Kirkville, N.Y. Spring - 2003 - Having retired from my job as receptionist in a dental office (43 years) in December of 2002, I had much more time to devote to hiking at Green Lakes State Park (Upstate N.Y. near Syracuse). One of the most beautiful places on earth to me. The season definitely started out with a few surprises. In early March during one of my excursions in the park I scared up an owl at the edge of a pine woods - and followed it into the thicket to try to get a second look. I was fortunate it didn't take me on a wild goose chase, but instead landed in one of the pines, allowing me to take a couple of pictures before it took off. It appeared to be a great horned owl at the time. In viewing the pictures on my computer at home it did look a bit different-more slender-the markings not quite the same - a little bit unfamiliar-but didn't think too much about it. I saw it again about 4 days later in the same area. I kept going back to review the pictures I had taken of this owl, as something was bothering me, it just didn't look like a great horned owl. I checked my bird books, and realized it resembled a long eared owl. I sent off a shot to Deane Lewis of the "Owl Pages" and he confirmed that it was a long eared owl.
A few days later in a different section of the park, just behind one of the campground areas an owl flew out of a tree as I passed under it, and landed in another tree coming into perfect view. You can imagine my surprise when I brought it into focus with my zoom and saw that it was a barred owl. I had never before seen one although I had heard of sightings by others. There was a huge well-built nest, with some fresh, new "construction" added to it in that area and I was wondering who was planning to occupy it, and anticipating that perhaps this barred owl was to be the tenant. However this never came to pass. To our dismay several owl feathers were found on the ground in that area soon after that and I fear it was killed by another owl, perhaps the great horned owl, as I believe I've read they will do this if they feel that another owl is infringing upon their territory. It was never seen again in that vicinity, and the nest remains vacant.
Just before St. Patrick's Day I learned that a couple of great horned owls were heard "dueting" in the same general area as the nesting area of last season's owls. Excited with the possibility of them being in the same location as last spring I gathered my gear together and took a walk over to see if there were any signs. Again luck was on my side. After finding several owl pellets I heard some crows begin their cawing and by following the sound I was led to the tree where the great horned was seeking refuge. Once again- that feeling of elation went through me - and I just knew that again this year they were returning to the same spot to nest. Needless to say the vigil had commenced with the more or less daily walks - each time finding many fresh pellets - far more than we found the previous year. I found the usual pellets containing bones etc. of mice- but they seemed to have a penchant for the colorful, pretty birds - several yellow feathers were lying in the snow.
On April 13 I got an e-mail from my owling pal, Marcy. She did it again - she was the first to see the fledgling all hatched out - all decked out - feathers and all. We had thought that due to the long hard cold winter that the owls might be a couple of weeks behind schedule. But this was only 3 days later than when the owlets made their appearance last spring. It goes without saying that I was out of the house very early the following morning with my then 5 year old grandson - and upon arriving at that area, there it was in plain sight in its nest in the hollow of the tree. I still had hopes that there might be a 2nd owlet hidden within the dark shadows of the hollow. I took pictures and zoomed them on the computer determined to believe that I was seeing 2 more eyes in the recesses of the nest, but had to concede that it was only wishful thinking and my imagination playing tricks - so alas, there was just the one.
Daily visits continued to the area. One particular day it was raining, and the owlet wasn't in sight. So I sat under my umbrella watching and waiting for an appearance. All I managed to see was it apparently stretching its wings-within the confines of its nest - as once in awhile a wing would extend out into view. Now and again its head would briefly pop up into view, but it must have decided it was warmer and cozier tucked down inside, while I decided I would be warmer and cozier at home.
The owlet's one parent, I believe probably the mother, was ever present in a nearby tree, observing and listening. She seemed again this year to accept my routine and my closeness - sensing no threat of harm to the little one - just as she had last year. I'm convinced she recognized Marcy and me from our adventures with the owl family the last spring. The one new twist was that she allowed me to get some wonderful pictures of her - whereas last year she was always higher in the tree with much more cover. April 20, Easter Sunday was a beautiful sunny day and she very obligingly posed for me. I know it's just my interpretation, however, at times she seems to have a very tranquil, serene look on her face. The next day when I stopped by, I was very surprised to find the little owlet sitting outside of the nest up on a little ledge above the hollow in the tree. She appeared very confident and proud of herself, as if to say "just look at me out here!"
About 4 days later I found the parent owl sitting on top of the nesting area where the owlet had been the last time I was there. I combed the immediate area thinking that the owlet might be on the ground with the parent watching out for its safety - but I couldn't find it anywhere. I felt it was too soon for it to have left the nest and became a bit concerned. So I went home in a gloom and doom mode, but felt there was still hope it was in the nest as mama owl was still there, and didn't seem upset or anxious in any way. I tried to cling to that thought.
The next morning I was back there early and much relieved to find it safe and sound in its nest. It seems to require a little more sleep and quiet time than the previous owlets - especially after yesterday's little excursion for a taste of the outside world. That particular morning as I had to return home quickly to take a friend to an appointment - I had ridden my bike into the park where biking is permitted, locked it up in a standing rack, and walked, or rather ran the rest of the way where biking is not permitted. I later returned with a picnic lunch only to find a dark nest area. I decided to eat my lunch in a sunny spot in view of the nest when lo and behold, the little trickster decided to come up into sight - and watched my every move and as always mama stood guard. She seems to be so used to my presence that at times she will turn her back on me and watch down the trail in the opposite direction.
Toward the end of the month, on one of my visits the owlet was once again not in sight but I was getting rather accustomed to its habits or disappearing acts and wasn't particularly upset as this particular pattern would be the same. I could see the mother higher up in the hemlock to the left of the nest. So I settled in to enjoy my peanut butter sandwich - snapping a picture of the mother from time to time. I must have moved a bit to the right, for I suddenly saw 2 owls - the owlet was on a limb of a small tree just up the hill from her nesting tree.
I took lots of pictures but on looking at them on the computer I was very disappointed as they were very out of focus, due to twigs and leaves that entered the equation. Therefore I must go back to the studio in the woods for more pictures. The afternoon sunlight was more conducive and I was more selective keeping in mind those pesky leaves etc. The next day the owlet moved to a hemlock limb right beside its previous perch. I ate my sandwich, again I have its full attention watching my every move, and listening as I talk to it, and whistle softly. However I was in the shade and it got to feel a bit on the cool side, so I opted to move up the hill to the other side of the tree where I would be in the warm sunshine. To my amazement and delight the little rascal turned itself around so it would be able to see me and not miss a trick. Thus the "peek-a-boo" picture. Such a little sweetheart! She - (I have started to refer to it as a female) has certainly won my heart.
Later that night I took a couple of friends over to see the little owl, feeling that perhaps it would soon be time for it to take off, and if they were to see it , it had to be then. She looked so cute and fuzzy and cuddly up on that limb, her eyes riveted on me. I would love to know what was going on in that little head. My summation was correct, as the next day it was gone. I ended up with quite a stiff neck in my attempt to locate her. As she had chosen to be on a limb from day one out of the nest and not ever on the ground first as the previous year's owlets, I felt sure she would only continue to fly higher and higher in the trees. So once again there was the heartfelt sadness of her departure, but a content, happy feeling knowing that she would be safer out into its wilder habitat and not with such exposure to the many people passing by. Though time and time again I saw many people walk right past without any knowledge that they were being watched by that little feathered friend.
On the way out of the park that night with my friends, we saw a barred owl fly as crows were pestering it. This was quite a treat - all this in one day.
I would like to mention here in closing this chapter that when I retired, my gift from the office staff was my very own bench at Green Lakes, in the Brookside area, complete with a plaque with my name and comments. Most of the benches there are in memoriam, so I really felt honored and lucky that I am still alive to enjoy it. It was such a meaningful, thoughtful gift, in that they know how much I value the treasure we have in Green Lakes State Park, and the hours I spend there biking and hiking, just enjoying all the beauty of the flowers, mushrooms and the wild life. I can't imagine a more perfect gift.
It was on a visit there to show my husband the bench with the plaque in place, that he spotted the "resident" barred owl of Brookside up in a tree basking in the sunshine. He was so happy to have been the first to spot it - even before I did. This pretty much brings a close to the owl tales of the summer... and once again the experiences were very rewarding.