The squirrels have left the screech owl nest box, and thereby cleared the way for the screech owls, if they still want it.
Sunday morning between and 4 and 5 AM, I prepared an alternate nest box for the squirrel family, set it up for rapid mounting near the screech owl nest box, and, with considerable care for my shoulders, brought down the screech owl nest box. (Enough people had offered their help that I naturally felt that I had to do it myself. There's a logic—admittedly warped—to that if you look for it long enough. Really.)
I hoped to capture the entire family of squirrels (mom and three big, but still-nursing pups) under a towel, slip a sheet of cardboard under the bedding material, and then a gloved hand beneath the cardboard, and lift out the whole family as a unit, to be dropped gently, but with haste, into the waiting spare nest box. That box would then be closed-up, hauled up a ladder, and lashed to the tree. I'd then clean-up the screech owl nest box, check some wiring if time permitted, and restore it to the tree for the owls' consideration.
What actually happened was that I got as far draping the towel over the family, and was trying to push the sheet of cardboard beneath the bedding material when the cardboard hung-up on something halfway in and, as I repositioned the towel to work it under the perch inside the nest box, so that I could make a more credible effort to pick-up the family without the aid of the cardboard foundation, mom leapt for freedom. I caught her with one hand in mid-air, but she slipped through my grip effortlessly and bounded away into the night. That left me with the worst case scenario I'd been dreading all along: three stressed pups with no mother.
The best thing I could do for the pups was to leave them in the screech owl nest box and return it to its place in the tree, and then hope that mom would come back to determine their fate later. So that's what I did.
And then I waited and watched and felt like a complete bastard for making such harmless, contended creatures feel first terrified and then too miserable even to close their eyes and sleep.
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. Somewhere around 7:30 AM, mom leapt to the owlet rail on the front of the box and all three overjoyed pups rushed out to see her. She alternated between sitting on the owlet rail with them, and sitting in the tree just behind and above the box. It seemed she had no intention of going back into the nest box again. The pups were so excited to have her back that they attempted to climb from the nest box to the tree to be with her. The first one to attempt it failed and plummeted into the yard below, but returned to the tree trunk unfazed, to find mom waiting there to guide he/she back up the tree, and from there she didn't stop guiding until she'd led the pup all the way to another tree, and her old nest in its outer branches. The pup matched mom's path branch for branch and leap for leap, as though it was already an old hand at tree traversal. It was great to see.
When mom returned to the nest box, another pup tried to reach her and plummeted to the ground as well. Once again she was there to guide it back up the tree, into the next tree and to her nest there. Then she returned for the third pup, who managed to climb from the box to her without falling out of the tree, and guided it to their new home.
So, the screech owl nest box is empty, but, in deference to the uncertain state of my shoulders, I haven't brought it back down for cleaning or maintenance, yet. If the owls move in before I can do that, the picture quality will be less than ideal. So far, however, there's no indication that anything has been inside the box since the squirrels left, which suggests that the screech owls may have found an alternate nest site this year. Only time will tell.
If the owls return, so will the live nest box cam'.