Tag Archives: animals


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!


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!

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!

Dreich and Drookit

It’s been a very wet day today, hence the title (wet, dismal and drenched). Light rain that lasted all day meant a quiet day as far as visitors goes but there are always things to do when looking after a collection of over eighty owls.

Since my last blog I checked on a couple of the nest boxes to see what was going on. Firstly I found that the Tropical Screech Owls still have three eggs. I had estimated they were due to hatch anytime in the week from the 3rd of the month. That’s only a guess though as I don’t know exactly when the first egg was laid. There is still time for them to hatch so fingers remain crossed. Secondly, I checked the Little Owls as there has only been one out in the aviary for a few days now. I found that the female was sitting tight on an egg. This species lays between 3 – 6 eggs usually a couple of days apart, so I may have interrupted her. Thankfully she was sitting so tight that she didn’t even get up and leave the nest box while I peeked through the inspection hatch in the side. They are secretive little things these Little Owls so it is good to know that she isn’t just hiding away whenever someone passes by, but is actually laying eggs.

Today was the date I roughly estimated for the hatching of the African Wood Owls over in the Rainforest Realm exhibit. In the pen opposite, the Brown Wood Owls are also due to hatch eggs from tomorrow. Also tomorrow, the African Spotted Eagle Owls may hatch. All guesswork again, and any or all of them could hatch anytime in the next week or so, hopefully.

The word on the grapevine says that owl breeders around the UK are finding a lot of infertile eggs, or single owlets instead of large broods. Most are putting this down to a late cold snap. As we had a brief burst of snow here in West Lothian just a few days ago I have to wonder just how late this cold snap here is going to last!

The owlets we do have this year; two Great Horned Owls, have had a very damp day indeed. Having been out of the nest a couple of days this is their first experience of rainfall, and they didn’t really know what to do. Instead of seeking shelter in the corners of the pen they have remained sitting on the rocks in the centre of the aviary. The rain has caused something of a dramatic transformation of these owlets. Yesterday they were round fluffy balls of down feather, today they look much more grown up despite being so wet. The down is still there, but yesterday it was covering the growing adult feathers. Now the down is wet those feathers show through.

I was quite worried about the owlets and how wet they would get, but going in the pen to move them wasn’t much of an option. If we went inside that aviary the parents would most definitely attack! They have a reputation for being the most aggressive owls in the world, and it’s a reputation well earned! The owlets are big now and in the wild would have a high chance of experiencing just this sort of weather when leaving the nest. Other than their head feathers looking soaked they looked pretty good. Those adult feathers are more water resistant than the fluffy down. We’ll keep an eye on them.

Despite the rain we still had a productive day. A group from West Lothian Council came along to discuss how they could help with marketing, and working on a national press release announcing the opening of the new site of the Scottish Owl Centre. We put on a flying display in our indoor arena – no fear of rain stopping our shows! – and our newest member of the display team made an appearance again. ‘Sam’ the American Barn Owl, at just five weeks old, is getting more steady on his or her long legs every day. Today those legs took the owlet for it’s very first walk about the arena. Not very far admittedly but you have to take these things literally one step at a time!

We also had some useful bird handling practice, with further training for new keeper Lauren, and volunteers Steph and Kirsty.  Lauren flew Kenya the White Faced Owl in the arena, and she did really well for her first time. We discovered that Poncho, our trained Tropical Screech Owl, is now at his ideal flying weight. Curious as to whether he would remember what to do in order to get food, Kirsty offered a piece of chicken on a glove about a foot from the scales where he perched. With no hesitation he jumped over and ate the food. He repeated this a few times and seemed pretty happy to sit on the glove. He is the last of the team from the original Scottish Owl Centre to reach this stage of training, and from here we can see about introducing him to the flying arena. It will be interesting to see how he does, interesting and fun!

Well I’ll have to wait to see that another day as I’m on my day off tomorrow. I’ll be back in on Saturday so will bring you another blog update. ‘Til then, good night!

The Circle

The long Bank Holiday weekend, or almost a week really, has been quite a busy one at the Scottish Owl Centre. Numbers of visitors have been good and comments left in our visitors book have all been really complimentary about the centre and flying demonstrations.

As I’ve said in previous blog entries not everything can be positive and happy every day when working with animals. I’m sad to say that our elderly Long-eared Owl that we have been taking extra care of for the last couple of weeks passed away this morning. While she has been stable for the last few days her condition was not going to improve. The thought was that she had a stroke or tumour that led to loss of muscle control and mobility. We felt that the best option for her that would prevent suffering was for the vet to put her to sleep. The thing to remember is that she had lived a much longer life than if she were in the wild, maybe as much as a decade longer, and that she had the best quality of life that anyone could provide.

This is of course what we want for all of the birds in our care, a good long life in the best quality of life we can provide for them. Whilst aware of three or four of the owls with health conditions that we monitor, it is always a blessing that the vast majority of the collection is in fine health and clearly happy as we have so many either sitting on eggs or rearing offspring. Having a nearby veterinary surgery that we can call upon the services of at short notice is reassuring, but preventative rather than curative is always what we aim for.

On a day tinged with sadness at the passing of one of our collection there is also comfort to be found in caring for a new life. Our four week old American Barn Owl, tentatively named ‘Sam’ at the moment, grows daily and made his or her second appearance in a public ‘flying’ display today. It is too early to tell if the owlet is male or female. He or she is a sweet little thing, quite calm and curious about the world. The audience in the display were curious and amazed to see what a baby owl looks like too. Growing up in the public gaze and with multiple carers will help this little one become well accustomed to being around people, hopefully make it a happy and steady bird when it comes to being handled by staff and volunteers, and when flying in our displays.

American Barn Owls are beautiful birds. I have had the fortune to work with them before but never any trained for flying displays. I can’t help but wonder what our little one will look like when it has it’s full set of adult feathers!

Well that’s me done for this blog, time to sign off. Hopefully back on tomorrow, so see you then, gnite.