Tag Archives: eagle owl

Birds of a feather, hoot together

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Time for me to sign off so cheerio for now.



New Year New Blog


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Long Cold Winter

Brief sunshine and blue skies between the snowfall. Beautiful!

Brief sunshine and blue skies between the snowfall. Beautiful!

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

Drifting snow at the Scottish Owl Centre last week

Drifting snow at the Scottish Owl Centre last week

You could have fooled me lately!

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

Now that's a Snowy Owl!

Now that’s a Snowy Owl!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Flight

Our second day open to the public went well today. We were a little more organised, a little less stressed, and a little more in the swing of things today.

We still had workmen on site first thing, putting up more benching, modifying Kenya’s aviary for displays, and continuing to build the main signpost that directs people to the different areas of the centre. Again the workmen were all out by opening time.

Today’s volunteers, Jo and Barry, arrived in time to help clean the aviaries and get the place ready for opening time. They have both had what training they needed to clean the enclosures on previous visits, so were ready today to work unsupervised. This was a big help to me and instead of me whizzing round everywhere doing the basics it was possible to have sections thoroughly cleaned. With around 60 aviaries at the centre it just isn’t possible for me to do a thorough clean of every one every day by myself along with everything else we have on. Fortunately the design of the aviaries was aimed at making them as low maintenance as possible so once we have a routine for everyone to work on a section at a time we will raise our standard even higher. The cleanliness and animal husbandry aspect is another area I am tending to be something of a perfectionist with, and while I’m happy with the current standards I see that there can be a lot of improvement too, in my own work and in the daily routine. That’s healthy though isn’t it?

The flying displays today went smoother than yesterday. Putting on three displays each day is something new to me, so making sure I don’t give the birds too much food in one day will be something I have to learn through trial and error. Sarabi the Milky Eagle Owl was a little heavier today than I would have liked – thanks to me rewarding her a bit too much for her wonderful first flying display yesterday! If their weight goes up to far the bird will ‘switch off’ and not be interested in flying. This is a basic fact of flying trained birds of prey daily. We do have enough birds to switch them round, take one off the team due to being overweight and replace it with a different bird, but at the moment we just have a core ‘A Team’ ready and trained up. Others are in training – Prince the Ashy Faced Owl is getting more reliable and stronger in flight with each day in training for example.


We flew all the same birds today as yesterday, and today their performances were more confident. Lofty is still a little gem as he is so active and makes the most of flying round and round the whole arena. Hosking thrilled more people by skimming just inches over their heads today and Oulu the Great Grey was a lot steadier than yesterday, a spectacular bird in flight.

My favourites today were Tiger the Brown Wood Owl, who was on photo duty again, and Sarabi. Yesterday we discovered that Tiger likes being tickled on top of her head, and I mean REALLY likes it! So much that she starts to fall asleep on the glove! She was popular with people for photos today and behaved really well for Jo and our visitors. Sarabi was good for photos too but it was her afternoon flying display that pleased me the most. She flew without much hesitation today and was much bolder. She flew up to the high corner perch a couple of times, and once comfortable with it actually flew from up there diagonally across people’s heads to my glove as I stood in one of the opposite aisles. Just at the last second she shied away from my glove, swerved away, and landed unexpectedly on a bench in front of a group of startled visitors! I could see that she wasn’t in a panic so played on this new situation to see what she might do next. I strolled over to sit at the other end of the bench and held out some food to her. Rather than fly over she walked with a comical waddle to take the food delicately in her bill. I do love improvising and this was just comical. I don’t know who loved this part of the show the most; the audience or me! Sarabi is such a good owl and every day working with her is a pleasure. 🙂

I wonder what tomorrow will bring us?

Goodnight! 🙂

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!

Compare and contrast;

Today I took myself off on another ‘busman’s holiday’ to Edinburgh Zoo. As well as getting out from under the feet of the workmen on the site of the Scottish Owl Centre – at least for a day – I intended on checking out some enclosures and interactive display materials for inspiration for our new centre. (Oh alright, I wanted to see the animals and take photos too!)

I did get one or two odd glances from other zoo visitors as I stood taking pictures of door frames and flooring of indoor areas, or a row of plants with no animals in sight. Yes I went to see the Pandas, and while there I took a look and some photos of one of their outdoor areas to see what the planting looked like in these new enclosures. With the Scottish Owl Centre building the new site from scratch all of our enclosures will be new, and we will have to build up the level of planting in and around them all as time goes on. I wanted to see how a big collection goes about the task so we can guage our own modest efforts. I really liked how they filled an indoor area and made it look so tropical in the entrance to the Koala house and the Brilliant Birds exhibit. It may take us some time to get that amount of coverage but it is something to aim for.

On my travels around the zoo I took a moment to look at the Rock Hyrax. They are funny little critters, and my interest comes from reading in my Owls of the World book that they are a favourite meal of the Milky Eagle Owl. These animals are most closely related to elephants! Well the Milky is known as the Giant Eagle Owl in Africa for a reason perhaps!

Well I’m going to wrap this short blog up with a picture, but as there were no owls at Edinburgh Zoo for me to see today I will leave you with the next best thing – a Stellar’s Sea Eagle! This chap was very obliging and came right up to the window when I was taking pictures. With him standing so close to me I got a real good opportunity to compare the size of this Eagle with our Eagle Owls. I have to say that our Siberian Eagle Owls compare very nicely thank you!

Anyway, til tomorrow, gnite!

Flight of the Bumblebee

Winter made it known it still wasn’t through with West Lothian today, as a braw wind brought wintry showers of rain, hail, sleet and scattered flurries of snow. The temperature hovered just a couple of degrees above freezing but that wind made the wind chill factor something wicked. I was really glad of our indoor display arena today!

As with most weekends, I made the most of the time the site is quiet to do some training with the birds we will be flying in our shows to the public. As usual some of the birds did well and others … well still have a long way to go.

Prince was first off the mark – he is still a very demanding little soul and he had to be first because he shouted loudest! I love seeing the little Ashy Faced Owl out in our arena. His colours blend so well with the wall that if he sits still you can miss him, but he rarely sits that still for very long! Today he was a little lighter when I weighed him. He flew pretty well today, not showing his bad habit of trying to land on my shoulder (or collide with my face!) like earlier in the week. He just needs a bit of consistency between now and opening the centre and he will be great in the shows.

Sarabi the Milky Eagle Owl (Sarah to her old pals of course) was also lighter on the scales than I’ve seen her so far; 1990 grams, but looked keen and intent rather than famished and desperate. We still don’t know the exact ideal weight for this owl as we have never flown this species before, so it’s still a bit of experimentation to get it right. At 1990 grams she flew up to the first perch without needing to be stepped back onto it. She flew to the centre perch as I was walking on down to the furthest perch, then came on when I placed food on the end perch for her. Back down the arena to the first post again and she flew the full length of the arena – having to swerve and pull in her wings a touch in order to get between those central perches, an amazing sight! I really hope she will fly in front of a crowd as I want everyone to share the thrill I have seeing this bird fly gracefully down the length of our display arena. 🙂

Okay things were just going far too well, something had to throw a spanner into the works. Kenya the White Faced Owl did just that.

Kenya is a very small owl but is full of character. Due to her size I have been more careful with her diet and so it has been taking a little longer to get her into the right mood for flying than some owls like Prince or Lofty the Barn Owl. Today she looked keen. She weighed in at a little over 200 grams so was still heavy, but as she was keen I thought I’d try to get one short hop out of her. This she did, although she first flew up onto the top of the Prep Room door that was just behind the first perch before coming down to my gloved hand. She looks great in flight too, the exact opposite from Sarabi; not just in size but in style. Kenya flutters quite moth-like I think, or maybe like a great big grey and white bumblebee! Both owls look great and I think it would make a nice contrast if they were to be in a show together (flown separately of course!). We have such a good size team of flying birds here that we could do themed shows if we wanted. In this case we could do a theme of Owls of Africa and show the wide range of size and character of these amazing creatures from that continent.

So, Kenya did her short flight from the top of the door. Great. Could she do just one more? She cast back to the perch and turned to face me. I offered a slightly larger piece of food, intending this to be her reward and end of her work. Kenya flew over but snatched the food and was away down the arena! Oops! She zoomed down the side in the shadows until she found our tall perch right at the other end of the arena. Up she went and sat there with her prize. I felt a moment of panic as she flew off but this was instinctive rather than anything else. We have an indoor arena for a reason – we can control the environment much more than if the display were outdoors in a field or somewhere. Kenya had nowhere to go to get lost, she was just inconveniently perched way higher than I could reach if I wanted to get her down! I didn’t of course, I played the waiting game instead. This is the game known to all falconers and people who fly any bird in a show. Sometimes the bird gets an idea of it’s own to sit up high with it’s stolen prize and just sit there until it is hungry and needs to come down. At least it wasn’t a castle roof like in my last job! I waited about ten minutes then offered an even bigger piece of food. Greed always wins with these birds and she zoomed down! This time the little terror tried the snatch and grab tactic but chose exactly the wrong way to make her escape – right up to the door in the Prep Room that leads back to her aviary! I got her up onto the glove – with her prize – and escorted her back to her aviary. She seemed very pleased with herself but when she sat on her perch in her pen she realised too late that she had lost most of the piece of food, it had fallen off during her flight! Back to the diet and back to the drawing board for me and Kenya. It was my fault really as she was just too heavy. As I say, when you are flying an unfamiliar bird it is often trial and error before you get it right. You just hope that the birds don’t run so many rings around you on the day of the show!

Well after all that excitement it was about time to do the Meet the Keeper with an Owl encounter. I have been doing this at 12 o’clock each day of the school half term holiday this week, taking one of the owls out on my glove into Polkemmet Country Park for people to come along and meet. I do a little talk about the owl, about owls in general and about the Scottish Owl Centre and the exciting plans we have. I have had a different owl out almost every day this week. Today I chose one of the ‘difficult ones’. I chose Hudson the Great Horned Owl. If you have been following my blog you will know we have had a rocky relationship so far, me and Hudson. His species are well known for their aggression and he has been very pushy with me since we met just a couple of months ago. We have reached something of an agreement lately though, and today he was much more comfortable coming to me and sitting patiently as we went walkabout through the site and out to the park Reception. The weather was still really cold and unpleasant, so it wasn’t a suprise that hardly anyone came to the park today. In Reception we met just one father and son, then out in the car park we met a small group of golfers and walkers. What they lacked in number they made up for in enthusiasm though, surprised to see an owl out in their local park! With promises that they will bring their families, and to spread the word about the centre, they said they looked forward to the centre opening. So do I!

With the chill wind starting to get through even Hudson’s thick feathers we scurried back inside. With Hudson rewarded back in his aviary I made my rounds feeding the rest of the collection. I was pleased to see that our female Great Horned Owl – Hudson’s mother – has spent the whole day in the nest today. Interesting. I will look to see what she does the next day or two. She ‘might’ be thinking about laying eggs… 😉

Okay time to sign off so until tomorrow, gnite all! 🙂