Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Donna and the Owl

Photo by Cal Vornberger -- 12/30/05 -- GHO preening

Hi Marie,

Walking past the The Falconer statue a bit after 3 p.m. I hear the cacophony of Grackles and Starlings. Getting out from under the umbrella a bit, I look up and there they are, HUNDREDS of them in the deciduous trees on top of the knoll directly behind the statue. I don't know whether they ended up roosting there or had just stopped to converse.

By 3:30, though still cold and windy, the rain has stopped for the moment. A crow caws repeatedly from the east. The Great Horned Owl, in the familiar tree, is preening her breast. (Has anyone decided what gender she is?) Though the outer feathers are wet and stuck together, the under fluffy layers appear completely dry when she ruffles them up. Her "horns" are no longer standing up but are now sticking out the sides of her head.

By 3:45 she's begun to work on her back feathers and then starts the long sliding preen of her tail. A process reminiscent of an old time wringer washing machine. But instead of rollers doing the squeezing, it's the beak pressing the feathers, starting from the base of the tail and pressing the water out and off the end of the tail.

Next the right foot. During this process a very strong gust hit the tops of the trees and standing one footed the owl is suddenly off balance. With an easy spread of her left wing, she's back in balance and doesn't miss a preening beat.

Great Horned Owl foot trivia: Their outside toes can be placed forward at will in order to have the usual bird toe configuration, three toes front, one back OR can move back at will to the configuration found in creepers and parrots, two toes front and two toes back.

By 4:00 the rain begins again heavily and the Great Horned tucks her beak and goes back to sleep.

A check of the Gray Screech's hole reveals nothing. But a passing birder reports that the Red Screech is visible in her hole.

By 4:33 the wind is gusting mightily in the tops of the trees, cold rain is still falling, the park has pretty much cleared of the few people who were around in the first place, and the Great Horned Owl is methodically giving her head a good scratch. This does interesting things to her horn feathers. She's now an owl with a punk hairdo.

At 4:45 she begins preening her right shoulder and, unlike when the upright alert Red-tails preen that portion, the owls wing waggles all over the place as if it's barely connected. It's obviously not damaged in any way. It just looks different: incredibly relaxed and bobbling around. Though it's kind of funny, I don't laugh. After all it's down to just her and me.

4:55, A Red-tailed Hawk appears from the southeast and soars in small circles over the east bank of The Oven. The Red-tail looks at the Great Horned Owl, the Owl looks at the Red-tail. Then after a few more circles the RT sails off to the west.

4:57, the Owl raises both wings and does a mighty stretch, then a few long preens of the tail.

5:01, FLYOUT. But it's a short hop to an oak to the northeast. It's one of the trees just across the path from the "point" of The Oven, where the water flows across the trail in wet weather. She preens her tail again. Then I hear a meeeeeeoeow. The owl!

5:05, She up and flies soft as silk to the west into the high branches on the hill. I take off westerly on the path and then cut up the hill. I lose her, then find her again in the branches. Then I hear her a second time, but it's a different sound. Not anything resembling their five part Whoooo or the cat sound. It's in a minor key. It sounds pitiful, sad. Something about it reminds me both of the baby Screech Owls at 104th St. last spring and of the Trump Parc fledged RTs begging, two sounds that don't sound anything alike. The sound I'm hearing this time doesn't fade off in the end but rather has a close to it.

5:08, She's off again. I lose her in the dark towards the west.

I head for the path lamp near Bow Bridge. From the end of the bridge, I search the trees, and I'm about to give up when she comes out of the dark and I see her over the lake, silhouetted against the lights of the Westside. Beautiful. Then she's gone again in the dark trees. It's sleeting. I head for home.

Donna Browne