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Thursday, April 28, 2011

People are Watching (and so is Papa)

I have had conversations with several people who are watching Momma Screech and reading the blog. My neighbor's are watching just before they go to bed and one of them drew a portrait of Momma that I wanted to share with you.

Thank you Calum.

I also caught a glimpse of Papa Screech just before nightfall tonight.  This is a typical view and I found him only because the Carolina Wren was pointing him out to me:

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lifestyle change for Momma

Momma has had a significant lifestyle change in the last 24 hours. She is no longer trying to incubate the 6th egg and I do not expect it to hatch. Last night she began joining Papa in the quest for food, spending as long as 45 minutes at a time, several times during the night out of the nest box. Once she retuned with a mouse (BTW, I use the term "mouse" loosely to refer to any small rodent that may also include the abundant voles in my Backyard Habitat). Papa brought in an additional 3 mice and several smaller items (probably moths). Momma is doing all of the feeding, entering the box and preparing the meals in bite size pieces for the owlets. It still looks like their eyes are closed but they are certainly increasing in size rapidly.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

For those of you who missed last nights 8:00 to 9:00 evening feeding and fly-out, here is a summary of the hightlights.  It is a little long (8 minutes) but I wanted to give everyone a chance to try to sort out the 5 owlets in the mass of "owldom" in the box.

The first mouse (video) was delivered at 8:04 p.m.  Dad followed with another at 10:30.  At 10:55 Momma took a second break for 5 minutes and returned with a third mouse.  At 11:37, Papa brought a fourth mouse but Momma did not seem to want it so he took it back with him (his dinner??).  Papa was not done for the night though.  He brought two more rodents, one at 1:38 and the last at 4:14.  When he arrived with the last one, Momma was in the middle of feeding the owlets so he entered the box, dropped it in the back corner, and left it for later.

Throughout the night, Momma alternated between periods of feeding and resting.  Just before the sun came up, she took her last break at 5:15 a.m. and I was able to see that the sixth egg has still not hatched. 

It may be my imagination but it seems like the owlets have nearly doubled in size already.  Their eyes are still closed but they all seem strong.

Monday, April 25, 2011

One egg left; Lots of owlets to feed

Last night there was a storm at the time that Momma Screech normally takes her break right after dark.  She stayed in the box to protect the newly hatched owlets.  The male brought food to her throughout the night including several small objects (probably moths or other large insects), a bird, and at least one rodent.  She finally took her first break at 2:22 a.m. revealing that there is only one egg left in the nest.  It is very difficult to count the young either in the following picture or in the video (not prepared for publication) but there do seem to be 5 healthy owlets. 

At this stage they are blind, fluffy and helpless.  It is going to be a very difficult task for the adults to provide enough food for all of these young.  The box is also very small and they will grow fast. 

During the day yesterday, Momma fed the newly hatched owlets from food she cached during the day.  Hopefully she was able to cache some last night also.  Soon, she will not be able to rely on Papa alone and will have to start hunting herself also.  Stay tuned and let me know if you were following this natural phenomenon on Earth Day/Easter weekend.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

EASTER SURPRISE--4 Owlets hatch

Between yesterday morning's break and this morning's (5:35), Momma Screech welcomed 4 new owls into the world.  The first sign of hatching was a view of an egg shell at 2:34 in the afternoon (4/23) followed by a brief view of a motionless ball of fluff at 3:03.  She spent the entire day on top of the remaining eggs and the newly hatched owlet(s).  At 8:15 in the evening, she retrieved a cached mouse, picked small pieces off of it and fed one of the owlets.  The camera managed to capture that moment but you have to watch very closely:

Momma never took an evening break.  Apparently, she spent the rest of the night assisting other eggs hatch and feeding the newly hatched owlets.  Virtually all of the activity took place under her body out of sight of the camera.  At about 5:30 on Easter morning, April 24, she finally took a break of about 6 minutes and gave us a view of the brood.

With 4 owlets and still 2 eggs to brood, Momma (and Papa) is going to be very busy for a few weeks.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


At least one, probably 2 owlets, seen in video this evening.  Will post video tomorrow.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Fun Owl Photos

A couple of years ago, I had a chance to borrow a very expensive infrared camera for a couple of hours.  Here are a couple of shots taken late at night.  This was just before the young fledged in 2008.  In the first, Momma is looking out of her box on the tree:

In the second, Papa has just buzzed my head and landed on a branch.  Notice that the brightest yellow is the warmest area of his body:

I could track them in flight on the camera screen but could not record fast enough unless they were stationary.  It did allow me to figure out where they were hunting and when they were returning to the box to feed the owlets.  I wish I could afford the really fast model!!

Why is it taking so long?

Nature develops many strategies to ensure the survival of young.  In birds, one of these is that a clutch of eggs may all hatch at nearly the same time (synchronous hatching) or at quite different time (asynchronous hatching).  Each strategy can have its advantages and disadvantages.

Eagles utilize asynchronous hatching.  As soon as the first egg is laid, the adults begin incubation.  If you were watching the nest cam at Duke Farms this year, you noticed that the first chick to hatch preceeded the second by only 2 days.  None-the-less, when it was 3 days old and the second was one day old, it got all of the food!  That is until it finally fell asleep.  In the presence of abundant food, the second chick received ample food and rapidly caught up with its older sibling.  If food supplies are not adequate, it is common (and to humans unpleasant) to see a case of siblingcide where the older chick eliminates the younger.  This is nature's way of assuring that the young that do survive are strong and able to care for themselves as soon as possible--one healthy offspring is better that two who are struggling.

To give the young that hatch later a better chance, many birds delay incubation of the first eggs.  This causes all of the eggs to hatch over a shorter period of time, evening out their ages.  Peregrine Falcons, like those in Jersey City, utilize synchronous hatching.  After the first egg was laid, the parents kept it warm but serious incubation didn't begin until after the 4th egg was laid.  In this way, all of the chicks should hatch within a short period of time.

Momma Screech laid 6 eggs over a 12 day period.  If every egg hatched the same number of days after it was laid, the last owlet would have no chance against the first.  When Momma laid the first eggs, she left them alone in the nestbox for up to an hour at a time, 2-3 times each night.  Only after the 4th egg did she start her current schedule of brooding the eggs essentially 24 hours per day taking only 2 breaks of less than 15 minutes each.   Since the incubation period for Screech Owls is reported to be 26 days and it has now been 26 days since the 4th egg was laid, we should start to see hatching soon.  And, if things go well, the eggs should hatch within a shorter period.

Still, it is going to be a struggle for all six owlets to survive.  It will take a lot of food for Momma and Papa to be able to successfuly raise that many.  As far as I know, she has never fledged more than 3.  So wish them all the best but remember, we are watching nature in action.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Silent Flight of the Owl

Still no eggs have hatched but when she flew this morning Momma Screech gave us a beautiful view of the flutings on her wing feathers. Look at the leading edge of the wing for the tooth shaped structures. It is these features, technically called fimbriae, on the primary wing feathers that allow owls to fly silently through the forest.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Update 4/17 with new video

As of Sunday morning, April 17, there are still 6 eggs in the nest and Momma is continuing to brood. There was a storm last night--very windy, lots of rain, and thunder with lightning. Momma didn't take a break from the eggs until 10:00. Papa brought her food at the height of the storm and I managed to clip a video of it:

Keep checking the live feed and I will keep updating the videos as well.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

No Owlets Yet

As of 6:00 a.m. today (morning flyout) there were still 6 eggs in the nest. With storms (including thunder and lightning) predicted for this evening, her schedule is likely to be disrupted.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

All Set for Hatching

The last piece of equipment I needed to be able to broadcast live and record simultaneously arrived yesterday. It is in place and operational. Now I won't miss the first sign of hatching and I will be able to show it to you even if it is at 3:00 a.m. and you are asleep.

The references say that incubation lasts 26 days. Since the first egg was laid on March 20, that could be as early as tomorrow, Friday, April 15.

Unfortunately, the same references differ on whether the young hatch "synchronously" or not. What this means is that some birds (the Peregrine Falcons in Jersey City, for example) lay more than one egg before they begin to incubate them. The result is that the young all hatch at nearly the same time. Although Momma Screech did stay in the box during the days, she did not begin her "close sitting" at night until the 4th egg. The first 3 eggs were left alone for periods of time up to 2 hours. Since the 4th egg was laid, she has never left them for more than about 10-15 minutes. Will that delay the hatch of the first eggs?? Watch with me and find out.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Long Wait

Well, Momma Screech surprised me again on March 29 and one last time on March 31 with her fifth and sixth eggs. Now the books do say that an Eastern Screech Owl can lay from 2-8 eggs but this nest box is not really that large. Remember that before they fledge, the young owlets are nearly adult size so imagine 6 owlets the size of Momma squeezed into this nest box. We will have to wait and see what happens.

In the meantime, Momma has settled into a very consistant pattern. She is in the nest box day and night except for one short fly-out just after dark (right around 8:00 p.m. EDT) and a second just before daylight. Sometimes the male follows her back in the morning. At least once each night he visits the box, seldom entering but simply dropping a mouse or other (often unidentifiable) food in for Momma. One night I was able to catch her as she consumed this food. WARNING: Sometimes nature is not for the squeemish!

The owl's digestive system is uniquely designed to handle swallowing food whole. The digestible portions are passed down into the stomach while the undigestible hair and bones are regurgitated as dry "pellets". By collecting and examining these pellets, we can go back and figure out what that owl has been eating. In searching the yard, I have located the branch where it appears Momma and her husband meet each evening. The ground below the branch is a rich source of owl pellets.

Laying and Brooding Eggs

March 20 brought a major change to Momma Screech Owl's life. During that day she did not sleep as she usually did. She was awake and moving most of the day. When she flew out at dark she left behind the first of her eggs for the 2011 season:

On March 22, she laid the second egg. Here is a video from that evening:

According to information on the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology site, screech owls typically lay 3-4 eggs with the second egg laid 2 days after the first and the rest laid daily after that. Not my Momma Screech! She laid her eggs on 3/20, 3/22, 3/24, and 3/26. Here is a video from the night of March 26-27:

Then, with no more eggs through the night of March 28, I figured she was done. At that point, I stopped recording every night and left the live broadcast on UStream for the world to watch. Little did I know . . .

Monday, April 11, 2011

Nest Prep and Courtship

During February, Momma Screech owl's schedule was very irregular.  She would spend an occassional day in the box but usually she spent the days outside.  Where was she?  Why?  What was more important to her?  I can only guess by watching her nightly visits to the box. 

On the days she spent outside, the box was often visited by a squirrel, presumably a female also looking for a place to start a family.  Each night when the owl returned, she would disturb and remove, to the best of her ability, any nesting material the squirrel brought in.  On February 23, I recorded the following:

During this period, she was not alone!  The following video was made on February 24:

On February 27, the box was so full she spent more than 2 hours.  She would repeatedly enter the box and burrow into the leaves and other material, lifting it with her back and pushing it up and out through the opening.  What was left  behind she would simply shred in the box and "sculpt" into the cup of the nest.

By March 13, the squirrel had given up and was no longer trying to claim the nest box.  On that night, the male returned to the box with a "gift" which is apparently part of the courtship routine. 

Although he left with it and she followed him, she soon returned and spent the day in the nest box. Then, starting on March 16, Momma began spending every day in the nest box.  Her nights were still mostly spent outside with occassional visits every night to the box, often  in the company of the male but only for a few seconds before she chased  him out.  Then  On March 20 . . . (see next entry on eggs)

In the Beginning

This gray-phase Eastern Screech Owl began using our nest box in the spring of 2007.  Although it was used it for nesting each year, when the young fledged, she left and the squirrels took over.  By mid-winter the box was stuffed full of leaves and other nesting debris.  Each spring she would return, evict the squirrel and reclaim her nest box.  This past year was different.  After the young fledged, she returned in the early summer and continued to use the box, at least most of the time, for roosting.  This continued into December when I purchased the camera (Hawk Eye Nature Cam).  Before installing it in the box, I mounted it on a ladder and took the following video:

Then, on the night of January 31, 2011, while she was out on her evening of foraging in my Certified Backyard Habitat (National Wildlife Federation), I slipped the camera into the box and recorded her return:

Convinced that this would be another successful nesting season, I set out to document and share the experience of spring in the life of a pair of Eastern Screech Owls.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Blog!

This blog was created to share with you the life of an Eastern Screech Owl.  The box is located approximately 40 feet from our deck and she has raised young there for 4 years.  Until I put the camera in the nest box this winter, however, I knew very little about what was going on in her life.  Sometimes I would see her peeking out of the box just before dark or just as the sun came up but she would quickly pull her head in and pretend we didn't know she was there.  When the young fledged, the male would join her and protect his brood by dramatically announcing his presence.  This year is different--I will be watching.  I will be adding both future happenings and recalling past events from notes over the next few weeks as her eggs hatch and the young grow.  I hope you enjoy and learn along with me.