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Belated Owl Update 2

So now we reach the weekend of May 28th, which marks the last weekend spent stalking the great horned owlets. We arrived at Mt. Auburn and, to our great shock, found that the site of the nesting tree was empty. Really empty -- it lacked the police tape that had been strung around to keep people away from the tree, and it lacked the crowd of people with binoculars and cameras that had been gathered there each of the other times we'd gone. And the tree itself of course was empty of owls or owlets.

It's not fun to realize that they are probably still in the area, but good luck figuring out WHICH tree they're in. My recollection is fuzzy at this point, but I think what we did was walk back up to the information desk at the cemetery entrance, to see if anyone had earlier spotted them and noted it; and I think they DID tell us that the owls were still in the Dell area, so after a detour to try to find a screech owl that had been reported (we didn't find it), we made our way back to the Dell, and eventually spotted the owls by, essentially, looking for other groups of people scanning the tree-tops and hoping one of them could point the way. Which I think is what happened.

We discovered one of the owlets in one of the trees that the adult was pictured in the week before:


Impossible to tell, of course, which owlet this was. He was shifting around a lot in what looked like an uncomfortable manner -- shuffling up and down the branch, shifting from foot to foot, looking UP extremely intently, and occasionally giving these little sort of croaking cries. Our guess was that he could see another of the owls, even if we couldn't, and he wanted something -- probably to be fed. (Even after they start to fly away from the nest, raptor parents will continue to feed the young for about 2 more months, or so. Being able to fly away from the nest tree doesn't mean being able to hunt for themselves yet.)


I just want to point out something I only started noticing when taking these owl pictures -- the way their toes/talons are not exactly gripping the branches they're sitting on. I have noticed this in some of the adult pictures as well. I always had this mental image of them clinging very tightly to the branches, but look at the picture above. Almost the entirety of the two front toes on the left foot aren't even TOUCHING the branch. What's up with that?

Speaking of toes... when the owlet wasn't shifting and crying and craning its neck all over the place trying to see upward, it was doing other things... mysterious things. Like this, where it has fully spread all the toes of its left foot:


This is a very nice illustration of the clever way that owls can rotate their toes. Most birds tend to have three toes facing forwards and one toe facing back, kind of like:


But owls can do this thing where they can EITHER have their toes in that configuration, or more often, they can rotate one of them around like this:


I think it's supposed to be a gripping-prey thing. That being the case, I'm not sure why ALL raptors don't do it. A quick look around the web suggests that osprey may have the 2-up 2-down configuration as well. I'm curious enough to look into this further, although a 2009 articled in Wired online states, “Surprisingly little is known about the morphology of raptor talons and how they are employed during feeding behavior.” Hmm.


By now, we are all familiar with the branch-nibbling behavior of the owlets, and this one did it some more:



Then he shuffled down the branch a bit, to a place where some smaller branches diverged from it, and nibbled them...


And then he laid down on his breast, supported by the crook of the branches:



There were a few times, when he wasn't looking around, that he kind of let his head hang straight down... strangely reminiscent of the sleeping posture of that raccoon I posted a few days ago, come to think of it. (But none of the pics I took of that came out very well, alas.)

We did, by the way, eventually spot that the other owlet was in the same tree, about 10 feet above this one -- that's who this one must have been looking at and crying at. But the second owlet's perch wasn't in a place that afforded a good sight line for taking pictures. We only spotted him once he flapped his wings at one point.

And that's it! I haven't managed to get back there since, to check up on them. As I said above, though, if the development of great horned owls is anything like the development of redtailed hawks, then I don't think the owlets will have flown off yet. They ought to still be in the stage of learning to hunt, and being fed by the parents. But as they get older and get more of their adult plumage, they are likely to fly farther and farther afield... and there are a LOT of trees in Mt. Auburn.

The summers when I've been able to stalk the redtails around Harvard have always been vastly helped by two things: the fact that there are a lot of buildings to perch on, which the hawks do, and you can at least SEE them on buildings; and the fact that at least some of the hawk babies have that extremely loud begging cry, which you can triangulate on to find them. While we did get to hear one of the owlets give some kind of call, which might have been a begging cry... it wasn't nearly as loud, and I'm just not sure if they do it as much overall.

Still, I should drop back in over there within the next couple of weeks, and see if any other birders have spotted them and noted the location. Maybe I can find them a few more times before they really do leave.

And here's hoping the parents use the same nest side next year. :)



( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 8th, 2011 08:55 pm (UTC)
Awwww, fluffy!!! I learn more about raptors from your posts. :)
Jul. 8th, 2011 10:18 pm (UTC)
Oh. My. Gods. Fabulous shots. The first and last are my favorite. And as always your narrative makes me very happy. Thank you for posting these. *hugs*
Jul. 9th, 2011 02:23 am (UTC)
that is one happy fucking bird.
Jul. 9th, 2011 07:07 am (UTC)
I love reading about the owls! Terrific photos again, too. :D
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )