Villa Finale’s Very Own Owl

Besides the staff, there is wildlife at Villa Finale other than the usual city-dwelling squirrels.  For several months,  mostly in the afternoon, the staff would hear the very distinctive hooting of a large owl, and then the Watership Down-esque shadow of a giant predatory bird flying overhead, causing the most incredible outburst from other smaller and less fortunate birds. 

The owl remained out of sight, and only if you arrived very early could you see it crammed up against a tree trunk.  This author was never so “lucky” to arrive at the crack of dawn.  However, one late afternoon when the staff decided to take a spontaneous inventory of the patio furniture, with liquid libation, we saw it very high in a tree over Sheridan Street. 

It remained elusive until yesterday afternoon when it was having a battle with another raptor  and I was able to capture an image of it on my camera.  I identified it as being a Barred Owl.  Described as a “sit and wait” type owl, I couldn’t help but feel a kinship with this beautiful and intelligent bird.  It is also described as having “liquid brown eyes”, which also endeared it to me.  But, anthropomorphising aside, this owl is pretty fantastic. 



As I mentioned, its hunting method is to literally sit and wait for unsuspecting creatures to pass beneath it.  It will even wade into shallow water to catch crustaceans.  In fact, the belly feathers of the Barred Owl can turn pink from eating crayfish.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website provides a map showing the winter range of these owls, and it doesn’t quite make it to San Antonio, so I think it is safe to say that we have a (sort of) rare bird!  These owls are known to live in forested areas near streams or rivers-how perfect that this bird feels as if King William is the place to be.  If we’re lucky, our owl is a female.  Female Barred Owls go outward to find a mate and bring the winning candidate back to her territory to nest.  We may know in February, when the owl population settles down to start their families.

Barred owls are not welcome everywhere, though.  In the last century they have expanded their territory westward, often displacing rarer owls such as the Spotted Owl-however, the Spotted Owl doesn’t seem to mind that much – there have been reports of owl hanky-panky resulting in Barred/Spotted hybrids. 

I immediately thought the other raptor was a Cooper’s Hawk, but when looking at the photo I took, his chest is streaked, not barred, its overall appearance did not really look like one.  Maybe a juvenile.  Whatever he is, he definitely seems to mind the owl’s invasion.  If you look very closely, you will see the hawk on the far left and the bulky owl down on the right.  But he shouldn’t really get his feathers ruffled.  Unlike the Cooper’s Hawk, Barred Owls do not catch anything on the wing, so all the sweet little song birds that the Cooper’s Hawk likes to eat will go unnoticed by our owl.  

Here are some Barred Owl statistics:  Length: 17 to 20 inches, Wingspan 39 to 43 inches, Weight 16 to 37 ounces.

Hey, maybe it’s easy being green after all!

In light of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Sustainability Initiative, the staff at Villa Finale met recently to talk about how we can be more green, in our preservation and museum functions, as well as in our office work.  Here’s a list of what we came up with:

1.  Turn off lights.  It seems so simple that it’s easy to forget!  But now we’re going to make a concerted effort to turn off outdoor lights during the day, turn out lights when we leave the room, and turn off our power strips at night.  Even equipment that’s off draws power, so this should save some energy.

2.  Recycle office paper.  We were doing this already, but it’s good to restate it so we remember.  Since I do so much paperwork (sigh) I tend to generate the most waste paper, so I’m going to put a recycling bin in my office, to remind me.  We already recycle glass, plastic, newspaper, etc.  And the staff members that don’t have recycling programs where they live have been bringing their recyclables to the office for disposal.

3.  Compact fluorescent lightbulbs.  We’ve been phasing these in for some time, but now we plan to do an inventory of every shape and size bulb we have in the house so we can replace all existing bulbs with CFLs when they burn out.  I was amazed to see that now they even have flame-shaped CFLs for chandeliers!  We’ve got lamps and fixtures of every size and vintage, and with so many lamps in the house, burnouts are a regular occurrence.  And since the burn-outs will only increase when we’re open to the public and the lights are on all day, a bulb that lasts seven years sounds gooood!

4.  Green cleaning products.  We will be using environmentally-friendly cleaning products wherever possible, including collections care and building maintenance.

5.  Long-term solutions.  To protect the collections, we plan to install UV window film, which will also reduce interior heating due to sunlight.  Our upcoming window and door restoration project will make the house much more energy efficient, as will the two new HVAC units we installed.  As part of our landscape restoration, we’ll be installing an irrigation system, which will allow us to be more efficient at watering the grounds.  We’re also investigating a compost system to fertilize the beds.  All of Meg’s banana peels will be put to good use!

We’ve even discussed more flexible work hours so that the staff will not have to sit in traffic at rush hour, wasting gas.  And in what’s probably the biggest sacrifice on staff, Sylvia promises to work hard to lose her “LA Driver” mentality while commuting to increase her MPGs!

Stay tuned to see how we all do…

Buildings and Grounds Conference in Beautiful Monterey, California

Every 2-3 years the National Trust has a conference for all the Buildings and Grounds related positions of their Historic Sites.  This year I was lucky enough to attend this conference in Monterey, California.  The topic of discussions at this conference were Disaster Preparedness, Cyclical Maintenance, and Sustainability at our Sites.

We had sessions all day Monday and Tuesday that were very helpful in getting us to think about these topics through another, similar but different, set of eyes.  It was also very helpful to get to know our colleagues that do similar tasks that we do and to just enjoy the general camaraderie that we had.

Buildings and Grounds Conference Attendees

Buildings and Grounds Conference Attendees

We were also privileged to have special tours of two National Trust Historic Sites, Cooper-Molera Adobe and Filoli.  These are fabulous Historic Sites that I recommend to all that are close to them to spend as much time as possible there.

Cooper-Molera Adobe, A National Trust Historic Site.  Photo by Ron Blunt.

Cooper-Molera Adobe, A National Trust Historic Site. Photo by Ron Blunt.

Filoli, A National Trust Historic Site.  Photo by Ron Blunt.

Filoli, A National Trust Historic Site. Photo by Ron Blunt.

Documenting Villa Finale’s Landscape

One of the things that continues to amaze me is the amount of detailed work that goes into starting a museum.  The staff at Villa Finale collectively has 50 years of museum experience – an average of 10 years each.  We’ve all worked in museums where we wish something had been done differently in the past – the collections cataloged properly, family interviews done, or good documentation of original building conditions, for example.  What excites us all is the idea that we get to do this right, right from the start!
This really struck me again last week when our landscape consultant was here to do research.  She’s putting together what’s called a Cultural Landscape Report, which fully describes the history of a landscape, the context behind it, and makes recommendations for its presentation and interpretation to the public.  Cindy was doing research at places as varied as the Institute of Texan Cultures, the San Antonio Conservation Society, and even the San Antonio River Authority.  Villa Finale is on the banks of the river and they had some documentation on the Riverwalk extension in the 1980s.  In addition to the research, Cindy interviewed some of Mr. Mathis’s friends and family to get a better idea of the progression of the landscape design.  With her recommendations, we are able to determine what Mr. Mathis planted and when, and what plants are “volunteers” and can be removed.  We’ll begin implementing her recommendations this fall.  In the meantime, take a look at these pictures.  Look how much the landscape has changed!

Villa Finale, c. 1970

Villa Finale, 2006, Photo by Carol Highsmith

Villa Finale, 2006, Photo by Carol Highsmith

Villa Finale, 2006, Photo by Carol Highsmith

Villa Finale, 2006, Photo by Carol Highsmith

Villa Finale c. 1970

Villa Finale c. 1970