Monthly Archives: March 2012

Opening day!

Whew what a day! The Scottish Owl Centre is now open and the first day went by without a hitch!

Last minute preparations began at daybreak. Even before I arrived at 7 there were joiners on site to finish off things around the site. The back gate needed completing and the owl climbing frame just one or two last details before it was done. Even with this there were things that still needed doing as opening time quickly approached. We cleaned the aviaries, tidied round and swept up sawdust, and finally the doors opened.

Visitors began to arrive, slowly to begin with but getting busier as the morning went on.

At ten thirty we gave our first flying demonstration in the display arena. With the birds still getting used to the new place and people they were a little hesitant but this was understandable. Kenya the little White Faced Owl was the first bird in the first show, and she did well considering she has only flown three or four times here even without an audience. Lofty the Barn Owl came next, thankfully in a really good mood today. Third out was Sarabi the Milky Eagle Owl. This was to be her first flying demonstration in front of the public since arriving at the Scottish Owl Centre so the pressure was on. At her previous home she was known to have a fear of pushchairs and buggies. Unfortunately the first thing she saw as I brought her into the arena today was a pushchair. I walked her to the end of the arena to the far perch but she was just fixed on the moving wheels and would not fly. I eventually got one small hop out of her then picked her up for a parade around the audience. Oh well, can’t be helped. I put her away to settle down until later in the day.

I have to say that my talk was a bit ropey to begin with. I am new to working with these particular birds and I was too distracted watching and thinking about where they were and what they were doing to concentrate on my words. This is only to be expected too so I wasn’t that worried. Practice makes perfect as they say.

The second display went better as we were getting into the swing of things. Hosking the Tawny Owl, Bruce the Boobook Owl and Oulu the Great Grey Owl flew in the second show. Hosking and Bruce did their routines well and the audience loved seeing the birds flying so close to them or just inches over their heads. Oulu was more spooked by the strange new situation, and like Sarabi would need a bit longer than the small owls to get used to it all.

 

 

By the third show we had a bigger audience and the birds were a bit more keen. I flew Hosking (my first time flying him) and Lofty, and the Barn Owl was just brilliant. He was very quick to fly and anticipate where I was heading, following on to the next perch or flying on ahead of me. I enjoyed the fun of neither me or the owl knowing where to head to next, Lofty often flying laps around the arena or switching back to land on a different perch. It was fun and the audience were laughing as much as I was! Last up was Sarabi again.

After her not budging in the first show I was more than a bit apprehensive about whether she would fly, but I didn’t have to worry. After a couple of minutes to settle she flew the whole length of the arena several times. I was able to settle into a pattern talking about the Milky Eagle Owl as she flew more reliably. By the end of the show I was very pleased with her. She definitely earned that round of applause, her first public flying demonstration probably for years!

We did a few photos for visitors holding Tiger the Brown Wood Owl or Sarabi and got a system working for the new camera and printer set up. We know now that even on busy days this set up will work well.

Finally as the day was coming to an end the collection owls all needed feeding. I was helped all day by new volunteer Veronica and I really have to say thanks to her again, she was invaluable today! What a day to start volunteering! She and another volunteer helper Stuart joined me feeding the birds. Woody the Tawny Frogmouth, sat in his aviary in the Rainforest Realm, was very eager for his food and flew like a shot to my glove to swallow a whole (small) rat in one gulp! I’d always thought these birds were slow moving but Woody is like greased lightning!

The collection birds themselves seemed to take the first day of public visitors well for the most part. I was aware that one of the Indian Eagle Owls, the young male, was quite jumpy in the afternoon as a crowd gathered around their aviary and the pond, but he wasn’t distressed or injuring himself. I popped by a couple of times to see he was okay but other than being jumpy and flying from one end of the aviary to the other he wasn’t too bad. I thought up an option of building a screen in one of the back corners for him to feel a bit more secure should it look like him not calming down over the next day or two.

So, that was our first day open to the public. No major problems at all and a steady build up helped us all settle into the swing of it all; just what was wanted from a ‘soft opening’ before the busier Easter weekend next week.

As you can imagine we were all exhausted by the end of the day so I’m going to sign off and get to bed, it all starts up again in the morning!

‘Til tomorrow then, goodnight!

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Countdown to opening day!

Well the excitement/stress was building at the Scottish Owl Centre today. Just 24 hours until opening the doors to the public and still work to be done! It won’t be long now before everyone will be able to come and see the result of a lot of hard work by everyone here getting this centre built.

I started my keeper duties early with my daily check round to make sure all the owls were okay, then on to cleaning the aviaries.  The centre needed a lot of tidying too, with bits of wood and metal left over from the building work – which was still going on around the site too. I finished off touching up the paintwork inside one of the aviaries and was finally happy with how the aviaries all look. I think we have some really good enclosures here, but the owls are the ones whose opinion matters most – do they like their new homes?

Well today the Tengmalm’s Owls were getting cosy again. They were heard calling softly and seen ‘allopreening’, which means preening and nibbling around the feathers of each other’s facial disc. This is great courtship behaviour, cementing a bond between the birds that will with luck, take them through to successful breeding.  As we watched this the female popped inside the nest box. She wasn’t in long but this was a very promising sign indeed!

Next door to them are the Northern Hawk Owls, and they have been showing courtship behaviour for a couple of weeks, even seen mating on more than one occasion. I thought it would be just a matter of time before they too begin breeding and today the female spent most of the day sat inside the nestbox. If she’s in there for the next couple of days too then I’ll count her as on eggs and start the clock.

I was pretty amazed the other day when I counted in my diary to the estimated date that the Ural Owls eggs would hatch. Just an estimate, but it’s the day after the Milky Eagle Owls. I always find it amazing that these birds that lay eggs at different times all hatch around the same dates, they clearly know when the best time to have little ones around, when the weather is kindest and the food abundant.

Elsewhere, the Mottled Owl female was in the box all day too, but I can see from how high she peeps out of the box she is not lying down in there, so no eggs yet. Early days for her though.

Speaking of weather, it’s been great to have this week of dry sunny conditions. It has been very helpful to get more work done and get things ready for opening, as well as being very pleasant to be outdoors.

Indoors though, this afternoon we had a long session training the owls that take part in the flying demonstrations. None of the main team were particularly ‘on the ball’ today, which was a bit disconcerting with three displays scheduled for tomorrow! They got less food today as some had gained a little weight. If anything we want them to lose some to get that edge back in order to fly in front of the crowds tomorrow.

One bird I was pleased with today was Tiger the Brown Wood Owl. She has needed a lot of time to get her weight down but today was around her ideal ‘flying weight’. She has only been out and about on my glove a couple of times but in the enclosed display arena she was looking interested in flying a little today. I tried several different posts, calls and different sizes of food before she finally took flight. At least it was a worthwhile flight, right down the length of the arena for a whole chick (big reward for big flight) fed to her on the glove. This was great progress. Hopefully next time she is trained she will fly for smaller pieces and more often. We will be able to add her to the displays next week with any luck. She will also be one of the birds that people can have their pictures taken holding on a glove too. Hopefully 😉

I tried out the new camera system to make sure it worked how I remembered it should. I have used this system before, albeit with slightly different model camera and printer. Everything checked out so I put the batteries on charge overnight. I wonder how many pictures we’ll do on our first day?

I hope the visitors like what they see. There are still some things that we want to finish off or bring in as time goes on, it’s quite an ‘organic’ thing that will grow and develop with time, but I’m really proud of what we have here.

Now, as I sign off this blog entry, perhaps I should start to figure out what I should say in the flying demonstrations tomorrow? 😉

Well until tomorrow’s blog, gnite!

Spotted

It was another busy day at the Scottish Owl Centre today. There are still a hundred and one things to get done by opening day on Saturday.

I spent my morning putting up branch perches in the two empty aviaries in ‘African Avenue’, after a quick clean round the aviaries. These aviaries may be empty at the moment but we’re hoping to have occupants in them soon. Hopefully I’ll be able to say more in the next week or two.

Further along ‘African Avenue’ are our pair of Spotted Eagle Owls. Yesterday afternoon the female was spotted, so to speak, sitting on the ground. She seemed happy enough but it did make me wonder. Was she sunbathing (oh, owls love sunbathing by the way, more than humans even!) or was she thinking about nesting? Eagle Owls and many other species will often nest on the ground, but our aviary is a bit sparse and open at the moment. I had an idea for an experiment. I took out the nest box from the Indian Eagle Owl aviary (the male in that pen is only a year old so too young to breed this year anyway) and I moved the box into the Spotted Eagle Owl pen, placed on the ground at the back. When I went along to check on them this morning I found that there was a ‘nest scrape’ dug in the wood chipping at the bottom of the box. By the afternoon today she was sitting inside then came out at feeding time. So she is thinking of nesting! Well it would be fantastic if they were to breed but she is getting on a bit, around 19 years old – the oldest bird in our collection! We’ll keep watching and hoping.

The rest of my day was taken up with dozens of little jobs; painting in some aviaries, planting a tree, watering saplings, tidying up, feeding, and of course ‘owl school’.

Training the display team is a daily thing now, and they are gradually getting in the right frame of mind to do the demonstrations – just like me! Lofty had a mood swing again and today was almost angelic compared to yesterday. Sarabi was at a better weight and a bit more willing but needs to lose around another 30 grams. Bruce and Hosking are almost at their ideal weights and flew their routines really quick. Kenya the little White Faced Owl was hesitant but flew well eventually. She is at the right weight but still takes her time to move, so it is likely she still needs time to get used to the new arena and sound system.

I flew Prince the Ashy Faced Owl today. It was the first time in a good while as his weight has been really high. Today though he was lighter. At around 370 grams he is still very heavy for a relative of the Barn Owl family but he flew fairly well for me in the arena. I was really pleased as he has been a horrible little monster lately! It just goes to show how crucial it is to get their weights right. With some, like Lofty, even as little as 5 grams either way can completely change their mood. Prince got small pieces of food as a reward for flying but no main meal today. I want his weight lower and his behaviour more dependable before he can be added to the display ‘A Team’. (Yes, I love it when a plan comes together too!)

And on that note I’m going to sign off. ‘Til next time owl fans! Gnite.

Drained

Just a short blog today.

The unseasonal sunshine continued but today seemed to be more humid. I don’t do well in humidity and by the afternoon I felt drained of energy and focus. I wondered if this was how some of the owls were feeling too?

Sarabi the Milky Eagle Owl, a member of our flying display team, was similarly unfocused when I tried to fly her at lunchtime. Her weight was around the same as the last two days but today she was just not really interested in flying or food. She did three long flights then seemed too distracted, so I just put her back in her aviary. She is still heavier than the best weight I’ve known her to be, so it was back to the diet for her again.

Others in the team did better today. Flown later in the day when it was a bit cooler, Bruce the Boobook Owl flew really well for Rod, as did Oulu the Great Grey Owl. Kenya the White Faced was hesitant at flying in the big arena but she did well for her first time. Lofty the Barn Owl though, well he was back to being stroppy and aggressive. His weight was only 4 grams higher than yesterday, and he flew well for me then. Maybe the heat got to him too?

The heat evaporated the water in the dishes of many of the aviaries, and it seems bizarre to need to top them up during the day when it’s still only March. After topping up the water in the Snowy Owl pen we saw the female step into the water dish and drink so she must have been feeling really hot.

This weather is forecast to last another day or so but cool toward the weekend.  I hope this means that both myself and the trained display team will be on better form, as Saturday is set to be opening day!

We do still have to pass a safety inspection on our play area before we can open, and the inspector is due in tomorrow. I guess once we pass that I will really begin to get excited about the opening.

There were a few more of the owls showing signs of getting ready to breed around the centre today. The Tengmalm’s Owls have been sitting together in front of the nestbox for two days now, and were heard calling softly today. Female African Wood and Mottled Owls were sitting inside their nestboxes for much of the day too. It would be really good if these three species would breed at the Scottish Owl Centre this year so I have my fingers crossed.

Well I think I’ll log off for the night and go get some sleep. It’s a busy time and tomorrow will be another busy day.

‘Til then, goodnight.

Nice weather for a picnic

The sun continued to shine and set new records for temperatures in Scotland today. We’d be lucky to get this in summer and it’s only March! I never expected to be watering plants and trees each day for maybe another three months!

I’m definitely not complaining though, it makes the working day go very nicely indeed. 🙂

Today was a good day for getting more little bits done around the new site of the Scottish Owl Centre. The workmen continued to work on sealing the roof of the flying display building and adding more touches to the bridge over the pond. I was pleased to see that the Malay Fish Owl, who only moved in to the aviary beside the pond late yesterday, was pretty steady even though there was a lot of noise and work on the bridge in front of her pen. She is a really nice bird too, as a species they seem to be both nervous and nosey at the same time. We used to call them ‘neighbourhood watch’ at my last place of work. I hope our female here settles well. We hope to add another species of fish eating owl to the enclosure next door to her later in the year. They are fascinating creatures and I’m sure will prove to be popular with visitors.

Myself, I started out my day with cleaning as usual, then joined volunteer Stuart in building the new picnic tables. By the end of the day we had all eight done. It was nice work on a sunny day like today.

‘Owl School’ was an important part of the day again. The trained birds need to be ready for the public flying displays by this weekend so they need daily practice.

I enlisted the help of Stuart to fly Sarabi the Milky Eagle Owl, partly to enrich his university placement experience and partly to see if Sarabi would fly for people other than myself. She did and did very well. She was still a bit hesitant so needs to lose a bit more weight before the weekend.

Kenya the White Faced Owl was a popular member of the team in displays at the Scottish Owl Centre’s first home in Campbeltown so we have high hopes she will be a little star in the new arena too. Today she reached her target weight but wasn’t in the mood to fly. Everything is still strange and new for the little owl so she will need a few days of just sitting in the arena for a short while to get used to the new environment. She has a huge character for such a small owl so I’m really looking forward to flying her.

I flew Bruce the Boobook Owl for my first time this afternoon. He is a nice little character too and very entertaining to fly as well, especially when he decides to go off and do his own bit of exploring between the benches, then pops up somewhere new. He flew some full lengths of the arena, up to the high corner perch and down again. His routine ends with him flying ‘home’ into a carrying box if you leave the door open for him, and this was great fun for me as he just took to it straight away.

Finally I flew Lofty the Barn Owl. Just a couple of days ago he was really stroppy and aggressive when flown in the arena. He was over his target weight and he seems to be one of those birds that even a few grams makes a big difference to his behaviour. Today he was 291g so at his ideal weight. He flew like a dream, friendly and cooperative, willing to fly full lengths, short flights to the glove, up to the high perch in the corner and down the length of the arena again. Talk about Jekyl and Hyde! If he can keep some consistency with this behaviour he will make the team for the shows at the weekend.

So that’s it for my day for today, more of the same tomorrow? We shall see. Each day manages to bring something unexpected, which makes my job one of the best in the world! 🙂

‘Til tomorrow then, gnite!

License to thrill

It was another hot and sunny day here in West Lothian, and the work on the Scottish Owl Centre continued. We’re getting closer to opening day so every day now is pretty full and eventful.

First a sad moment. This morning we discovered a discarded egg in the Great Horned Owl aviary. What’s worse is that the egg was full of dead owlet, probably died before or during hatching. We’ll never know what made the female remove the egg from the nest, it could be any number of reasons. However, the female is still sitting tight on the nest, and there’s a good chance she is still brooding one or more owlets, again we don’t know for sure but we can hope. The male is still taking food up to her too. All we can do is watch and wait.

Work carried on of course, and today the joiners were split between building the little bridge for the pond, and sealing the roof of the indoor display arena.

We had a final inspection by one of the health and safety inspectors that visited last week and were issued our zoo license. All that remains now is a safety check on… on our secret project that is being finished off this week. I’ll not say any more about that project just yet, but will say that kids will think it’s fantastic!

Providing we pass that safety check, our opening day is now set for this coming Saturday!

Stuart, a student on placement with us, and I finished off putting branch perches into the Malay Fish Owl aviary. Next we spent some time with the trained owls for the public displays. Sarabi the Milky Eagle Owl flew well in the arena once again, and Dylan the Barn Owl got better with each flight down the arena. I went through with Stuart how to fit jesses, swivel and leash to the anklets on an owl, then we took Prince the Ashy Faced Owl and Lofty the Barn Owl for a walkabout around the centre. Spending time with the owls just sitting on the glove helps to socialise them more and also reassure them that the glove is a safe place to be.

By the end of the day the bridge was looking great and the Malay Fish Owl was moved into her proper aviary. She seemed to settle pretty quickly and looked really good sitting at the top of the waterfall that runs down through her pen. Standing on the bridge you get a nice view of the aviary and of the owl. Once the bridge is finished off tomorrow there will be some signs to put up explaining about the amazing lifestyles of the Fish Owl species. We’re lucky to have her in the collection as there are very few of them in the country now, although I still hold out hope of finding a mate for her some day.

Well I’m signing off for this blog. ‘Til tomorrow, gnite!

Spring into Summer!

Well isn’t the weather confusing? I only celebrated the first day of Spring a few days ago and now it feels more like summer! I’m certainly not complaining!

The warmth and sunshine made it a very pleasant day to work outdoors, and the Park was heaving with people enjoying the Sunday sunshine. Inside the walled garden that houses the Scottish Owl Centre we may not be open to the public quite yet but we were still busy.

After getting muddled by the clocks changing to British Summer Time (gets me every time) I started out with a quick clean around the centre. Some of the aviaries are only needing a hose down and fresh water each day but with 60 aviaries to get round I am bound to run out of steam sooner or later. This is where volunteer keepers will be very helpful! Today we met with a new prospective volunteer, had a chat and a tour around the centre. We don’t just want people to come in and help clean up, we want the volunteer to get something out of volunteering, be it skills, experience, a break from the day job, or just a bit of fun and enjoyment. We will benefit also from learning from volunteers too.

An impromptu flying display for family and friends (and volunteer!) was an unexpected and really useful surprise today. I think I would have been nervous about speaking over the new PA system about birds that are new to me still had I known we were going to do this, but I have to get used to it sooner rather than later! I flew Sarabi, our trained Milky Eagle Owl. Yesterday the speaker system had distracted her a little but today she just ignored it. This meant I could just talk and walk about the arena placing food onto perches I wanted her to fly to. She did me proud! She flew full lengths, half lengths, up to the high perch and down to a nearby low perch, up and down with very little hesitation at all. Only when we reached the middle perches and the hop for the big reward piece of food did she stop and have a good look at the audience. I really didn’t expect her to be this good. She helped me get over any nerves I might have had about the speakers myself, she was so good! If she keeps this up she will be in the flying displays through Easter for sure. Woody the Tawny Frogmouth was eager to fly for food today, a little too eager, as no sooner had I stepped into his aviary and turned to close the door than he was sitting on top of my head! I put my gloved hand up behind his legs and he stepped on no trouble, as I told him that this was no place for a bird to perch. From the proper perches though he did really well. He flew four times for pieces of food, taking them from my fingers. He was a little too eager to take the food too, and my fingers got caught in that big gaping beak of his, ouch! Note to self; do not leave fingers in beak, it hurts! Oh well we are each learning every day but things are promising for Woody to fly and be fed, in his aviary to begin with, when the public are around.

Some of the other owls flown today were less settled in the new display arena. Like yesterday it is still confusing for them to have voices coming from the four corners of the arena, rather than from a person’s mouth or one speaker alone. Oulu was very moody today and Lofty was in a right strop. Hosking was a little scared by a speaker close to where he was perched but pretty much did his routine as it eventually came back to him. All of this is to be expected, and these birds need time, encouragement and practice. As it was commented today, in a month from now they will be so used to it all they will hardly notice the speakers at all. More practice is needed then, each day this week.

Tomorrow I intend to train another volunteer how to handle the owls on the glove, hopefully to spend some time with Prince the Ashy Faced Owl and Lofty the Grumpy Barn Owl. Oh, and maybe we’ll get that Malay Fish Owl aviary completed too!

‘Til tomorrow then, goodnight 🙂