Monday, December 31, 2012

May 3, 2012: A Most Unusual Food Delivery

What makes this food delivery unusual? First it happened during the day. Second, it was a whole mouse (wondered where my bold bird feeder mice went to). Third, Mme. Owl was spending daytime outside the nest due to the heat, but showed-up, called to her mate, and eventually he arrived with this mouse, still in daylight, a time when screech owls especially do not want to be seen. So this is one of the oddest food deliveries I can remember seeing.

Fortunately, the S2071 automatically recorded these events. Unfortunately, it was set to start recording six seconds before motion was detected in the entryway, and to stop sixty seconds afterward, so you don’t so much get a slice of owl life from this movie, as slices. When there's been a meaningful gap between consecutive recordings, you will notice breaks in the video (some very obvious, some less so). Those correspond to periods when there was no motion in the entryway to trigger recording. Nonetheless, take all the fragments for a 56 minute period, even though they capture only 18 minutes of it, run them together into a single movie, and the result is still of interest (IMHO). The sound was a problem however: my nightmare hum was present at the time all of this occurred. I've filtered it out, but the side-effects of doing so are over-emphasized high frequencies, and the addition, at times, of what sounds like an echo, which is definitely not a sonic characteristic of the nest box.

May 3, 2012, 7:24 to 8:21 PM CDT
266.7 MB MPEG-4 movie, of 17:56 duration.

As this movie begins, the eldest owlet was 9 days, 4 hours and 20 minutes old, ±16 minutes, while the youngest owlet was exactly 6 days, 3 hours and 31 minutes old. No idea how old the mouse was, or even its species.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

December 29/30 Mme. Owl Visits Again

Mme. Owl visits the nest box once again, complete with egg depression work. Not sure what more to say, except that, if all of these visits start to look the same, the frequency of them is well worth observing and recording. Also, at some point, we should witness the male owl call to his mate from the nest site, as part of, what I believe to be, the start of the mating ritual (“See: I found you a good place to nest. Can we have sex now?”).

December 30, 2012, 6:09 AM CST
19.7 MB MPEG-4 movie.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

December 28/29 Nest Site Preparation

Mme. Owl stopped by the nest box at 6:04 AM CST to do a little nest site prep. That consists, as usual, of kicking around the bedding material to make a depression for the eggs she’ll eventually lay. Another means to the same end, not seen here, is for the female to push the bedding material around using her breast like the blade of a bulldozer. That behavior, however, may be reserved for looser material than that currently present in the nest box.

December 29, 2012, 6:04 AM CST
40.6 MB MPEG-4 movie.

The material in the nest box, BTW, is what was left after last season's breeding. I haven't made any effort to replace it. One reason is laziness; egg laying shouldn't begin in these parts until March, and the last time I went looking to buy wood shavings (as used in hamster cages, for instance) all I could find was something resembling cat litter. The other reason is that I need to move the nest box to a living tree before nesting commences (a project I admit to putting off due to the fact that it's going to be a major pain in the ass), and leaving the old bedding material, rich with familiar owlet smells, in the box should help reassure the adult owls that this is the same nest they've trusted for who-knows-how-long, just miraculously relocated. I have no evidence that that will be considered significant by the owls, but it seems like a reasonable possibility with no downside.

Friday, December 28, 2012

December 27/28 Mouse Withdrawal

Whichever of the owls (I suspect Mme. Owl) deposited the mouse in the nest box last night (December 26/27) was back tonight to make the withdrawal. Think of it as getting dinner from the leftovers in the fridge.

December 28, 2012, 3:14 AM CST
29.6 MB MPEG-4 movie.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

December 26/27 Owl Visits

There were two screech owl visits to the nest box last night, December 26/27, 2012.

In the first visit, at 1:54 AM CST, Mme. Owl gives herself away by briefly kicking around the bedding material, which is a classic female screech owl behavior: making a depression for her eggs (even though there shouldn’t be any until March).

December 27, 2012, 1:54 AM CST
29.6 MB MPEG-4 movie.

The second visit is more interesting, because it demonstrates the all-year utility of nest boxes to the owls: one of the owls stops by to deposit a dead mouse for safe keeping, i.e. later eating. This prey caching behavior is normal, and, while all manner of locations may be selected as caches, a secure cavity like the nest box would have to be somewhere around the top of the list. And that is one of the reasons I invariably tell people who ask “when should I put up my screech owl nest box” that the correct answer is always: “now.”

December 27, 2012, 6:07 AM CST
37.9 MB MPEG-4 movie.

In this particular case, the nest box will be functioning like a freezer, as the thermometer on the wall clearly shows a temperature in the mid-twenties, fahrenheit; significantly colder than predicted. I went out shortly after this visit finished, and rapidly made two observations: the first was a screech owl perched on a tree limb about ten feet from my back door (after looking away for a moment, it was gone), and the second was that the thermometer was correct.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

2012 Owlet Family Portrait

I gather some loyal followers have been waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for the official 2012 Owlet Family Portrait. Well, happy Christmas, and merry holidays; wait no more.

From left to right, that’s owlet 4, 2, 1 and 3 (ages in days: 25.16, 28.15 ±16 min, 28.2 ±54 min, and 27.19). Owlet no. 1 tested its wings on a number of occasions by flying away from the photo shoot, forcing me to drop whatever I was doing to go retrieve the scamp before he/she could go anywhere unreachable (under the nearby brush pile that was the preferred target, for instance). After seeing that no harm came from flying away or being retrieved, owlet no. 2 soon started doing the same thing.

Feeling obligated to return to the nest the same number of owlets I’d borrowed, lest the adult owls decide I’m completely evil (as opposed to my normal status as a mere pest), those test flights, while very sensible on the owlets’ parts (what better time to test those wings properly?), were a bit stressful for me. Mme. Owl, who observed this whole process from a nearby tree, calling to the owlets from time to time, seemed to prefer that they be kept together as well. (Was her message “put up with the annoying monkey; it does this kind of thing, but you’re safe … or the monkey gets my talons in its head”? That was the translation I settled on at the time.)

Anyway, everyone was returned to the nest safely, and Mme. Owl did not swear a vendetta against me, so, as usual, it all worked-out. However, owlet no. 1 must have liked what it saw of the outside world (all of the owlets did) along with the feel of air on its open wings (“a prince of the power of the air”, if my Emerson is coming back correctly), because it decided to leave the nest that very night, shortly after sunset, as is traditional. Owlet no. 2 waited an additional three days before leaving. Was that unusual enthusiasm in owlet no. 1, or was it because he/she was laid three days before owlet no. 2, even though they ultimately hatched within hours of each other? I have no idea.

Study all you want, but never forget that the closer you look, the more mysteries nature offers you. I can’t imagine a better deal than that.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Owls from the Archives: Being Pushed Around

Yesterday’s video showed the owlets, almost ready to leave the nest, competing for food deliveries. This video shows them a month earlier. A lot can change in a month.

April 23, 2012, 3:07 AM CDT
16.7 MB MPEG-4 video.

Mme. Owl is seen here engaging in one of her routine brooding duties: shuffling and rolling eggs. The former you can see, at least for two eggs. The latter is being done when Mme. Owl is vigorously moving around after the shuffling. Turn the volume up high enough, and you can even hear the eggs moving.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Owls from the Archives: How to Get Fed

Here's something from the video archives that accumulated during this year’s nesting season: owlet food begging, and two food deliveries. As one of the owlets has learned, and demonstrates with the second food delivery, the best way to make sure that you’re the one who gets fed is to be the owlet nearest the entryway.

May 23, 2012, 9:21 PM CDT
17.5 MB MPEG-4 video.

If you’re remembering that there were four owlets this year, and wondering why there are only three here, that’s because the eldest owlet had already left the nest at this point (three days ahead of the sibling who hatched on the same day, if memory serves).

Friday, December 21, 2012

December 20/21 Owl Visit

The owls (or at least one of them) continue to monitor the nest box. Since live owlets emerged from this nest site this year, it will be their first choice for a nest site this coming year. Therefore, they probably give it far more attention than any other cavity in their territory. It’s been a long time since I was able to gather data on the frequency of owl visits to their would-be nest site over time. I'm looking forward to collecting such information again, in the lead-up to this year's nesting.

Nothing about the behavior shown here is a clear indicator of the sex of the owl. My guess, at this time of year, is that it is the male, making sure that he'll have a nest site to offer his mate a few months from now. The pair are mated for life (although screech owl life expectancies in the wild are sufficiently short that it's hard to know how meaningful that is in practice), but it seems to be the male’s responsibility to secure a nest site as part of the yearly mating ritual (and to defend it while nesting is in progress), so he’ll be anxious to ensure that he can hold-up his end of that bargain.

December 21, 2012, 6:56 AM CST
23.4 MB MPEG-4 video.

I can’t say this video is exciting, but if you need your screech owl fix, or just want to see what these quick “status check” visits are like, have a look.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Owls Return After Nest Box Maintenance

Last Sunday, December 16, I brought the screech owl nest box down, removed the long-since unnecessary owlet rail in order to discourage squirrels, and gave the camera windows and compartment interiors a thorough cleaning, so the cameras could acquire clear pictures again. Also, as part of my eternal, and perpetually failing, quest to eliminate hum in the audio signal, I added some ferromagnetic cores (AKA chokes) around various internal wires I thought might be susceptible to picking up electrical noise and feeding it back into the system.

(At first the ferromagnetic cores seemed to have done the trick; now I know they haven't. So, the score stands at unwanted, intermittent audio noise: ≈10 years; Chris: zero. I'd scream if it would make me feel any better, but at this point I think sinking into deep depression is the way to go. That and ripping every piece of analog electronics out of the system and replacing it with digital gear; but that's still somewhat expensive, and public university salaries are somewhere between poor and disgraceful here in Texas, and, not being adjusted for inflation, they only get worse. Still, I'm better off than a lot of my fellow Americans, which is a sad commentary, right there.)

This nest box work was motivated by the acquisition of a new S2071 unit from SuperCircuits to replace the two previous units (one purchased, one generously loaned by SuperCircuits) that had bricked themselves during the nesting season. SuperCircuits has been great about replacing the gear with no hassles about my tardiness in returning the original equipment, but neither they nor I have any clue what the problem is/was, so whether the new unit will do any better than its predecessors, I have no idea, though things aren't encouraging thus far. The manufacturer, 3S Vision Systems has, of late, been unresponsive to elementary queries about obtaining the latest firmware. So, I haven't even had the chance to try to obtain contacts with their engineers about the bugs in their RTP implementation (specifically the RTCP sub-protocol). That's all a shame, because, if it were reliable, it'd be a very useful unit to those of us still using analog closed-circuit video gear.

Anyway, with the box cleaned, the owlet rail gone, and an S2071 to constantly monitor the video feeds (and automatically record movies when it detects motion), I set about waiting for my owls to put in an appearance. Their interest in nest sites is proportional to the nearness of the next nesting season (or predators, or weather from which they need shelter), so their interest at the moment isn't high, but they are periodically checking-out the would-be nest cavities in their territory to make sure they're still available.

On December 18th, the owls finally put in not one, but two, appearances, as may be seen below. (Click the images to see the movies.)

December 18, 2012, 1:14 AM CST
22.6 MB MPEG-4 video.

December 18, 2012, 6:40 AM CST
18.3 MB MPEG-4 video.

So, if you're wondering whether the nest box cam’ will be returning next year, I think we can safely assume that it will (hum, or no hum).

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

“Apple, Customer Service; Customer Service…”

Apple’s MobileMe services, including the various web hosting services associated with homepage.[mac|me].com were shutdown at the start of this month. Apple, a company that has built data centers the size of small towns to support its iCloud Internet services, appears not to have been able to find any resources to keep its existing Internet services going (even after spending years integrating “dot mac”/“Mobile Me” publishing into their various content production/manipulation apps). In the lead-up to shutting down their web hosting service, they were also incapable of providing customers with support for a service as fundamental as setting-up HTTP 303 permanent redirects, so that users’ browsers and search engine crawlers, alike, could be told where all those displaced web pages had gone to.

Apple’s best advice was “associate a custom domain with your homepage well in advance, then change where that domain points at the switchover.” A sound approach as far as it goes (it does nothing to address the loss of some features dot mac customers have been accustomed to for many years), but “dot mac”/”Mobile Me” was supposed to be web hosting for the rest of us – and I think that’s a bit much for many of the “rest of us,” especially if you’ve taken a fresh-eyed look at the home pages of the various domain registrars and web hosting companies – they’re an undifferentiated hell of “do this,” “do that” advertisements for their own mess of conflated/conjoined services. And some of the user experiences behind those sign-up buttons stop me cold, even when they don’t appear to lead into a trap or scam … and I’m one of the people who knows what they’re doing, at least in principle. (Figuring out how to just get services A and B out of companies intent on selling you the world and/or the Brooklyn Bridge is another matter.)

So, Apple’s paying customers are cutoff (if that’s how they’ve decided to treat their paying customers…), chucked out of the confines of the walled garden of dot mac, and granted their freedom in the middle of an unmapped swamp stretching from horizon to horizon. A review of basic customer service principles, and a reading of The Paradox of Choice, seems overdue in Cupertino. Better late than never.

(Sure, lots of companies do worse to their customers everyday, and I feel no need to criticize them for two reasons: in most cases I don’t even know about those incidents, and that’s because I select companies like Apple to deal with … firms that repay any extra up-front costs with the quality of their products or services in the long run. You know … usually … in principle. Which reminds me: Hey, Apple, Mac OS X 10.7 still doesn’t support your own RAID drivers! Screw your Pro users. Maximize the disk I/O performance bottleneck. WTF?)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Owl Cam’ Acquires Real-Time Animations

Stealing Inspired by an idea from my old friend Chris Cooley, author of the Owl Nest Box app, I’ve created pages (for now, and 12 hours ago) that animate the last four minutes of activity in the nest. There’s nothing like animation to make even tiny motions clearly visible, so these new pages reveal that those times when nothing seems to be happening are, far more often than not, merely a misperception produced by my other visualization strategies. (In fairness to me, those other visualizations made sense when the cam’ first went live, and for some years afterward, but times have changed.)

Anyway, enjoy. Or else.

(Chris gave me the go-ahead for this when I brought-up the idea of adding animated web pages, so I don’t think we’ll be meeting on the field of honor anytime soon. Also, he’s at work on a new version of the Owl Nest Box app that already does better animations than mine. So, take that, me.)

Monday, April 30, 2012

Owl Cam’ Acquires -12 Hours Views

My eastern screech owl nest box cam‘ has acquired a new set of viewing options: The “twelve hours ago“ views. I see these as a major enhancement for everyone whose sleep schedule overlaps night here in Austin, and thus the owls’ period of maximum activity.

In the past, for instance, schools in the UK have been able to use this cam’ as an educational tool, but not (for the most part) schools in the US, because, during school hours, the owls are either sleeping, or just meandering within the nest box. That’s a real-enough part of owl life, but not the most educational part.

Anyway, while the metaphorical paint on the new code is still very wet, it does work, and the various edge cases I had to neglect to get the code out while it could still do viewers any good, shouldn't cause more than a modicum of confusion, if they arise at all. Since long-time views have had to cope with all manner of transitory problems before, I think the new feature will work out well enough for the time being.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Weren’t All Those Quarters Enough?

Official sign on a gas station air compressor: “Feed Me Starving Children”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Screech Owl Cam is Live Again (at Last!)

The paint is still wet on the new OwlCam software, but an hour ago it finally gave every indication of working, so I put it into production and, voilĂ !, images from the nest box are showing-up on the web site every 60 seconds once again.

The new software or hardware could malfunction at any time, but I’ve been studying the software’s internal behavior and everything looks solid so far. Fingers crossed.

Enjoy the owls.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Owl Status Report

A few people have asked for a status report. The owls and eggs are fine.

There. I hope you’re happy.

Expanding on that a little, we’re in the long, dull ~30 day incubation period. All four eggs look good (there’s been no opportunity to weigh or measure the last two, regretably). Mme. Owl is comfortable and, due to mild temperatures, can leave the box with some regularity, albeit not for long periods of time. Mr. Owl has been providing a steady supply of small food items ranging from geckos to cockroaches.

Ranting, with a Hint of Techno Status

So, everything is exactly as it should be, apart from the fact that there is no screech owl cam’, which is driving me nuts. I started with at least a plan A, B and C to make this happen, one way or the other. But every one of those plans has either failed, or is being delayed very effectively by the people who should be supporting their company’s customers, and do, it seems, right up to the point where a solution could result. If this persists much longer, I may find the energy to write a review of a company which we’ll just call SS for the moment, the defective product they sold me, but won't quite arrange to replace, and the smart, hard working technical support person I've been dealing with there, who nonetheless answers email maybe once a week (or not all) and phone calls even less often.

There was a plan D, too, which was to render the absence of the traditional cam’ pages more-or-less irrelevant, by offering streaming audio/video, instead. It appears that streaming video is a no-go. The solid offer to stream the video from campus that I had has failed to be realized. The commercial service USTREAM turns out not support any streaming audio/video standards. I mean real IETF standards, like my video server supports (RTSP/RTP in this case), not the things companies call standards because that sounds better than "some damn fool thing, created in secret with no danger of peer review, that we want you to use".

So, now I'm back to plan A, which I don’t like (especially now that I know how it behaves in practice – it was much better in theory), but which I’m getting very close to making work. (Maybe it'll work better than I expect. There are good reasons to believe and disbelieve that.) As far as I can tell, the really big, tricky code is complete and working. I just have to interface it to the traditional Owl Cam software in place of its previous video acquisition code, and declare victory. Easier said than done, of course, but, barring hideous, surprising problems, I think I can finish-up the work soon.

If it all works, the good news is that it should go on working, unmodified, for the foreseeable future, with no drivers or other software to go obsolete, no interconnects to discontinue, etc. (So, just for instance, Apple can’t screw me by creating FireWire 800 ports that, for reasons no one can explain, and Apple has refused to address for at least three years, aren’t backward compatible with FireWire 400, thus rendering all three of my video capture devices useless. Neither will they be suckering me into using QuickTime for Java [or anything even vaguely like it on any platform], which was a great idea in principle, a mess in practice, and a software deathtrap since they ceased maintaining it.)

Well, that’s me done venting for the time being.

A Question for Loyal Followers

Now, a question: I gather a lot of people like discussion groups associated with topics like the screech owl cam’. I can, for instance, set up such a group for this cam’ on Google Groups very easily, but I have no idea what people who care about these things care about, and therefore no idea what service would be a well-received choice. If you have thoughts on this matter, feel free to post a comment, or contact me by email (my address is on the screech owl cam main page, down near the bottom).

(Personally, I burned out on discussion groups back in the heyday of Usenet, but that’s just me.)

And Now, Owls

Here’s an MPEG-4 (".mp4") movie of an interesting food delivery on April 2nd (27.3 MB). The food is one of the mediterranean geckos that have so successfully populated this region of Texas, and which seem to be a favorite screech owl food. The really interesting thing, to me, is after the gecko is swallowed, Mme. Owl engages in unbidden preening of her mate’s head, the feathers on which he can’t preen for himself, of course. Offhand, I don’t remember ever seeing this behavior associated with a food delivery.

Male above, female below, just after a food delivery this morning.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Egg no. 4 Happens

Egg no. 4 happened sometime today. Four eggs is the normal size for a screech owl clutch (well, a mean of something like 3.75 is, if memory serves, what Gehlbach came-up with), so this is probably the last of the eggs. Now, Mme. Owl settles into relentless incubation for the next 30 days, and then continues that task for some weeks afterward as she broods the owlets.

It must be mighty boring for a born huntress, but she knows what needs to be done, and, of course, so does her mate, who'll be supplying almost 100% of the family's food for about the next seven weeks.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Three Eggs and Half an Owl

Not a lot to report, because we’re still at three eggs, and Mme. Owl is still in brooding mode, as she will be until the owlets are about three weeks old (although nest box temperatures will affect whether she’s actually brooding at any given time - if it's hot enough in there brooding becomes redundant).

Are more eggs still a possibility? Yup, but for a limited time only.

Meanwhile (for the technically inclined, the masochistic, or both), I continue to write Java implementations of the RTSP, RTP and RTCP protocols so that I can interface the streaming video coming from my new video capture device with the JCodec library which should be able to decode that video into a format that the traditional Owl Cam' software can enhance and upload to the owl cam' web site. The RTSP code is done. I can receive streams of RTP datagrams containing the video (I assume), and the RTCP code is receiving datagrams and partially decoding them. It's not yet clear to me how complete my RTCP implementation has to be in order for everything to work correctly long-term, given that I'm dealing with a very simple unicast situation. In principle, if I can wrap-up the RTCP code sufficiently for these purposes, and there are no more rude surprises (fellow programmers, try to stop laughing), still images could be restored to the web site pretty quickly.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Egg no. 3 Arrives

Egg no. 3 was laid this morning sometime between 12:27 AM and 2:17 AM CDT, at which point Mme. Owl went into brooding mode. Meanwhile, her mate is doing a good job of supplying food, most of which appears to be caterpillars (a possible benefit of the natural tall grass, etc. that I've allowed to develop in my yard, especially around the nest box tree).

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Egg 1 and 2 Metrics

Mme. Owl made the mistake of spending the night out hunting, so I was able to do some basic science on her eggs while her back was turned.

I can't tell the eggs apart, so I can't say which is the first or second one laid. I can say the following: one of the eggs weighs 20.0 ±0.2 grams and measures roughly 36.44 x 31.75 mm, and the other egg weighs 20.6 ±0.2 grams and measures roughly 36.35 x 32.1 mm. (My uncertainty about the measurements is due to the difficulty of being sure that I was measuring the major and minor axes, and wasn't a little off in some direction. A measuring box with sliding sides would eliminate that problem, but I haven't seen such a thing.)

Comparing these numbers to Gehlbach’s (see The Eastern Screech Owl, pg. 92), these eggs are around 2 grams heavier, 1 mm longer on the major axis, and 2 mm on the minor axis.

Larger and heavier than average should be a good sign for the eggs. Exactly why, is a matter I'm debating with myself. Presumably, either slightly larger owlets will hatch-out, or a larger yolk sack will mean greater food reserves for the developing fetuses. I’ll have to consult my raptor rehabber, but any other bird experts are encouraged to weigh in.

Regrettably, routine weighing and measuring won’t be possible, as interesting as those numbers would be (the weight of an egg decreases as the embryo inside develops and uses-up its yolk sack, so charting the changes in weight over time would be interesting, for a start), because Mme. Owl will begin near-continous brooding with the arrival of the third egg. At that point, I'll be leaving the nest alone as much as possible.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Egg no. 2 Debuts

Visible for the first time at 8:13 PM CDT, egg no. 2 was laid sometime this afternoon (after 1:55 PM). Well done, Mme. Owl, and keep up the good work.

One of my screech owls once laid a clutch of six—as big as clutches come—and I’m still hoping to see that happen again, as rare and challenging for the parents (and owlets) as it is. That said, any clutch that produces healthy owlets is fine with me.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Egg no. 1 for 2012

I took down the nest box last night, March 25, not long after Mme. Owl exited for the evening. (Incubation of the eggs generally waits until the second or even third egg is laid, so Mme. Owl still has her nights free, provided they don’t become dangerously cold.) Debris deposited in the nest box by starlings was blocking the side vent (visible in the lower right hand corner of the far wall, a position that should maximize its utility for ventilation, but can lead to it being buried, which cancels-out its utility). So, I removed the obstructing materials, cleaned the camera compartment windows, adjusted the lighting to be more consistent across the whole interior, and took the opportunity to photograph egg no. 1.

Egg no. 1 cradled in a rubber ring, and bracketed by a 90° measuring device ruled in inches.

Looks like a good screech owl egg to me. (BTW, the 90° measuring device—can’t remember the tool’s name—is not bent or warped; photographing hand-held I just couldn’t make the focal plane of the camera precisely parallel to the surface on which the egg and measuring device were resting, so the geometry is distorted.)

To more precisely quantify the state of eggs in the future, I’ve ordered a micrometer and a small, high-sensitivity scale. Disturbing the nest on a regular basis is not part of my plans, but, when it’s necessary for some compelling reason, I’ll obtain all the measurements of eggs or owlets that I can. (BTW, micrometers and sensitive scales used to be expensive items; not so anymore.)

The only worrisome part of last night’s process was that when Mme. Owl returned to the nest around 5 AM (?) this morning, the first thing she did was kick and push the bedding material around to recreate a depression for the current egg and those to come. In doing so, she buried egg no. 1 and couldn’t find it for several hours. So, my female this year either has to work on her common sense, or there’s so little light in the nest box at night that even an owl can’t see clearly. [Additional: It has also been suggested by Sallie the raptor rehabber that owl near-field vision has some shortcomings, and that that may have been a factor.] That said, as someone who can walk the ten feet from my desk to the kitchen and arrive in the kitchen with no clue why I went there, I can’t really criticize Mme. Owl.

Work continues to get the normal web site up. Unfortunately, there’s still some potentially troublesome software development to perform. However, the fact that a lot of people are waiting anxiously for the normal web site’s return is never far from my mind. I’ll get it going as soon as I can; that may turn out to be easy or hard based on the work done so far; there’s still room for rude surprises (or relatively quick and easy success, if you really want to risk being optimistic).

Sunday, March 25, 2012

First Egg of 2012

Mme. Owl provides a glimpse of this year's first egg, not more than two hours after it was laid, I'd guess.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Both Owls Roosting

You don't see the following very often: The mated pair of screech owls roosting in the nest box together. In my experience it happens only one day early in the nesting process, but it always happens. Pair bonding shortly before the stress of the first egg's arrival? Just trying it out for size? I don't know.

I had hoped to to encourage this behavior on the part of the male by adding the internal perch (there were other motivations for it, too), because it's the male's job to sit guard duty somewhere, but my yard doesn't necessarily provide good places for him to do that, so I thought he could do it from inside the nest box. If he's dealing with a large predator (cat, possum, etc.), being inside the box either defeats the purpose, or requires a very quick exit so he can conduct his defense from outside where he has room to maneuver, but with smaller threats and pests, being in the box is an advantage as today's furious starlings demonstrated.

My schemes notwithstanding, the owls (as always) have their own ideas, and those dictate that this only happens once a year, within a few days of the start of nesting. Make of it what you will, but it's a beautiful sight.

No eggs yet, BTW.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Would the Owner of a Small...

...striped, gray and white, large-eyed bird please come and claim it. It's filling my owl nest box.

Looks like nesting has begun, as Mme. Owl spends her first day in the nest box. The first egg is probably still a day or two away. I must now work to make the owl cam' operational at an even more frantic pace. Please bear with any delays.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Busy Nest Box

They come and go by day...

...and they come and go by night.

The owls will win control of the nest box, but not before the starlings have made complete and utter pests of themselves, as long time viewers can attest. Also, the starlings continuously dump new bedding material into the box. I cleaned out the box this weekend to ensure that it wouldn't pile-up so high that it would block the view of eggs (when those start to arrive in a month or so), or bury any of the infrared illuminators (LEDs) that make nighttime pictures possible. Unfortunately, it appears that little short of daily cleanings would ensure that, and there just isn't time enough for that. On the plus side, once the starlings are persuaded to give-up, owl activity should trample and compress most of that material into a less problematic mass.

Meanwhile, I experiment with a means of performing video capture that is as hardware, software, and platform independent as possible. The ultimate in such solutions seems to be stand-alone boxes that accept analog audio/video input, digitize it, encode it using standard codecs, and transmit it over Ethernet using standard streaming protocols. With modifications, my custom owl cam software should be able read those frames, clean, adjust and timestamp them just as it has for years, and produce the familiar still images.

That's great in principle, but making it happen may be a bit tricky with the video server box (an S2071 from 3Svision) I'm currently experimenting with. Among other problems, customers can't get firmware updates [they have since provided one in response to an email request], the manufacturer's specifications are wrong in several areas (as is often the case), and those just happen to be the areas I was depending on (as is often the case). The problems can still be solved, but the software won't be as simple, or (possibly) as platform independent, and that means more potential points of failure (if not now, then in years to come), which is disappointing.

So, two things: (1) If anyone has experience with better video servers, at comparable price-points, please tell me about them. (2) The owls could begin nesting any time, and my system is not yet adapted to the new gadget, so images from the box are likely to begin a bit late this year. Sorry about that; I don't like it either.

On the other hand, the S2071 has some very nice features (one of which was left undocumented in the specifications, but may make the S2701 almost as good, in practice, as having a DVR recording everything), a price-point per video channel digitized that's lower than any other devices I've used, and it produces higher quality (very good noise reduction and de-interlacing), and slightly higher resolution, images than any video digitizers I've ever used.

Finally, there's this tantalizing possibility: Provided I upgrade my home broadband service to something with higher and more dependable upload speeds than Time Warner is currently providing me (my cable bill is already stunning, so giving TW even more money is not a good option), and I can find some well-connected, high capacity server to replicate and re-serve the video streams that the S2701 produces (ideally without reducing their quality or size, or presenting them surrounded them with advertisements), I might finally be able to offer to viewers live audio & video of the same quality I see, which, believe me, will transform what you will learn about the nesting process as you watch the cam'. That said, please, do not get your hopes up. There are a number of big "ifs" associated with this potentiality, and no guarantee of solving the various technical, financial, quality and other problems. All I can say is that using a video server like S2071 should solve the first of the problems, which is an obvious prerequisite for solving the next problem, and the next, and so on. So, for the first time, I'm in with a chance.

Monday, March 5, 2012

FireWire 400 Devices Incompatible with FireWire 800 Macs?

If anyone knows of a solution to this, it'd sure come in handy.... I'm dealing with several converters that turn analog audio/video signals into standard DV video. All of them use the FireWire 400 interface, as is traditional for DV devices. My problem is that my Mac, a Mac Pro (4,1), has FireWire 800 ports. I've bought two different FireWire 400-to-800 adapters, both of which make the DV encoder boxes visible to most video capture applications (QuickTime Pro and iMovie, but not to Apple's example code for performing QuickTime video capture on the modern Mac OS). However, in no case can I capture video. No preview of the video shows-up prior to initiating the capture, and clicking on "record" in QuickTime Pro or iMovie produces nothing (literally zero byte movies - no data whatsoever is captured).

I've Googled for answers, and found indications that other people have had the same, or similar, problems, but I haven't found any answers. (At this point, I'd even settle for an explanation of why Apple seems to have screwed me.) If anyone has any insights, please share.

Owls Preparing to Nest

A depression in my nest box's bedding material has suggested for several days that a female screech owl is planning on nesting there. Last night, I finally saw one of her visits, when (sure enough) her primary concern was moving the bedding material around to create a depression for the eggs that are on their way. This is normal pre-nesting behavior for a female screech owl, so it's a very good sign that my Owl Cam' will return this year.

Therefore, yesterday afternoon I brought the box down and gave it a thorough cleaning, and a new floor covering beneath the usual bedding material. The new floor covering is composed of unjoined, loose fitting segments of wood that are positioned end-grain-up. It should provide better thermal insulation (more like a cavity in a tree), while wicking away moisture in the bedding material (again, like a cavity in a tree, where the dead, interior wood of the tree is potentially a large moisture sink), providing a barrier to insects like last year's ants, and allowing the box to drain if a meaningful quantity of rain should ever find its way into the box (which has never happened). The latter two requirements border on being contradictory: providing good drainage means allowing unobstructed access to the large drain holes in the box's floor while keeping insects out means, in part, obstructing access to those holes. Realistically, it probably won't be perfect at either, but I think it'll be an improvement over my previous approaches to the problem.

Last night I observed both the male and the female in the box at various times. The male arrived first, examined the cleaned-up interior briefly, then climbed into the entry hole and called for his mate with great vigor. After 5-10 minutes of that, he left. Perhaps his mate had arrived in the area, or maybe he needed a stiff drink after all that calling. Several hours later, his mate appeared in the box, gave it a careful looking-over from the safety of the entryway, and then entered and proceeded to give the bedding material a thorough kicking about, until she had created a shallow depression that met her specifications.

In my experience, that behavior means that nesting could begin at any time.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

David Bamberger on 60 Minutes Tonight

My friend David Bamberger—who has been working since 1969 to restore the worst piece of land in Blanco County, Texas (and maybe the rest of the Texas Hill Country) in order to prove that what's good for the environment is good for the rancher, and vice versa—will appear on “60 Minutes” tonight as part a of piece on “hunting ranches in the U.S. that offer exotic big game species.”

David’s ranch offers deer, and maybe turkey, hunting in season, and it is scrupulously supervised. It’s an important source of income for the ranch, and, of course, keeps the deer population within the land’s carrying capacity. No exotic big game species are hunted on the ranch, but there is such a species present: the extinct-in-the-wild Scimitar Horned Oryx, a type of large antelope that once lived in sub-saharan Africa and is said to have been able to kill lions (when you see their horns, you’ll understand). When he heard, many years ago, that zoologists were looking for land where the surviving remnants of otherwise extinct species could live in reasonably familiar, and reasonably wild, conditions, David offered them a square mile of his ranch, and the zoologists decided the Scimitar Horned Oryx was a good fit. The herd has been there for a long time now, bred to exact instructions from the zoologists in order maximize genetic diversity, and thereby give the species the best possible chance of survival if it can ever be reintroduced to its native wilds.

I think I can guess at the rest of the story, as least as it concerns David, the ranch and the Oryx, but to go on I’d have to start speaking for David (we’ve discussed the matter in some detail, but I’m sure I don’t know every part of it, and few people can tell a story like David can, in any case, so best not to try). Suffice it to say, I agree with David. What remains to be seen is what 60 Minutes makes of it all.

Tune in tonight to find out.