Thursday, May 12, 2011

All Branchers (and Owlets) Safe and Sound

All three branchers were sighted at the same time in the same tree (the tree in which I deposited owlet/brancher no. 5 after it left the nest on the 8th). The brancher that appeared largest had its own perch, while the other two (presumably owlets 1 and 2, who left the nest together on the 10th) were perched together on another limb. Those two had to cross perhaps 75 feet of "open" space (the ground is littered with limbs fallen from the dead nest box tree) to get from the nest box tree to the tree they were in, so everyone, whether or not they’re skilled distance fliers yet, is getting around with apparent ease. They certainly did a good job of being somewhere else everytime I managed to get my light and camera pointed at where they had been. So, the entire family is accounted for and is doing well. I always worry about them, even as I assume they're doing fine, so this confirmation is a welcome relief.

The best of the few brancher photos I managed to take. I believe this is owlet/brancher no. 5.
Understandably, he/she didn't appreciate my bright light and kept moving to different limbs
until vanishing into the depths of the canopy.

While I was out searching for, and ultimately photographing, the branchers (well, trying to photograph the branchers), I had three thawed mice in my pocket, with the idea that I’d inevitably end-up with at least one of the adults watching me (rather than just attacking me), and could then deposit the mice in some convenient place for it to pick-up after I was gone. It took a surprisingly long time to be certain I was being watched carefully enough for the owl to realize what I was carrying (to pay attention to the rodent dangling from my hand, rather than just perceiving me as one big threat) and to note where I deposited the mice, but I eventually convinced myself that those criteria were met, and left the mice on top of a fence beneath the tree in which the branchers are roosting. I was probably worrying needlessly—if owls are anything, they’re first rate observers—but I wanted to be as sure as possible that the mice would get to where they were needed.

My scheme must have worked, because around 7 AM one of the adults appeared in the nest box. Upon hearing that, I arrived at my TV (which is pretty much continuously tuned to the “owl channel” these days) in time to see a mouse tail disappearing into a satisfied looking owlet.

A check around noon revealed all three mice were still where I'd left them. I'm not sure why they're being ignored.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Owlet Family Portrait and No. 5 Grows Up

I brought down the nest box late this afternoon to install the owlet rail. Fortunately, as I was in the process of assessing what pieces of its mount I'd have to replace, I discovered that (once again) I'd made a spare. So, the only part I actually had to replace was the branch that forms the rail. The old one would probably have been fine, but I tripped over it while owlet herding, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Nest box with new owlet rail.

Owlet herding? Oh, yeah. The first owlet could leave the nest any time now, even tonight (as, indeed, it did; see below), so this may very well have been my last opportunity to take a family portrait that shows the owlets essentially in their “brancher” configuration. Of course, the portrait didn't include the adults. The adults were there, but they confined their participation to clicking in occasional protest, and swooping down to hit me in the head during one of my owlet herding efforts.

Taking the family portrait proved to be complicated enough that the photographic opportunity it represented wasn’t fully realized. The owlets were more interested in testing their flying skills (not bad, by the way) and exploring the world, than they were in standing together side-by-side to be photographed. Having to put down the camera, and go round up an owlet or two every time that happened didn’t allow opportunities for carefully checking the results and adjusting camera settings accordingly. Nonetheless, with good subject material, you’re halfway to good photos, and I had very good (if uncooperative) subjects, so I think I managed an acceptable portrait in the end. Well … decide for yourself....

Best guess caption, from left to right: Owlets 2, 3, 1, 4 and 5 (the adoptee).

The first owlet left the nest box at around 9:20 PM tonight, almost exactly on schedule. Having observed that, I went outside to keep an eye on my young friend. For ten minutes or so, the owlet stood on the rail, and studied its options. It then flew a good distance to a lower limb, paused there for a few minutes, then flew somewhere else. A quick search turned-up the owlet (now a “brancher”, technically) on the ground below its previous perch. What it had in mind to do next, I don’t know. What I had in mind was getting it off the ground and into a large tree with lots of foliage to hide in, which is exactly what I did, under the watchful eyes, and occasional attacks, of the adults. At one point, I found myself standing under the relevant tree with the owlet perched on the hand of my outstretched arm, while I waited for the owlet to step off my hand and onto the tree limb directly in front of it. One of the adults was waiting on the same limb, not ten feet away, watching us both intently, and calling to the owlet, who saw no good reason to give-up a perfectly good perch (my hand) to join mom/dad on the limb. As usual, I had to pry the youngster off/out of my fingers and place it on the limb, a situation it seemed to find no more or less agreeable than perching on my hand. Nonetheless, that tree can provide a lot more places to explore and hide in than I can, and the adults were a lot happier with the owlet in the tree, so I think that was the right move for all concerned.

If I had to guess, I’d say that was owlet no. 5, the adoptee, who was always a little bit bigger, and a lot more adaptable to strange situations (undoubtably due to its early, positive exposure to the very strange situation of being raised by Sallie, my raptor rehabilitator friend), than its acquired siblings.

By the way, screech owls normally keep a low profile, and do not do things like attack people. Ordinarily, they merely observe people, just as they observe any other part of their environment that does interesting things. However, during the week or so that they have flightless branchers, their attitude changes completely, and anyone caught after dark in an area where a brancher is located becomes a potential target for attack. (A brancher can fly a bit, but can't stay in the air for long, and, at first, often can’t hold altitude during flight, so “flightless” isn’t a perfect term, but it’s basically correct.) Once the branchers have learned to fly, and thus become fledglings, the adults calm down dramatically, and basically go back to being their usual, calm, low-profile selves. But, once a year, for a week or so of nights, they’re hyper-defensive, and prove that within those tiny breasts hidden under camouflage feathers beat the hearts of lions. Don’t hold it against them; admire it – even while you’re washing out your talon scratches.

Owlet no. 5 when he/she was added to the nest on April 24th.
(Yes, there is a spot of green food coloring marking its head.)
The family portrait was shot just 13.9 days later, and no. 5 left the nest only 1½ hours after that.
Good luck, you splendid little punk.