Owling for owlets

Great Horned Owls were actively courting and hooting in January, and I made several excursions into the backyard to find their nest (I never did find it), an activity I dubbed “owling“. After reading several recent reports of active nests of Great Horned Owls with cute, fuzzy chicks, I decided to try to photograph them myself.

A lone owlet sits on the most well-photographed owls nest in the Twin Cities.

A lone owlet sits on the most well-photographed owl nest in the Twin Cities.  Its nest mate has fledged and flown off but is still being tended by the parents.  This nest has appeared on many Facebook pages — for some really terrific photos see Paul Sundberg’s photo of the week for March 23, 2014.

The owlets are probably about a month old by now, are losing their fuzz and acquiring real feathers.  Their wings are also fully feathered although the flight feathers are short and stubby, compared to the adults.  One of the other photographers watching the nest told me where the parents usually perch, so I went off into the forest to look for them.

I spotted the female sitting in an oak about 100 yards from the nest , dozing in the sun.

I spotted the female sitting in an oak tree about 100 yards from the nest, dozing in the sun.

Great Horned Owl plumage is variable in color from tawny browns to grayish hues, but the color pattern of the feathers camouflages them very well against an oak tree background.

Great Horned Owl plumage is variable in color from tawny browns to pale grayish hues, but the color pattern of the feathers camouflages them very well against an oak tree background.

These birds are one of the largest bodied owl species in North America (only the Snowy Owl is heavier), but what is truly impressive about them are their feet, with widespread, sharp talons that have incredible grasping power.  A 3 pound (1.5 kg) Great Horned Owl can carry off an adult skunk, but they will feast on a wide variety of prey from mouse or small bird sized items to rabbit and grouse size, even killing other raptors for food.

I walked around looking for the male of this pair, which I was told was mostly gray, but never found him.  However, returning to the female’s tree, I spotted a visitor there perched right next to her.

The other little owlet apparently can fly pretty well.  This one seems a little further along in its development than the chick on the nest, with more feathers than fuzz on its head.

The other little owlet apparently can fly pretty well. This one seems a little further along in its development than the chick on the nest, with more feathers than fuzz on its head.  The chick seems well camouflaged against the light gray bark of the oak tree with its mottled gray plumage.

19 thoughts on “Owling for owlets

  1. Magnificent bird Sue, and terrific photographs too. The owl is obviously not perturbed by the skunks defence mechanism, but how big is a skunk?

    I did a falconry course some years ago and handled a European eagle owl, which is a truly enormous beast with talons to match. Our tutor told us they can crush a foxes skull with them so I was most perturbed when one foot edged off the end of the gauntlet onto my arm. I would have been even more nervous if I’d known at the time that they can also kill and carry off roe deer!

    • Eagle owls are probably 33-50% bigger than our Great Horned species, so they would be quite a weight at the end of your fist. I know exactly what you mean about the creeping feet that want to wander up one’s arm. Years ago I foolishly stuck my bare right hand in toward the toes of a large GHO to untangle its jesses from under my gloved left arm, and the owl quickly switched its grip to my bare arm! OUCH!

      Skunks weigh 2-10 pounds (1-4.5 kg), but I don’t know how large a skunk an owl could actually fly with. GHO seem to be immune to the skunk odor.

    • A very satisfying hike! But I have to admit, it was a result of reading other photographer’s Facebook or blog posts on this family that allowed me to find them.

  2. Pingback: Owling in January | Back Yard Biology

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