Friday, May 13, 2016

Farm Bulletin: An Empty Nest at Ayers Creek Farm

Watching and waiting are hallmarks of farming, and contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm has been observing the great horned owls' nest in the stand of firs near their home for months. Though they are wild creatures with lives beyond domestication, a certain attachment occurs over time, and this week brought a poignant moment. As the Bard said, "parting is such sweet sorrow…"

The last couple of days it was obvious that the owlets were about to depart. The eldest was perching atop the snag, and even the younger bird was standing tall on his legs. In the morning twilight, as I watched the older bird surveying the neighboring trees and exercising its stubby wings high on its perch, I knew they would leave. By the time the sun moved above Bald Peak and there was enough light for a good photograph, there was just one in the nest. In the photograph you can see the older owl tucked into the fir boughs (top photo).

The empty nest.

Once they can perch on a branch, they are ready to leave the exposed setting of the nest. It will be a few weeks before they can attempt flight, and months before they can do so gracefully. At this point they are essentially arboreal penguins. The movements are nothing more than hop-and-flop. During the next month, they will build up their flight muscles and grow in their primary feathers on their wings. It will probably be a while before we catch a glimpse of them again. They are hyper-furtive at this stage. This year we have a raccoon skulking about so life is a bit more hazardous.

When I returned from St. Paul in the early afternoon, the nest was empty. They will perch close together and very quietly, no keening or other activity to draw attention to them. This is the first time since the 21st of February with no owls atop the snag. That urine-splashed redoubt will have no significance to the owls, no sentimental returns to the old homestead. They will remain safely tucked in the fir boughs closer to where the red-tailed hawks nest. A doubling of the raptor watch duties perhaps. The snag remains a Grand Hotel of sorts with cavity nesters still raising young. A second brood of starlings is in the hole beneath the nest. The young owls will leave the farm in the late autumn. Sometime next February, the hen will settle down for another reproductive vigil.

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