Daily News Archive 2010

April 27 – At this point, I’m giving-up hope of egg no. 4 hatching. This time I can’t even guess what might have gone wrong. Mme. Owl seems ambiguous about it; sometimes she broods it, sometimes she doesn’t. One could take that as a good or bad sign, but it’s increasingly difficult to justify an optimistic interpretation. That aside, the owlets that have hatched successfully (nos. 1 and 3) are doing well. Food contiues to be plentiful today, with Mr. Owl supplying up to three mice, along with various smaller food items. So, there should no question of both owlets getting plenty to eat. And they are begining to darken, as their white down is augmented by the growth of their first set of proper feathers. Each day, the owlets’ colors will darken as those feathers become larger. (BTW, I know that Mme. Owl is a gray phase Megascops asio, because I’ve seen her in daylight on several occasions. I haven’t seen her mate in daylight, however, which leaves open the question of his color. He might be red phase, which would be exciting, but it is estimated that Austin’s screech owl population is 95% gray phase, so odds are that he’s gray, just like his mate.) Color notwithstanding, that darkening will be apparent. Watch for it. Also, you’ll see that the owlets will spend more time sitting up as they grow, and having mastered that, they’ll then begin to stand-up more and more often. But I get ahead of things. So far, I haven’t noticed owlet no. 3 opening its eyes, which is the next major development in their, um, development.

April 26 – Egg no. 4 seems to have a line running around its circumference, but hasn’t hatched. I’m not sure what to make of that, but Mme. Owl still seems to be brooding the egg, so she’s probably still expecting good things from it.

Afternoon temperatures in the nest box reached the low 90s, so Mme. Owl spent much of the afternoon sitting in the entryway or on the perch, while the owlets alternately slept, and wandered more-or-less blindly around the floor of the nest box. Owlet no. 1 has opened its eyes (for the first time, I think), but it will be a while before he/she can see much of anything; their eyes start-out cloudy, and only become transparent as they grow.

Meanwhile, Mr. Owl continues to prove his hunting prowess. Thus far, I've never seen a screech owl capture more mice than this fellow. And when he can't find mice, he does a good job of finding small birds, most or all of which are cedar waxwings. On the small end, I've also seen him settle for some tiny caterpillars, so the diet is varied. But the owlets need the calcium from vertebrates in order to grow their own bones, so all those mice and cedar waxwings are being put to good use.

By the way, a red-bellied woodpecker has stuck it's head in the box for a look for the second day in a row. It’s probably looking for a nest site of its own, but unless it can wait 3-4 weeks, it’ll have to find somewhere else. (I have tried putting-up nest boxes for the red-bellieds in the past, but they were taken over first by starlings, and then by squirrels, so I gave up on that, much as I would have liked to help the woodpeckers.)

My thanks to Jewell R., and Leslie for their postcards.

April 25 – Owlets no. 1 and 3 continue to do well. Egg no. 4 has yet to hatch, but should do so soon.

April 24 – Owlet no. 3 hatched successfully.

April 23 – [Final entry. Late.] – My efforts to save owlet no. 2 failed. Mme. Owl killed the half-hatched owlet and fed it to owlet no. 1 and herself. I was very surprised, but perhaps I shouldn't have been; Mme. Owl had refused to brood egg no. 2 all afternoon, so she had obviously written it off. Whatever made her decide to give up on that egg evidently was not changed by my efforts to help it hatch. Very, very disappointing. But the owlet may have already sustained unrecoverable wounds from the fire ants, so there may have been no good outcome possible.

[Preliminary entry. 9:21 PM CDT] - Around 8:45 PM CDT, after Mme. Owl had left the nest of her own volition, I brought down the nest box for the second time today. (That’s two times more than I would have liked - but life seldom goes according to plan.) The reason for bringing the box down for a second time was a consultation with my friend who rehabilitates birds of prey. At my request she took a look at the photo of the hatching egg, and expressed concern that too much blood was visible within the shell. That suggested to both of us the possibility that the owlet was wounded, and thereby weakened, by the fire ants. Furthermore, Mme. Owl didn't brood the hatching egg most, or all, of the afternoon, which left us wondering whether she had given up on it. So, with the advice of my friend to guide me, I set about helping owlet no. 2 to hatch by removing one tiny piece of egg shell after another - following the visible air gaps between the owlet and the shell. In the end, I removed about half of the egg shell, and found the remaining half to be relatively loose, suggesting that the owlet should be able to free itself, provided it can break away from the inner membrane of the egg, which covered most of the owlet, even after half of its egg shell was removed. Some of that membrane was moist, white and pliable, presumably because it had just recently been exposed to air. Some of it, on the other hand, was dark, dry and tough and seemed stuck to the owlet, presumably because it had been exposed to air ever since the owlet worked its egg tooth through its shell for the first time. Uncertain what it was safe to do beyond what I'd already done, I left the membrane in place. Throughout the process, the owlet was peeping, and moving a little, which is good. But blood was evident, too, which may be a bad sign. Needless to say, I shall be watching with great interest to learn the fate of owlet no. 2.

[Preliminary entry. 1:51 PM CDT] - Mme. Owl has returned to the nest, and the photos are ready. I expect that I am now officially on Mme. Owl’s “enemies” list, but I’ll take that any day rather than worry about what the fire ants might be doing to the owlets.

[Preliminary entry. 1:22 PM CDT] There was a fire ant colony established in the nest box. Specifically, it was in the wiring compartment of the attic camera mount. Every fire ant has been killed, and all traces of them removed. The attic wiring compartment has been sprayed with pyrethrin and re-sealed. The nest box bedding materials have been replaced with fresh pine shavings, and all should be right with world (well this little piece of it), just as soon as Mme. Owl returns, which shouldn't take too long. In any case, it's a warm day, so her absence won't harm the owlet or the eggs. And one of the eggs is in the process of hatching! With luck the fire ants didn't get into it. There were fire ants on the egg when I opened the box, but I didn't see any entering or exiting the hole in the egg shell, and I candled the egg to double-check, with no ants evident. Photos to come.

April 22 - Still only one egg has hatched. Mme. Owl's mate is doing an excellent job of hunting - he provided one small bird, and one—possibly two—mice. Mme. Owl fed portions of some of those to the owlet, but elected to store the food somewhere other than the nest. (It's normal for screech owls to keep food caches.) The only thing that has me worried is that, in reviewing the frames from the box, it became clear to me that there is a significant insect presence in the nest at times. The imagery lacks sufficient resolution to settle the question of what sort of insects they are, but ants seem to fit what I've observed best. If these are harmless sugar ants, for instance, they should pose no problems. However, if they are fire ants, I will have to take some kind of action to eliminate them. For the sake of all concerned, I hope they aren't fire ants.

April 21 - Egg no. 1 became owlet no. 1 somewhere between midnight and 3:30 AM. If you have QuickTime installed, you can watch some short, time-lapse movies of the hatchling moving around; one seen from the side, and one seen from above. At this early stage, the owlet can’t even lift its head, so there’s not a lot to see, but the movies will give you more of an idea of what a several hour old owlet looks like than any single image from the box. By the way, if you're having trouble making heads or tails of the little fellow, the owlet is laying on its belly, with its head between the remaining three eggs, and its tail pointing outwards. In the overhead view, a fragment of egg shell can be seen moving around on the owlet's left. Mme. Owl will have already eaten the rest of the egg shell in order to (1) reclaim the calcium, and (2) prevent any large pieces from coming to enclose any portion of the other eggs, thereby reducing the surface area through which air can pass to the fetuses.

April 20 - No egg hatched today, but I'll let you in on a secret that I just discovered: An egg hatched somewhere between midnight and 3:30 AM on the 21st. I haven't seen the hatchling yet, but I can report that it has a good, strong voice.

April 19 - As far as I know, hatching hasn’t begun yet, but it might begin tomorrow. It'll only be obvious when Mme. Owl is out of the box, so any of you, gentle viewers, may notice before I do, if you happen to be looking at the right times, which would be shortly before local sunrise, or shortly after local sunset. Civil twilight is currently listed as occurring at 6:33 AM CDT, and 8:26 PM CDT, which is probably as good a set of values for local sunrise and sunset as I'm going to find. (I could go through the frame archive and see when Mme. Owl is actually away on her outings, of course, but I haven't had the time so far. I think, however, that I'll have to make the time very soon....)

Last, but not least, thanks for today’s postcards go out to Alison B., and Helen P.

April 18 - All's well.

April 17 - Quite a downpour today, but Mme. Owl and her eggs stayed dry and secure. Nesting proceeds smoothly.

April 16 - Another rainy day, with worse expected on the 17th. As you've no doubt noticed, things proceeded undisturbed inside the nest box. However, in improperly designed nest boxes, rain can be lethal if it can get in, but not out. So, use the smallest entry/exit hole possible: a 3" diameter circle; make the hole deep; angle its outer lip so that rain runs down and out; and, for when all other measures fail, make sure there are sizeable drainage holes in the floor (nothing big enough for a 1" diameter egg to fall through, or become stuck in, but nothing that's likely to clog, either. One good place to start with drainage is to cut the corners off of the floor board. That leaves four triangular gaps, one in each corner of the finished box's floor. Then drill a few more holes just to be certain. I know of local cases of screech eggs/owlets drowing in nest boxes, so someone operating around here, at least, is building death traps mascquerading as nest boxes. Don't make the same mistake.

Thanks go out to Nancy for the postcard. In answer to your question: I've observed only one food delivery, purely by chance, and it consisted of something that looked like a large, fat grub. However, it's a safe bet that Mr. Owl is supplying Mme. Owl with other insects, geckos (a particular favorite), small snakes like the Texas Blind Snake, mice, and maybe even some small songbirds.

April 15 - A rainy day, but otherwise not out of the ordinary.

April 14 - It has been 23 days since the first egg was laid. If memory serves (and I really should go back to the news of previous years, rather than trust my memory), we can expect each egg to hatch about 30 days after being laid. So, one more week and we should see the first of the owlets.

April 13 - More and more of the same. The female spends the vast majority of her time incubating eggs, while her mate hunts for the both of them. In principle, he should also be spending the days hidden, but within sight of the nest, so he can guard it. In my yard, however, that may not be possible, due to the concentration of songbirds attracted by my bird feeder, though he just might be good enough at hiding to pull it off. Anyway, he's doing his main job which is to provide food.

April 12 - She just sits there and broods and broods.... Meanwhile, Sandra & Nancy, Janet O., and Katie E. have been kind enough to send postcards. Thank you, ladies.

April 11 - All the news from the nest box is both good, and boring: Brooding goes on. And on. And on....

April 10 - Relentless normality persists in the nest.

April 9 - Another day, same as the last. Brooding continues in its ordinary manner.

April 8 - Egg brooding proceeding normally. (Yup, you guessed it.)

April 7 - Another uneventful day of egg brooding. Meanwhile, the small "meadow" of grass and wildflowers that I maintain in part beneath and around the nest box tree is showing more life than it has in years. The Wind-Flowers (Anemone heterophylla) have already finished blooming, but the giant spiderwort (Tradescantia gigantea) that started with the anemones keeps on going strong, more and more scrambled eggs (Corydalis curvisiliqua) reveal themselves, scattered bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) begin announcing their presence in greater numbers than I'd expected, clusters of Widow's Tears (Commelina erecta) appear, and the Englemann daisies (Engelmannia pinnatifida) rise steadily—some already blooming, but most biding their time before they paint the meadow yellow—above the knee-high grasses which have already begun setting seed. Wild Geraniums (Geranium carolinianum) and Sorrels (Oxallis drummondii and Oxalis dillenii) appear throughout; the geraniums bloom so subtly they're hard to notice, while the oxalis seems to be running slow due to the grasses doing better in the competition for light than they. Regrettably, I am locked in my usual fight to the death with Hedge-parsley (Torilis arvensis) which will smother every other plant in the meadow unless I intervene. The velcro weed (species unknown to me), another native wildflower I'd gladly do without, tries to climb over most everything, but seems to do less damage than the Hedge-parsley. The good winter and spring rains are undoubtedly the key to all this activity, but the drought still suggests itself in the lack of leaves on the nest box tree. Maybe it's just recovering very slowly, but every day it seems more and more likely that it died over the summer.

April 6 - Yet another day of perfectly normal, nest-style screech owling, which is all to the good.

April 5 - Normality persists for the owls. Meanwhile, thanks go out to Nancy in Maryland, and Mary H. for their postcards.

April 4 - All's quiet with the owls. Eggs continue holding at four. No fights with the software today.

April 3 - I continued my adjustments to the new version of the Owl Cam' software in order to eliminate another failure mode. Due to that failure mode, the Cam' was down for several hours today, but since the revisions were made it has run quite solidly. QuickTime for Java keeps crashing, of course, but Apple never did make that API reliable. (The fact that they've chosen to abandon it would be encouraging, if they had any plans to replace it with something new and reliable. Which, to the great frustration of a number of software developers, myself included, they do not. <Insert expletives here.>)

For the owls, however, today was normal and untroubled.

April 2 - Still holding at four eggs, so it seems likely that the clutch is complete.

By the way, I've done some work on the Owl Cam' software to try to eliminate the occasional multi-minute periods during which no updated images are available. The trouble is that the root of the problem isn't in my software, so there are limits to what I can do about it. However, I have made a set of changes that should eliminate those mutli-minute gaps. I can no longer guarantee that new frames will be made available at the start of each minute, or even once per minute, but the gaps should seldom, if ever, be worse than a minute and a half.

Anyone who noticed that the cam' wasn't working in the hour or so before midnight, will have caught me in the process of working on the software while testing it on the machine that's responsible for running the owl cam'.

(For those wondering, the core problem seems to be that QuickTime running on Mac OS X 10.5.8, with all of the latest updates, including QuickTime 7.6.6, cannot capture a one second long movie in less than about 13 seconds. Older, slower Macs than the one I'm using, running older system software have, in years past, performed that same task considerably faster. What Apple has done to foul this up I do not know. But it has just caused me no small amount of trouble, and is preventing the owl cam' from archiving frames every 15 seconds, as it used to do. I expect better from Apple's software, and usually get it, so episodes like this are very disappointing.)

(Late Update: The problem of the excessive recording times for the one-second movies has been solved by recording them to a RAM disk, instead of a normal disk. I've wanted to do this for years, but the last time I tried to setup a RAM disk, it was a command-line process that proved to be problematic in ways that I don't entirely remember. In the intervening years, a few utilities have been created that automate the creation of Mac OS X RAM disks, including the one I'm now using: Make RAM Disk by Peter Hosey. Thank you, Peter. This doesn't explain why movie recording has become slower, rather than faster, as mentioned above, but it does hide the problem splendidly. It will also, of course, reduce wear and tear on my hard disk, which is very welcome.)

April 1 - Still just the four eggs. Owl activity in the nest box is beginning to usefully compact the nest material deposited by the starlings, so the view from the side camera is improving. Nothing unusual to report.

March 31 - Four eggs and holding. All in all, a quite unremarkable day for the owls. (Which is probably just the way they like it.)

March 30 - An unremarkable day except for its warmth. The egg count stands at four, and Mme. Owl is busily incubating them (if “busily” can ever be the right adverb where incubation is concerned).

March 29 - This evening I managed to capture images from the attic camera just after Mme. Owl left for her constitutional, so I can now confirm that there are four eggs. Will there be more? Up to six are possible (though unusual), but I kinda hope the owls stick with four, for their own sake; feeding more owlets, and managing the varied times they'll leave the nest, would be a lot of extra work.

March 28 - Missed my opportunity to do an egg count, so no news there. (Dang.) For the owls, it seems to have been a normal day/night.

March 27 - My guess yesterday was that the third egg had been laid, and that that was what had shifted Mme. Owl into serious brooding mode. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to capture an overhead view yesterday to confirm that guess. This evening, however, I was able to capture such a view, and, as you’ve undoubtedly already noticed, there is a third egg. Whether it was laid yesterday or today will likely remain a matter of guesswork, but there it is.

March 26 - Incubation begins in earnest. Mme. Owl only exits the box for a short time after sunset, then returns. I fail to notice her brief absence, and therefore don't capture a view from the attic camera (which requires manually swapping video cables), so there's no way to know whether the third egg was laid today, or not. However, I would bet that it was laid today, and that that is what has caused Mme. Owl to begin incubating the eggs overnight, instead of going out hunting all night, as she has done up to this point.

March 25 - A normal day for Mme. Owl. No new eggs.

March 24 - On her seventh day in the nest, Mme. Owl lays her second egg.

March 23 - Mme. Owl spends her sixth day in the nest box. Has not laid second egg, yet. (≅3.75 eggs are expected.)

March 22 - Mme. Owl spends her fifth day in the nest box, lays first egg.

March 21 - Mme. Owl spends her fourth day in the nest box. No eggs, yet.

March 20 - Mme. Owl spends her third day in the nest box. Still no eggs.

March 19 - Mme. Owl spends her second day in the nest box. No eggs so far.

March 18 - Mme. Owl spends her first day in the nest box. The floor is covered with nesting material deposited there by starlings during the previous three days.

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