worrying the owlet would be on the ground in the morning again. I woke up about 5 AM and after lying in bed worrying for half an hour I asked Hein if he was awake. "No." was his response. So we got up, threw on some clothes, and drove to Money Creek.

The owlet was indeed on the ground. Its parents wouldn't likely feed it during the day, so I brought it home in a cardboard box, gave it some food, and had Randy meet us back there that afternoon to put the owlet in the box. Randy showed up in the rain, I climbed the ladder yet again with the owlet in a sack, and plopped it into the nest box. I also deposited a nice big gopher head in the box for the owlet to eat later. I was pretty sure he'd stay put this time.

But what to do about the filming? They couldn't film the owlet in the box...they needed a natural nest. Michael would arrive the next day, and Fergus a few days later. Fergus didn't want to cancel since there was always Alice and Scarlett and the chance of finding another nest. So I REALLY needed to find another nest!!!

I e-mailed everyone and then some, asking for locations of active Great Horned Owl nests. All the usual spots weren't occupied this year, and the only two nests I found out about weren't going to work. One was only accessible by a one hour canoe trip, with no land to set up and film from, and the other nest was high over a lake and not easy to see. I simply had no idea what we'd do.

So Michael showed up the Saturday night before Easter and Hein showed him around while I led a Woodcock Skydance program. The next morning, Easter, we discussed options. Michael decided to build a replica Red-tail nest in a tree right by the nest so we could put the owlet into a REAL looking artificial nest that would work for filming and for the parents. Sounded good to me, but I knew how hard a realistic nest would be to build. So we showed Michael our tools and let him have at it.

What he created was totally realistic. I would never have guessed it was built by a person. Totally amazing. But the weather was cold and rainy, and we didn't want to move the owlet out of the box to the new nest until it was nicer, even though it had sat through snow and rain in the original nest. In the meantime, Michael occupied himself with trying to call in Scarlett for some daytime mobbing footage, and watching the nest at night to see if the parents were coming in. The camera he had didn't have infrared, so he could only film during the day. Fergus would be bringing the night vision camera.

The day Fergus was to arrive I called Randy yet again about the ladders so the owlet could move into its new home. Randy zipped out to The Haven, whipped up the ladder, and I climbed up to get the owlet. But there was a problem: the owlet didn't seem as vigorous as it had been. Even Randy could tell. And there wasn't a shred of evidence that Mom or Dad had fed it. It was definitely very thin, but it's really hard to judge "baby thin" from emaciation. But I was pretty sure this guy was thinner than he should be. I looked in his mouth and his saliva was all sticky...a sure sign of dehydration. He needed help...and he wasn't going to be up for filming. And Fergus' flight was due in in a couple of hours! I was starting to sweat bullets.

We zoomed home with the owlet, I called The Raptor Center for advice, Hein threw a pizza in the oven, and I raced around taking and e-mailing photos of the owlet to The Raptor Center, getting some fluids in, getting it on a heating pad, then snarfing a few bites of pizza before we ran out the door to meet Fergus at the airport.

Since there was nothing else for Michael to do, we met him at the Nature Center in town to ride to the airport with us. Just as I was pulling out of the parking lot Fergus called. He was still in Chicago because he had missed his flight thanks to a really, really long line at customs. He'd be flying in a few hours later. That at least bought me some time. Michael and Hein went for coffee and I went into the Nature Center to make some phone calls to pin down a sorely needed flimable Great Horned Owl nest.

One of my calls was to Joan Schnabel, a volunteer at the National Eagle Center. She had read a Bird Chick blog post about a Great Horned Owl nest up in Minneapolis, and suggested I get in touch with her. Oddly enough, Michael had e-mailed her somewhere in the past, so he had her e-mail address. But my next phone call was to nature photographer Stan Tekiela, and although he didn't know of any nests off the top of his head, he had Sharon's (aka Bird Chick's) cell phone number. I called her immediately.

The call pulled her out of one of her Birds and Beers events, so she didn't have much time to talk. But she assured me these owls had made an informed decision about their nest location...they had been nesting in this park for about four years and were totally habituated to people. PERFECT!! They wouldn't be shy around the cameras. She did warn, however, that Michael and Fergus might be at risk of being propositioned by other men at night in the park after dark. Well hey, at least there were two of them together! I heaved a sigh of relief and hung up the phone.

We had some time to kill yet before meeting Fergus at the airport in La Crosse, WI, so we took the scenic route, on the off chance we'd find an owl nest along the way. Just outside of La Crescent we came to a quarry. I vaguely recalled that a student from La Crescent had mentioned a quarry outside of town that always had an owl nest in it. So I pulled out my binoculars, looked at the two holes in the rock face, and ta-da! There was an owlet right in the middle of one of the holes! It didn't look quite right though...dark eyes and the wrong facial disk. It was a Barred Owl! Weird...I've never heard of a Barred Owl nesting in a quarry before, but Great Horned Owl certainly do this.

There's really actually a Barred Owl owlet in the right hole! Look close.

As darkness fell, we still had time to kill so we took Michael to Cold Stone Creamery for ice cream...his first time ever! Then we hurried up to meet Fergus at the airport, only to find that his flight was delayed half an hour. So we lazily walked throughout the entire (tiny) La Crosse airport and chatted. Finally the flight came in, we introduced ourselves, and Fergus got his rental car.

Hein and Michael rode together on the way back, and I rode with Fergus to fill him in on the recent drama, and the bad and the good news. But he needed some rest before making any decisions, so we met at Cross Roads Cafe in Houston for breakfast the next morning. Fergus quickly decided that the Minneapolis nest was the way to go, and Michael went back to Money Creek Haven to pack up while I quickly showed Fergus Alice and where Scarlett comes around. Then they were off like a shot!

In the meantime, I still had the owlet, and was waiting for advice from The Raptor Center about how to proceed. The call came 20 minutes after Fergus and Michael had left for the Twin Cities: the owlet needed to go to The Raptor Center in St. Paul for evaluation. Shoot! I could have sent the owlet with Fergus and Michael! But I knew they were in too much of a hurry to turn around, so I agreed to meet a Raptor Center volunteer in Rochester with the owlet. That would be about half way for each of us to drive. When we got back later that afternoon I was pooped, but happy to have people and owlet on their way.

While in Minneapolis Fergus sent some text messages to let me know the nest was excellent for filming and just what he wanted. He inquired about the owlet and if it would be coming back to Houston, but that wasn't very likely, sad to say. I would have loved to foster it with Rusty and Iris, my breeding owls who didn't lay eggs this year, but after checking into permits, it turns out I would need to be a master level wildlife rehabilitator in Minnesota to be able to do this. Weird, since I'll be able to do it when Rusty and Iris have their own kids, but hey, laws are laws. Poop.

Fergus was also interested in filming a coyote, to portray them as a danger to owlets on the ground. But since I couldn't arrange for a good wild coyote location and he couldn't get any good footage at the Minnesota Zoo, and we weren't going to get the owlet back, that idea was scrapped.

Three days after heading up to Minneapolis, Fergus and Michael were back to film Alice. She was to be the super-close-up double for the wild owls. They came over to our place after I got off work, I plopped Alice out on a tree branch, and Michael filmed away. Alice did a good job pretending she was a real, wild owl, looking up at things in the sky, bobbing her head, and ignoring us. They got super close ups of her toes and eyeballs, as well as some head and shoulder shots, so I'm very curious to see how it will all come together.

Fergus, Michael, me, and Alice

After 2.5 hours they got what they needed for daylight shots, so we piled into my Chevy Tracker and went out for a scrumptious meal at Signatures in Winona. It was nice to actually sit down and talk for a bit with Fergus and Michael (and to enjoy a wonderful meal!) When we finished we came back to our place for another half hour of filming Alice in the dark with infrared (and me hoping Scarlett wouldn't show up to attack her, which she didn't). Then it was a wrap!

After handshakes all around, they hopped into the car at 11:30 PM and the filming was done. Whew! It all turned out OK. Miracles do happen!

A few days later I heard back from The Raptor Center. The owlet was rehydrated then fed, and he had a whopping appetite. But he couldn't keep his food down and he died a few days later. Bummer. At least he was in good hands there.

Thus ends the saga of the Money Creek Owlets. What an adventure!!

This is too embarassing not to mention, so I had to include it. It seems my wildlife photographer friends Sue Fletcher and Alan Stankevitz got permission to go into the quarry to photograph my Barred Owl owlet. They sent me photos asking if they found the right nest, since they were photographing a GREAT HORNED owlet! WHOOPS! I misidentified the owlet. Yowza. No question at all after seeing their photos. Alan gave me permission to share this one:


  1. that was a great article Karla thanks for sharing with us

  2. Wow, where do you get the energy! Terrific story, Karla! You really went way beyond the call of duty -- and I'm not surprised at all! If only everyone cared so much!
    Thanks! Annie

  3. Great story but such a sad ending. From the beginning, I thought it was going to end with a foster owlet for Rusty and Iris. I also thought it sounds like you are married to just the right person !

  4. Yes, I most certainly am married to just the right person!!! :D

  5. Hey . . . that first Anonymous up there was me, Carolyn, Ladyhawker. I posted it at work and for some reason it didn't ID me! Let's see if it will let me ID myself this time.

  6. What a great story it had it all funny sad adventure travel (alot of travel) and the best OWLS. Thank you for sharing it all

  7. Wow--that is one crazy story! Hmm...have you given any thought to offering Rusty & Iris a nest box as well?

    Oh, and a little while ago (19:17 PDT), I noticed Rusty was in the bath pan. He just stepped out (19:20), and Iris just flew from one end of the cage to the other and back. Rusty just hopped onto the stump--opened his wings up while he was walking over there, then popped over to the food tray, looked around for a bit, then flew off-camera (possibly to join Iris?).

    That's quite the moment with the owlet in the quarry. Thanks for sharing. :)

  8. Yes, we're thinking about doing a nest box option for Rusty and Iris too.

    Fun to see them bathe, isn't it??