Friday, March 28, 2008

Proud Great Horned Owl Parents

On March 20th I took half of a day off of work to do some birding. I started by checking out the MN Valley NWR visitors center. They have a great feeding station that has been great for attracting birds through out the winter but on this day it was strangely silent. I don't know if all the birds were out in the woods foraging because it was such a nice day, or what, but the usually very busy feeders had very little to look at. Next I headed down to the Black Dog Lake unit to see if the slightly warmer weather had brought in any migrating waterfowl. Unfortunately Black Lake was also pretty quiet. I was feeling kind of despondent, it was a beautiful day out and I had taken a half day of vacation but it appeared that the birds had taken the day off too. So I decided to continue down Cedar Avenue and check out the great horned owls nest that I have been watching since the beginning of February.

I arrived at the lot where the nest is located, changed into my boots, so that I could trudge through the snow and mud and headed off towards the nest. Before I got into range of the nest I picked up the call of a northern shrike.
There had been a shrike in the area the last time that I had been here so I assume that it was still the same bird. Shrikes are predators but since they only eat small birds or mammals I don't think that the owls would consider it competition for food. However if the shrike got to close to the nesting owl I am betting that he would become food.
Maybe food for the baby owl chick that has now hatched. The nest is big enough that there may be more chicks down inside the nest out of view but I only witnessed the one.
Great horned owls typically lay 1 to 5 eggs in a clutch with an average of 2. The eggs are incubated for 30 to 35 days. When they hatch the chicks are helpless and covered in white down feathers.
The female will typically stay at the nest brooding, protecting the chicks and keeping them warm, almost continually for a couple of weeks. Once the chicks have grown a bit and started to feather the adults will spend less time at the nest, typically coming in only to feed and protect the chick or possibly to keep it warm if the weather turns cold.
While I was going to get shots of the nest I inadvertently flushed the male. Once I know where he is I have been quit successful at getting close but when I do not see him until too late he will sometimes fly off to another part of the woods.
Fortunately he does not usually go very far. I kept an eye on which part of the woods that he had landed in and after I finished photographing the nest I carefully made my way into the woods to get some pictures of him.
Great horned owls blend in very well to their surroundings. It is quite easy to pass one with out ever seeing it. Since I had kept my eye on where he had landed I was able to find him pretty easy but while I was keeping an eye on him he was also keeping his eyes on me.
By approaching slowly and quietly and stopping frequently I let him get used to my presence. Soon he did not consider me a threat and he relaxed and went to sleep.
Normally I would have just taken my pics and left him in peace but before he started dozing off he coughed up a pellet and I decided to go collect it and take it to The Raptor Center. Since they do not have teeth owls have to swallow their food, any thing small is swallowed whole while larger prey is ripped apart and then swallowed. Things that can not be digested, mostly fur, bones, feathers and teeth, are compacted into a pellet in the owls gizzard. several hours after they eat the owl will cough up the pellet and spit it out. At The Raptor Center they collect, clean and then sell the pellets, mostly to schools and families, so that people who are interested can dissect the pellet and see what the owls has been eating. Many times you can put together the complete skeleton of a small mammal from the bones that you find inside an owl pellet. This owl was so comfortable with my presence that I was able to walk right underneath him and collect the pellet plus 3 others that he must of coughed up earlier. He did open his eyes to check on me once and a while but he was happy to sit there and sleep as I walked directly below him.
As I was leaving the female decided to leave the nest and join the male in the woods. As she flew over me I snapped 3 quick shots. Two of them did not capture the whole owl, but I was able to get her completely in frame for one shot. I thought about going back in to try and get some more pics of her but decided that I didn't want to stress her out or fight my way back into the woods, so I headed out. I checked out the nest on my way back to the truck and the chick was now hunkered down inside the nest and was no longer visible. I will have to go back soon and get some more pics. The chick will not be around too long. After about 6 weeks after they hatch the young owl will begin to branch. Branching is the phase that the young owl gets out of the nest and begins to hop around and climb on the nearby branches. A week or two after they begin to branch the chicks fledge and shortly after that they leave the nest and spend their time learning to hunt with in the parents territory. Once they leave the nest they are much harder to find so I need to get all the pics that I want before they go.


Peggy said...

Great information & photos of the owls. It's really lucky to be able to see both parents, since papa always hides. Glad your half day off was productive!

Dayna said...

Thanks for sharing your owl photos. They are lovely.

Anonymous said...

I stopped by to catch a glimpse of the Owl babies tonight. There are clearly two of them in the nest. The parents were not to be seen.

ivars krafts said...

Great owl shots & narrative. Thank you.

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

Terrific post! Great info and awesome pix. Love the one of the male giving you the hairy eyeball.

Nora said...

Really amazing owl are so lucky to have a nest...and you get really good shots somehow!!! cheers.

RuthieJ said...

Those are great pictures! I loved seeing the baby owl--what a cutie!

Ecobirder said...

Thanks, Hannibal, Dayna, Jan, Ivars, Lynn, Ocean and Ruthie. Jan I will need to stop by and check out the nest again. I thought that there was probably more but there was only one out last time I was there.