Friday, September 15, 2017

How Do You Talk With Owls: Flustered

by aJbishop
CWBR Volunteer

I have the keys to their enclosures. The raptors. I open them, one at a time, and do service for owls and hawks and eagles and falcons. I rake and clean and water while they, wild talon shod birds, study my every move. As I work, I can’t help but ask: how do you talk to Owls?

#5 Flustered

by Allegra Boverman
We’re supposed to check the birds, make sure they seem okay. I’m not a specialist, but I can usually count to one or two or three birds. And all of them seem to have a favorite hang out. Snowy is always on the ground diametrically opposite from the door through which I enter. Louis, the Great Grey Owl, has a square post where he stares down on me, and a corner he flies to, making silent treks from one to the other when he’s a little disturbed. One of the Peregrines is always on the floor and will jump up to the rock to be fed, right next to the front where people can watch. A natural performer. And the screech owls are practically like live gargoyles as they occupy a fixed location in nap mode.

But one day, I can’t find the second screech.  I climb on the stool to be able to search into higher places, nooks and crannies, the little nesting box, craning my neck to get at different angles. The enclosure isn’t very big and I circle around without success, re-visiting the same places to look again.

As I search for it, I find it hard to believe that it is in the cage with me. It has entirely disappeared. Yes, I am panicked a little. Well, maybe not quite that serious: but I’m confounded and disturbed. I actually consider calling for help on the walkie-talkie I don’t know how to use.

Once, when all the birds were receiving their semi-annual check ups, I had the privilege of seeing one of the screech owls held in the palm of someone’s hand. When it’s perched on a limb, it’s the size of a kitten. Not exactly large, but it’s a substantially round puffy cutie. However, in hand, its feathers gathered, it shrinks to the size of a small rat or a bat. It is almost non-existent it is so small.

I know in the wild I could probably never see a screech, not even with a lot of determination, but I pride myself on having some observational skills. I once counted nine hawks in nine separate instances while driving all day along a boring highway. Which isn’t entirely interesting in itself except that a friend of mine, who that same day traveled the same stretch of highway, also counted nine hawks. I thought cool! My hunter gatherer skills are not entirely dead. Also, I take it as a good sign when I see a bird of prey in the wild  – like in Homer’s literature, the eagle descending is a thick omen. They – those seer guys who were professional interpreters –  used to be able to give pretty specific instructions about the meaning of the omen.  I know that nine has magical abilities:  have you ever noticed that every integer of every multiple of nine adds up to nine? That’s math magic.

by Allegra Boverman
So: what does it mean that there were nine hawks? I have no idea. I want to call on Homer’s dude, but there aren’t many of those prophet types around. I think:  Screech owl absence isn’t an omen; it’s an oversight. It’s an anomaly. It’s a test.

I decide I will not call for back-up. I can handle this. And reason convinces me that it has to be in the cage.  I stand in the middle of the enclosure for a few seconds to gather my thoughts. A friend of mine calls on St Christopher when she loses something and it often works. I don’t do that, but the effect of pausing calms me.

And then I start looking again, this time not for the owl, but for the places I haven’t looked. It’s not exactly as if it comes out of hiding, but I suddenly see where it could be. And when I look, there it is: in a place that I could not have imagined possible. Hiding and completely camouflaged in a crack between its favorite post and the enclosure frame, a slit that would barely allow my fingers to reach in. It is squished with its wings spread wide, like it is embracing the post. Its little head is hidden in the flurry of feathers. I wonder if it is trapped. I worry that maybe it has fallen down into a trap.

I say a few soft words to it and it turns to look at me. Just a little movement and I back away. When I check on it again, it’s back up on its post. Sound asleep. Unflustered.

aJbishop recently moved to New Hampshire from Montreal. She is a poet, business manager, mother and facilitator of sacred wilderness events. She also volunteers at VINS and occasionally posts vignettes about her experiences with the raptors. Her blog can be found at 

Friday, August 25, 2017

NestWatch 2017: Summer Update

by Anna Autilio
Lead Environmental Educator

NestWatch training at VINS (Nathan Thoele)
A young visitor noticed me sticking a long, bent pole up into the rafters of the Nature Nook last month. “What are you doing? What’s up there?”

“I don’t know yet—do you want to help me find out?” I asked.

Pointing her towards the mirror that was duct-taped to the bent part of the pole, we peered up together, where the mirror extended over the top of the rafter and quickly revealed a hidden treat—a nest!

This one belonged to an Eastern Phoebe, and I’d seen the adult several times returning to this spot with tiny caterpillars in its beak, which must have been breakfast for the growing young. The eggs had already hatched, and the fuzzy gray nestlings contained inside were packed closely together in a heap, and difficult to distinguish from one another.

After a few seconds, moving the mirror for a better angle, we decided there were three phoebe nestlings. I pulled the mirror down and helped our visitors record this observation—3 partly feathered young, no eggs, no adult nearby—on a clipboard. “Now you’re a citizen scientist!”

Western Screech Owl nestlings (Lee-Hong Chang)
Through the citizen science project NestWatch, run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, VINS has been monitoring its local nesting birds since 2013, in order to help scientists better understand breeding biology. Our staff and lucky visitors gather valuable data on the timing of laying and hatching, the number of eggs laid, and the behavior of the adult birds, among other things. The information is uploaded online, and though it is completely free for the scientists and participants, NestWatch has generated mountains of data and aided the publication of dozens of scientific papers. There is also a photo contest for participants every year, and who can resist browsing through photos of cute baby birds?

That phoebe nest was one of 2 at VINS this summer. In fact, 2017 was quite busy, the campus hosted 2 House Wren nests, 1 Red-eyed Vireo nest, 1 Black-capped Chickadee nest, 11 American Robin nests, and 5 Tree Swallow nests. Here is a bit of our data:

Summer 2017:

American Robin
House Wren
Eastern Phoebe
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-eyed Vireo
Nests Monitored
1st Egg Date
27 April
20 May
< 28 May
28 May
30 May
27 June
Total Eggs
> 3
Live Young/Nest
Nest Success**
** Nest Success is the percentage of young that successfully fledged out of all eggs laid.

Tree Swallow adult (Bren Lundborg)
Two of our American Robin pairs double-clutched, or raised two complete sets of young sequentially in the same nest. If food is available early enough in the spring, and consistently available through the summer, many birds try to squeeze in an extra breeding attempt. We even had one robin triple-clutch, but for a different reason than abundant food. This bird decided one of the lights by the Administration building would be a great place to nest, and as visitors moved past every day, just inches away, the robin kept abandoning her nest, and knocked her first two eggs onto the ground. This was followed by a second and third attempt before she decided to find a more suitable location.

VINS is Vermont’s only NestWatch chapter, and we encourage our visitors and members to participate in nest monitoring on their own. Would you like to get involved with citizen science projects at VINS or at home? Contact for more information!