Birds of a feather, hoot together

Great Horned OwlWe’ve been busy as always at the Centre over the last two weeks. It has been the mid-term break for schools so we have had more visitors, and our flying displays have been a major feature in both the visitor experience and the staff and volunteer time in training the birds for the displays. Some of our owls have started the nesting season off too, like our Great Horned Owl in the picture above.

Like the majority of Bird of Prey centres or zoos with trained birds of prey, we give our birds a break over winter. This for us is the period that we are closed, December and January. During their ‘holiday’ the owls are not flown and are given more food each day. They put weight on that helps them cope with the cold weather, and they also have the extra energy available to produce new feathers, so many trained birds moult in their off period.

When we open to the public again in February we start our flying displays again, so we select the team of owls who are going to start off the season and we put them on a diet, along with getting them back in flying fitness in the display arena. With about 25 trained owls (out of our total 100 birds) we can work them on a rotation through the year.

Our team starting the season off this year have been Lofty the Barn Owl, Zeus the European Eagle Owl, Sarabi (and me)Sarabi the Milky Eagle Owl, Lulu the White Faced Owl, Rocky the Indian Eagle Owl and Hosking the Tawny Owl. Taino the Ashy Faced Owl has done a couple of shows but is still a little over her ideal flying weight so is still a bit rusty. I’m sure she’ll get there in the next week.



Ashy Faced Owl family 2012The Ashy Faced Owl is a species we particularly like and feel is important in conservation breeding, so we are pleased to find our pair of Ashy Faced have started the nesting season a little early and have a clutch of eggs. (The photo here was taken in 2012 when their owlet was a few weeks old). As a member of the Barn Owl family, they are capable of having two clutches each year, so if the weather is right they will start early. As I write this they have been incubating for about two weeks. As they are such an important species – they only live on two islands on the whole planet in the wild – we will try to increase our chances of rearing owlets this year by taking fertile eggs from the first clutch and putting them in our incubator until they hatch. We will then have to hand feed them and rear them together in a ‘creche’. I’ll be setting up an incubation room this next week in readiness for these eggs.

IMG_5373Work has slowed but continued on our new aviaries. In between flying displays during the week I have been helping Rod with building the framework, and I have been putting the mesh on the new aviary down by our pond. At the weekend we have had more staff and a dedicated team of volunteers around so I have been able to concentrate my full day on the new aviary. We’re really pleased with how this aviary looks and the size of it (26 feet point to point of a stretched hexagon shape). The design matches the new aviaries recently completed near reception, part of a new phase or next generation of ‘showpiece’ aviaries.

On Wednesday I was finishing off the mesh side panels quite late in the day. As the light of the day grew dim the owls in the aviaries around me began to hoot. It is quite a remarkable experience to hear all these species from around the world all hooting in the same place. On either side of me were two types of Eagle Owls Aharonis Eagle Owlsthat are close relatives in the wild. Our new pair of Aharonis Eagle Owls have been settling in so well they are doing courtship calling and the male offers food to the female. Meanwhile over in the African Avenue the pair of Pharaoh Eagle Owls have also been hooting and passing food, the male also making a scrape in the nestboxPharaoh Eagle Owl ready for the female to lay her eggs in. These two types of Eagle Owls are neighbours of a sort out in the wild, with the Aharonis found in the Middle East down to Saudi Arabia and the Pharaohs pick up in Saudi around to Morocco (thereabouts and with a gap where they may have become extinct in recent times). As they are so close in location and biology the two owls make quite similar hoots, so by having the new Aharonis I think we have prompted the Pharaohs to begin courtship earlier in the year than usual. A bit of completion can make them more territorial and from there, spur on courtship and breeding. It would be wonderful if both pairs were to breed, even if it does catch us by surprise and delay some of the repair and building work we have planned!

Time for me to sign off so cheerio for now.



Trapped Under Ice

It has been a busy couple of weeks since my last blog. We’ve been getting the centre ready for re-opening to the public – which we did successfully on Feb 1st – training our display birds, and continuing to build our new aviaries. The trained owls performed wonderfully in the first displays. We also received some new owls this week, very exciting!

IMG_8560bbAharonis Eagle Owls are a sub species of Eurasian Eagle Owl, and in the wild they live in the semi desert and mountain regions of the Middle East. They are smaller than the Eurasian and a sandy yellow with dark spots. They represent an intermediary stage between their larger cousin and the smaller paler Pharaoh Eagle Owl species found from Saudi Arabia around to northern Africa. They used to be quite common in UK collections but I hadn’t seen or heard of any in the last 8 years. Towards the end of last year I was surprised to find a centre with not one but two pairs. We arranged to bring one pair up north but needed to build them an aviary. Through asking around the network of owl keepers in the UK, there appear to be a few places with single birds and people are now interested in pairing them up. It can be quite easy for birds to become ‘out of fashion’ to the point that they vanish from aviculture. We have our fingers crossed that our new pair breed of course. I’ll keep you updated.

The long period of sub-zero temperatures has hampered our building work that’s for sure. Snowfall is one thing to contend with, but the temperature has been below freezing for long enough for the ground to become as solid as concrete. Even the gravel and woodchip in our aviaries has been frozen solid, which along with frozen pipes and taps means we haven’t been able to clean aviaries with much success either. But this is winter and what we expect, so we’ve slowly but surely continued with our work.

sunday 017The structure of the new Burrowing Owl aviary is complete pretty much. I’m working on the interior landscaping a bit at a time, as the materials are frozen, but once there’s a thaw I’ll get stuck in properly. We’re trying to design this aviary to include a nestbox camera so that visitors can view what is going on inside the nest – hopefully we will learn about Burrowing Owl domestic life! We need to build a viewing booth on the front of the new aviary to complete the outer structure. In the meantime our Burrowing Owls are still in their original aviary. The reason we’re moving them is that I’ve been unhappy with the lack of sunshine they receive tucked around that corner, and the corner with the nestbox gets so wet and damp I’m sure that is the reason the eggs do not hatch in there. We have hatched them in our incubator however, so we know they are viable. In the new enclosure I’m hoping the design will make the nestbox much drier, and with the camera we might see the female Burrowing Owl hatch her own eggs for the first time.


Over to the other end of the centre again. 20150204_094151Those Aharoni Eagle Owls are temporarily living in the aviary where our Indian Eagle Owls have been housed. (The Indian Eagle Owls have moved closer to the reception building in our re-designed entrance area). The Aharonis are able to watch us build their new home, and are quite vocal about it too! The aviary is taking shape now, after this photo was taken we managed to get most of the roofing beams and connecting beams along one side in place. By my next blog we should have the structure done, hopefully.


IMG_8576bbAn extra special new owl arrived in the last week too. A female Vermiculated Fishing Owl. With less than half a dozen of these remarkable owls in the whole of the UK we are privileged to have this female at our centre. She’s most certainly the only one of her species in Scotland. Our hope is that the collection she came to us from in England will breed a male this coming season, and we will be able to pair them up. Fishing Owls are native to Africa. Unlike the Fish Owls over in Indonesia they are small and have neither ‘ear tufts’ or a facial disk, such as most other owls who hunt by sound. (Eyesight is more useful for hunting fish that can’t be heard underwater!). They have bare legs with scaly toes, like those of an Osprey, to help hold on to slippery prey. I have been fortunate to work with this species before and am really happy to see one again, she’s a beauty!

Right, time to sign out. See you next blog. Keep warm!

When the wind blows…

Copy of piccie for trystan (3)A wise man once said ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing’. From the wisdom of the Big Yin, thoroughly Scottish Billy Connoly, we certainly needed some good clothing in the last week. Storm force gales followed by snow then followed by yet more severe gales hit the centre and are still doing so.

My first thought in weather like this is whether the birds are okay, then are the aviaries ok too, has there been any damage? The morning after hurricane force winds hit the Scottish west coast, dissipating by they reached us but still ferocious, I expected more than just a bit of roofing felt to be lifted off a roof. We were lucky, and the aviaries are pretty solid.

IMG_8407baThis was the first real test of our newest aviaries, only occupied over Christmas. As you can see from the photo, birds like Altai the Siberian Eagle Owl sensibly make good use of the shelter area to keep away from the worst of the wind, rain and in this case, snow. The aviaries passed the test with flying colours.

IMG_8419baThe gales and blizzards hampered the construction work on the next aviaries but didn’t stop us completely. Unfortunately the foundation posts I spent the weekend digging and cementing in were in the wrong place, but hadn’t set anyway so were easy to pull out! Despite a bit of two-steps-forward and one-step-back, we finally began to put the structure of the new Burrowing Owl aviary together yesterday.


On the owly front, our recently arrived Barn Owls – one white and one black – have been doing fine despite their first week living in an outdoor aviary being in some of the roughest winter weather that Scotland could muster for them. They are very friendly so far, and we soon discovered that they are already pretty well trained to fly to the glove, they do it in their aviary eIMG_4831ven if you haven’t got any food with you! As an experiment we took them into the flying display arena to see how they’d respond. They flew to the glove for food pretty well. I don’t think it would take a lot of time or effort to train them up for displays. This would mean we can elaborate our talks about why colour is important for an owl. We might think that an albino or a melanistic creature is beautiful, but would it survive in nature? Come along to our shows this year and find out what we reckon ; )
See you next week, take care and wrap up warm!

How Come It Never Rains… It Only Pours?

Well in the week since the last blog we’ve had a lot of rain – and yes I know these blogs always talk about the weather sooner or later, but we get rather a lot of it here in Scotland in winter! All of our work is influenced by what weather we get, that’s the breaks when you work outdoors I suppose.

I mentioned last week that we are building new aviaries this year. All of this rain has delayed me cementing the foundation posts in – the holes fill to the brim with rain water!

In a break i10924152_10205129011658616_1649785349031857467_on the cold and the wet, we took the opportunity to catch up our female Siberian Eagle Owl for a little beak trimming. In the wild the prey of these birds could be carrion that has been out in the elements for days, and the act of ripping through the hide and picking pieces of meat off the carcass would keep the owl’s beak sharp and shaped. In captivity our bird is fed d10887386_10205129029179054_8149616581248372051_oead day old chickens and her mouth is big enough to swallow one whole! This means her upper mandible grows overly long and we have to intervene to cut and file it back into shape so she can keep eating. It’s a tricky job for volunteers and staff to do so we only do it when really necessary. Luckily no fingers were lost in the operation!


The weather has also delayed the release of the wild woodpecker handed to us before Christmas too. A little male Greater Spotted Woodpecker, one of last years I suspect, he flew into a window and was stunned. I had our vet give him a look over as I was concerned that there was weakness in the right leg and wing. Just a bruise or sprain perhaps, but the bird has been gaining strength daily and is now ready for release. We just need a break in the wet weather! I’ll get a photo when we get chance to let it out into the wild in the park.

IMG_4833We had two other new arrivals this week. A pair of Barn Owls given to us by their owners in Fife arrived late Wednesday evening. They are currently sitting in the sheltered area of the aviary that Kara the Turkmenian Eagle Owl has lived in for the last couple of years. (She is still settling into her new aviary at the front of the centre by the way!) That a centre like ours has Barn Owls arrive isn’t that remarkable, but when one is a regular coloured bird and the other is melanistic they look very remarkable indeed… Melanism is where there is an unusual abundance of the dark pigment, melanin, caused by a genetic mutation. This makes this Barn Owl look ‘black’ but it’s really more like a mix of dark grey or brown with a tinge of caramel on the facial disk. Very unusual certainly, but the owl probably doesn’t know it looks any different than its white-fronted companion. We’ll give them some time to get settled in and moult into a new set of feathers ready for Spring.

Okay time for me to head off. See you next week, send us some dry weather!

New Year New Blog


2015 is here! So too is the return of the Senior Keeper’s Blog, absent for the last couple of years, the blog is back to keep people informed of what is happening at the Scottish Owl Centre, particularly during the period the centre is closed to the public in January.

We are opening Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th of January of course, for the last weekend of our Winter Wonder Owls themed event. Each day has a shortened opening period, and just one flying display, but the display is themed around the Owls of Winter and how the chilly season affects the owls of the northern hemisphere.

Back to the blog though, it is my aim to keep writing updates of the projects going on at the centre this year. We have a lot planned and a few surprises in store too.

Traditionally, centres like ourselves close over winter and do the major maintenance jobs. Our big white owl signpost suffered some damage in a storm and so needs major repair work before we open in Feb. We are continuing with the work to replace some of the original materials used in the build of the centre with newer and more durable ones. Some of the plywood panels used wIMG_8398bahen the centre was built three years ago have been splitting as water gets into them. This not only looks unsightly, it threatens to cause holes in aviaries, which will not do at all. New natural coloured wooden boards or planks have been used here and there around the centre over the last year. The British Owl section has seen such repair and replace work as has the aviary beside the entrance to the Rainforest Realm. This was the aviary where Kara the beautiful Turkmenian Eagle Owl lived. She has moved into one of the new aviaries built next to the reception and gift shop. She and Altai the Siberian Eagle Owl, and Moose the Canadian Great Horned Owl moved there for Christmas, and have been settling in since.

The Rainforest Realm is another area we aIMG_4690re working on this year. One of our volunteers began to refurbish with the Black Banded Owls enclosure last year, and the natural looking ‘slab wood’ with bark covering has made a big improvement to the aviary. We are awaiting delivery of more of this wood and we will use it all around the walls of the Rainforest feature. Hopefully this work will not only make the feature look nicer, it will help the owls living there feel more relaxed as they camouflage better. This might mean they feel ready to breed in 2015 too. This would be fantastic as we have a pair of tiny Ferruginous Pygmy Owls who seem to be bonding well. The chirping of tiny beaks would be wonderful!

More construction work. The aviaries already mentioned, where Kara, Altai and Moose have moved to, were the start of a new generation and new style of aviary in the centre. These three enclosures were built in-house by staff and volunteers, mainly led by long term volunteer Ian Clarke. We like the look of these new pens, and intend to build more in that style. Our next project has already begun down at the opposite end of the centre. We have begun to dig the foundations of a new aviary tagged onto the MackInders Eagle Owl aviary. This pen will house a pair of new owls that we haven’t had in the collection before; a pair of Aharonis Eagle Owls. They are beautiful looking birds, a sub species of Eurasian Eagle Owl that inhabits the MiddIMG_4688le East. I have worked with them in my previous job, but they are becoming very scarce in collections in the UK, and I hadn’t seen any mention of them for some years. We were lucky to locate a centre with two pairs, and have arranged to bring the older pair to Scotland. With any luck their aviary should be finished in time for our opening in February. As you can see in the picture, we have a lot of tidying up to do before we open too! It will be a very busy month for us all!

IMG_4694So that’s where we’re at at the moment. I aim to keep this blog going weekly, but there may be one or two in between if anything exciting or big happens!
See you next time, and Happy New Year!


Long Cold Winter

Brief sunshine and blue skies between the snowfall. Beautiful!

Brief sunshine and blue skies between the snowfall. Beautiful!

I read something interesting recently. Apparently here in Scotland (and the whole UK I suppose) we are on the same latitude as Siberia. The only reason we don’t have the same cold and extreme weather as over there is because of the Gulf Stream bringing a more temperate climate.

Drifting snow at the Scottish Owl Centre last week

Drifting snow at the Scottish Owl Centre last week

You could have fooled me lately!

They say we have ‘unseasonably late’ cold weather, and for March that’s true, but looking back at my blogs from twelve months ago I find I was complaining about the heat and how I was having to water the plants twice a day – in March!

Now that's a Snowy Owl!

Now that’s a Snowy Owl!

Serves me right I suppose, I should learn to shut up and take whatever weather comes our way.

That’s hard for me though, when I worry about what it is doing to the owls in the centre. At this time of year we have trained birds at their lower ‘hunting weight’ but they need that extra bit just to keep going. If they get too much food they don’t fly, so it’s a difficult balance sometimes.

We also have birds sitting on eggs. This week I was counting up on the ‘Breeders Board’ and was happy to write on our tenth species laying eggs. Our female Siberian Eagle Owl has surprised us all by laying 6 eggs! Some eggs have been due to hatch lately too. A brief window of mild weather a month ago fooled some of the owls into breeding early; a week early for our Great Horned Owls, two months early for the Ashy Faced and White Faced Owls. Now we have had two weeks of bitter easterly wind and light to heavy snowfall most days and it’s starting to take its toll.

Yesterday I had a niggling worry that the female Great Horned was spending too long off the nest on her ‘loo break’. At the end of the day I gave in to the niggle and went in to check on the nest. Now these owls are not best pleased when someone goes in their aviary, and they do have the reputation for being the most aggressive owl in the world… but this pair seem to recognise that I don’t mess around and just want to keep out of my way. Good plan owls! Well I climbed the ladder and found the nest empty. There were two eggs on the ground, thrown out of the nest during the blizzards on the 13th and 16th of the month – right bang in the middle of the hatching period. One egg had been fertile and an owlet was well developed when it was thrown out into the snow. A real shame, but we remind ourselves that this is still pretty early in the year and breeding season for these owls. There is plenty of time for this pair to ‘recycle’ and try again, and this is something they have done once before. (Go look back at the blog for this date last year) Fingers crossed for them then.

My fingers are remaining so crossed these days and it’s so cold I’m surprised I can move them apart! It’s freezing!

In better news, we passed our second Zoo Inspection in the last week. The inspectors seemed really pleased and happy with the work done at the centre over the last 12 months, and liked what we have planned for the coming months and years too. This was a big relief for me as I’d always approached these inspections with some trepidation before I came to work here in Scotland. This inspection went so well I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming! So that’s us good to go until 2016 and our next inspection to renew our zoo license.

Well I think I’ll finish up this chilly blog with a chilly pic of a chilly owl. Here’s a close up of Hudson the Great Horned Owl with a dusting of snow on his head.

Snowy Owl? No it’s Hudson the Great Horned Owl, covered in snow!


The Stars (are out tonight)

The Stars (are out tonight) … and I hear owls hooting. Living next door to the Scottish Owl Centre means that from my sofa I can hear Great Horned Owl, Siberian Eagle Owl, MackInders Eagle Owl, Barn Owl, oh and the local wild Tawny Owl that comes calling on our female Tawny’s in their aviary 😉

Well it’s March 2013 and the sun was shining most of the day today. To be fair we’ve had a run of a few sunny days lately. The owls, staff and visitors alike have all been enjoying the sunshine. It’s still cold at night though, reminding us that Winter has not finished with us yet.

It’s been a good long while since my last blog. My falling out with WordPress last year meant I was faced with finding another host, or hopefully using the blogging capabilities of the owl centre website. That wasn’t possible so I’m back to square one. Our new website is now live on the internet and looks really good, and has this WordPress link incorporated so I’m going to give WP another chance.

So what has happened since last year? Well, lots, I suppose is the short answer. We closed the centre to the public over December and January and reopened on 1st of Feb. During the closed period I had intended to get all of the maintenance work that needed doing around the centre all done and finished in time for opening. The winter weather put some of the work on hold and some stuff still needs better weather to get to work on. Painting for example. But I’m happy with what we did get finished.

One of the very first things we did when the doors shut was to take down the majority of the barriers that ran along the front of the aviaries around most of the owl centre. They weren’t really necessary, and it was always my hope we could phase them out.DSCF1142 Without them visitors with disabilities have better views plus staff and volunteers cleaning aviaries can reach without a lot of hassle now. We left the barriers around the Great Horned Owl aviary, as they are very aggressive birds, and also the MackInders Eagle Owls as in my experience they can be aggressive too, if you happen to get one that way inclined. It turned out to be a good idea for different reasons though. We got in a new male MackInders last year, and he has chosen the perch right up at the front of the aviary to be his favourite place. People can stand by the barrier, two feet from him, and he does not move, so people get to see him close up but he doesn’t feel threatened enough to fly away. He’s a great bird though, and currently hooting away telling the female that the breeding season is here!

We’re seeing more signs of the breeding season’s arrival around the centre. The Great Horned Owl female has been sitting on eggs for nearly two weeks now, a week earlier than last year. Much earlier though is the Ashy Faced Owl. They (like the Great Horned) raised two owlets last year in the same aviary and same nestbox, which was unusual too, as they normally only have one owlet. I think this all means that they like the new location for the owl centre, prompting unusual behaviour. If these eggs hatch okay we will be rearing one of the owlets for our Flying Display team. Sadly we lost our trained Ashy Faced very recently. ‘Prince’ was loved by everyone at the owl centre, particularly me, as I had taken him into my house on extended recuperation a couple of times in the last year. He was a very friendly happy soul, willing to fly for anyone and as many times as they liked in our Display Arena, or just sit near you and chill out. IMAG0020He just had a nice character and disposition. I was really shocked to find he had died when I went to check on him. He had been fine in the morning, fine when I finished work, but died before my bedtime. I had been looking after him in my spare room, a habit of zoo keepers and animal carers around the world I guess, and he had been recovering really well from a serious wing injury sustained during the coldest temperatures encountered here in December. We sent for a post mortem but the results could not show any cause of death. It’s a mystery, and very very sad, but we won’t forget him and must move on, must continue the good work he started in our conservation talks for his ‘most endangered’ species in our collection.

We have lost, in my opinion, more than our fair share of well loved owls in the last year, including the centre’s ‘founding’ Barn Owl ‘Dylan. Each one we lose saddens and upsets us, but as long as we do our best to give them as long and happy a life as possible then they repay us with fond memories that last our lifetimes too.

Darwin the Boobook OwlBack to this breeding season. Along with Great Horned and Ashy Faced Owls on eggs, our Southern White Faced Owl is on eggs about two months earlier than expected, our Ural Owl has been sat in the nest for three days, and our Indian and African Spotted Eagle Owls may be days away from nesting too. I was pleasantly surprised this afternoon to see that the female Boobook Owl was sitting inside the nestbox looking out, and the male was perched nearby looking quite relaxed. We hadn’t thought this pair were getting on very well, and had been watching camera recordings of their behaviour over the last week. The male had been calling to the female but she had been ignoring him, hiding behind a post. The male had been inside the box during the week but now the female has taken that place. I hope it means they have bonded after all, it would be great to breed them this year.

Signing out for tonight, I hope it won’t be as long before my next blog update.

Goodnight ‘owl.