What I was seeing were very few martins in my Trendsetter-12 house. This was unusual because my oldest martins always took up residence in my Trendsetter first. Afterall, it was my first *official* purple martin housing. But something felt off and not quite right with my colony. So, I ordered a Browning Recon game camera and put it out on April 21st. Every day I would retrieve the SD card from the camera and find nothing recorded on it, except the daytime activities of the martins.
I got lazy and around May 3rd or 4th, I quit the daily retrieval of the card thinking that I was just being paranoid and silly and had read too many posts about owl attacks. On Friday, May 9th, I decided that I really needed to check that card and I pulled it. But I still didn't review its contents until just before bedtime that night. As I opened the card and saw the timestamps on some of the pictures, my throat began to tighten.
Then as I started opening the pictures, I thought, "This can't be. Everything was fine up until now, so why am I suddenly seeing timestamps for pictures at 4:23 A.M. for May 6th?" As I viewed the pictures and my brain processed what had happened the night of May 6th (3 days prior), I felt something tighten around my waist and I couldn't swallow - I thought I was going to be sick. I couldn't believe that a Great Horned Owl was attacking my housing. The whole reason I had bought the Trendsetter was so that an owl can't reach into the cavity and pull martins out. What he can do though as I was informed that night, was exactly what this Wise Old Owl was doing - he was beating his wings against the house, attempting to get the martins to flush, right into his talons.
|Great Horned owl attack on my Trendsetter-12 housing. Note the time. Dawnsinging starts about this time every morning at my colony, so it is likely that the owl heard the martins and was drawn to the housing.|
The terror that had arrived at my colony on the morning of May 6th could have been enough to frighten the purple martins into abandoning that house. And who could blame them? I would certainly pack my stuff & go if I were them! I wasn't as much worried about them abandoning though as I was about keeping the remaining ones safe. I couldn't justify serving up a buffet to the owls.
I hastily made a post on the PMCA forum with the pictures and was rather surprised to see how many people were still awake and willing to help, advise and provide empathy at such a late hour. I was willing to do whatever needed to be done to protect my colony. It had been 3 days since that attack and there were no guards on any of the housing or gourds and there was no telling when he would be back. I was frantic. What if he came back that very night? Was he successful on the night of May 6th? I had no way of knowing. Lots of good suggestions came rolling in, but there was only one reality - I needed to stay up and protect my colony that night and figure out how to get guards installed on all my housing the next day.
It was quite an experience staying up all night with my martin colony. Owls hunt by sound and I can see why he was attracted to my colony. My martins are noisy!! By 3:30 A.M. the next morning, I could hear a Barred Owl on the east side of my colony and the Great Horned Owl (GHO) on the northwest side of my colony. Hoot, hoot, hooting away. I was happy as long as I could hear them calling, but when they became silent was when I became worried and started scanning my colony with my spotlight to make sure they weren't visiting. Fortunately, they weren't.
I had always read that a GHO would displace a Barred owl, but as frequently happens here, my site is often the exception I guess. By 4:30 A.M., I could hear my martins in the sky singing their dawnsong. What an awesome experience. It was a very strange feeling to hear martins in the black, velvety sky but only be able to see the stars. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. It was one of the most beautiful things in the world. Dawnsinging, the darkness of the night, stars and owls. I have never felt more alive.
By Saturday afternoon, I had driven my husband crazy and we finally deployed the cage on my Trendsetter.
By Sunday afternoon, we had erected some temporary guards on the gourd racks as well. In thinking about how the owl had approached the housing and the wing span on the GHO (39 to 43 inches), the idea with these guards is to interrupt his wing space. Pretty funny looking, eh?
I had always read about landlords erecting their owl guards and their martins seem to relax after installing them. I thought, "how would you know"? But now I have experienced it - you know. Somehow you know, you feel it and you hear it in their song and see it in their activities. They are safe and they know it. Fortunately, the owl has not been back since that night. I'm hoping it stays that way, but I'm no longer naive enough to believe that.
We are working on a plan for more permanent owl guards - something that won't interfere with our view during the off-martin season (can be removed), something that won't need a 20' ladder to install, something that won't interfere with storage, and will be user-friendly for nest checks. My husband is brilliant and has come up with some ideas to fit our particular situation.
I am much more comfortable with knowing my martins are safe now. But I have learned a few things. First, trust your intuition and act on it. And do it before something really bad occurs. Apparently, we all live within the range of a barred owl or a GHO. Don't get lazy.
Lastly, 3:30 A.M. is a special time with a purple martin colony, especially when dawnsinging starts. It is wild; it was an ethereal experience and it is Mother Nature in her purest form. I loved it. I'll be up a few times every year now to enjoy it. For that, I am thankful to the owl for the rude awakening. I will remember you are out there always and you sir, YOU own the night.