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!

Smells Like Surgical Spirit

Quite an odd day at the Scottish Owl Centre today. Well, it’s not every day you take an adult male Snowy Owl to the local vets to have laser surgery (thankfully).

We’ve been monitoring the bird since the beginning of the year, and those who have followed this blog since January may remember the first time we called out the vet it was to look at the large swelling on the owl’s left wing. The diagnosis then was that this was a benign lump of fatty tissue, a xanthoma, and that the bird was not affected by its presence. In the last few weeks we have seen it become more prominent, possibly due to the hot weather. The bird was caught up at the weekend when we had a spot inspection by animal welfare inspectors and the decision was made to seek veterinary advice once again. (More on that inspection later).

Our local veterinary practice is very modern and well equipped and this morning a surgical laser was used to cut the lump off. The male Snowy is quite a calm bird once in the hand and so the vet decided that a local anaesthetic would be the best choice for the procedure. Once the area was frozen we all had to don protective goggles as the vet used the surgical laser to cut the tissue away. I won’t go into more gory detail but it was quite fascinating to observe. As fascinated as I was, after 45 minutes of this I was beginning to feel a bit hot and stuffy. I was wrapped up in four layers this morning, including waterproofs for the heavy rain, plus my ‘summer cold’ meant I could barely breathe. I thought I just needed to cool down but when the vet suggested I step outside for a moment I suddenly felt a bit wobbly! The cool air hit me and for one of the first times in my life I felt faint! I had to sit out the rest of the operation and hand over to Rod to handle the owl. Another 45 minutes later and the procedure was all done. I was disappointed not to have seen the whole thing through as I wasn’t squeamish about any of it, just overheated. The main thing though was that the Snowy Owl was sat up in his carry box looking a bit indignant about what had been done to him, but otherwise looked okay.

The prognosis from the vet was good. The lump had been an abscess and was removed quite easily. He felt that the bird could be observed for an hour or so then released into its aviary. Erring on caution we decided to keep the owl indoors overnight and see how it fares.

After a breath of fresh air and a trip back to the owl centre I was feeling more myself, a ‘medicinal’ ice cream later, and I felt fine – like I’d been the patient all along! Oh dear, never mind!

Back in the centre we did some checking on the nesting birds this afternoon. A few disappointments, a couple of surprises, some good news.

Our Little Owl female is still incubating 5 eggs, but they’re a little overdue now. The Mottled Owl has given up and thrown out a single infertile egg. The African Wood Owl had done the same. The White Faced Owl has thrown out an egg with a fully grown owlet inside but is still sitting on two eggs – fingers crossed one is fertile and she doesn’t throw it out too. Not a good start…

Better news came from the Tropical Screech Owl nestbox. I’d noted that the female hadn’t come out of the box since her last infertile eggs were removed, checking today we found she has ‘recycled’ and laid 3 more eggs. Fingers crossed that this clutch are fertile! One of our two female Ferruginous Pygmy Owls has laid another 3 eggs too, making 9 between the two girls – we need to get a male this year!

Best news still came from the Ashy Faced Owls, who are feeding at least one owlet! I got a glimpse of a small grey-white head yesterday while investigating owlet noises. Today we didn’t go in to look but watched as the male took all of the daily food delivery up to the box.

Ashy Faced Owlets would be fantastic for the centre’s first season in the new location. We’ll keep a close watch on them and hope they make it through to fledging safely.

I wrote up a list of nesting attempts made this year and came up with 15 species – not at all bad considering all the trauma and ordeal of moving to the new site. Even if we didn’t get any more owlets this year 15 species with eggs is a very respectable first season and gives us a lot of scope for next year. We’re not done with 2012 yet so let’s keep hoping for more fluffies this year!

Okay that’s my lot for tonight, I’m signing off and heading to bed. ‘til next time, goodnight.

Pole position

Well the heatwave seems to be over with us for the moment, and this morning there was a little moisture in the air. No rain though. Just as well really as we had another school visit booked for this morning.

This was our second school from the Edinburgh region, just a little way down the motorway really, and they easily arrived for ten o’clock. We’re starting to get into a pattern that suits most with the schools now, and began their visit with a short guided tour ‘Walk to the North Pole’. The children were primary 4 age and so were pretty clued up on the need for camouflage, food chains, and taking care of the environment topics. It was nice to get some thoughtful questions from the children and well thought out answers to my questions too.

Finishing at the ‘North Pole’ the children then had some time to explore the owl centre as they looked for the answers to ‘Professor Hoot’s Tough Test’ on the information boards and in our education zone. After all that running about and thinking they were ready for a sit down and so met up with us in our indoor display arena. We flew some of the trained owls for them with more good questions and answers throughout. We had some other visitors in at the same time and they seemed to enjoy the session as much as the children did.

The afternoon was quieter, not just because the school children had left to go back to school! We had a steady flow of visitors and Poncho the Tropical Screech Owl made an appearance in one of the afternoon shows. The contrast between this tiny owl and then Hudson the Great Horned Owl was quite something and the audiences were fascinated. It’s nice to have Poncho in the team now and he is proving to be a pretty steady and good natured owl, happy to be in the shows and to have his photo taken with the public.

We usually feed the collection in the afternoon and while volunteers Karen and George were taking the feed buckets around today I heard a familiar sound coming from the Ashy Faced Owl aviary. Were my ears deceiving me, or was that the sound of an owlet? Hmm. Well with a few people to act as witness we were pretty sure we did indeed hear the tell-tale hissing made by babies of the Barn Owl family to which the Ashy Faced belong. The male had taken food straight up to the nest the second it hit the floor of the aviary and passed it to his mate. She began to rip it up into pieces small enough for tiny beaks to swallow, and this was when we were hearing the owlet noises.

I’m hesitant to get too excited about the prospect of owlets here after such a run of bad luck so far this season. This pair have been reliable breeders in previous years though, so should be steady enough to keep looking after their young. The Ashy Faced Owl is probably the most endangered owl in collections in the UK so this makes them the main target species for us to breed. I’ll keep my excitement reigned in for a day or two as I don’t want to be disappointed with such an important species for the centre.

I’ll leave you tonight with a up to date picture of our two Great Horned Owlets, taken this afternoon with my shiny new camera. Enjoy, and good night!

Sleep well Sam

Today was a very tough and very sad day for us at the Scottish Owl Centre. Sam, the American Barn Owl we were hand rearing to join our flying display team died quite suddenly. 😦

At just six weeks old this is a tragic thing to have happened. In my last blog I mentioned that the owlet had not been eating as much, and although since then it had taken more food, this morning it passed away. It was very quick and sudden, one minute seemed fine but the next gone. We will see if the vet can find what was wrong but sometimes these things just happen without reason.

While we are all upset it is some comfort to think of the little owlet as being a happy and curious little soul, and brightened our lives if only for that brief time with us.

Sleep well now Sam.

Hot Hot Hot

Well summer finally arrived with style. The BBC news tonight is saying that Scotland had the hottest places in the UK today and I can believe it. We had at least 22 degrees Celsius here but I think I can almost guarantee that the hottest place in the UK today was inside our Rainforest Realm! 😉

Before I go further I must mention that I am still having difficulties with my blog service. Maybe I keep trying to log on when everyone else is hammering the server, but for whatever reason when I try to log in I get a message saying the site is unavailable. To get around this problem we are in the process of upgrading our official website, and my blog will be incorporated into that. Along with more powerful software for me to write my blog in we have a dedicated server just for our site, so I won’t have to compete with the many members that WordPress boasts. We aim to get this new service up and running in time for the Scottish Owl Centre’s official launch date in June – more on this when I have more info.

Back to the news and weather desk.

Two days of sunshine here in West Lothian has been very nice, with today hotter than yesterday. The owls have been making the most of the heat and many have been seen sunbathing in their aviaries. Some seek out the perch in the sun, others get down onto the floor and spread their wings to squeeze out every last drop of feather strengthening vitamin D. Not all of them love the heat though, most obviously the Snowy Owls. A bit of sun is okay but the temperature was just a bit much for them today. They sought out shade and shelter behind the big rocks in one half of their aviary. They are able to find some shade at either end depending on where the sun is in the sky during the day, and they have water to drink and keep them cool too.

This was one of the priority jobs for myself and the volunteer keepers today. We regularly checked that the water dishes had water in them, and those in which it had evaporated were topped up. I think our Spectacled Owls, Ural Owls and Tiger in our trained display team were very grateful of this as they all took the opportunity to bathe and cool down. Tiger bathed right before it was her turn to perform in the afternoon show! Normally this would mean the bird would be too waterlogged to fly but Tiger flew just fine. When Sarabi the Milky Eagle Owl flew she seemed to have her own hot wind preceding and following her slow and steady wing beats. It was quite the experience and reminded me of the hot sirocco winds of Southern Europe and Africa.

We’ve had some more disappointments from our breeding birds. Our Brown Wood Owl female was seen out of the nestbox one afternoon and was still off the next morning. I checked the box to find a single egg, stone cold and abandoned. Removing the egg and leaving the aviary I later checked inside and was dismayed to find an owlet in there. One theory I have is that the owlet formed well up to a point where the weather was particularly cold – we had a few minutes of snow even last week remember – and even in the warmer environment of the Rainforest Realm it would have been cold. This female has not had any luck in breeding in the past, having panicked during her first attempt and killed the owlet. This dead owlet today was particularly disappointing for us as this season is proving pretty awful so far.

To add to this, today I checked the African Wood Owls in the aviary opposite the Brown Wood Owls. Their eggs were due to hatch the day before the Brown Wood’s so were also a couple of weeks overdue now. I found broken eggshell beneath the box but inside I found the female still sitting on a single egg. This far overdue it looks like this is another infertile egg.

Tomorrow I will check on the African Spotted Eagle Owls as they too were due to hatch their three eggs around the same date as the Wood Owl pairs. I can’t help feeling there are more infertile eggs in that box too. 😦

Oh well. Such is the way of things when working with breeding programmes for birds or any animal. We still have other owls on eggs and I’m thinking that our Tengmalm’s Owl and Burrowing Owl females may have laid eggs this week. Our Mottled Owls and Ashy Faced Owls are coming up to their estimated hatch dates in the next few days. The year isn’t over yet and neither is the breeding season – after all, the weather just improved! Our fingers remain crossed.

On a brighter note; Sam the American Barn Owl is doing fine. The six week old owlet seems to have a smaller appetite lately, but I remember the last Barn Owl I helped hand rear going through a similar phase. Up to now all the effort has gone into growing big and tall, now things slow down a little and the work goes into growing feathers – so not as much food is needed I guess. We still take Sam out into the displays each day and each day the owlet is walking a little more, either for food offered or to go over to the nearest humans to investigate their footwear. Sam seems to be going through that phase that all children go through where feet are the most interesting things in the whole world! It is quite comical to see this young creature look at human feet or shoes then look down at its own feet and back again. In a time of disappointments from the breeding birds it is good to have this little one around to lift the spirits.  🙂

Sam had a first experience of being in an aviary this afternoon, as I put the owlet in one of our empty places for half an hour just to let the owlet get used to it. The ‘Prep’ room has been awfully hot these last two days and I decided that the owlet would fare better outside. At least in the aviary there is shade and a refreshing breeze. The little owl took it all in with ease. This aviary will be Sams home once old enough, and is right next to the entrance to the Rainforest Realm, so plenty of people will get to see him/her.

I’ll leave you tonight with a pic of Sam in the aviary. Signing off, see you next time, gnite!



I haven’t been able to log into WordPress for the last few days, so apologies for the lack of blog entries. It isn’t the first time I’ve had problems with the site and I envision moving to a different host at some point. For now it appears I’m here.

We have been continuing to experience an overabundance of eggs in the collection this week, it seems to be the theme for the year. Well, except in the case of the Tropical Screech Owls who seem to have ‘lost’ their three eggs at some point. It isn’t unusual for a female to eat eggshell to get the calcium back into her system so I assume her eggs were infertile and she did some recycling of materials. It’s a shame but at least she laid some eggs to begin with. Maybe next year, with no disruption from moving home and the noise of a building site, they will have fertile eggs.

So like I say, an overabundance of eggs; we discovered on Thursday that our two female Ferruginous Pygmy Owls had six eggs between them, both sat in the same little nestbox. If only we had a male! We have the same situation with our Tawny Owls of course, with both girls sitting faithfully on four eggs each, squashed together in a nestbox built for one.

Our lone Southern Boobook Owl laid a second egg on Thursday, discarding it on the woodchip floor of her aviary. A more positive discovery was that our Little Owls are definitely nesting now, with the female sitting on five eggs. At least there is a pair of them, although they are unproven when it comes to breeding, so we can at least cross our fingers and hope for the best.

Even Oulu, our trained Great Grey Owl laid an egg yesterday! She’s been flying most days in our displays too! She has been heavier and in the mornings I have seen broody nesting behaviour from her, so I’m not so surprised that she is in condition and ready to breed. We will not fly her in shows now until we are sure she is not carrying any more eggs inside her. If she was, and they broke inside her, she could die of a condition known as egg peritonitis. Her egg, at this time of the year, has given me unexpected renewed hope that there may still be a breeding attempt from our pair of Great Greys in the collection.

At least all these eggs show that we have a lot of very healthy female owls in our collection.

I suppose if we were to look on the positive and hopeful side, there could still be time for a late breeding season this year. If we had a warm June through to late September that would give plenty of time for our owls to court, mate, incubate and raise owlets before winter comes. I don’t like looking on the gloomy side of things, and it has been disheartening lately seeing birds like our Northern Hawk Owls and Ural Owls breeding attempts result in infertile eggs. All we need is a good period of good weather…

Over in our display arena we have continued to train the smallest member of our team – smallest but not youngest. Poncho the Tropical Screech Owl has been flying really well these last few days. I still find it odd to see such a small owl flying around the arena but he acts like it’s the most normal thing in the world. Once he reached his ideal weight – just 100 grams! – and sat on the glove for half an hour or so, he figured it all out really quickly. Quicker than some of our larger owls!

Our youngest member of the team is doing well too. Sam the American Barn Owl already towers over little Poncho at just six weeks old. The owlet has been appearing in the displays this week and has begun to walk around, exploring. He or she (we won’t know which for at least another month or more) has been amusing us all with behaviour none of us have seen in an owlet before – snoring! The owlet seems to like standing with it’s chin resting on or against the top of the box and go to sleep. Then after a few minutes it begins to squeak. When I first heard it I thought there was something wrong with it, but it’s just sleeping! Maybe dreaming of mice?

Well I’ll sign off and get some sleep myself I think. No dreaming of mice though I hope! ‘Til next time then, gnite!