Tag Archives: owl centre


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!


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.

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.

A hop, a flap and a hoot

It’s been a good day to see progress from our owlets at the Scottish Owl Centre today.

Sam our five week old American Barn Owl made two more appearances at our ‘flying’ displays, to the delight of our audiences once more. Once s/he has been paraded for all to see close up, Sam is gently lifted out of the box and placed on the floor of the display arena. In the centre of the room, and centre of attention, the owlet is showing a growing skill for standing up and taking a few shaky steps. Last night in my living room I was astonished to find the owlet stood on the living room carpet looking very pleased with itself, having climbed through the hole at the front of the cardboard box! Each day now we will see a few more steps, then with growing confidence the young owl will be wandering around and exploring all over.

Out in the centre, the two Great Horned Owlets have made it through another night of awful weather. Wind and heavy rain persisted through most of yesterday and the night too. I was pleased to see both sunshine and healthy fluffy owlets this morning. Today the pair were doing their own exploring around their aviaries. By feeding time one was perched on the tree stump below their parents perch, and the second owlet stood on one of the rocks in the centre of the pen. As we stood admiring the owlet it launched into the air and flapped frantically. The flight was less than graceful but made it all the way across the pen to land, if land is the right word, on the tree stump with it’s sibling. There was a bit of a scramble as both owlets tried to balance and not fall off but they just about managed it. I made one last tour around the centre as I finished my day and passed by their aviary for another look. If I was surprised by that first flight you can imagine my delight as I saw one owlet perched high up with one of the parents! They sure are growing, and now they can start to fly they will be very entertaining to watch in their explorations! I hope they put on a good show for the school group visiting the centre tomorrow!

An update on our new African Spotted Eagle Owl. Having arrived the day before yesterday, she has settled in very well indeed. In her first night she ate three chicks, and three again the second night. Today I hooted at her and she responded. Now as each member of staff or volunteers goes past her we hoot and have a good ‘conversation’ with her. This afternoon we heard our male African Spotted, one of the pair along the African Avenue, joining in the hooting, then the male Siberian Eagle Owl joined in too! It’s nice to see not only that the new bird has settled okay, but that she has others to talk to (as well as the staff!) 🙂

Okay that’s it for today so until next time, gnite!

May the Fourth Be With You

Well it’s been a few days since my last blog entry. For some reason WordPress refused to let me log in to make a new post. The rest of my internet access has been fine, just not WordPress. The problem seems to have mysteriously sorted itself out around the same time I registered with a rival blogging website, funny that!

It’s been the usual blend of ups and downs at the Scottish Owl Centre since I last wrote.

Mixing the bad news and the good news about I’ll start with some good; today we welcomed new Keeper Lauren to the Scottish Owl Centre and she took to her training straight away. Resident ‘nosy parker’ Sarabi the Milky Eagle Owl also took to Lauren straight away too, behaving ‘im-peck-ably’ as Lauren started her bird handling training with our Big Friendly Giant. 🙂

We were visited this morning by volunteer Steph with her Barn Owl ‘Spirit’. Steph wishes to train Spirit to fly and was invited to try out our indoor flying display arena as a good safe venue. Spirit is probably the most beautiful female Barn Owl I have ever seen, with a very calm and friendly manner about her too. She sat on our scales quite happily and looked around our Prep room as she waited patiently. We were quite surprised at her weight; about the same as our Tawny Owl Hosking, rather than our two male Barn Owls Lofty and Dylan. Steph’s homework for her visit next week is to lower Spirit’s weight a little to see if this encourages her to fly in the arena. I’m looking forward to seeing how she does. 🙂

Some bad news came in the form of the Ural and Northern Hawk Owl nests failing. The Ural was a couple of weeks overdue hatching so I checked on what was going on. If there had been owlets they would have been old enough for the mother to leave for a minute as I peeked in at them, but sadly she was sat in the nest on four unhatched infertile eggs and one broken eggshell. Today I found the female Hawk Owl had come out of the nestbox and was preening on top of her favourite perch. Beneath the perch lay two eggs with holes in them. I retrieved them and saw they were punctured by talons (presumably as she picked them up to take out of the box) and they were also infertile. Leaving it until later in the day, I returned to check the nestbox itself and felt two more eggs. They were quite warm so I left them in there. As she has been spending time out of the box it is pretty safe to assume the eggs were all infertile and she has started to give up on them.

It is something of a setback and hard not to be disheartened for our breeding season with these two failures. I know we would be lucky to have any of the owls breed this year considering the upheaval they have all undergone to be moved to the new site, but all the same we saw so many good signs of courtship from the Hawk Owls we felt sure they would produce young this year. Oh well, it is early days after all.

To balance this news out we have added Mottled Owl and Ashy Faced Owl to our list of birds sitting on eggs. The Ashy Faced are proven breeders – Prince in the display team was from their clutch last year – so our fingers are once again crossed for owlets this season. We do of course still have two Great Horned Owlets that are doing very well in their nest, and to see them grow each day is just great.

Adding to the good news today we also welcomed another owlet in the form of a four week old American Barn Owl that arrived from a collection in southern England. He or she will be hand reared and trained to be part of our team of owls that perform in flying displays, photo sessions and walkabouts around the centre. We have plans to put on an ‘Owls of the Americas’ themed display and are working on a talk linking three owls from that region already. It’s hard to get an idea of how the owlets will turn out when they are just this age but the fluffy wee thing seems pretty calm and laid back. I’m sure s/he will be a big hit with everyone over the coming weeks, months and years!

Strange goings on

I have no idea what is going on with the Spotted Eagle Owls. We have a pair of these birds, but are they a ‘pair’? Owls are almost always the same coloured plumage from male to female, with size being the most obvious difference to the observer (females are around a third larger). To find out whether your cute fuzzball owlets are male or female you have to wait until they grow their adult feathers and remove two or three of them. You then send the feathers off to a laboratory for them to test the DNA. The lab then tells you if you have a boy or a girl. So the two African Spotted Eagle Owls came to the Scottish Owl Centre with paperwork saying their DNA showed them to be one male and one female. From what we thought we knew, the one with the chestnut brown coloured plumage was a 19 year old female and the grey plumaged one was a young male, around 4 years old. All was good when the female went to sit inside the nestbox on the ground at the rear of their aviary. I discovered that she had two eggs. All good. Then the grey one went to sit in the box too.

After a day or so I began to get curious. Going in the aviary with food I stepped closer… closer… and the grey owl was sitting glaring at me. I expected him to get up and leave the box but instead I got more glares. I stepped closer, closer… then ‘he’ stood up and I saw underneath – an egg. Oh! So we have two girls? Okay. Disappointing if that’s the case as it would have been good for the 19 year old female to breed.

Then things got stranger. The next day the grey one got out of the nest box to chase me away at food time, and there was no egg… the chestnut one must have been sitting on all of them!

So, is the grey one male after all, and wanted to help out with incubation? They are not recorded as doing this. Or is it an egg laying female? Well I’m going to hope for the first option and re-write that estimated hatching date on my board again, then we’ll just have to wait and see!

More egg-strordinary findings this morning. As volunteers Matt and Billy helped modify the Burrowing Owl nestbox, we discovered a clutch of eggs inside the box. Sadly they were all cold and infertile. I had been worrying about one of the two Burrowing Owls as I had not seen it in a long time, maybe a couple of weeks. Enough food for two owls was disappearing when I put it into the pen, but I just couldn’t see two owls. The problem was that the nestbox lid was screwed shut, and the box was then covered in sand to make it look a natural Burrowing Owl nest site. I couldn’t open the box to see if the second owl was alive or dead, surrounded by a pile of stashed food.

The owl was indeed alive, and sporting a very prominent brood patch. Unfortunately she had not been incubating these eggs for some time and they were stone cold.

I caught up both Burrowing Owls and moved them through to the off-view area and checked their health. Meanwhile Matt and Billy dug out the nest box and fitted a proper wooden base, recovered the waterproofing felt, and modified the lid so that it can be more easily lifted up for checks. We will check the ring numbers against the records. Once the work was finished on their box they were returned and set loose. The female with the brood patch darted straight into the tunnel that leads into the left hand nest chamber, but was out and about later in the day. Maybe she was reminded that the outside world wasn’t that bad after all, or maybe she didn’t like the new wood chip interior we put in her home! Either way it is much better now we can get inside the box to see if they are alright in the future. Later this year hopefully we will get some more Burrowing Owls, (including a male!) and we will be set up for the next breeding season next year.

Before I sign off, an update on the elderly Long-eared Owl. She is still with us, and is still managing to eat over night and during the day. Today she actually looked a little more settled. We keep our fingers crossed of course and I’ll check on her in the morning.

‘Til tomorrow, gnite.