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