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.
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!
Point Reyes tracking day
Ahh, where to begin. This post has taken me a long time to get up because one day of tracking can yield volumes of stories and tales!
Our day at Abbott’s Lagoon a few weeks ago began with a morning of warm sunshine, after a few days of very cold temperatures and rain – as we started out towards the sand dunes near the beach we saw quite a few black-tailed mule deer in groups of over ten individuals. There was a herd of males of all different ages in an adjacent field, their antlers varying from sprouts to full racks. They seemed to be frolicking in the warm sun, play sparring and hopping around each other like fawns on a beautiful spring day. What really caught our eyes though was another group of deer to our north … one of them was standing guard to the west and not even our presence took this doe’s attention off something towards the eastern lagoon. Her behavior queued us in to another presence that warranted her attention more than humans. It had to be a predator.
As her group grazed, she seemed to be doing some tracking of her own. We decided to see what it was that garnered such focused attention, and we moved quietly across the chaparral to investigate. As we moved west, the look-out deer finally broke her sentry post and they all moved on to the east. We didn’t see what had attracted her attention, so we started to investigate the area where the deer were grazing to see what was for breakfast. As we moved west through the brush though, our efforts were rewarded as the hard ground gave way to add a character to the story by yielding a single clue … a fresh bobcat track in some soil upturned by a gopher!
We were able to trail it for a distance, the fresh tracks sometimes not visible at all, occasionally popping out for us to see in some loose soil after losing the trail for 20 feet at a time. With great reluctance after trailing the cat for 500 yards, we abandoned our search to see the maker of the tracks to continue on our journey towards the dunes. I would be rewarded later though …
Once at the sand dunes, we saw an explosion of activity that indicated many animals were eager to be out after so many days of cold and/or rain. Another bobcat made some nice trails, along with black-tailed mule deer, river otters, coyotes, gray fox, great-blue herons, ravens, deer mice, beetles, brush rabbits, skunks, opossum, raccoon, and more. There was a lot of skunk sign, and we postulated that they were very active after a short period of torpor (similar to hibernation) that left them hungry and in search of mates. Deer mouse sign was also everywhere, their small tracks making trails all over the dunes.
The evidence of another saga soon played out on the sand dunes before me – a bobcat trail that showed what I determined to be a recently captured brush rabbit. The trail had drag marks that extended under the cat for 30 yards to a spot where it did tight circles as it either made the final kill or adjusted the prey in its jaws, then sat for a bit. The trail went on then for 20 yards up into some dune grasses where there were bits of rabbit fur and presumably the cat ate its meal.
This particular area usually is thick with coyote sign, and seldom have we seen gray fox sign here – but this day showed evidence of at least one fox that had traveled with purpose around the whole area. The tracks are dainty next to the many coyote tracks, and I was excited to see find the trail.
I trailed one of them for half a mile down the beach, its tracks following the vegetation line at the edge of the beach, at one point going down into the surf area where the water washed away its paw prints at the last high tide before it veered back up to continue on its journey north towards Kehoe Beach (where their sign is much more prevalent according to others familiar with the area). It was a very purposeful gait, seldom stopping to investigate the ocean flotsam along the shore. What spurred this fox on an unhurried yet purposeful journey on the beach? The search for a mate? A territorial scouting mission? Food? It will be interesting to see if there is more sign in the future or if the foxes will remain more north towards Kehoe beach after this.
At one point as I backtracked one of the bobcats, I was excited to catch sight of an American bittern hunting in the floating vegetation on the edge of the east lagoon. Among the live animals I saw this day were great-blue herons, ravens, gulls, two snowy plovers (a very endangered species), red-tailed hawks, white-tailed kites, northern harriers, turkey vultures, yellow-rumped warblers, black-tailed mule deer, a peregrine falcon and …
… a bobcat!
The dunes are ever-shifting, they can be an amazing palette for animal tracks or the tracks of the wind, giving a brief glimpse at the stories played out in the hours before. But the winds eventually wipe the slate clean like words fading on a page, as the dunes make their own tracks across the landscape.