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!
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.
There is nothing quite like seeing young animals play, and it has been such a treat on my sunset/twilight wanders lately to see a pair of fledgling red-tailed hawks in Wildcat Canyon cavorting in the strong winds up in the hills for the past week or two. They are still sometimes unsteady as they soar in the air, and during their landings – wheeling awkwardly in the winds, or alternating repeatedly landing and taking off from a hilltop trying to ride fast moving gusts, like a feathered, bouncing ball. Sometimes their parents were silhouetted in the background above them, unmoving in the strong winds as if hanging from an invisible thread in the sky as they hunted. For the first week or so, every time the two young ones were in the air, they were loudly vocalizing non-stop, as if shouting “holy shit I’m flying, holy shit I’m flying!!!” That’s how it felt, watching their exuberance in the sky.
Despite their awkwardness at times, there were other times that they seemed to be quickly mastering flight in the high winds – chasing each other over the hills and around tree tops, stooping and diving on one another, locking talons in the sky, and pushing each other off of perches – even “barrel rolling” in the sky like ravens often due (an acrobatic maneuver during which they flip over on their back for a few moments in the sky). Sometimes I forget that I’m without any wings as I watch them, feeling like at any moment I could jump up and join them. It looks like just about as much fun as any living thing can have.
Hopefully this pair will survive longer than last year’s young – there were three from what were likely this same pair of adults, and none of them survived more than two weeks after fledging. Once night comes, it is the domain of the great-horned owls … and there are a lot of them here. It’s encouraging that they’ve lasted this long, soar on young ones!
Exciting day at Hawk Hill today by the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the great spots for seeing large numbers of migrating raptors. The Accipiters are coming through in high volume right now, and I was able to get out for a bit to watch. The fog started to roll in just as I got there, but we still had a good number of birds coming through (and visible, despite the low fog bank).
In addition to many sharp-shinned hawks and a few cooper’s hawks, we were treated to a few peregrine falcons that flew by. But not only did the juvenile peregrine fly by – it stayed a while to perform some antagonizing aerials on resident ravens, migrating sharp-shinned hawks, and one lone harrier! It’s hard to tell if it was hunting, just playing, or something in between. The ravens seemed to be having fun playing with it. The small sharpies … definitely not so much!
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.