Friday, May 26, 2017

On Monday Elvis Left the Building

Guest post by Dan Weisz

On Sunday I confirmed that there are three owlets.  The one below has that blemish on the lower, outer portion of his left iris.

And there are two siblings without the blemish in their eye!  So there are at least three owlets!

On Sunday the behavior of the owlets in the nest box and as well as the behavior of the parents outside of the nest box had dramatically changed.  Monday couldn’t come soon enough. 

Before sunset, the female Western Screech Owl was on her ladder perch once again.

As the sun began to set, she went through her now familiar 'waking up' routines.  Below she is finishing a rouse, getting all of her feathers in place and relaxed.  Her head reminds me of the Wookiee Chewbacca from Star Wars.

She followed up with some stretches and warbling:

First her left wing stretched low while standing very tall on those feathered legs.

Then her right wing.  It’s like she’s doing the Hokey Pokey.

Then both wings up high while she lowers her head and kneels forward!

And then, after settling down, she took off into the desert.  The owlets had not been sticking their heads out of the nest box as they had done regularly in the past week.  Suddenly, I saw some blurry motion in the mesquite tree above the nest box. One owlet on a branch!  I wasn't certain whether it had flown out of the nest box or flew in from somewhere else.  In any case, one owlet was out.  I then saw motion in the back of the mesquite tree and another owlet was perched.  Two owls had fledged!

This is the one with the blemish in his left eye on his lower, outer iris.  Note how his feathering is very different from the parent above.  He has barred feathers, almost like a herringbone design.  The adult owl has vertical black streaking on its body.  The ‘facial disc’ on the adult is very pronounced, and just developing in the young.  The owlet just has a fuzzier look to it.

The owlets hardly moved on the mesquite.  They would turn, and when they moved to another spot, it was by a short hop and some clumsy flapping of their wings mostly for balance.  They spent much time just sleeping or resting, perhaps waiting for food delivery.  Below is the same owlet on the exact same perch (note the mistletoe seeds in front of him).  Here his  feathered “ear” tufts or plumicorns are beginning to be visible.

Here is the second owlet, just resting.

but still alert and looking around for its parent. Again, no plumicorns, no pronounced facial disc, and no vertical striping on its body.

It was exciting to see the two little owls out of the nest but still limited in their abilities to move around.

Stay tuned for the final report!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

More of the Western Screech Owl Family

Guest post by Dan Weisz

Open Wide!  This owlet may be  yawning, or perhaps it is getting ready to ‘cast a pellet’.  In either case, this is a pretty cute look.

What is ‘casting a pellet’?  Many kinds of birds cast pellets. From : "The digestive systems of these birds have to deal with bones, scales, fur, or feathers. So the bird’s gizzard performs a kind of sorting operation. Soft tissues pass through to be digested, while indigestible sharp and hazardous bits are formed into an oval mass, or pellet. They pass back up the digestive system and are regurgitated a few hours later.”  In the shot below, the mama owl had just left her nest for the evening and, after sitting on my porch light for a minute or two, did her business.

Wednesday’s dinner:  a Variable Sand Snake.  Looking at the snake’s underside, you can see where the “kill” bite occurred.

The owl is passing the treat off to its young, and you can see the snake’s pretty colors.

Holding the snake by the head, the little owl begins to descend to the nest box floor to consume its food.

Peek-a-Boo:  Even though they are nocturnal creatures, the owls can see during the daytime and often stick their heads out of the nest box to check out the world.  

I’ve been asked about the number of owlets in the nest.  Since they all look very much alike, it has been difficult for me to tell them apart.  A good friend noticed something very different about at least two of the owls.  In this peek-a-boo pairing, look at the lower, outside corner in the eye of each owlet’s iris.  The owlet below has a dark spot on its iris.  The second one does not.  See the dot?

And in this shot, no dot on the iris.  So there are at least two owlets, maybe more.  I’m waiting impatiently for them to leave the nest so I’ll know for sure.

Each night the mother varies her routine.  Some nights, she leaves the nest an hour or so before sunset and naps on a ladder that faces the nest.  Other nights she remains in the nest until just after sunset before leaving for her night’s hunt.  When she does leave, she varies the direction she takes and varies her initial perch.  On a few nights, I never see her leave the nest.  Apparently, she leaves the nest an hour or two prior to sunset (before I begin my Owl-TV vigil) and heads off into the desert early.

Here she is on the ladder, checking me out.

She seems to be saying “Owl see you later”.

To be continued……..

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Western Screech Owl Part 2: Dinner is served

Guest post by Dan Weisz

Over the past week I’ve been able to observe the parent Western Screech Owls taking care of their growing young.  At this point, I do not know whether there is just one owlet, or two or three.  There is only room for one owlet at a time to stick their head out of the nest hole.  Within the next week, the babies may leave the nest when they “fledge”.  At that time, I’ll know how many young there are and I hope to get some nice family photos from that point on. 

In the meantime, dinner is delivered nightly.  Here are a few of the photos I’ve been able to get.  In this one, a parent has just delivered a centipede, from their beak to their youngster’s beak, and the parent is taking off for the next hunt.  The owlet’s eyes are closed and if you look closely, you can see both ends of the centipede.

On another night, the first meal was what appears to be a Kangaroo Rat.  You can see the brown head and body and the tail which gets hairy near the end.

Here’s a better look at the rat’s distinctive tail.

Sunday night, the parent approached the nest hole and then landed on the roof of the box.  In this blurry shot, you can see dinner being carried by the owl’s foot.  A long leaf of some kind (pine needle perhaps?) got caught in the struggle.   The owlet is peering up at the action.

The owl is standing on the box, holding on to the pack rat. 

And now dinner is served!

The parent remained in the nest for a while, either helping to tear apart the rat or perhaps having a bite or two. When he/she emerged, you can see remnants of the rat on the owls beak and facial feathers.  And then the hunting continued.

I’ll continue my nightly Owl-TV vigils and report out in a few days.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Western Screech Owlet is Growing Up: Part 1

Guest post by Dan Weisz

The baby owl is often now looking outside of the nest, exploring its world.  The young does not have vertical black striping like its parents do, nor are the feather tufts (“horns”) on its head developed yet.

Mom will leave the nest box now an hour or so before sunset.  She stays close to the nest to watch out for her young.  You can see the difference in feather coloring compared to her youngster.

When she sees something alarming, she assumes a pose that helps to camouflage her when she is against a tree trunk.  She straightens up and raises those plumicorns. She will blend in against a mesquite trunk, but not so much on a ladder against a brick building.

Baby hangs around inside the nest, waiting to be fed.

One of the parents has returned and, perches, and looks towards the box waiting for some signal to bring that freshly killed desert spiny lizard home to eat.

In the meantime, the youngster looks all around, listening for the adult and waiting.

Part Two coming up:  Dinner is served.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Western Screech Owl Update

 Guest post by Dan Weisz

I imagine that the owlets are growing nicely “behind closed doors”, because I cannot see anything in the nest.  However, the mama and papa are busy feeding the young nightly.  Below are some recent photos.  In general, the male does all of the hunting and just brings the food to the female who then feeds the young.  For a few days, I was seeing the female poking her head out of the nest box for about an hour before sunset and then, after making low single note hoots to her mate, she would exit the nest box. 

The hole is about 3 inches in diameter, big enough for the owls to enter and leave, but too small for most predators.  I think her feet are visible standing on the lip of the opening.

And how about a close-up of the photo above?

And for a spooky look, check out her closed eyelids!  They look ‘hairy’, covered in feathers.  I don’t know what I thought they would look like, but certainly not that.

The parents have been busy nightly foraging for food for the owlets hidden in the nest box.  It has been fascinating watching the parents work hard to bring food to their rapidly growing young.

The mama owl seems to like to perch on this shepherd’s hook in my yard when she first leaves the nest each evening.  From there, she calls for her mate for a while before flying off.  Here, she is “rousing”- straightening out all of her feathers before flying off.  Think of your own morning stretch.

As her feathers settle down and she relaxes, her feather tufts (called plumicorns) make her look like a cute little devil.

That evening the male returned to a mesquite perch with the first treat of the night.  He stared towards the nest box waiting for some signal from his partner.  It was hard to make out what the prey was from this angle.  And I don’t really think he’s upset, but if he were human- that look would mean something.

But from another angle, I could clearly see the caterpillar hors d’oeuvre.

This photo is not very sharp but you have an image of the owl leaving the nest and the first sighting of an owlet.  Its beak point is pointing up and to the left and its facial feathering is not like the adults at this time!

The male has begun entering the nest with food now.  After this meal was brought in, the adult owl did not leave the nest for about five minutes, a comparatively long time.  We guessed that it must have brought a large item to eat.  When the owl finally poked his head out, you could clearly see that the feathers around his beak were “stained” red with “juice” from dinner.  A bonus was seeing the nictitating membrane on his left eye.  Perhaps he was washing out some snack debris from his eye.

I also visited the eastside park where I had seen a Great Horned Owl on a nest a few weeks ago.  The owlet has made its appearance.

Now that the nest is more crowded, mama spends some time nearby, but always facing the nest

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Birding Trip to Northeast Botswana: Part I

Guest column by Alan & Albert Adler

Background and Preparation   
We decided to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary by taking a birding trip to Africa in the fall of 2016.  We are not avid birders - we do not have life lists nor do we typically “chase” rare birds when they come to the Tucson environs. Especially now that we are in our 60’s and 70’s, our eyes are not so quick to pick out field marks. Having a different pace, even in a small group, can easily lead to the frustration of not being able to spend as long as possible to get a really good view. Therefore, we decided to enjoy the luxury of traveling by ourselves. Though we have been in Jamaica and Costa Rica with a friend, who is an avid and knowledgeable birder, he was not native to those areas, and though there have always been birds that delight where we have traveled, we have never been to a place with large, wild mammals with claws resting by the roadside or walking right by our vehicle. We realized that we wanted a professional guide.

As expense and planning go, the idea of doing our own private safari was daunting. Alan had always had dreams of going to Tanzania and climbing Kilimanjaro, while Albert had the classic dream of a safari on the plains of the Serengeti in Kenya. We realized that there weren’t a lot of places in Africa where it is safe to go. Hmm, what to do?  Additionally, all of the on-line safari companies emphasize lions and big game, not the pleasures of leisurely watching birds. Fortunately, a couple of our friends had recently traveled to Africa and highly recommended one of their guides, a native Motswana, Richard Avilino. They had been impressed by his extensive knowledge of all wildlife and knew he had a particular interest in birds, even having had professional guide training in ornithology. The prospect of birds as well as large mammals excited us; e.g. a Hippopotamus with Red-billed Oxpeckers!

We contacted Richard in April to see whether he would be OK with taking just two people on the trip with a major emphasis on birds. He was enthusiastic and had space for us beginning at the end of November. November and December are prime birding times in Botswana, much like April and May here.  Within a few emails, we had settled on an itinerary and a price. It felt a little scary sending a large deposit by wire transfer to a bank we had never heard of, to the order of a travel company we had never heard of, run by a person we had never met, who lived in a country we only knew about from reading the “Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency” books. (Those emails from Nigeria promising millions of dollars if you only send them a few thousand came to mind). Nonetheless, we liked Richard on paper and we felt our friends were a good judge of character, so we did it. Lucky us.

Then there were the decisions about where to go. A few people know two things about Botswana besides Precious Ramotswe and JLB Maketoni – the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Delta. Our time frame was too early for the wildlife surge in the Kalahari salt pans and we only had less than three weeks so we couldn’t spend days in mokoros (flat bottomed canoes, paddled standing up) floating around the delta. Well, we could but it would be a pretty limited view. Richard laid out an itinerary that touched on the delta but also included a variety of other habitats to increase the diversity of birdlife – most were within a vast national park – Chobe – that stretches from the Delta northeastward along the Linyati and Chobe Rivers almost to the border with Zimbabwe. Chobe is about the size of the big island of Hawaii, which may not seem large to us in the U.S. but comprises almost 2% of the landmass of Botswana. Its 4,517 square miles contain over 450 bird species; clearly we would be busy. Given that all the driving would be on one-lane, dirt roads, we would need time to travel.

Another big decision we needed to make quickly was what type of lodging we wanted.  Even in the wilds of Africa there are many “camps”, ranging from self-drive (which we didn’t even know about and seems great for younger adventure travelers) where the tent is raised from a platform on top of the vehicle and you are on your own getting down to the bathroom at night (See why we say younger travelers!); to more accommodating tents with enclosed commodes and showers; to luxurious camps that the wealthy fly in and out of at their leisure. We considered actual camping for a day or two but then decided it was our anniversary and we deserved a little luxury that was provided by the mid-priced range, well-established camps, so we would be sleeping on beds not cots. Almost painlessly, we seemed to have arranged a safari. Richard was immensely helpful with good information and quick responses, and that made all the difference.

Per our instruction, Richard chose three camps (Sango, Savuti, and the Chobe Elephant Camp), though we never were involved in what is commonly known as “camping.” The tent cabins were built on platforms off the ground and consisted of large, thick tenting material that had solid floors, doors that locked, and windows with screens. They contained bathrooms with hot showers. Our room had king-sized beds with comfortable chairs and a writing table. (Insects were never a problem, though repellent and netting were available. And we never had a problem with big game, because we did as we were instructed: we never left our cabin at night.) There was a central dining area with a library, and throughout the day there was an open bar with an excellent selection of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. The three meals each day were very well prepared. (Typically, the chef made a formal presentation of the dinner menu, which included wine or an aperitif.) Without exception, we found the food delicious. And perhaps because we were visiting during the Thanksgiving vacation, there were relatively few other guests – mostly Europeans.

An advantage of Botswana travel is no visa is needed for short travel (less than 6 months), so we didn’t have to apply and await clearance.  We wanted to add a trip to Victoria Falls at the end and the visa is cheaper and faster if you just do it at the border crossing rather than apply ahead. We reviewed the CDC website and ordered our malaria medications. And we worked on a neutral pallet for our wardrobe – one of the websites recommended no bright clothing that would attract predators - so Alan had to give up his favorite red running shoes. One thing we didn’t learn before we got there was to take duffel bags instead of suitcases – they pack a little better in a safari truck. We went back and forth about bringing our land telescope and finally opted to bring it. It afforded us great views of some of the smaller birds and distant perching raptors, so we very were glad to have it, even with the extra weight.

The final preparation we did was buy a birding guide to Botswana. We bought the newly published guide, Birds of Botswana, by Hancock and Weirsbye (Princeton Field Guides). We thought it would be lighter weight than the guides to Southern Africa and with more updated information. We were quite pleased with it, and we prepared for the trip by randomly opening pages and writing down names of birds we would like to see based on their loveliness or oddity – hoopoes, korhaans, and coucals. What really caught our eye as well as our imagination was the African Paradise Flycatcher (above). We stated above that we weren’t serious birders.  Nonetheless, we compiled a list of about 175 species we thought we would like to see. Richard reviewed it and added some more onto the list. Once we were on the ground and really trying to identify birds we realized that the Sasol Birds of Southern Africa is of greater use for the tricky identification; so if you are thinking of buying a guide, get that one.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story!


Alan and Albert Adler have been residing in Tucson since 1998. Alan has been a lifelong birder, and from June 1999 through August 2002, he served as a writer and the volunteer editor of Tucson Audubon's Vermilion Flycatcher. In the spring of 2000, he was very pleased to report that the 32-page “newsletter”, as it was known then, was ranked 1st among those from 10 other “very large” chapters, beating Seattle, Greater Denver, and Fairfax, Virginia in the competition held by the National Audubon Society.  For the past seven years, Alan has volunteered with the Lend A Hand Senior Assistance, Inc., twice serving as its co-President. Albert began birding as an adult and has worked as a pediatrician with the Tohono O’odahm tribe since August 1998. The photos that accompany the article below were taken almost entirely by Albert.