By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News
Three owls were released into the wild at Longhorn Village in September, thanks to the efforts of resident Marc Bernat, a self proclaimed birder. The owls’ story was an eventful one that all started earlier this year when their mom, who eventually disappeared, took up residency in one of Bernat’s flowerpots on his balcony.
“Longhorn Village had not yet organized its resident birders when I came four years ago,” Bernat said. “Since then we have Beak Week in the spring, and we have speakers and field trips.”
Bernat is a lifelong Texan, retired attorney, avid bird enthusiast and four-year resident of Longhorn Village, the University of Texas Exes-linked retirement community.
As Bernat explains, everyone asked, “‘Why would it land on Marc’s balcony of all people? There’s so many balconies!’ And everybody’s like, well, we know why but how did (the owl) know?”
Bernat first discovered the eggs while out refilling his bird feeders. He was taking down the feeders when a Great Horned Owl swooped over his right shoulder, startling him.
As he filled the feeders, Bernat noticed something white out of the corner of his eye, in the dirt of a large flowerpot that had previously held a plant that had died.
“I leaned over and looked and there’s three eggs in there! And I thought no, that’s just impossible. There are no sticks or anything. The eggs are just laying on the dirt.”
Sure enough, the owl that had flown over his shoulder had laid what eventually increased to four eggs in the empty flower pot, thus establishing a nest, albeit in an unusual location.
Bernat immediately thought to share his find with his neighbors, whom he rightly assumed would want to observe the mother owl with her eggs. “I thought, shoot, I need to get a webcam and stream this live inside the building somehow.”
The Longhorn Village social director agreed to pay for a webcam and several of the many resident techies placed it on his balcony, sneaking out to install it while mom flew away to feed. The woodworking department built and installed “branches,” which the owlets need to develop their talons.”
Residents quickly adopted the mom and dad owls (named Owlice and Owlfred) and the eggs as their own, watching the live stream day and night. Longhorn Village also hosted events around the owls such as a baby naming contest.
It was Bernat’s grand daughter Ella who first noticed that the eggs were starting to hatch. Four owlets hatched and the smallest of them, named Potsie, did not survive the month.
The other three, Ella Owlet, Weera Hoot and Hootie, continued to grow in their dirt nest, until one day in March Bernat noticed that their mom had not been on the nest for a few hours.
“Nature does strange things… we had a cold spell one week, four or five days when it was cold and rainy. And I realized, where’s mama? I hadn’t seen her on the nest. I emailed some residents and no one had seen her. And people were watching.”
Travis Audubon put Bernat in touch with an animal rehab expert who advised that mom was likely either injured or dead. They gave mom an additional day to return before taking the owlets to Austin Area Wildlife Rehabilitation.
There the owls were raised by hand with the goal of releasing them into the wild when they were old enough and has acquired sufficient survival skills.
“At that point they have to train them to be afraid of humans, because they had seen us and we had to pick them up… They had to teach them how to hunt… It was just amazing.”
It was agreed that, upon their release at seven months of age, the owlets would not be tagged (since they are not needed for any current research).
Austin Area Wildlife Rehab also agreed that the three owlets would be released where it all started — at Longhorn Village, on the front lawn at dusk on a clear September evening.
Bernat admits to tearing up at the owlets’ departure. Staff from the rehab facility let him hold and release the third owlet, Ella. A crowd of residents cheered as they watched the owlets fly away one by one into the darkening sky over the 819-acre Balcones Canyonland Preserve located in Steiner Ranch.
Residents will see and hear many owls over the next few years, and each time they do, “They will wonder if, just maybe, this one is one of ours,” said Bernat.
As a show of gratitude and to support the Austin Area Wildlife Rehabilitation center for all it had done for the owlets, Bernat decided to solicit his community for donations.
“301 people here, and I thought I should be able to raise 750 bucks. Maybe $1000. I sent out one notice. That’s it. I didn’t call anybody, I just sent out a nice little (email.) And it’s over $3,000 now.”
Bernat is clearly still in wonder of the events that unfolded over the past eight months and which started just outside his back door.
To watch the video made by Bernat’s daughter of the release of the three owls at Longhorn Village, visit www.katch.me/hmademommy and click on the video entitled “Releasing three owls into the wild.”