Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Screech Mystery, a big owl Flyout and Donna's report

Last night after the GHO fly-out in the North Woods a small group of owl prowlers came across a gray Screech-owl looking out of a hole near the North Meadow. [See Donna's report below for detailed descriptions of both events.]

Though it was dark, and at least 1/2 hour past the usual screech-owl fly-out time, this owl was unaccountably staying put. Was it because of the presence of the larger owl in his/her territory? Or, could another owl have been sitting on eggs deeper down in the hole?

There is some similarity here to Bob Levy's report [see preceding post], of the known pair residing [I think there's no harm in saying] near the park's West Drive . For convenience let's call Bob's pair the West Drive Screech-owls, to distinguish them from the pair I once called the Riviera owls

Now I'd like to suggest a wild possibility. Everybody knows that the gray-phase screech has disappeared, the bird that once teamed up with the little redhead in the Riviera hole,. That red-phase Screech-owl [likely a female] is now regularly seen in her original Black Locust roost-hole up the hill from the Boathouse.

Many observers have speculated that the Riviera Gray was done in by the Great Horned Owl. [Nature red in tooth and claw, remember?]

O.K., here comes my flight of fancy:
Since there have been many occasions when only one screech-owl has been seen exiting the West Drive hole at fly-out time, maybe the gray Riviera owl has been doing a bit of wandering about --not necessarily hanky panky, mind you, because the breeding season has not really set in. Maybe he wandered as far as the West Drive hole, which is not, after all, so very far from the Riviera hole. Maybe the times only one owl came out of the West Drive hole were the very times a gray owl was seen at the Riviera hole, sometimes alone, sometimes with a cute redhead.

It's just a thought. . .

Now, here 's Donna's report from last night:

Great Horned Owl Field Notes 23 Jan 2006

Sunset: 5:02PM EST
Temperature: 37 F
Humidity: 82%
Wind: Calm

All times PM unless otherwise noted.

4:46 Central Park, North Woods, west side entrance , I see as I enter that the Master Owlers have begun to gather.

4:51 I almost miss the GHO as I'm walking north, though he's in the same tree [an ash] he was in yesterday. He's tucked in, and perched in a slightly different branch position, with a backdrop of other thick branches that mask his shape. Perfectly still he's much harder to see and I'm struck that when disturbed and awakened in the daytime as he was yesterday, just those slight movements make him more vulnerable to detection.

5:02 GHO is settled onto his feet and they are completely covered by abdominal feathers. Anterior facing south. Head tucked. "Horns" lying on top of head.

5:09 Both wings extend sideways in a long lateral stretch.

5:10 A raptor flies from north to south just east of the roost tree. ID is difficult, with the back light.

5:11 Left wing stretch. Preens mid back. The head turn has such ease a passing birder is confused and thinks the owl's anterior side is facing north.

5:12 A birding couple arrives from the south and asks if the GHO has just arrived at the tree in the last few minutes, as they had seen what they took to be a GHO perched to the south, watched him, and then saw him take off and come this way. No, no, this bird has been here all the time.

5:13 GHO works the oil gland in lower back with beak, then preens abdomen and breast. Sparrows chirp, possible Towhee calls several times [Wheet, wheet].

5:14 Long right wing stretch.

5:16 The big overhead double wing stretch, then the trademark one wing perpendicular stretch. He triangulates southwest, then more posterior preening.

5:18 He's up and flies to the tree adjacent to and over our heads. The mallards in the loch start quacking the alarm.

5:20 Horns lateral, he takes another short hop. He shakes out and shivers every feather on his body in one move.

5:21 Big triangulation.

5:22 GHO stares at Owlers.

5:25 He's up again and now perches high in tall oak. Another short hop, this time near the trunk of a tree, very difficult to see. Then flies to a tree nearer the east edge of the woods.

5:29 The minute Jim goes into the arch to cross under to the GHOs side, the owl is up again, I place his landing and go into the tunnel myself. When I exit the arch, after no more than 15 seconds, the owl is no longer where I saw him land previously. My suspicions are once again aroused that the reason few if anyone in the park have seen the owl take prey is because he just waits until he's intentionally ditched the watchers before doing any serious business.

5:30 We search. Quacking. Ducks begin to fly from the east, from the far side of the ball fields toward the west. Small birds call as if disturbed but we don't see the owl.

5:33 Jim says he wants to show me something. A few steps to the south, there is a hole in a tree he's been watching, which is periodically mobbed by birds in the daytime. He's never seen what might be in the hole because after all it's a hole but let's go take a look. When we get there, now keep in mind Jim has some of the sharper night eyes in the universe, it's pretty darn dark up there in the North Woods, he exclaims quietly, "There! Its a gray phase Screech!" After some triangulating of my own in a vain attempt to see the owl, finally, it's little face completely filling it's hole, perfectly matching the color and texture of the bark around it, is a Gray Phase Eastern Screech Owl. DISCOVERY! We motion the rest of the group over. Look! They, like I, have to do some looking before they see it but very soon there are smiles of excitement all round.

Then the whispered questions begin. "Why hasn't she flown out? Must be the Great Horned Owl. Would you fly out? Wait, maybe she has eggs! No, she'd be sitting on them way down in the hole. Maybe she IS sitting on them but it isn't a very deep hole. Do they sit immediately upon laying an egg or wait for the full clutch?" Pause. " Isn't it too early for Screech eggs? Yes maybe for regular Screechs but remember last year the Screech pair up here had young at a record breaking early date for New York."

5:40 Yes, the Great Horned Owl had ditched us and though ducks quack, bird cries erupt from the bushes cueing us most assuredly that the Great Horned Owl is hunting and we might just get another look at him if we try, his little cousin the Screech has made sure that the Big Guy will hunt in privacy tonight.

Thoughts now have turned to the whinny sounds of baby Screech Owls calling to their parents for food, learning to hunt for insects, and to spy the earthworms that come to the surface of moist earth at night.

5:50 We turn and walk toward the park exit.

Perhaps Spring isn't really that far away after all.

Submitted: Donna Browne