After flying from Philadelphia to St. Louis to Chicago and reaching my destination of La Cross, I then drove a short distance from Wisconsin across the Mississippi into the lovely state of Minnesota. As I pull into the small town of Houson (population 979), I saw “Loken’s Sawmill Inn” on my right. I knew even before I entered the Inn that this was going to be a special weekend. On the window of the Inn was the Festival poster above and a lovely Barn Owl drawn by a student at Houston Elementary School. Owls were a theme in the lobby of the Inn and there were many decorations and more pictures by the school students.
This is a family run business and every evening I found a fresh loaf of banana bread in my room. John and Eileen Loken are the owners of the Inn and they went out of their way to be sure we had a nice stay. They told me exactly how to find a beautiful mountain road with a very scenic view of the town that leads to a trail head, where I could enjoy the fresh air and hike on a snow covered trail.
I arrived on Thursday February 28th so I could settle in and take a drive around the area. I drove to the Houston Nature Center.
This nature center was constructed in 2001 to serve as the town’s trail head to the Root River Trail. In 1998, Karla Bloem acquired Alice, a permanently injured Great Horned Owl, to use in educational programs. Alice was the center’s only live animal and she became a celebrity! Due to the center’s goals: environmental education and tourism it seemed only natural to have a Festival of Owls to celebrate Alice’s “hatch day” the first weekend in March. This year marks the 11th Annual International Festival of Owls!
Friday March 1st
On Friday morning, after speaking with the owners of the Inn, I took off on an adventure on a beautiful snow covered trail high up on a mountain. I loved the weather in Houston, it was sunny and cold (25 degrees) and there was a lot of snow on the ground. This is what I saw when I began my first hike:
For about one hour I walked on the trail (snow mobile trail in winter and horse riding/hiking in summer). The snow in combination with the forest was breath taking. I wish I could have hiked longer, but I knew my roommate was arriving and the Friends of HNC members – only, reception was about to start. I did see one beautiful raptor as I hiked and I believe it was a Red Tail Hawk. Here are a few of the wonderful sights from my first day’s hike.
At 2 P.M. the festival began! The Reception was quite lovely and held in the local community center. The entire town was excited about this festival and everyone was so friendly and helpful. In fact, Karla, the director of the H.N.C. said that almost 150 people from the town volunteered to help with the festival. The local garden club provided an “owl themed” delicious buffet of finger foods. Even a local family, that raises goats, made wonderful goat cheese (about 6 different types). Another local family made and served delicious wine for this event. It was a very nice time to meet and greet fellow supporters of the Houston Nature Center. I sat with my friends that I met on the “Iris and Rusty” web cam. We were known as the “Chatters”. There were myself, June, Janice and Maxine. My roommate, Janice, came all the way from Texas!
After this delicious meet and greet, I decided to take another drive up to the mountain to the trail head to see the sunset and possibly hear an owl or see other kinds of wildlife.
My roommate Janice and I, along with fellow friends June and Maxine went to the evening events. Everything took place at the Houston Elementary School, which was beautifully decorated by the school children. There were also many vendors selling their Owl nick nacks, clothes, jewelry, photographs, etc! As I was looking around I saw a man walking with his Barred Owl. I took a double take because it did not seem real! Yet, among the crowd, this Barred Owl was calmly perched on his owner’s arm. The gentleman said the the owl did not mind being petted and I was lucky enough to get the chance to pet my first Barred Owl.
He never took his eyes off of his owner, which he had bonded with and was imprinted to. Imprinting is a long-lasting behavioral response to an individual or object.
Later that night we went to a program given by the Illinois Raptor center. The I.R.C. is a wildlife rehabilitation center and hospital that takes in orfaned and injured animals. Jacques Nuzzo and Jane Seitz from the Illinois Raptor Center presented a very educational program about Wildlife Rehabilitation. It was held in the gym of the Houston Elementary school. Jacques first told us the problems raptors face: loss of habitat, pollution, electrocution by power lines, trapping/hunting, car/truck accidents, fishing line, barbed wire fences, and diseases like the West Nile Virus. Jacques emphasized that dead trees are very important for wildlife. 1,500 species of animals require dead trees to nest in! On the power point presentation we saw things that would upset manny people, for example: One of the worst cases Jacques witnessed was when someone cut down a tree without checking if there were nesting animals and they sawed right though a nest of screech owls, cutting the face off of one sweet owl and it was still alive. This brought tears to my eyes. Jacques told us that most orphans come from cutting down dead trees and the babies spill out onto the ground.
Jane carries a Barred Owl that lost one of his wings do to an accident.
In conclusion Jacques told us many success stories about owls that the I.R.C. has saved and released back into the wild.
Jacques also shared some data about the most common raptors that came into their center: American Kestral, Coopers Hawk, Red-tail Hawk, Barred Owl, Eastern Screech Owl and Great Horned Owl. These are some of the common reasons the raptors came into their center: Attacks (for example cats), Needless Rescues, Orphans,Trapped, Vehicle collisions, Window collisions and Wing injuries.
What can we do to help? Give Money to organizations like Illinois Raptor Center or Karla and the Houston Nature Center, help with the preservation of natural habitat, help with research of owls, think before you do something to destroy the natural habitat (Does the tree really have to come down?), leave dead trees alone!, Do you really need that barbed wire fence?, install nest boxes, observe record and consult experts when you see something unusual, interesting or rare, and practice sound conservation efforts and ideas.
This presentation really touched my heart and I learned a lot of important information to share with others.
OWL PROWL On the owl prowl we heard a pair of Barred owls, an Eastern Screech Owl (he flew over out heads), and also heard a Great Horned Owl. It was very cold (low 20’s) and it was an interesting experience for me. When I go on an owl prowl in my forest, it is still dusk and I take my binoculars to find and follow the owls and I listen for their calls or for other birds such as crows that mob the owls. In this Owl Prowl we (40 people) got into a bus, drove to a remote area, exited the bus in pitch darkness, except for the beautiful starry night, and quietly stood still. The bus driver turned off the engines and turned out the lights. All was dark and at peace. Then the leader of our prowl, Dan Jackson, vocally did a few owl calls. Now that was a treat! I had never heard someone do that before. He was careful as to which type of owl he would call out to, for example you would not want to call Great Horned owls and Screech owls as one could eat the other! The first stop he called Screech owls and one actually flew right over our heads and into a nearby tree. The owl proceeded to hoot for a while and after listening in awe, we all boarded the bus and traveled to a new stop. All in all we stopped about 4 times and heard several owls: Barred Owls, Eastern Screech Owls and Great Horned Owls. One interesting device that our leader used was an ipod that had owl calls recorded. He would also use this device to call the owls. He made a point to say that they only do this 1 or 2 times a year so it should not disrupt or confuse the owls.
DAY 2 March 2nd
Saturday, started out very nicely with an Owl Face Pancake Breakfast.
This yummy breakfast was served by the children of The Lutheran Church.
Good food and good friends! The Chatters: June, Maxine, Janice and Pam.
The day’s events went from 9 A.M. through 9 P.M. and we could pick from several different options and programs offered throughout the day. There was a Photography contest and I entered 3 of my favorite pictures of King Tuft and Athena, the Great Horned Owls that live in my Enchanted Forest. All the money collected from the entry fees went to the Houston Nature Center. About 30 photos were entered and the top 10 were selected. Then the visitors to the festival voted on their favorite one. Mine did not make the top 10, but that is fine! Helping the Nature Center is why the contest is held each year. My vote went to a beautiful capture of a Great Gray Owl. It was nice to see the top photographs displayed in the Houston Nature Center.
At 9:30 A.M. I attended another Live Owl program given by the Illinois Raptor Center. This was another wonderful program where Jacques talked about the characteristics of owls and we were able to see live owls in flight right in the gymnasium! Here are a few pictures of the birds that were in the presentation.
Beautiful Red Tail Hawk
Banshee, the Barn Owl
Great Horned Owl, SPUD
This GHO has raised many many chicks at the Illinois Raptor center. She is a fantastic surrogate mamma owl. If the center cannot put the chicks back in the nest that they came from, Spud will take on the role of surrogate mom and will feed and care for all of the owlets!
Houston Elementary School children and their teachers helped to decorate the entire school for this very special Owl Festival. I was amazed at how nice their art work was and would like to share some of my favorite decorations with you. It is wonderful to see how the folks in a small town all work together to host such a fabulous and unique event to bring awareness to the world about owls.
Later on Saturday (day 2 of the event) I attended another very interesting program:
A Who’s Hoo Guide to Owls in the Midwest given by Alan Stankevitz.
Alan is a professional and award winning wildlife photographer. He had the audience try and guess the different owls based on their physical attributes and their calls. At the end of the lecture we all got to try and imitate the calls. He called it “Owl Karaoke” and it was very entertaining to say the least! This lecture was followed by a Kid’s Owl Calling Contest and a cute little red head named Hailey won first place with her superb call of a Barred Owl “Whoo cooks for you?”.
At 1:30 Karla Bloem presented her program all about the “International Owl Center”. This is a very exciting endeavor. There is a National Eagle Center in Wabasha Minnesota, but this will be the first Owl Center in the United States. I think this is a very exciting project and hope Karla is able to create this, but she will need a lot of donations and support from many people and organizations This is the link to the International Owl Center Website. http://www.internationalowlcenter.org/
The mission of the International Owl Center is:
The International Owl Center advances the survival of wild owl populations through education and research. We plan to accomplish our mission through biological and cultural programs and displays, green building design, citizen-science and other research, international exchange of information, the World Owl Hall of Fame, the International Festival of Owls, and other means.
Karla also breeds captive Great Horned Owls as part of a vocal study on the species. There is a web cam that streams a video of these owls world wide so viewers can help with observations. The two owls are named Iris and Rusty, and they cannot be released into the wild because they both are blind in one eye do to accidents, however they can breed in captivity! Iris recently laid three eggs and on March 15th, the first egg hatched! People all over the world are watching as the eggs hatch and the owlet’s grow. Link to the streaming video cam: http://www.festivalofowls.com/livevideo.html
Following Karla’s presentation we celebrated Alice’s Hatch day! Remember, Alice is the reason the Festival started! Alice turned Sweet 16!
Karla and Alice
Alice is a very special owl. She lives with Karla in her home and commutes to work with Karla. Her job is an education bird because of her personality. She is the focal point of Karla’s vocal study of Great Horned Owls. Karla considers herself to be the “mate” of Alice.
In my opinion, and I’m sure many other’s as well, Karla is an ambassador to GHO’s. She testified at the state capitol to earn protection for GHO’s under Minnesota state law. She is the leading authority on GHO vocalizations. Karla was the woman who helped me identify King Tuft and Queen Athena as being male and female. She took the time out of her busy schedule to watch and listen to my videos and come up with her conclusions. I am very grateful to her and thankful for her expertise and devotion to Great Horned Owls.
We all sang “Happy Hatch Day” to Alice and enjoyed a delicious cake!
After the party for Alice, I decided to travel back up to the mountain top again as it was a beautiful evening. I saw a Red-tail hawk, wild turkeys, a ring neck pheasant, and foot prints in the snow of coyotes. Some of my favorite pictures from my Saturday late afternoon hike:
Trees at the “Wet Bark Trail”.
Saturday evening we attended a banquet at the Valley High Golf Club. After a delicious dinner, Karla presented the World Owl Hall of Fame Awards which are presented to those who have made this world a better place for owls.
Dr. Lucia Liu Severinghaus from Taiwan won the special achievement award. This award is given to a human who has made a significan contribution to owls through a specific project or for efforts in a specific geographic area. Dr. Lucia devoted 25 years of study on the Lanyu Scops Owl in Taiwan. She also has worked with the media and general public to change fearful cultural attitudes toward owls into an attitude of respect, understanding and value.
Dr.Wolfgang Scherzinger won the Champion of Owls Award. This is to a human who has had a broad geographical impact on owls in multiple fields such as conservation science, legislation education and or rehabilitation, usually over a lifetime. Dr. Wolfgang has researched most of Europe’s owl species and has led reintroduction programs for two locally rare species. He now, in his retirement, studies the Sichuan Wood Owl in china.
Both of these award winners presented excellent programs after dinner at the banquet.
Sunday March 3rd
In the morning I went on the Birding and Natural History bus Trip. Dan Jackson and Brian Lee were our guides. Dan specializing in Birds and Brian in the natural history of the area. I had a very good time and saw a Bald Eagle nest (Mom sitting in the nest), two Golden Eagles, many Red-tail Hawks, killdeer, beaver dams in the frozen Mississippi River, a Kestrel, Horned larks, and more! After the trip we had a delicious German style lunch at a local Houston restaurant.
There were many activities that I did not get to do and hopefully next year I will be able to return and experience even more! For example I wanted to take part in dissecting an owl pellet, but when I had the time on Sunday, there were no more pellets left! Of course I could always search in my forest for one of my owls pellets! I’ve yet to find one, but I’ve seen King Tuft and Queen Athena both cast quite a few of them over the past few months.
Now for the exciting ending to my weekend adventure!
I was told by Dan Jackson, the leader of our owl prowl and the bus tour about the Great Gray Owl that was residing on the outskirts of a small town about 1 1/2 hours away from Houston. I HAD to make the trip and I was very glad I did. I was in awe of that magnificent owl and was able to observe him for about 2 hours. I created a video and took many photos. I hope you enjoy them! I was so excited that I could not sleep and stayed up working on the video until 3:30 A.M.
A few interesting facts on the Great Gray Owl – It is the tallest owl in North America, but both the Snowy Owl and the Great Horned Owl weigh more and have larger feet and talons. The Great Gray is a big ball of feathers! It’s habitat is the Boreal forest in Canada. I am not sure why it traveled so far south, into Wisconsin. I do worry about it’s survival. I was told it was Juvenile GGO and possibly was hungry and came farther south to find food. It eats small mammals and rodents. It locates mice below the snow by hearing, then plunges down through surface to capture them.
On the day of March 3rd in the little town of Mauston, Wisconsin I spent over two hours visiting this amazing predator. This Great Gray Owl was the most unique creature I have ever had the privilege to observe in the wild. I hope you enjoy this video and I truly hope you can someday meet the Gray Ghost.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my experience at the International Festival of Owls. Please consider contributing to Karla’s project: the International Owl Center, to be built in Houson, Minnesota. For more information visit: http://alicetheowl.blogspot.com/
Until my next post, I wish you all good health and happiness as we head into the beautiful spring season.