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.

The Owls are Out

The parent Eastern Screech Owls have competed the first part of their chick rearing in the last few days. Four fuzzy fledglings left the nest box, three one night, the fourth during the following night.

This cutey was the first to enter the big, wide world of backyard hunting and birdbath splashing.

I had trouble getting good photos during this once-a-year event, partly due to conditions and partly due to my own incompetence. It’s been quite windy this spring and the last few days continued that trend. In addition after last year’s devastating freeze, my Red Oak tree now leafs out in a dense, bushy manner, rather than the more open, airy form that was normal before the freeze. The denser foliage is great for the owls and other birds, not-so-great for those who like to watch them. Still, I captured a few moments of the family’s turning point.

Mom and Dad were the tree, keeping an eye on the owlets as they fledged.

Mama’s not thrilled with my oohs and aahs

The parents supervised the owlets’ hapless hops and awkward wing flaps along the branches. It takes a few days before the owlets are anything near being competent flyers, which means that these newby owls are vulnerable to predators. I recall reading that 75% of Eastern Screech owlets don’t survive their first year. It’s a tough world out there.

With an event as momentous as Eastern Screech owlets leaving their nest box, I hope to chronicle with photos. The owlets peek out of the nest box for a day (maybe) before they fledge and once they’re out, they leave the immediate area within a few days. I try to get at least one photo of each owlet, downloading the photos to my computer soon after. I did that, but somehow managed to permanently delete the first set of photos that I got. Ugh–bonehead move! Between the wind, foliage, and my mistake, I have only a couple of decent photos to mark this backyard birding event.

I think this is one of the three who fledged on the second night. Isn’t it a cute predator?

Once I noticed the first owlet at the nest box hole I called my SIL over so she could get photos. She got some great shots and knows better than to delete! The next two shots are courtesy of Sharon and her camera. I’m not sure if this is mom or dad, but it’s a concerned parent.

I believe this little owl is the first one to fledge and in this photo, it’s no longer in my tree, but had migrated to my SIL’s Arizona ash tree.

That’s always been the pattern with the Screech Owls in my garden: the owlets fledge, perch in my tree for one, maybe two days, then move southward to the ash tree. After that, if I’m lucky and am out at the right time, I might seen the owl family at sundown. The owlets make a scratchy call to alert their parents of their hunger and the parents oblige, but always with the goal of teaching their young ones to hunt. Within about 5 days, the owlets are moderately good flyers, but will be fed by the parents through mid-summer. As their flying skills improve, the owlets will hunt insects (they can have all the cockroaches they want!), then will graduate to hunting lizards, snakes, rodents, and smaller birds.

I wish them well. It’s always a privilege to watch the adults come together and raise their family. Our camera stopped working last year and our various owls have had a run of bad luck in the previous years. I’m hoping this successful segment of chick rearing is repeated next year and we plan to be ready with a camera installed in the nest box.

Dad’s Duty

It appears that our Eastern Screech Owl, Megascops asio, couple are in the family way. About 12 days ago, dad owl moved from his daytime perch in the back neighbor’s ash tree, located at the opposite end of my garden from the nest box, to varying spots that are within 10-20 feet from the nest box. That he is now hanging out so close to the nest box indicates not only eggs, but that they’ve begun to hatch. As well, I haven’t seen any sign of mama, as I’m certain that she’s been busy brooding the eggs and is now caring for hatchlings. She probably leaves the nest box briefly in the evenings (everybody has to pee and poo), but she’s mostly in the box with the chicks. Dad is providing meals for the whole family at this point in time. I haven’t seen a rat in weeks!

Some days, dad perches in my SIL’s large ash tree (just over the fence line), other days he’s in our Red Oak tree, just a few feet above the nest box. No matter which perch he chooses, he snoozes, but he’s also keenly aware of what goes on in the garden and he keeps a wary eye on our activities.

Hanging out in our Red Oak tree, he stares at me while I snap a photo.

Our poor owls have had a run of bad luck for about 5 years, following years of successful families raised. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for appearances of fuzzy owlets the first week of May. I’m likely to see mama hang out more in the trees soon, too, because those hungry chicks will be getting big and the box will be crowded.

Our camera stopped working last year after the owls abandoned the nest and we didn’t replace it. I regret that we didn’t, as I’d love to observe the chicks’ progress and the parents’ devotion and care. Even so, I like searching for dad each morning as he sits sentry, protecting his family, and I look forward to seeing mama again, and in time, the darling owlets.