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.

While I Was Gone

Vacations are great, especially when parents meet up with an adult child living in a far-flung place. We connected with that character-of-a-child in Vienna, Austria, not quite mid-way between where he lives and where we live, adding a side jaunt to Salzburg (with him), and a week-long dash of Paris before Austria. I won’t get out the white sheet to hang on the wall and bore you with my vacation slides, but I will lament my freeze-damaged garden with readers who probably suffered the same, or something similar.

While I enjoyed balmy 40s F in Vienna, Austin dipped to 15 F overnight and remained below freezing for several days over the Christmas weekend. The garden is now a palette of brown, beige, and grey, bits of green suggesting that life exists.

This Purple Heart, Tradescantia pallida, reflects my feeling about the garden when I arrived home and got my first look!

Native plants and those from Mexico or Western U.S will be fine. In fact, all of the annual Texas wildflowers are green and gearing up for a nice show,

Blue Curls or Caterpillars, Phacelia congesta. I have scads of these throughout my front garden.

Evergreen native perennials, even if freezer-burned, are returning from their roots or flushing out new foliage. I’m also seeing a few blooms pop up. Yay!

Native to Arizona, Globe Mallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua, is typically a cool season bloomer.

Some evergreen plants are truly evergreen. This young Softleaf Yucca, Yucca recurvifolia (left) and mature native Basketgrass, Nolina texana (right) are green year-round no matter how hot or cold,

…as is this Red Yucca, Hesperaloe parviflora. Huzzah for the green stalwarts!

The plant that suffers most are the clumps of Flax lily, Dianella tasmanica, in my back garden. This summer drought-tough non-native is the only plant that I always cover before a hard freeze. My peach of a sister-in-law prepared my garden and pipes for the freeze, but some plants just had to weather the cold, come what may.

Sad as this and the other flax lilies look, I’m already seeing some of their striped foliage emerging from the frozen apocalypse. Going forward, I guess I don’t actually need to cover these, which is great news!

The garden is in a dull state, but there are birds (chirping), squirrels (chasing) and even a few butterflies (flitting). The honeybees forage on warmer days.

Bright spots in my garden are silvery grasses. They’re not green and lush of the growing season, but they’re still full and graceful, moving in the breeze, rustling with the wind.

Since those cold, cold few days, Austin’s weather has been mild and dry. I returned from my trip during the first week of January and have worn shorts and t-shirts often. I’ve also begun the pruning process which will require time and patience to help the garden prepare for the upcoming growing season.

I have my work cut out for me in the next 6-8 weeks. Virtually everything will need pruning to the ground. What fun! Would that I could be a resident of old Versailles, France gazing out at the gardens, concerned only with court intrigue and how much powder to put on my wig!

Spring in Fall

According to the calendar, autumn is in place, with winter just around the bend. Maybe someone should remind one of my Columbine plants and some eager Spiderworts that they’re supposed to be resting right now.

This Yellow Columbine, Aquilegia chrysantha, has blossomed over the last few weeks.

These are spring flowers which usually bloom from March through May. On occasion, this particular specimen has gifted some pretties in early fall, but I don’t recall it ever flowering this late in the season.

The yellow plays peek-a-boo with foliage of Red Spider Lily, Lycoris radiata.

The two fairy-like blooms complement ground-cover greens with yellow cheer. The spring-like foliage, which will remain evergreen throughout winter, is that of Yellow Columbine, Spider Lily and Common Yarrow. A crisp of autumn is in place with the golden-tan leaf of an American Sycamore.

The spiderwort that I grow are all pass-a-long plants, so I don’t know their exact heritage. Because they tend to be tall, I’ve always assumed they’re some hybrid of Giant Spiderwort, Tradescantia gigantea. I’ve seen the occasional bloom in December and January, but those are usually short, the stems and flowers low to the ground. In my front garden, a couple of clumps of Spiderwort have grown tall and are blooming, as if time skipped the gloom of winter and joyfully leaped to March and April.

This one is a lavender hue.
This group suggests blue in its color

I certainly don’t mind seeing the Spiderwort. As weedy as they can become, I always welcome them in my garden. On warmer, sunny days, honeybees are busy nosing around in the blooms.

As well, a remnant of summer is hanging on in the form of a group of common sunflowers. This stalk is broken, but the bent piece maintains enough life in that section that it has bloomed prolifically since August, offering dabs of sunshine on dreary days.

This gardener firmly believes that gardens don’t always operate according to calendars and that plants have minds of their own.