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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Squirrel episode at the owl snag

As fledging day approaches the fickle finger of fate continues to thwart my efforts to photograph screech owl fluffies. These are trying times.

I've gotten only 8 photos since last week -- a few blanks and a couple of screech owl butts as the adults entered the nest cavity. Part of the problem has been poor sensor alignment. Then the controller batteries went out, and today the camera batteries were dead.

Last weekend I was convinced that the problem was squirrels. My late afternoon visit began well. It was the first time I saw the male owl in daylight. His 'owl camou' really worked -- dark facial streaks obliterated closed eyes, and his ear tufts were at full mast. He didn't look awake, but I had a feeling he was sleep-faking.

Well that's cool, I thought. If the male is roosting here, the nest hasn't been abandoned.

There were only two pictures on the memory stick, so I raised the camera on the fiberglass pole, and tried to adjust the senor's position better. (I am embarrassed to say I forgot the periscope.) I had trudged up the slope to sight-in on the camera's position when I noticed two dainty gray squirrelettes lounging on top of the snag. They must have just weaned, and yes, they were cute. But their proximity to the owl nest only 4 feet below was too close for comfort. My warm and cuddly feelings weren't there. They didn't understand boundaries, and needed to find another tree.

I made a pathetic attempt to scare them off by tossing short twigs. They hardly noticed. Then I resorted to a long dead tree limb, but these efforts were equally laughable because I was endangering the camera. Finally the squirrels scampered down the snag and climbed a nearby oak.

I was again sighting-in on the camera when I was distracted by a big squirrel chasing one of the youngsters down the snag it had just climbed. This did not look like play or maternal discipline. They scuffled on the ground, someone squeaked, and the small squirrel broke free and bounded down the slope with big squirrel in hot pursuit. They scrambled up another tree, and -- OH NO -- big squirrel caught little squirrel again, and there was more squeaking. At this point little squirrel literally bailed out, free-falling about 25 feet to the ground, where he bounced on the leaf litter, and apparently none the worse for wear, ran down the slope and out of sight.

As if that wasn't enough excitement, I now heard a wheezy cough behind me.

"Chunka-chunka-chunk! . . . chunk-chunk-chunk!".

Another squirrel -- and a very large and agitated squirrel at that, was peering beyond me toward the victorious squirrel in the tree. Was this the mother of the vanquished weanlings? (I could see from its revealing posture that it lacked testes.)

"Chunka-chunka-chunk", replied the attack squirrel.

A chunka-chunk duel went on for a full minute, and then petered out.

The squirrel episode neutralized my funk about my bad luck with the owls. I've seen squirrel chases and rough and tumble play, but this looked like child abuse by the neighbor next door. What was going on?

Pack on my back, I looked up for the screech owl as I started home. I was almost directly beneath him, and though everything appeared as before, I noticed that his head was tilted down. He was watching me through squinted eyes. The bird was definitely sleep-faking.

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