LARGO — From his temporary home inside the classroom at McGough Nature Park, the great horned owl greets Joel Quattlebaum with three hoots that echo through the lobby.
"Hey there. It's so nice to hear you, buddy,'' Quattlebaum, the park's manager, says.
The owl responds by blinking his big eyes slowly.
The juvenile great horned owl, a rescued bird of prey weighing less than 3 pounds and standing about 18 inches tall, is the newest resident of McGough Nature Park.
Another great horned owl, J.R., will always have a special place in Quattlebaum's heart. J.R. lived at the center for 14 years before vandals released him about 18 months ago. Quattlebaum was thrilled to receive another male owl of the same species about three weeks ago.
"He's young, and we'll see him grow,'' Quattlebaum said. "It's exciting.''
It won't be long before the owl will be ready to greet visitors along with Matilda, the park's barred owl, which arrived last year. As soon as a new house is built, the pair will live side by side as neighbors behind the educational building.
In December, the park's new great horned owl was rescued by Barb Walker of the Clearwater Audubon Society after he was hit by a vehicle near the Hernando/Pasco county line. Walker, who was also instrumental in bringing Matilda to Largo, contacted the staff at McGough Nature Park to let them know the injured bird might need a home.
"We always hope that when a bird like this can't be released back into the wild, it can find a home in an educational program,'' she said. "I knew about the loss of J.R. and how sad everyone was.''
Quattlebaum appreciates Walker's efforts and believes having two owls at the park will be invaluable to the educational outreach programs.
Since Day 1, Matilda has been comfortable around people — she has already been taken to several schools.
"Matilda is so awesome, but I have to say that my favorite type of owl is the great horned owl,'' Quattlebaum said. "When J.R. disappeared, it was difficult, and it's good that people will be able to see a bird like this close up again.''
It was about five months ago that Walker received a call from a resident in Pasco County saying she and her husband had found the injured bird. Walker retrieved the owl and turned it over to Busch Gardens, where a team of veterinarians fixed its broken wing by installing a pin in the humerus bone.
"I was scared that the owl's wing would not make it. It was a bad injury,'' Walker said.
In April, the doctors gave the go-ahead for the owl to be transported. Greg Brown, Largo's parks superintendent, with help from nature park volunteers, made the trip to Tampa to bring the bird to Largo.
"It's so good for us,'' said Brown. "Because of current financial and budget concerns, we have to keep our wildlife at the nature center limited. We don't have the staff or volunteers to support too much, but because of the way the owl has come to us, we can do this.''
The owl has been kept secluded since arriving at the center until he acclimates.
However, Quattlebaum is slowly inviting children to pay him a visit.
"He's becoming more and more comfortable,'' said Quattlebaum. "The kids, though, are not used to having an owl living inside the classroom, and they say the funniest things. One little girl asked me the other day if she could take him out to cuddle. It's so much fun."
At the end of this week, the city of Largo will launch a contest inviting the community to name the new owl. For more information on the contest, visit largonature.com or visit the park's office to fill out an entry form.
Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163.