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.
Partial Great-Horned Owl track (difficult to discern)
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.