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.