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.

A Few Birds

There are more than a few birds in my garden this summer, but plenty of projects, hellish heat, and a decent dose of seasonal laziness has slowed my interest in photographing avian acquaintances.

Also, birds frequently fly away when I step outside to take their photos.

Sometimes though, I’m lucky and the birds cooperate. One hot July evening, sitting in my front garden, I observed with amusement three female hummingbirds chasing one another around the garden, each, no doubt, claiming the territory as her own. I captured this lovely as she rested and surveyed her territory, keen eyes watchful for invaders. She didn’t perch for long, zooming off on her mad dash to protect her home from The Others.

Female Black-chinned Hummingbird, Archilochus alexandri

A significant crew of Lesser Goldfinches, Spinus psaltria have hung around all summer, noshing on a variety of seeds in the garden. They’ve favored seeds of the American Basket flower, Zexmenia, Henry Duelberg sage, Rock Rose, and Sunflower. They’ve also been skittish, taking flight at the least movement, and capturing shots of these cuties has proved challenging. I spied this female through my front window, alerted to its snacking by my cat, Lena, who watched. I’m sure she wished she was out with the bird.

I like the way the finch’s feathers splay as she perches on the branch of the sunflower.

Mostly, it’s the usual suspects in the garden, though this year, the European Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris have over-stayed from their typical late spring visits and in their bullying ways, made themselves unwelcome. In normal years, they’re here in May and June, and once the fledglings are independent, take off for parts unknown. I guess with the drought, there’s not much ‘out there’ to draw them away, so Starlings are a constant in this urban paradise of water and food. They favor the peanuts and if I leave the two peanut feeders up, they’ll go through the supply within a few hours. For now and until the Starlings vamoose, I’m only hanging the peanut feeders during early mornings and late evenings to prevent them from eating a the peanuts supply. To their credit, their plumage is beautiful and they are masters of murmurations, but as backyard visitors, they are pests. I don’t have photos of the Starlings because I’m annoyed with them.

Another bird spending summer in our neighborhood are some of Austin’s Monk Parakeets. I can’t help but admire their beauty and chuckle at their personalities.

There are always a few Monks who come to my garden in late spring, checking out the bird feeders and perching on the utility wires along the back of my property. This year, they’re still around in August, cawing loudly and flashing green and blue as they streak across the sky. The Austin Monk Parakeet population descend from pets let free in the 70s and 80s; these striking birds are successful colonizers of urban areas. Fond of nesting atop electric towers (which have caused fires), apparently they have no negative impact native bird species.

Gosh, they’re pretty birds!

I appreciate that the Monks are the only birds who push back at the Starlings’ bad manners at the feeders; the Starlings always give way when there’s a Monk around.

I wouldn’t mess with that beak and those claws could cause some damage!

As I admired this handsome bird, another flit into the background–a male Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus. Last year, I observed a Dad Red-bellied stuffing peanuts and seeds in a hole in this oak tree. He then worked with his young offspring, presumably teaching how to cache food and retrieve it. I haven’t seen a ‘junior’ this year, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t one around, ready to leave the nest and learn the woodpecker ways.

Dad looks satisfied with his efforts!

With hopes that the heat abates sometime soon so that I can more comfortably spend time with my garden companions, bird watching will become more compelling. The hummingbirds will ramp up for their migration southward and other migrating birds will appear in my garden on the way to their winter digs.

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.