Monthly Archives: October 2012

Midnight Oil

Title is a reference to how long this blog thing is taking me to post. How can something that so many people use be causing me so much grief? My last blog entry took three hours and three re-writes due to WordPress losing all of the formating then all of the text, causing me to do the whole thing again.

Well anyway enough of the moaning I’m here now.

Since the last post we’ve had a very wet week here in West Lothian. Days of persistant rain can get anyone down, so no real surprise then that some of our owls were feeling literally ‘under the weather’. A few of our trained flying display birds were wet and bedraggled, grounded and weak, so needed a little TLC and a few days in our Recovery Room until the weather improved. This worked well for them and they perked up enough to return to their own aviaries, but what about the collection owls? Well that’s a different thing. Our trained birds are handled every day and we quickly notice changes in their behaviour or moods, from this we can act accordingly. The other owls aren’t so easy to read. Owls, and many other birds and animals, will hide any weakness to avoid predation. They won’t show that they are sick or injured until they really can’t hide it any longer. Unfortunately for us trying to care for their welfare this sometimes means that by the time we see something is wrong, it is too late to fix the problem.

Sadly this was the case for one of our Western Screech Owls on Saturday. It had been sitting up in it’s usual perch beside it’s mate on Thursday and Friday, but a volunteer found it on the ground looking ill on the Saturday morning. Picked up and moved to the Rec Room it was apparent that the bird was in a very bad way indeed. There were no outwardly obvious problems, it wasn’t soaking wet, there were no injuries visible, no breaks, it was well fed (keel bone could not be felt through the feather and muscle), but it was sleepy and shivering. Left in the Rec Room but checked regularly the poor owl deteriorated until it was unable to stand, then passed away mid-afternoon. We don’t know as yet what the cause was, quite possibly some internal problem like a tumor, but being cold and wet may have brought the situation to a head. We will await the Post Mortem results anxiously.

So Saturday was tinged with sadness for all of us at the Owl Centre, but as is always the way when working with animals good things balance out the bad.

On Sunday we had another of Dean Bricknell’s photography workshops and as seems to be the way, he brought the sunshine along again. One of the great things about the location of the Scottish Owl Centre now is the wonderful resource that is Polkemmet Country Park. When the weather is favourable we can take owls out into the park that surrounds the Centre and photographers get some great natural looking pictures. I barely recognise Hosking the Tawny Owl in the photographs that have come from previous workshops, even though I see him every day he just looks like a wild Tawny that you would find out in these woods. Spock our Long-eared Owl is just a superstar in these workshops too, so patient and a natural poser! If only the midges had given us a break the day would have been perfect. Why are midges still around anyway? Oh well.

In the afternoon flying display I took a leap of faith and chose to debut Fetlar the young Snowy Owl in front of a public audience. It was a bit chaotic, with Fetlar still learning to fly in the large space that is our indoor display arena, but the fact he/she flew at all was a great result. It all takes practice of course, so each day we will continue with the training both with and without audiences. I have never flown a Snowy Owl before and there is just something magical seeing these big white birds in flight. If you don’t believe me, come see for yourself!

In contrast to our big white arctic owl, we are also training an owl of the desert… Our Pharoah’s Eagle Owl is around the same age as Fetlar, about 5 months or so, but had little human contact or handling after being creche reared and moved up to our Centre. We have been taking training very slow and gentle with this bird and we had a breakthrough on Thursday afternoon. She had been coming cautiously over to take food from our fingers for a while, but on Thursday I managed to get her to take the next step and fly to a perch then fly to the glove for a food reward. I was surprised to find she then sat happily on the glove waiting for more food rather than fly away again straight away. She did three short flights to my glove on Thursday and I called that a win and left it at that. On Friday she did it all again for Centre volunteer Ian, and again each day since. She is a beautiful owl and smart enough to remember what is expected of her each day. I can see us moving her training on to flights in the arena very soon at this rate.

I think I’ll call it a night with this short update, get it posted and get some sleep ready for work in the morning.

Gnite all.

Back in Black

Welcome to the return of my blog! After a summer haitus in which I had expected to migrate over to new software, I am returning to the WordPress version for the time being. I hope whatever technical problems I encountered before have been resolved during the break.

So, what has been happening at the Scottish Owl Centre? Too much for me to say in one blog that’s for sure! A summary of recent events would be that we have been busy! Last week we had new owls arrive, five school visits, a photo workshop and some decidedly undecided weather!

Today started a little differently from the norm. As well as the daily clean of the aviaries we needed to catch up the two juvenile Great Horned Owls to take feather samples. This was needed so that we can have the DNA tested so we know the sex of the birds. It often surprises people to learn that this is the most reliable way to tell male and female apart, but as plumage is almost identical in the majority of owl species there is little else to go by. You could go by size perhaps, as the females are larger, up to a third larger, than the males. This isn’t very reliable though as individual birds may be big or small, a big male the same size as a small female for instance. As another owl centre is looking for a male to pair up with their female we had better be sure we definitely have a male to send them!

Great Horned Owls are THE most aggressive owl in the world. Parents will be doubly so if they believe their offspring are under threat. With this in mind we took a net, thick welding gloves and two large pet carrier boxes round to the aviary along our Boreal Boulevard. Our task had to be done before the centre opened to the public, for obvious reasons. As I have caught up many ‘angry birds’ in my time working with owls I went in with the net first. The adult male was my first target – the one most likely to attack. I wasn’t that worried as the birds would not be too wound up at this time of year, but he needed to be secured if we were to spend any time with staff inside the aviary. The owlets are around 6 months old now so old enough to be learning to look after themselves in the wild. The parents wouldn’t be as defensive as a few months ago that’s for sure. Still, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

When I stepped into the aviary the four owls took one look at the net and decided it was ‘every owl for him-or-her self’ and flew in all directions. It was hard to keep track of which one was which when they were on the move but I followed the male until I got the net in his flight path. Netted and carried over to one of the pet carriers he was soon inside and put out of the way. Next target was the adult female. I got her pretty quickly but before I could get her into the carrier one of the owlets blundered into the side of the carrier and got a talon stuck. I put the net down and got hold of the owlet in my gloves. His talon wasn’t jammed in so I retrieved the bird and restrained it in my arms. It sometimes feels odd to be cradling an owl like a human baby but it really is the most secure way to handle them!

With my hands full now I asked Lobo, one of our trusty volunteers, to put the netted female into the waiting carrier. Lobo has handled many scary beasties both big and small while working in zoos so I knew he could cope with this owl with ease. Job done we were ready to collect our feather samples…

My fellow keeper Lauren entered the aviary with the necessary equipment and as quick as possible plucked a few feathers from the breast of the owl in my arms. Having a moment to get a good look at the owl I was pretty sure this one was male. The markings were similar to those of the adult male, and this bird lay quite still as I held it firmly. In my experience the males usually do this, while the females put up more of a fight! It didn’t take long for Lauren to finish taking the sample, then she sealed the plastic bag she had put them in and labelled it ‘small’. While we were doing this Lobo had netted the other youngster. As we were done with the first owlet I released it to the further end of the aviary from where we were standing and then retrieved the other owlet from the net. Oh boy was this one feisty! Noticeably bigger and stronger than the first owlet, angrier too, this was definitely a girl in my estimation! Restraining this one I felt the owl’s strength as it squirmed and writhed in my grip. I decided to try to calm her down a little by covering her eyes with one of my gloves. It worked for a while, long enough for Lauren to take three or four feathers from the breast again. Bagged and labelled ‘large’ she was done. I released the owl to join its sibling and we all started to depart from the aviary. I was the last person in and released the adults one at a time; the male last. The four birds flew up to their nest shelf for safety and the male gave his territorial hoot; telling us in no uncertain terms he was displeased. We left them in peace!

While all of this was going on our centre still needed cleaning, thankfully covered by volunteers Jo and Gavin. Sometimes there just isn’t enough time in the day to get all the routine duties done before opening time and our first flying display, but with enough help like today we had everything covered well.

The rest of the day was a breeze after the adrenaline rush of catching up four of the most aggressive owls in the world!

The three flying displays went well, with seven different species of owl flying today. At the end of the day we just had time to squeeze in a training session for one of our newest team members…

Fetlar the Snowy Owl is almost five months old now and almost ready to join the display team in the arena again. Yesterday’s training session went well, and was filmed and uploaded onto YouTube by Lauren. You can watch it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoEclv4fsU4, and also a video of Fetlar singing in the bath http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_s9lSZq818 after a triumphant flight!

Right, time to wrap up this blog. I hope it uploads okay, and I hope I can log back in smoothly next time. Not sure when exactly next time is so keep your eyes peeled!

Bye for now!