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Eastern Screech, Settling In

When we returned during the first week of January from our European travels, our Eastern Screech Owl, Megascops asio, nest box was open and ready for residents.

It was surrounded by lovely autumn foliage, though shortly after this photo was taken, the leaves went brown and dropped. This is a new box, as the older one was no longer functional. The fancy slide for the door that The Hub engineered is so we can easily close the box after the chicks fledge and the owls vacate, or, at the beginning of owl nesting season, to prevent squirrels or opossums from squatting in the box. We also installed a new camera (some wiring is visible at the bottom, left of the box). With that new camera we saw that a squirrel had filled the box with leaves, prepping the box as her nest for some babies. I feel sorry for evicting the squirrel by pulling out the leaves, but we built the box for owls, not squirrels. I had observed an owl in the box before we left in mid-December, but that doesn’t always mean that she’ll settle in for nesting.

But settle in she did, within a day or two of removing the squirrel’s leaves. Shortly thereafter, this little egg appeared:

…and two days later, another,

…then another,

…finally, a fourth.

Note the swish of Mom’s tail feathers at the top of the photo.

Wow! This couple got busy, probably in late November; I had no idea that breeding action had commenced. This is the earliest that a Screech Owl couple has ever started their breeding season in my garden. In past years, I observed their courtships during January and February, watching them meet at sundown, woo and canoodle, then fly off together to hunt for the night.

And as I write that, it sounds voyeuristic and maybe even a little creepy.

The fact is that the best time to observe these elusive nighttime birds is during their courting and the raising of their chicks. This season, I missed the first part of that fascinating process. Typically after courting Mama resides in the box in February, laying her eggs during in March; chicks fledge between late April and mid-May. Dad will hunt and provide food for the whole family, until the chicks are nearly old enough to leave the nest box, when Mama joins him in the hunts. This couples’ early nesting is new in our Screech Owl experience, but is within the time frame of owl procreation here in Texas.

If I’m out at the right moment around sundown, I’ll see Mama swoop out of the box for a quick piddle-n-poo break. I imagine she takes a few breaks during the night, but she’s on the nest nearly full time now–those eggs need to stay warm and cozy. Dad has been harder to observe this year; I’m pretty sure he’s holed up in my back neighbors’ large elm tree, but it’s likely he moves around from place to place. I’ve only spied him once, at sundown, when he flew to the nest box, then to the nearby Mountain Laurel tree. Mama dashed out to met him, both perching briefly in the laurel; I lost sight of them after that.

Eastern Screech Owls are amazing hunters, but they’re also vulnerable to larger predators like Great Horned Owls (we have a pair in our neighborhood), accidents with automobiles, and poisons laid out for rodents which impact the food chain. All I can hope is that this couple remain safe and healthy, and are able to raise their chicks to adulthood.

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