adventures in nature

an evening in a great-horned owl’s dining room

One of the areas that I spend a lot of time is absolutely saturated with great-horned owls. And coyotes, for that matter. I would conservatively estimate that within one area of about two miles by a half mile (as observed routinely for the past year), there are five or six pairs of great-horned owls that make their home there. I routinely hear them and see them, and it has become one of my great pleasures to spend time watching them. My sentiment is likely not the same for many other animals in the area, including skunks, gophers, voles, mice, screech owls, barn owls, domestic cats, and any other animal under 20 pounds that makes its living at night, whether by foot or by wing. And actually, young red-tailed hawks too, are at risk – three of which, I suspect, from a nearby nest this season, met their doom by owl talon.

Last night after a nice run, I decided to extend my stay in the park with a wander up around some of the more remote areas (“remote” being a very relative term in the Bay Area! Yet, still surprisingly true to the word … one of the reasons that this area is able to be inhabited by feral Zachs). I started off flowing over some cattle trails, also used by deer and coyotes and turkeys, until I got to some small wooded canyons. I have a number of ways to cross most of them, as they are densely wooded and steep in sections, but sometimes depending on the amount of light it can get confusing. Especially when I get distracted by things – which I inevitably do. As I ducked down under the boughs of the bay laurel trees standing guard at the edge of the first ravine, I almost immediately saw some feathers that I hadn’t seen the night before.

Owl feathers.

Small ones. They looked like they were from a Western Screech Owl, one of the smaller owls that inhabit this area. It’s seldom that I hear them in this area, and if I do, it’s usually further down slope towards the more densely wooded areas. With so many great-horned owls around, they don’t make it long if they leave the safety of those areas. Such was the fate of this one who perhaps flew to far up into the more open oak woodlands and grazing lands.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim light under the oaks and bay laurels, I started seeing more and more feathers. This was no molt, for sure. This small owl was predated. And judging by the feathers, it was taken by another bird. Almost certainly a great-horned owl. Owl on owl! Great-horned owls are a top tier predator, and they are incredibly successful and adaptive hunters. Hide your babies (that’s a joke).

As a side-note, the previous night when I had passed through the same area, there was a very intense smell of skunk spray right where I was seeing the owl feathers. I didn’t spend a lot of time looking around then, but I noted it. This night, the smell was still very strong. As I followed the trail of owl feathers like bread crumbs to the ginger bread house, the skunk smell got stronger. Strange.

Finally I got to a spot where it appeared the great-horned owl had plucked a majority of the feathers from the screech owl. The skunk smell was almost unbearable, as if it had just let go nearby recently. Yet I knew it was at least 24 hours old. As my eyes found a more concentrated area of feathers, I walked over to check them out. And right by the feathers I found a skull! It looked like a young skunk skull!

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I kept looking around in the leaves, and soon I found one of the biggest great-horned owl pellets that I’d ever seen! It looked like majority skunk hair (dissecting to occur soon) …

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An owl not only ate that when it was also flesh, but puked that pellet up!! Amazing.

Above me was a slight clearing in the canopy, and covering some of the stars, silhouetted in the twilight, was an old dead oak tree. The perfect perch for an owl. As I looked around more, there was a lot of owl slice (owl poop), and other remnants of dead things. I think I had stumbled on a great-horned owl’s dining room!

It was well past dark at this point, so I decided to move on. I went through another canyon, in which the night before I had heard a great-horned owl – but tonight I heard nothing. I kept walking, and soon I got to a tree line that was just on one side of a clearing, of which on the other side, was the perch of two of the local owls. As I walked past the last trees in this first tree line, I saw an owl. Interesting, it was in a spot I’d never seen one before.

I walked across the clearing / meadow, and got to the next tree line where the locals were, and sure enough there was the silhouette of another owl in an oak tree right by where I’d expect one. As I approached, the owl didn’t move. It didn’t even seem to notice me! Again, very strange. As I got closer, my path went right by it, but the owl hardly looked at me. It was intensely staring in the direction of the first owl that I saw. Suddenly I got a glimpse of another owl take off from nearby, flying away from the owl I was underneath. I walked right by the owl in the tree, probably at 25 feet, and the owl just continued to stare across the meadow at what I was now guessing to be a new owl intruder (the first owl sighted). I continued around this line of trees, and made my way towards the exit of the park.

About 500 meters later though, I felt something to my right and looked up and realized that the owl that I had seen take flight was now in a coyote bush just 15 feet from me. It also seemed unconcerned with my presence, and was looking back in the direction of the other owls.

I’m guessing that a new owl had moved into the area, and these two residents were ready to battle to keep it at bay. I’m not sure about the migration of owls, but certainly at this time of year hatch year owls could be dispersing trying to find territories of their own (though it actually seems early for that). Could this be a migrant from the north looking to overwinter? A second year bird that is looking for a territory? I need to do some research.

When I finally got home, about ten minutes later I realized I had to put my shoes outside because the skunk smell had gotten on them and it was really intense. It is said that great-horned owls have no sense of smell … so combined with their incredible power, it makes for one of the few predators of the striped skunk!

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