juvenile great horned owls and venus in background at sunset / contra costa county CA
right on queue, these two juvenile great horned owls have been haunting the woods nearby with their haunting cries of dispair (aka annoying hunger begging cries to their parents) … almost Halloween / Samhain / Dia de Muertos!
Probably the last of this waxing moon we’ll see this month, due to the coming storm. Beautiful night.
when you see this wild eye, it can’t be anything else but what it is … and it is beautiful
great-horned owl (adult female) / contra costa county CA
last nap before the night
This pair has been around for a number of years – why no young? Theories to come …
After a day of what could be the last rain of the season, I decided to motivate myself for a much needed attitude adjustment. I was grumpy, and pretty unmotivated. I knew if I went out for a wander/hike, things might shift. I figured “future Zach” might really appreciate “past Zach” more if “current Zach” got off the couch.
It was just before sunset, and the clouds were starting to break up, yielding some blue sky and a beautiful setting sun sometimes shining from behind the clouds. The puffy clouds that were left after the rain were now highlighted in beautiful pinks, purples, and oranges. The air was calm and there was a divine serene quality to the light and the moment.
I wasn’t far into my wander when I heard a lot of raven sounds. It’s not unusal to see them in this area, but usually they are moving around, soaring, and don’t typically hang around one particular area for too long. And usually they are in pairs here. As I turned a bend, I started to see them. Some were flying, some were perched or hopping around a grove of eucalyptus trees. There were at least four or five ravens, and I stopped to watch and listen. At first I thought perhaps it was a young family of newly fledged ravens, just playing on the hillside and in the grove of trees. They didn’t necesarily seem focused on anything in particular, but I decided to circle around to the other side of the eucs to get a better look.
I’ve written before that in the northern part of Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, I have never seen definitive bobcat sign nor a live bobcat in the three years that I have been going there (ironic, given its name!!). My explanation was that due to the open grassland and minimal cover in this area (most of it is grazed by cattle for fire suppression), coyotes are the dominate predator because they can adapt to the terrain better. Between the lack of cover and proliferation of coyotes, it is not ideal bobcat terrain. Not only that, many people walk their dogs in this area, and again, coyotes are better equipped to deal with that scenario. Bobcats like to be near edges of vegetation, so they can easily “disappear” to escape threats. Further south in Wildcat Canyon, there are more chapparal and riparian zones with lots of cover, and sure enough I’ve found (and seen) bobcats and their sign there.
That all changed a few months ago. I was out after dark in the northern part of Wildcat and somehow in the dim light I spotted a single cat track in a patch of mud on a lightly used cow trail in an area under eucalytus trees and close to more dense cover (other trees, poison oak, blackberry, coyote brush, etc).
Then, in the middle of April, I was on a run passing through the same general area and I spotted fairly fresh bobcat scat. It was classic bobcat scat – sometimes coyote scat can be a similar size and they can be confused, but not this one. It definitely tasted like bobcat scat (joke).
The evidence was mounting that a bobcat had moved into the area.
Back to tonight …
As I came around the other side of the euc trees I saw two ravens side-by-side on a branch, not very high up (probably 20 feet). They were very vocal and seemed to be focused on something on the ground. I paused, then slowly approached through the tall grass. As I got about 1/4 of the distance to them, what pops out from behind some tall grass? A bobcat!!
I froze. It froze. It thought I hadn’t seen it, so it slowly backed behind the grass, crouched then slowly turned around and started to go the other way. I quickly backtracked to the trail and returned in the direction I had come in hopes that I would see it try to circle back around me. As I did this, I kept track of what the ravens were doing – they had watched the whole encounter happen and now I realized they had absolutely been following this cat. As I paused in the trail after about 20 yards to listen and gauge my next move, the ravens flew over the area directly in front of me and circled a few times. They were tracking the bobcat and giving away its location! Sure enough, in about 10 seconds it appeared at the edge of the trail only 15 feet from me. We gazed at each other, and it slowly crossed the trail, pausing at the other side to study me. Slowly it moved in a circle around me and then passed, stopping to watch me at a number of times. OF COURSE I didn’t have my good camera rig with me, but, I was able to really enjoy a few moments of being close to this amazing animal – and snap a bad pic with my cell phone.
I love when “bird language” gives clues like this about what is happening on a landscape. That is part of the fun of being out there and staying aware – and no matter how many times it happens to me, it always seems like magic. So fun.
Right after that encounter, I saw a California newt on the trail – likely returning from a vernal pond where it bred, to seek refuge in the leaf litter under some trees during the warm and dry months of summer. I’m always thrilled to see these little salamanders.
Another 50 yards up the trail, as I went off-trail and into some thick cover, I heard and then saw an agitated Cooper’s hawk fly into the eucs where I was headed. Then I heard two great-horned owls respond, irritated about the irritated Cooper’s hawk! The Coop flew off, so I proceeded on. A loud rustling sound quickly caught my attention and I watched as a turkey flew up into some high boughs of a eucalyptus tree to roost for the night. As I walked under to get a better look, I heard the Coop again. I backtracked down the trail to where I had been before, and there in a dead tree was one of the great-horned owls, sitting very calmly with a backdrop of Richmond, Mt Tam, and a twilight sky. And right by it on the other side of the tree was the Cooper’s hawk, protesting loudly. Occasionally it would fly off and then return. This scene continued for about five minutes, and finally both birds departed. I am convinced there is a Cooper’s hawk nest adjacent to the area where the great-horned owl nest is. As I started to walk away, I heard a few juvenile red-tailed hawk calls in the background – hopefully I’ll see them fledged and playing in the area soon.
“Current Zach” is very pleased that “past Zach” got off the couch. Thank you, thank you, to this Land – this Land that has given me so much. The fact that we have such amazing parks so close to an urban area is a testament to the conservation efforts and hard work of so many people here – and I am grateful. Also very exciting that a bobcat has moved into the area, I hope to get to see it more!
Some photos and updates from the last few weeks. Spring seems to have started in the beginning of February this year, the buckeye trees (usually the first to bud and the first to lose their leaves) were budding in some places as early as the end of January. Since then, the warm and sunny weather has drawn out flowers and buds all around. Fortunately, as I write this, the rains have started again – and we are due for much more.
Two weeks ago (week of Feb 15th), on two different nights, I saw the Wildcat Canyon “Bottomhill” great-horned owl couple mate. The timing coincides almost exactly with when I saw another pair mate last year – I thought maybe the weather would affect the pattern, but apparently not. It’s somewhat odd as most literature indicates great-horned owls being an early breeder (compared to other raptor species), and in many areas are on nests in January in the snow. I guess owl culture, like human culture here in the Bay Area, is different in these parts as well (I joke – probably the Mediterranean climate is a factor, though I’d be curious to know how breeding behavior here compares to other warm areas). As I get deeper into my own observations of the world and its critters, I realize how little we actually know. Scientists in the past seem to have been content to generalize regarding behavior, and while there are patterns and a spectrum of those behaviors that are “typical,” often in reality it may be different based on local factors. That’s what makes it fun to be out there. Personality and local flavor.
The female always seems to initiate the act, and she starts by chasing down the male on the occasions that I’ve witnessed it. She lands close to him, and starts to do a vocalization very similar to a juvenile owl. When the male flies towards her, she starts a repetitive “hoo hoo hoo hoo” sound that reminds me of a monkey. As the male mounts her, flapping for a few seconds, she lets out a high pitched vibrato whistle and then its over. It will be interesting to see what happens this year, as last year many of the nests didn’t appear to successfully raise any young (drought related?). There are four pairs whose territories I regularly walk through, with a possible fifth – then another not far away. Of all those pairs, I only confirmed one successful nest last season.
Despite the very dry February, the vernal pools are deep and wide from all the rain in January, and have been extremely active with tree frogs and California newts. The newts migrate from their hiding spots under leaf litter back to the area from which they hatched to mate and lay eggs. The frog chorus, if you can sneak up on them, is incredibly loud when nearby. Nights of wandering under warm skies and no winds to a live symphony of frogs, and owls flitting around, is pizza for the soul.
I caught a few interesting moon shots this month, one was a moon halo and the other was an interesting rainbow effect on clouds as the full moon rose last time.
The owls are back in their autumn cycle, starting to claim their territories.
great-horned owl / Contra Costa County CA (East Bay Regional Parks)
Tonight I gifted with another evening watching the sunset with Lady Owl (of the “bottom of the hill” pair) – another exquisite early autumn night.
One of my favorite times of year – things are shifting! The patterns are changing all over, some more subtle than others. I’m hearing and seeing new birds as they pass through on their way south, and the resident birds and animals are starting to shift their patterns as well. Fox squirrels seem to be everywhere I turn, busy running and gathering. The mornings are sunny and there’s a slight crispness in the air starting to build, almost a bit electric. The light has a softness to it, despite the heat that today was above 90 deg F in the immediate Bay Area. Not easy weather, to, um, weather, for a landscape already parched with drought. Even the winds have gone elsewhere, allowing a degree of peace to settle over the stressed landscape. Sitting still I can hear bugs crawling through the leaves, and the occasional falling leaf even makes a sound as it falls through the dry undergrowth to join its crunchy fallen partners on the ground, who are now having the chance to use their voice – while not drowned out by Wind – to announce Coyote or Deer moving nearby. So fun!
Things are incredibly dry here – you can read about it all over in the news, worst drought in over a century and possibly since settlers have been keeping records here. But, to really understand it all one needs to do is to go out to FEEL it and see it yourself. Springs and creeks are dry. The evergreen trees, such as the live oaks, are even losing some of their leaves (which I understand is a drought response tactic to minimize moisture loss). Many of the under story leaves and any leaves not at the top of the tree or on the exteriors have fallen away, to varying degrees, depending on the location of the trees. I’m able to see wood rat nests high up in canopies that were very difficult to see before. Even the California buckeyes, who are some of the first obvious beacons of autumn since they lose their leaves before most other deciduous trees, have been bare for weeks in some locations. Redwoods and cedars are looking wilted and brown. Even the non-native eucalytpus trees look scraggly. A fine dust encapsulates many of the leaves, and the hillsides are painted brown with wilted grasses.
I’m happy to report that I’m doing my best to help conserve water – infrequent showers, I don’t clean my bathroom, and I occasionally drink distilled beverages instead of water (the distillation process releases water back into the atmosphere – that’s science). Little gestures, they add up.
One benefit of the trees being thinned out (if one wants to be a “glass half-full type of person” – though a water analogy is probably not appropriate here), is that there aren’t many places for a large bird to hide. Until about two weeks ago, I was seeing with some regularity a family of Cooper’s hawks hanging in one particular area. I thought it was interesting that they were all still together this late in the season – the migration has begun for many birds already. The first day that I saw them, about three weeks ago, two juveniles suddenly appeared indiscreetly in the branches 20 feet above my head, crashing around either chasing each other or chasing potential prey (a bird). They finally settled into the interior live oaks next to me, and soon were joined by an adult. A few days later, I saw the same trio in a nearby tree near sunset. I don’t know much about these hawks’ chick-rearing patterns, but I couldn’t help but wonder if these hawks stay around parents longer than some other raptor species to learn from them. It could be a late nest, but it seems extremely late if so. Cooper’s hawks (and sharp-shinned hawks, their mini look-alikes) often tandem hunt in pairs, one flushing birds as the other wake hunts and catches them. Could it be that this is a learned behavior?
Of course I must mention the owls.
This gal has been very visible the last few nights in her “typical” spot, though it’s been a number of months since I’ve seen her with regularity. The male and the female do not seem to be together much this time of year, and I am convinced the male is roosting in a grove of trees about 1/2 mile away from the spot the females frequents, an area that seems to be their core area during mating season. She let me watch her as she was waking up two nights ago, doing some preening and stretching, then she hit “snooze” for a bit after she placed a hex on someone or something evidently right behind me …
This photo was interesting, I wish I could have gotten both birds in focus – do you see it?
Hummingbird came in to scold the owl! It hung around for a minute or so, just behind the owl.
The next night, I wandered without my camera but was excited to get to spend some time with the female owl again. After she flew off to look for breakfast, I followed her out a path under the fading light of the sun that had already disappeared behind the mountains to the west. As I was about to crest a hill and descend into a small valley, another raptor caught my eye – juvenile cooper’s hawk! Likely one of the juveniles from the trio described earlier, though I didn’t see any of the others. This young one did some flights through some small oaks attempting to scare up some birds from their night perch, then having failed to get any takers, it landed on an old wood fence post and began to vocalize repeatedly – in what felt to me like frustration and irritation. It’s not easy being a young raptor (many species up to 70% don’t survive their first year). The young one made another attempt, alighted on a high tree nearby, then took off after three flying birds (who were not keen on the company).
As it finally flew off, I heard some coyotes howling just beneath me! I silently walked in that direction – then … crunching! Coming my way! I froze, and sure enough one, then another, then another appeared in the fading light. They didn’t seem to see me (or maybe they just didn’t care), once they all were in line together they trotted with purpose to the south to start their nightly excursions.
Last sounds I heard were the crickets calling as I walked through the “portal,” and the sound of cars from the highway took over the soothing sounds of nature. I’m so grateful for the parks that we have here in the Bay Area, like many of the creatures around, I wouldn’t survive here without them.
I had pretty much given up on seeing baby owls in the area I typically roam, despite there being about five pairs that I see with some regularity. I’ve seen some in other areas, all fledged, flying and without any downy white feathers left on them. Tonight during twilight with very little light left in the sky I finally heard that familiar sound – a young owl! I made my way in the direction of its call, and sure enough, there it was – along with a brother or sister nearby. The pictures are rough with so little light, but they allowed me to get very close to them as we looked at each other in wonder.
These two still have some of their white downy feathers, but they are able to fly. They are from a nest that is likely on private property right next to the park – I see the parents with some frequency in the park, but this is the first time I’ve seen or heard young owls from any of the three pairs of adult owls that I see most often. This pair also had at least one youngster last year. I’m excited to see them again soon, maybe even with some better light.
I’ll admit that at the beginning of this year, I had high hopes of seeing more than one nest of great-horned owls with young. Yet despite monitoring three pairs of these owls at Wildcat Canyon with regularity, and another two pairs on occasion, I have not seen nor heard one fledgling owl. There was a period of time starting in March during which the adults altered their routines from how they acted during mating season, but whether or not they were on eggs is a mystery to me. I know at least one pair did “phase I” of the procreation process! But alas no sign of young. It now appears that they’ve started to alter their routine again, and I’m seeing them with more regularity in their “usual” areas and perches. But no begging young ones that I’ve heard or seen – and they are hard to miss.
During the nesting season, I have a theory that raptors “go through the motions” whether they actually have young or not. This includes different roosts, different patterns of behavior, and also a tendency to be very secretive – until this past week or so, they have not been as willing to be close to me like they had been.
The last few times I’ve been out I’ve noticed one pair of owls hunting in a fashion that I’ve never witnessed before – they are actually kiting like red-tailed hawks in the wind over grasslands! In the strong winds, the owl just extends its wings without flapping to become stationary in the air above the ground, and they are sometimes 50 to 80 feet up in the sky. One difference from the red-tails is that their legs hang down awkwardly, and it’s really funny to see such a majestic animal looking so ungraceful. Typically I see the great-horned owls hunting either from a perch or from the ground. It makes sense in this area where the winds are gusting every evening and the grass is high. Perhaps they’ve adapted their hunting style for the season and the terrain. Really cool to see – if I can witness it again before twilight I would love to get some photos of it.
Another interesting behavior I witnessed tonight was again with my most watched pair (the same that have been kiting) – as I came upon them tonight just after sunset, first one, then the other flew down to the ground onto a cow trail. At first I thought perhaps they were on the trail hunting, but then I realized they were both taking a dust bath within 10 feet of each other! It was difficult to see due to the lack of light and distance (I didn’t want to bother them while they bathed together …), but they were really getting into it. After about five minutes, they finished up and hurried over to see if I could find some tracks.
As I got to the spot and started scouring over the dust with my headlamp, I could see the wind just erasing things before my eyes. I was so bummed! I was able to find one partial track though, which was fun.
As I kept looking, suddenly I heard a high pitched squealing just south of me about 30 meters right in the area where one of the owls had flown to perch on top of a coyote bush, and I knew breakfast was served.
It’s been my observation that raptor numbers and activity is much diminished in the last two years here in the greater Bay Area, but especially this year. Likely it is related to the drought, and also probably related to the vole population crash that we first took note of about two years ago. That is pure conjecture and is based purely on observation, but some of my other naturalist friends and trackers have noticed similar patterns supported by lack of actual sightings and reduced numbers of owl pellets in one particular location that usually has at least a few owls. Hopefully the predictions of the El Nino bringing lots of rain this upcoming winter are true! Everyone could use more water – feathered, furred, scaled, crawling, rooted and two-legged.
some pictures from a few weeks ago that i am late to post, taken with my mobile phone – great-horned owls and venus
contra costa county ca
same night, another great-horned owl with venus and mount tam in background with city lights
For the last two weeks, on at least six different nights, I’ve seen one of the pairs of owls who inhabit the area of my regular wanders mate. Owl love-making, owl coitus. Oh yeah.
I’ve gotten some decent audio recordings of it (wow, that sounds weird), but finally on Friday night I got a few photos (now it sounds even weirder). Owl voyeurism, what can I say. Happy they felt comfortable, and I take it as a sign that I’m doing a good job of making my presence unknown or, if they see me, not to put stress on the animals. I feel confident saying that they probably didn’t feel stressed.
It was past sunset, so the natural light was not so good, but it was really amazing to see, hear, and it left just enough light to photograph.
First, the female came out from her roost and was making vocalizations, presumably inviting the male in for some fun with that, um, sexy penetrating gaze?
After a few minutes, her seductive gaze shifted to a spot on the live-oak tree about 20 feet away where the male owl alighted …
The male perched on the other side of the same oak tree, surveying the surroundings (trying to look cool and non-nonchalant, I think).
Within a minute of the two being perched together on top of the tree, the male flew over and mounted the female to mate. Owls evidently aren’t so much into the foreplay stuff. Or, it’s indiscernible to human observers.
They sounded like a mixture between chimpanzees and some sort of song bird rapidly singing. It starts with a repetitive low “hoo hoo hoo” that sounds like a chimp or orangutang and quickly turns into a high frequency chirping sound. All in all in takes about 3 to 5 seconds. Fast and furious, a short but evidently fulfilling rendezvous. Not that you could tell by their reactions afterwards.
Afterwards, there was no cuddling. They both seemed pretty stand-offish, ready for breakfast …
Within a minute or so, the male flew off to start hunting for the night.
Hopefully I’ll see some owlets sometime soon.
As I was returning from an evening wander, I rounded a corner and started ascending a ridge under a twilight sky that held a bit of vibrant dark blue that was stubbornly unyielding to the engulfing blackness of the night sky. As I looked up, I saw one of the owls perched with the planet Venus as a backdrop. I think they are getting used to me – it eventually let me pass by at a distance of no more than 10 to 15 feet as I continued on my way after snapping some pictures.
The picture below was from a few nights ago, they perch on top of these trees almost every evening after leaving their day roosts. They hoot and coo and squawk to each other there before going out to hunt, or sometimes just sit in silence together. And, at least during this past week, they have been mating there as well – something I’ve gotten to witness twice in the last few nights!
It’s been amazing to hear all of the vocalizations that the great-horned owls make, especially now during courting time. One of the pair seems to greet the other after they leave their roosts with a croaking screech sound from a nearby tree, then when the pair comes together one of them makes a repeated chirping sound, something that you’d expect to come from a plush toy or something similar. It’s a fast series of soft, muffled cooing-chirp-toots. Even the common “hoot” changes in frequency, cadence, and number of hoots in a grouping when they are addressing each other. It’s very endearing.
Tonight this pair was hanging out together as usual lately – and talking to one another – on their favorite tree, a big live oak. I felt lucky to watch and listen.
One night while watching one of the pairs of great-horned owls where I wander, I stumbled on what is likely one of the pair’s tracks – right in the middle of a cow pattie! Pretty awesome. Good substrate is hard to come by in this area for registering tracks, especially if there is no rain – you make do-do with what you got.
(I know, I know, bad tracking humor)
Likely one of the track makers from that same evening …
got some good shots of this lady as she waited for her mate, who was dozing a bit longer in his palm tree refuge by which she had taken a sit after leaving her day perch. he has a much deeper hoot and a more elongated hoot sequence than her, sometimes beginning with a few subtle, almost grunt-sounding hoots that preface the “typical” great-horned owl hoot sequence. these owls that I have observed the last year have a lot more vocalizations that i have heard in addition to what is typically documented or described in the scientific literature. i suspect they have a larger vocabulary than humans realize, some of it very subtle.
some serious tools …. incredible crushing force in these feet in addition to sharp talons.
great-horned owl / Contra Costa County CA
I spent a good 20 minutes following this female from hunting perch to perch in the calm twilight this evening, under the waxing new moon. Autumn magic!! She eventually united with her mate who had been calling the whole time about a 1/4 mile away with his deeper hoots.
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.
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!
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) …
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!
Almost everywhere I go wandering now, right around sunset, I start to hear their calls. It is an unmistakable sound – a loud, short, ascending, piercing/shrieking “what the hell is that?” call that cuts through the falling night and thick air – a whining, desperate, yet strong sound – definitely recognizable to even the untrained ear as the sound of a begging youngster. The young great-horned owls are now out of their nests and flying around, but still dependent on their parents for the bulk of their food. And they don’t let them forget it.
Sunday night, I took a wander at sunset to see the last light of day before the arrival of the so-called “super moon.” Most media sources have exaggerated the size of the moon on these occasions – regardless, it is certainly slightly brighter and bigger during these times when the full moon and perigee coincide (perigee is when the moon is closest to the earth during its elliptical orbit around us).
Just after the sun set, as I was sprinting down the mountain side that was my sunset perch, I spotted a coyote already starting its rounds …
I followed it, and we stayed on the same path for at least a mile until a second coyote came into view. The moon was not yet visible from behind the low-hanging clouds to the east, but this valley was already alive with the creatures of the night. As the coyotes darted around in the open field marking their territory and investigating the ground squirrel holes, the baby owls had started their begging calls in the treeline to the south. By ear, it sounded like three of these young ones.
I watched one coyote mark an area up the side of the valley, then disappear over the ridge. It’s mate walked over to the area that had seemed to captivate the male, then disappeared in the other direction. Of course I went to see what they had been checking out.
Just as I reached that area up the hillside opposite the sound of the young owls, the female coyote that had just been there re-appeared back on the trail where I had just been – she had looped around and was now watching me. In this light (or lack thereof), it takes a careful eye to see them even when they’re moving, their camouflage is so amazing. As I looked at the area they had been checking out, she checked out the area that I had just been. Our gazes met briefly as we acknowledged one another and then returned to what was before us. She backtracked where I and the first coyote had come from, until finally cutting up a ravine in the general direction that her mate had gone.
The owls were now making so much noise I had to go over to check it out. There was very little light left in the sky, but as I approached the treeline I was able to make out two juvenile great-horned owls perched up in the oaks. Occasionally they would hop to another branch, or dislodge one another in turn from their perches in what seemed like youthful play, and perhaps inpatient anticipation of their first meal of the “day.”
There were three young ones, and the two adults were there in the general area as well, hooting amid the youngsters’ begging. Five owls making a lot of noise. In addition to the hooting, the adults made some other sounds – ones that they seem to use when greeting each other at the beginning of the night when they reunite from their daytime roosts. It’s an intimate and endearing sound, almost a cooing noise mixed with a cluck.
I watched for about ten minutes until they finally dispersed into the night – likely the young ones followed the adults as they set out to hunt, making their job of getting food that much more difficult!
It was just about then that the moon rose above the clouds – what a sight indeed. The air was still and warm, and with the sudden light of the moon the entire valley lit up with a blue light that illuminated everything.
As I wandered slowly back towards my vehicle, a buck and a skunk escorted me out.
+ + +
The next night, I went for a run at one of my favorite spots nearby where I live, just before sunset. As I paused at a spot to stretch and do some pull-ups, I heard those familiar calls. This time it was from a nearby valley. After about five minutes, the calls came closer, and I realized that one of this other set of young great-horned owls was just above me in a coyote bush at the top of a hill. I crept up the opposite side of the hill until I was behind another coyote bush, about 20 feet from this young owl who was now at eye level with me. It peered over to look in my direction just as I looked out from behind the bush …
Then it started begging, right at me! It’s mouth opened so wide, it looked like I could peer directly down into its belly! And the sound! It was incredibly loud, coming right in my direction. I didn’t move. Finally it swiveled its head around to face the valley before us, in the direction of its two siblings, and continued to cry – occasionally looking around and back at me, spreading its cries in every direction in hopes of a meal soon. We spent a few minutes together, and it was only the approach of an oblivious hiker who came within about 100 yards that ushered it to take flight.
I cherish these moments.
sometimes you find things in the least expected places, and that is part of the beauty of trying to stay aware as a tracker when you wander – constantly switching between the micro and the macro. looking in new ways and trying to be tuned into the track or sign that could be underfoot, while at the same time staying present to the live coyote that could be on the landscape ahead of me or the eagle that could be soaring above. a lot to track. that’s why i love the wander … it is a meditation, a whole-body/mind/spirit tuning practice that connects me to the land and its wonders. its the wonder wander.
as i moved through a zone of trees that sandwiched a seasonal creek bed that cuts through the landscape, i noticed a cow vertebra in the trunk of a bay laurel tree. uhh, strange. it had been there for a while – the tree had actually grown around it! who created this curious forest decor? perhaps it is some bigfoot feng shui? that is the most obvious answer, of course – though i would say this could also be a remnant of the Clovis culture, or even more probable the work of a werewolf. maybe an old prototype for an Al Jourgenson microphone stand?
regardless of its origins, what was really cool about this bone tree-fixture, was the little world around it. there were short mammal hairs on the trunk of the tree right by it, spider webs all around it, a sow bug just hanging out on it, and there were also a lot of rodent gnawings on it too (rodents love to nibble on bones and antlers for the calcium, and perhaps to also help trim their teeth). truly a work of living (and dead) art.
my “short wander” – in between the storms this week that are delivering much needed rain to our lands – turned into a “slightly” longer foray than expected. because of the rains that just passed and the storms rolling in, the animals seemed eager to use the clear skies to feed and frolic and flirt … the owls were hooting extremely early, and even flying around hours before sunset, while the red-tails were screaming and dancing in their courtship displays. the night shift and day shift were doubled up, and it was fun to see and hear it all at the same time. it was not necessarily an ideal time to be a ground squirrel or gopher, and they were on high alert.
with the wet weather and reduced people/dog/cattle movement, i was excited to finally get some clear coyote tracks of some of the family i’ve seen the last few weeks …
it’s always hard for me to leave, i usually feel like i should be making a nest under a bay tree and settling in for the night with the rest of the beasts. as i left, i spent a bit of time with what was likely my third set of owls that i saw today (and possibly one set of four to six in the immediate area!). they weren’t up as early as some of the others that i had seen previously in the day, but they were hooting and calling to each other with a lot of intensity. they finally came together in the boughs of a eucalyptus tree, then headed off up the hill to hunt before the rains came.