Our Park: Nature - The Owlficionado
Photograph by Edward Crim
“IT'S THE OWL GUY!” a woman whispers, pointing as she and her husband walk by on a path near The Boathouse. Mark H.X. Glenshaw immediately whips around to engage in what he terms “owl ambassadorship.” (For the record, he actually prefers the monikers “owl man” or “owlficionado.”) The woman wants to know: How’d the owls do during the cold snap? He says it seems like they were under a bit of food stress, maybe a shortage of squirrels. “Do they know you, do you think?” asks the man. Glenshaw pauses, contemplating. “I think there is an element of that,” he says carefully. “If that’s true, I’d attribute it only to the frequency with which I come here…and the fact that I keep a low profile.”
Glenshaw, who works at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, is a “citizen scientist” who’s been tracking the same pair of Forest Park owls, Charles and Sarah, for nearly five years. He also leads Owl Prowls, and records his observations at forestparkowls.blogspot.com.
“One fateful day in late 2005,” he remembers, “I went right past a tree just east of Deer Lake, and I heard owls hooting. I stopped and put it in reverse—and there were these two great horned owls. I was psyched. It was the only time I’d seen owls in the wild. Between seeing them and the amazing activities of that night—within a 20-minute period, I saw them duet [sing a ritual song to each other], fly, and then one of them chase a great blue heron, the biggest bird that we have here in the park—I was hooked.”
Glenshaw observes Charles and Sarah about five times a week, weathering St. Louis’ muggy summers and its brutal winter freezes (he wears a balaclava and keeps a beard for warmth, jokingly calling it his “winter plumage”) and has watched the great horned owls raise four generations of offspring, including a trio he named for Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson. “I’ve been privileged to have seen them mate just under 40 times in the last four years,” Glenshaw says, adding that this behavior was not even described by scientific literature until 1998.
Knowing the owls’ habits so well, though, has its downsides. This past spring, Sarah was making odd vocalizations that he didn’t recognize. Glenshaw had a few sleepless nights, worrying the sounds hinted at health problems. A few days later, to his relief, he lifted his binoculars…to see the beating of fuzzy owlet wings in the hollow of Sarah’s nesting tree. In other words, there are owl mysteries even he’s not privy to.
Forest Park Forever Nature Reserve foreman Steven Buback shares five surprising species found in the park.
Bald Eagles: “They don’t hang out here for a long time; we’ve even speculated it’s the same eagle coming back,” Buback says. “They were here for three or four weeks this year, which is the longest they’ve stayed.” The eagles (or eagle?) make one of the shortest cameo appearances of the 220 species of birds that live in or migrate through the park.
Flying Squirrels: These critters also hang out in surrounding neighborhoods, but are rarely spotted, because they are nocturnal. Other seldom-seen small mammals include minks and fox squirrels, which, like the name implies, are red, unlike Missouri’s very common gray squirrel.
Coyotes: Though the Tower Grove Park coyote has become a minor celebrity (he’s even got a Facebook page), coyotes have lived in Forest Park “for at least eight to 10 years—probably longer—but we just don’t know,” Buback says. “They really just want to be left alone. The only time I could see anyone getting in trouble is if you had a really small dog off-leash, and you lost track of him...”
Anglestem Primrose Willow: Forest Park boasts 580 species of native plants; several of those, including northern arrowwood and this aquatic willow, are tracked by the state because they are so rare.
Carolina Leaf-Roller: This cricket hadn’t been seen in Missouri for more than 60 years. It was accidentally discovered while naturalists were collecting seed from American bladdernut: “It has these big, inflated seed pods,” Buback says. “It turns out [the cricket] chews its way in, reseals the pod with silk, and spends the day in there. After we discovered this, several other places in the state found it…because they knew where to look.”
Learn more about Forest Park’s plants and animals at the biennial BioBlitz, a 24-hour natural inventory September 10–11.