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JR, the great horned owl, seen at McGough Park in Pinellas

LARGO — Since JR the great-horned owl disappeared about a week ago, there have been a handful of sightings.

Most of them haven't been JR at all.

This week, someone called to say they saw an owl on top of the Kane's Furniture store at Drew Street and U.S. 19.

That one was plastic.

And, on Thursday, at 2 a.m., someone from Seffner called to say she saw a great horned owl out there.

But on Friday, for the first time since last week, JR was seen near his home at George C. McGough Nature Park.

About 5:30 a.m., a volunteer glimpsed him in an oak tree at the park. Five hours later, Joel Quattlebaum, the park's nature center specialist, saw JR while taking a group of students on a park tour. He rounded up the kids and returned to the site, which is around 150 yards from where JR used to live in a 12- by 10-foot enclosure.

For several hours Friday, Quattlebaum kept watch with his binoculars. A few feet away was lunch for JR: two thawed, freeze-dried mice on a perch used for park programs.

JR's silhouette could be seen about 70 feet up on a swaying pine tree branch. Quattlebaum knew it was JR by the way he was picking at the leather straps on his ankles. Quattlebaum planned to grab JR with his bare hands if JR swooped down for a meal.

"It's worth getting scratched a couple of times if you can save a bird," said Quattlebaum, who has worked with JR for about seven years.

But JR, who generally eats almost every day, apparently wasn't hungry.

A few hours later, Gabe Vargo, a volunteer at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, dropped off a trap containing a live mouse.

Vargo thought it might work.

"It depends how hungry the bird is and how inquisitive it is," Vargo said.

For more than a decade, JR, who is about 14, has been a fixture at the park on the Intracoastal Waterway north of Walsingham Road. He's one of the main attractions there, along with a snake named Houdini and a slew of turtles that call the park home.

Park officials learned of JR's disappearance a week ago. His cage was empty and someone had cut a hole in it. They think someone broke into the park after it closed at sunset Jan. 28 and before a volunteer reopened the facility at sunrise the next day.

JR was seen a couple of times Jan. 29, but there hadn't been a concrete sighting since then until Friday.

Officials were worried about JR's welfare because the owl was raised in captivity and never learned to hunt or live on his own.

Quattlebaum and a couple of volunteers planned to camp at the park overnight, said parks superintendent Greg Brown, who was reassured that JR was sighted so close to home.

"It's nice to know he was probably at the park the whole time," Brown said. "It's good he knows where his home is at least."

But on Friday evening, JR flew away without taking the bait.

Times staff writer John Pendygraft contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

JR, the great horned owl, seen at McGough Park in Pinellas 02/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 10:14pm]
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