Monday, December 10, 2012

A Visitor from Norway

Roar Solheim was the keynote speaker at the 2011 International Festival of Owls in Houston, MN. He came back to Houston in September of 2012 because he just couldn't get enough.

OK, actually he really came back to prepare owl and other specimens that I had in the freezer.  I only needed some of them for measurements, and some I had decided that realistically I wasn't going to use.  When Roar heard I was going to clean out my freezer, he asked if he could get the specimens for the Agdar Natural History Museum in Kristiansand, Norway, where he is the senior curator.

Before he came I had to negotiate a new plethora of permits I had never dealt with before to make sure I could ship the finished specimens to him.  I needed an import/export permit, a designated port exception permit so I could ship them through Minneapolis instead of Chicago, and most importantly, a CITES permit since all owls are protected by the CITES treaty.  The first two permits came in a month, while the CITES permit took four months.

Roar arrived the end of September and stayed with us for just over two weeks.  He was SERIOUS about his work because when he drove into our yard with his rental car when he first arrived, he was delighted to show us a fresh, road-killed coyote in perfect shape that he had found a few miles from our house.  So the first thing he did when he arrived, before he brought his suitcase up to his room, was skin the coyote.

Each day he got up well before us and headed in to the Houston Nature Center to work.  He stayed well into the evenings also, always coming home after me.  But then again he was here for just over two weeks and he had about eight mammals and maybe twenty birds to prepare. 

And that wasn't all he did while he was here.  He gave presentations at the Hormel Nature Center in Austin, MN and at Luther College in Decorah, IA.  He also spent a weekend with Ron and Rae Evenson (who hosted him when he was here for the Owl Festival), visiting The Raptor Center in St. Paul and Hawk Ridge in Duluth.  He spent a day birding and photographing road kill with Sue Fletcher (yes, there are weird people who do this, and obviously more than one of them!)  You've never seen a man so excited to find a road killed woodchuck.

Mind you, Roar didn't sleep much.

As I could spare the time here and there, I watch him prepare specimens.  He had a variety of different techniques that he used in different situations.  And I was flabbergasted that he washed skins with any fat on them in soap and water.  I would have thrown a skin away that looked like that!

 Roar should have been an owl beautician, because he could turn them back into owls again using a hairdryer!

As a thank you for giving him specimens, Roar asked if I wanted him to mount any owls for the Nature Center.  Right away I knew I wanted him to mount a beauuuuuutiful subarcticus Great Horned Owl that was found dead in the Twin Cities last Christmas.  These birds are just black and white with virtually no brown at all.  It's a subspecies that is typically found in western Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Gorgeous!

I ordered some foam for him to make a body and fake eyes from a taxidermy supply company.  They arrived in plenty of time.  Here are some of the steps of making a mounted owl.

Making the body form.

Putting wire in the wings and wrapping them.

Putting in the fake eyes.

Shoving the body back into the skin and sticking in wires.

Ready to be mounted on the perch.

Making everything look just right.

Roar has been working with owls for decades, and obviously he's starting to look and act a bit like his study subjects.  As you can see, Roar is a real hoot, in every sense of the word.  And he's VERY good at what he does, in the field and in the museum.  If you didn't know better, I'm sure you would think this was a live owl having an acupuncture treatment.  Seriously, though, his mounts are the best mounted owls I've ever seen.  They look 100% alive.  The other mount that he did of an owl snoozing on a perch, peeking over its shoulder with one eye slightly open, is often mistaken for Alice at the Nature Center.

I'm sure Roar will be back to Houston someday, and in the meantime I'll store up some more dead owls for him to mount for us.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

More woodshavings and a general owl update

Since Rusty already has his nest dug down to China, I decided it was high time to add some more wood shavings to give us a chance of seeing the eggs this year.  The wood shavings are a by-products of Roger Meyer's wonderful woodwork.

Rusty and Iris have been copulating since mid-November, so they're already gearing up for breeding.

Alice is of course busy with her own nest, but is spending the bulk of her nights outside in her new patio.  She normally lays the beginning of January.

It seems Delilah has settled in with Rhett, as we heard them hooting waaaay over in Rhett's territory, where Scarlett was hooting with him last fall.  Victor continues to hoot alone.

That's the news from Houston.  Stay tuned for more exciting owl updates!

Monday, October 08, 2012

The Cam and the Door

Alice has been using her pet door to get between her room and her outdoor patio since June.  But we left the plastic flap off so she'd get used to going in and out.  It's finally too cold and we put the plastic flap on.  Would Alice push her way through?

I figured she would since she used to push open doors that weren't latched.  To make it a little easier for her we stuck a partial egg carton in the flap to prop it open.  Without a whole lot of urging she pushed her way through! But would she figure out how to come back in again?

We've used egg cartons to prop it a bit yesterday and today, and she seems to be able to do that all right.    We'll see if she manages to go in and out without propping in the next days.

The super exciting news is that we installed a new pan/tilt/zoom (PTZ) cam in the breeding cage.  Woo-hoo!  Our technological genius extraordinaire Alan Stankevitz came over yesterday to do the install (he always volunteers his time...THANKS!!!!)  Hein had previously removed a section of ceiling boards and had run an internet cable and an extension cord in the ceiling.  Ace Communications Group, our local phone company, terminated the cabled (that sounds nasty, but it means the put the jacks on the ends), as they've done for free for us since the beginning.  Hein also had mounted a 2x6 on a truss where we planned to attached the arm of the camera so only the camera dome protruded into the cage itself.

The cam itself is a little bigger than an ostrich egg and quite heavy.  We did the first work inside, then went outside and shut the door between the cages while we worked.

We opened the big eight foot door to make it easy to carry ladders in and out.  Hein first unscrewed the ceiling boards.  Then I crawled up into the ceiling to help hold the precious cam (all $2,000 worth of it!) while Alan mounted it.  Then it was up to Alan to mess with all the cables and cords to get them running.

All went really well except the microphone.  Turns out it needed a stereo jack and was really fussing about cutting in and out, but after an hour or more Alan got it safely tucked away in its junction box and it's been working fine since then.

The great thing is the VIEWS we get with this cam!  Holy moly!  That evening I could zoom in on Iris' face...just her face, while she dozed.  Not only is it beautiful to see, but it will help me check Rusty and Iris' beaks, talons, feet, and eyes for any problems without having to catch them out.  Very nice.

Critterwatcher and maxi23, my chat room moderators, are able to control the PTZ functions as well as me, so that's good to have help keeping it on the owls.

In the future I hope we can raise another $2,000 for another PTZ cam to go in the flight cage.

This is fun!!!  (Oh, and educational too.....)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Rhett and Delilah

OK, I'm thinking Delilah and Rhett are a thing now.  (Just wait for Delilah to prove me wrong...again.) She and Rhett were in the yard hooting allllll night long, starting before we went to bed until 6 AM.  At least I got a good recording of them.

I also got a poor quality video of Rhett hooting just outside the bedroom window at about 6:15 AM, just before he flew off for the morning.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Who's Who

While it's possible to tell individual owls apart by their territorial hoot, it takes practice and a good ear.  Here's a rundown of the territorial hoots of the Great Horned Owls that you'll hear about in the blog and on the Rusty and Iris cam.

Alice, my permanently injured owl that I use in educational programs at the Houston Nature Center.

Rusty, my male breeding owl who is blind in one eye from a car collision.

Iris, my female breeding owl who is blind in one eye from a puncture wound to the eye.

Victor, my resident wild male since 2004.

Delilah, a wild female who's been around since February of 2012.  Not sure who's she's thinking about mating with!

Rhett, a wild male who hooked up with Scarlett Owl Hara in October of 2012, but seems to be trying to woo Delilah now.

Virginia was Victor's mate since at least 2004.  She was found unable to fly on a sandbar and died a few weeks later at The Raptor Center, probably from a major infection.

Jezebelle, a wild female that showed up in August 2011.  There's a chance she's the same bird as Delilah, but was just REALLY worked up hooting in August since she seemed to be hot for Rusty and tried to attack Alice (note the closed eye from hitting the window where Alice was sitting.)

Scarlett Owl Hara, a wild female Great Horned Owl who showed up in February 2011.  She seemed intent to have Rusty for her mate and she tried to kill Alice through the windows of the house at least three times.  She was around until fall of 2011 when she apparently hooked up with Rhett half a mile west of us, but hasn't been heard from since then.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Is Delilah Dating Around?

I was pretty certain Delilah and Victor were a couple now that Victor's mate had died.  I heard them hooting together several times in Victor's territory.

But last night Delilah was hooting with RHETT again!  Victor was hooting by himself in his own territory.  Hmmmm.....  Basically I'm realizing I have absolutely no idea what is going on.  Hopefully time will shed some light on how mate replacement works.

Play the sound file to listen to them all.  The hooting sequence is:
Delilah, Rhett, Victor, Delilah, Rusty, Rhett, Delilah, Victor, Delilah, Rhett.

Needless to say I didn't get much sleep last night with all the commotion!

Monday, September 03, 2012

Feather Do-Over

I found this messed up feather in Alice's room this morning.  She has plucked it before it was finished growing, so a new feather will grow in in its place.

I suspect this is the feather that was bleeding a few weeks ago, due to the gob of stuff at the pinched part of the shaft.  And notice that the vane of the feather below the pinch is broken off straight across at that point.  This is called a fault bar or a stress mark.  It indicates some kind of stress (food or otherwise) or injury.  Sometimes fault bars are simply a weak point in the vane of the feather and sometimes they break, as they did here.

Apparently Alice decided this feather wasn't good enough so she plucked it.  This will trigger a new feather to grow in its place, which hopefully will be perfectly normal.

Ain't it amazing how nature works?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Whooo Visited Alice?

A few evenings ago when Hein and I were sitting out in Alice's patio and she was ignoring us, sitting inside her room, I noticed that the screen on the outside of her patio frame looked loose.  I hoped it wasn't torn loose, so I walked over for a closer inspection.  I found holes and a tear in the screen, plus it was ripped loose from a couple of staples in the wood.  Apparently Alice had had a visitor!

We had three long evenings between work and programs that week, so it could have easily happened when we weren't home.  Or it could have happened when we were sleeping...we don't hear things so well on that end of the house even though our bedroom windows are open since our bedroom is on the opposite side of the house.

I tried to think what the possibilities were for the maker of the holes.  Of course my first thought was that an owl had stuck its talons though the screen.  I've seen talon holes in our screen from Alice, and these were similar.  Not in a perfect four-toe pattern like Alice's holes had been, but they certainly fit the shape and damage that a talon could inflict.

Since the holes were in the screen, there's no way Alice could have made them.  There's a plastic mesh on the inside of the cage, and a wooden frame separates the plastic from the screen by 3.5 inches.  Even Alice's talons couldn't do that.

Was there anything else that could have done it?  The patio is on the second floor of the house, so that rules out most things.  I don't think a raccoon or a cat could have climbed up there unless they could climb up a downspout.  Pretty unlikely, I would think.

Another woman who works with raptors had said that grasshoppers had chewed nice round holes in the screen on the outside of one of her cages.  But she had plastic screen and we have aluminum...I can't imagine that a grasshopper could do this kind of work even if it had been lifting weights and using steroids.  Plus the holes aren't all round...some are vertical tears.

So all I can think is that it was an owl visiting Alice.  The holes are in the corners where she likes to stand on the floor, so the location makes sense.  But the question then becomes was it a female trying to attack her (maybe Delilah?), or was it a male trying to woo her (maybe Rhett?)  We may never know unless it happens again.  Which it might.

Delilah and Victor seem to be a confirmed item now.  I've heard them hooting several times together in Victor's territory.  I think the vibrato hoots that Victor and Rusty have must be babe magnets....

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


I found blood on the floor of Alice's room two days ago.  That's nothing unusual given that she often drags her food around, but this was fresh drops of blood under her perch and going over to her water bowl.  The blood had to be Alice's.

She wasn't bleeding or looking anything other than normal, and I couldn't see any blood on her.  When I came back into the room to look again, I noticed blood not just on the floor, but spots on three walls and on the ceiling!  It had to be coming from her wing.

She's got several feathers growing in now, and the developing shafts are full of blood.  I presume she must have damaged one of the developing feathers and that's where the blood came from.  Thankfully it stopped bleeding on its own!

Yesterday when I took her to work I could see dried, smeared blood on her primary feathers on her bad wing, so that confirmed my suspicions that it was a damaged blood feather.  But no more blood, thank goodness!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Victor Hooks Up With Delilah?

Virginia had been gone a month.  She was found unable to fly on the east end of the territory she shared with Victor.  We picked her up off the sand bar in the Root River and volunteers transported her up to The Raptor Center in St. Paul, 2.5 hours north of here.

The Raptor Center had found maggots in a slice in her breast muscle.  She died a few weeks later, presumably from an infection.  They did a necropsy and confirmed this was a female owl, and also that it had a pocket of infection under the skin in its leg.

So a month later I woke up in the middle of the night to hear Victor hooting straight to the south of the house.  He hadn't been that far west for quite some time.  I couldn't figure out why he just hooted and hooted by himself.  Then after a while he was joined by Delilah, the female who's been living to the west of us since February.

They were both really excited, hooting rapidly and over top of each other.

Were they hooking up?  I had originally thought Delilah had her own mate, just that I rarely heard him.  But I had just recently figured out the male I heard with her was Rhett, the male that Scarlett Owl Hara had finally hooked up with half a mile west of us.  But I haven't heard Scarlett since last fall.  So I really have no idea what is going on in this tangled lover's web.

At any rate, I didn't sleep much that night.  I was listening anxiously for signs that Victor and Delilah were getting together.  Eventually they both moved off to the east of us, well into Victor's territory.  They kept hooting, which to me indicated Victor was accepting her there (he went first, and after all, it was he that went into Delilah's territory hooting.)

After a while Rhett started hooting to the south of the house, near where Victor and Delilah had hooted a few hours earlier.  Victor went back and hooted with him, but Delilah now stayed in Victor's territory while Victor handled things.  They hooted a while, but Rhett never came any closer to Victor's territory.

I haven't heard the owls since then, so I'm curious how things are going.  Are Victor and Delilah an item now, just one month after Virginia left?  What happened to Scarlett and why does Rhett appear single?  Was Rhett trying unsuccessfully to woo Delilah?  Hopefully some of these answers will reveal themselves with time.  Others we may never know.

Until the next exciting episode....

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Rain, Sweet Rain!

It's been a long time since we've had any meaningful rain.  But starting last night we've had a nice downpour (and it's still raining.)  We even have PUDDLES in the yard!  Hallelujah!

It hasn't rained much since Alice has had her new outdoor patio.  I rearranged the perches in the patio so her tall perch is on the east side and Alice is in full sight through the window in the door at the end of the hallway.  This morning when I got up while it was still raining, this picture is what I saw at the end of the hall: one owl thoroughly enjoying sitting in the rain.

It's important that captive birds have choices.  You never know when they want to be in the rain, out of the rain, in the heat or cold, in the climate controlled house, or whatever.

Iris chose to stay out of the rain, as did Rusty until early this morning.  Just like people, not everyone wants the same thing at the same time in life.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Alice Has a Wild Visitor

Alice has had access to her screened in "patio" for a few weeks now.  She's free to be in her room or out in her patio as she chooses, thanks to a pet door we installed in her window.

Most nights she spends indoors, but a few nights she's spent outside.  I've been wondering how long it would take before a wild owl would notice her there, and early this morning we got our answer.

We were lying in bed sleeping at 3:30 AM like normal human beings should be.  Somewhere in my head some hooting registered, so I kind of came to.  I heard hooting on the other side of the house and after a few hoots realized it was loud enough that it had to be an owl visiting Alice!

Delilah the Great Horned Owl by karlaowl

I quickly whispered to Hein that there was an owl visiting Alice, then groped my way through the dark hallway (now minus carpet), down the stairs, through a maze of plastic sheets that are hanging in the kitchen and living room as Hein removes the plaster and lathe wall there, and back to the computers to grab my headphones and recorder.  I didn't want to turn the light on and spook the owl, so it was a bit of a challenge to do this in the dark.

I met Hein just outside the door to Alice's room.  I went in, slipped on my headphones, turned on my recorder, and held it next to Alice's pet door.  The wild owl was so close it must have been perch on the roof just above me.  Alice was hooting too, and she was LOUD.  I had to turn the recording volume way down.
There was no moon out at the time, so I couldn't see where the owl was, even when I heard it fly (they're only silent when they glide, not when they flap.)  Hein went back to the bedroom and fished out the generation 2 night vision.  It wasn't much help because as soon as I switched on the illuminator, the IR light just reflected off the screen and mesh on the walls of Alice's patio.  There wasn't enough starlight to see without the IR light.

Mentally I was trying to figure out which owl this was.  It wasn't Scarlett Owl Hara...I know her hoot well.  I could tell by the rhythm of the hoot that it was a female, but I couldn't tell if it was the new female that lives at the farm next door or if it was maybe Jezebelle, the female who showed up for a few days in August last year.

Once I had enough recordings Hein and I made our way downstairs and out into the porch.  Hein just installed a motion sensor light there which I'm not used to yet, so it popped on.  Oops!  We stepped outside to see if we could see the owl with the night vision and IR illumination, but she flew right away.  I didn't mind spooking her, since I didn't want her to get too huffy with Alice no matter whooo it was.

We went back to bed but the hooting just continued.  Rusty and Iris were all riled up and hooting, so eventually the wild owl flew over to hoot at them.  At 5:00 AM she was still hooting, this time in the trees outside the bedroom window.  There was enough light I could see her in the pine tree without night vision. Victor was hooting too and I was extra careful to listen for Virginia (didn't hear her) since we just rescued a sick Great Horned Owl from the far side of Victor and Virginia's territory.  But I finally drifted off to sleep, so I assume she finally went home.

The next morning I reviewed recordings to figure out which owl this was.  It turned out to be the new female that showed up on the farm next door with a new male in late fall.  They don't come by often, and I haven't picked names for them yet.  Anyone have any suggestions?  I need to give them names since they are going to be regular characters in this soap opera.  She's more talkative than he is, but otherwise I don't know too much about them.  Scarlett Owl Hara is farther to the west than they are.

Let me know your suggestions for names...I need some!

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Alice's New Patio

For a few years I've wanted to build an outdoor cage for Alice on top of our one-story porch roof so she could go in and out through the window in her room.  It finally happened this year!!

This has been a major undertaking.  The first thing that needed to happen was the porch needed to be re-roofed.  We had that done first thing this spring.

The next obstacle was the power line that attached to the house right above where we wanted to build the cage.  It would be too close to the cage to meet code, so we had an electrician give us some options.  In the end, we chose to have the power line buried.

But before we could bury the power line, we had to dig up the broken concrete between the garage and the house, since the power line had to go through it.  Hein started in on the project by hand, but our neighbor Dennis Kinstler volunteered to come over and remove it with his skid loader.  He had it done in half an hour!

Then we found out the ground there was really wet and stayed really wet after rain.  So the electrician brought his trenching machine back out and dug a trench across our driveway and we installed a drain tile.  We need to have someone fix up our driveway now, but there's not a gigantic hurry now.

So FINALLY Roger Meyer (architect and main builder of Rusty and Iris' cages) and Hein could get going on Alice's "patio."  They worked while Alice and I were at work so her royal highness wouldn't be disturbed.

 They laid out the baseboards first, then our roofer had to come back to attach them properly to the rubber roof.
 Then they erected the frame.  Here's Roger, hard at work.
 Once the frame was up the black plastic mesh could be put on the inside of the cage.
 Bit by bit it went up.
 Here Hein is putting the window screen on the inside of the ceiling of the cage.
 On the sides the screen went on the outside to keep bugs out and avoid Alice's talons.
 Hein trimming excess black plastic mesh off the roof.  We later realized we needed screen on the top of the roof also, otherwise all the pine needs and cones would fall through the mesh and land on the screen and we couldn't clean it out.  So we took off the plastic mesh, laid down another layer of screen, and put the mesh over top.
 We put down some outdoor carpeting and put in some temporary perches and it was ready for Alice to give it a test run.  Here I am watching Alice explore her patio for the first time.  I'm in the window to her room where she can go in and out.
 Running over to check out the bow perch.
 Nice view!
 Her royal highness seems to approve.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Storm & Updates

Life got a little exciting yesterday morning.  A storm came through shortly after 7 AM with heavy rain and a lot of wind.  I was in the shower during the brunt of it, but when I was dried and dressed I had a look outside.

There were pine branches allllllll over the yard.  We have big pine trees, so some pine branches down after a storm is entirely normal.  But this was the most I've ever seen since I moved here in 1994.  As I looked around I noticed something wasn't quite right with the row of large trees in front of the house.  It took me a minute to figure it out, but the dying walnut tree at the end of the row had fallen and was completely uprooted.  To top it off, it fell directly toward Rusty and Iris' cage!

Everything appeared to be intact though, from my view inside the house.  As I went upstairs I noticed something didn't look right in the woods to the north side of the house.  It looked too open.

After the rain subsided and we had breakfast we went outside to survey the damage.  The walnut tree had missed the owl cages by about 18 inches.  Hallelujah!  The trunk missed the water hydrant by about 6 inches.  A small branch hit the hydrant, however, but the branch was rotten and didn't do any damage.

There were pine branches EVERYWHERE.  To the north of the house, by our compost pile, another mature tree had been uprooted.  And ANOTHER one to the other side of the pile.  Between the two of them they had taken down some other trees, creating a gap where before I had only seen trees.

Since we didn't have any real damage, just a mess to clean up, Hein drove up and down the valley to see if others needed help.  There was a branch in the road, the neighbor had oak limbs across his driveway, and I helped a neighbor get her big grill upright again.  But it seemed we had really gotten the worst of it ourselves.

At the Houston Nature Center in town there was a little damage: one and a half willow trees went down.  Otherwise, all was well in Houston.

Today our faithful cage builders, Roger Meyer and Laurel Oien, were over with chainsaws to cut up the walnut tree.  It was too rotten to be worth anything, so will be used as firewood.

Last night we noticed neither of the dome illuminators came on in the breeding cage, but they worked in the release cage.  Tonight we checked that out and found water in both illuminators in the breeding cage.  We took the domes off and will let them dry to see if by miracle they will work again.  If not, we'll need to buy two more.  I think we're keeping that company in business.

As for other updates, I am now broadcasting using Flash Media Encoder, which gives much better image resolution.  It was running well on both computers until I had to shut everything down for a day while we had electrical work done.  Since then the old laptop isn't able to run for more than a few minutes before the program crashes.  I'm going to try using another computer, but Flash Media Encoder doesn't work on that computer and will need some technical assistance, which I'm still waiting for.

There's big news coming on the Alice front: She'll be getting a new outdoor cage just outside her room!  Her room overlooks our one-story porch, and we'll build a screened-in cage for her there so she can be in or out.  This is a bigger project than you would imagine.

First we had to replace the porch roof since it was leaky and the soffit rotten in places.  We finally got that done.  Then we had to have the electrical lines from the pole to our house buried, as they attached to the house right above where the cage is going.  The trenching necessitated removing concrete between the house and garage also, which our neighbor kindly did with a skid loader.  But after the trenching we now need to do more driveway work, fill where the concrete was, and figure out some better drainage system across the driveway.

At any rate, we're FINALLY to the point of being able to get materials and get Alice's cage built.  Maybe even next week!  I'll post a photo and maybe do a little Ustream tour once it's done and Alice is settled in.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Cage Updates

In a way it was a good thing that Rusty and Iris' first batch of eggs didn't hatch.  This way we have time to make a gazillion updates to the cages that we've been waiting to do.  Yesterday was the day we worked on the breeding cage.

We patched squirrel holes and other gaps on the north side of the cage near the nest, two above the rain roof, and one on the wall near the bath pan.  Hein put steel siding on the ladder leading up to the nest hatch door to prevent climbing critters from getting up there.  I added lots of nesting material to the nest so Rusty can't dig all the way down to China.

Hein installed a dome illuminator near the nest and I removed the hot box from the food tray table.  Since it's kind of warm now, I also put in and filled the bath pan.  While we were in there I also picked up all the gopher remains, pellets and poop.  Whew, it feels good to have all that done!!!!

We watched anxiously for the infrared illuminator to kick in to see what it would look like.  It's marvelous...just like someone put in a light bulb near the nest!  We were also happy to see that Rusty enthusiastically jumped into his role digging in the nest to prepare a new nest bowl.

While in the cage I noticed some chewed walnuts inside the walls near the bath pan.  I assume the squirrels that were in the cage weeks ago did this and have since left them.  But that night I got an answer to the question of what the heck is digging and chewing so loudly on that side of the cage: MICE!  The mice are running in and around the walnut shells, rattling them as the move around.  And they didn't stay put over there either...they had to check out the new nesting material in the nest.  Of course Rusty and Iris ignored them.

It seems we're on the road to renesting.  On Monday I counted all of Rusty and Iris' copulations, for a total of 16!  I don't think they're keeping up that pace every day (I'm not counting), but Rusty sure seems intent on making more fertile eggs yet this year.