AUSTIN (KXAN) — For 11 years, the great horned owl Athena has made her presence known at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, serving as an unofficial “mascot,” Executive Director Lee Clippard said.
But Athena has not returned this year, leaving many speculating what might have led to her disappearance.
The great horned owl is a non-migratory bird, meaning they are a resident species and don’t travel away during the winter. In years past, Clippard said Athena tended to return to the center for nesting between Feb. 3 and Feb. 18, with her nest located just above the courtyard entrance.
Once her owlets fledge each year — typically around April — Athena will remain at the center with her owlets for approximately one extra month before heading to the woods for the summer. Nests are used primarily for incubating the eggs and immediately following their hatching.
In years past, she’d then return in the winter to begin the nesting process all over again. Clippard said she was last seen at the center in May or June of last year.
“We’re about 10 days beyond the latest date we have on record for her to be here. And so we’re still waiting — you know, there’s a lot of variability in nature,” he said. “So we might see her show up tomorrow or we might see her show up in five days. It’s not clear. But of course, every day that goes by, we get a little bit more worried that we’re not going to see her this year.”
Cliff Shackelford, an ornithologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said urban owls such as Athena encounter higher levels of safety threats due to their habitats being in a more populated area. As a non-migratory bird, that removes injury or death during migration.
Shackelford told KXAN great horned owls are often more vulnerable to highway injuries and fatalities, as they zero in on prey across a busy roadway but overlook a car heading toward them perpendicularly.
However, he said great horned owls aren’t opposed to relocating nests to a nearby location, which could be the case for Athena.
While she has yet to make her return to the center, Clippard said she’s remained a staple among staff and visitors alike, with questions of her return as popular as when the bluebonnets will bloom this season. For reference, bluebonnets are anticipated to blossom in the coming weeks, Clippard added.
For Clippard, he said Athena’s presence is a reminder of the value of biodiversity and preserving these kinds of ecosystems in a rapidly developing Austin.
“It is magical, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to watch these great horned owls up close,” he said. “I would say one of the things that owls are known for is being wise, and it does feel that way when Athena’s here and you walk into the wildflower center, and she’s kind of sitting there in the corner just watching. You sort of feel protected, somehow, by Athena.”