Monday, April 28, 2014

Feeding Great Horned Owls: From Nest to Branch

I shared a post a couple of weeks ago about a Great Horned Owl nest I discovered in a Sycamore tree just a mile from my home. That post can be reviewed by clicking here.  I've monitored that nest almost daily since I originally discovered it. I've been able to do a quick drive-by on my way home from work and spend a little more time in the early evening hours watching the parents bring food to the chicks. Much has changed since my last post on this particular nest. Three babies outgrew and completely destroyed their nest, forcing them to "branch" despite their young age. "Branching" is normal for these owls. As they grow they leave the nest and find a perch on a nearby branch. Mom and dad bring food to them on their branches during evening hours for a couple of weeks. Over time the young owls begin to jump from one branch to another and use their wings in the process. As they fledge they take short flights until they can actually follow the parents to the food source on their own. One of the three owlets, unfortunately, ended up on the ground prematurely. A passerby noticed the owl and called the Division of Wildlife Resources. The DWR took the owl to a bird rehabilitator. I spoke to that rehabilitator and learned that the owl was in good shape and probably should have just been put back into a nearby tree. The rehabilitator will care for the owlet until it is ready to release into the wild again. I hope to be a part of that process.

It took a couple of weeks, but I was finally able to see dad for the first time. He's paler in appearance than the mom.

Here are a couple of images of Mom and babies in various stages of branching over a period of time. All three can be seen in the first image below. Note mom's tawny coloring on her chest compared to dad's pale chest above.

It's funny to see the extent of downy feathers these little guys have on their lower halves as their backs and wings develop more adult-like feathers.

Their heads resemble Brillo pads during their earlier weeks of development. This guy really looks like he's wearing some sort of Halloween costume. I smile when I see them at this curious stage.

I've found fish heads, magpie feathers, mice, and unidentified animal parts below the trees where these owls have been living over the past couple of weeks. The tail end of a Eurasian Collared-Dove was found below the tree where the three were perched one day. Cooper's Hawks eat lots of doves in that area, but they tend to empty the chest cavity rather than consume the bird from head to vent.

During the past few days the owlets have really ventured out and become almost impossible to locate during my drive-bys. Two nights ago I decided it would be easier to locate them by arriving at dusk and waiting for them to give their begging calls to the parents. That strategy worked well and I was able to re-find the two owlets by tracking their calls. I was thrilled to watch both young owls practice some of their first flights from an evergreen to a power pole about thirty feet away. One owl made it to the pole while the second was about forty feet above and away from the pole. I watched that little owl think about flying for about fifteen minutes before it actually took the plunge. It reminded me of that very first jump I took from the high diving board at the local swimming pool when I was a little kid growing up in Kentucky. The second owl nearly knocked the first one off the pole with its clumsy landing.

I knew my time with these owls was growing short when I saw the little ones taking flight. I captured some of those first flight moments on my phone video, but the quality was pretty poor. I drove home and retrieved my Nikon gear, tripod, and light. When I returned it was extremely quiet in the dark, other than the sound of rain water dripping from a roof onto a concrete pad.  The owls were nowhere to be seen or heard. I waited patiently and then heard the two owls make their begging calls again.  I heard dad start singing from the top of an evergreen. Mom then began doing her "bark" call. The whole family was communicating so I set up my Nikon D7100 and 80-400mm lens on the tripod. I tracked down the owlets and was able to capture video of mom feeding chunks of fish to one high in a deciduous tree. The video below represents some of what I saw as mom tore away and fed pieces from the front half of the fish to the baby. You should be able to watch the following videos in High Definition (1080p) so check that setting if the image quality is not sharp.

I left those two alone and positioned myself next to the trunk of a large tree. I focused my lens on the second baby who was patiently waiting for its meal on the branch of an evergreen, the same tree from which it took a flight to a power pole nearly an hour earlier. A domestic pea fowl from a nearby farm can be heard calling as well.

Moments later Mama Owl perched on and barked from the pole that earlier provided landing practice to the owlets. I can still see, in my mind's eye, mom with a fish tail dangling from her beak. What a sight! She then popped over to the second young "fuzz ball of an owl" and delivered the fish.

I wasn't able to visit the site yesterday or today so I'm rather curious about how long they will remain in close proximity. I'll check again in a night or two.

Prior to discovering the nest near my home I found one about thirty minutes from my home. That particular nest is about two or three weeks behind in the growth of the chicks I've been watching most recently. There are two owlets in that more distant nest. I will probably go check on that nest some night this week since I haven't checked for nearly a month. Here's a video clip from that nest site. I captured it nearly a month ago. It shows mom and dad and one of the owlets as it receives and completely swallows a mouse head first.

I have been fascinated with what I've witnessed with these owl families. I can see the care and discipline of the parents as they feed others before feeding themselves. There is order in the way they breed and rear a new generation. I've tried to maintain a safe and unobtrusive distance to allow these owls to continue normal activity as I've observed them. I've tried to be careful with the lighting as well. I hope that you recognize my desire to appreciate and respect these creatures. And I hope you have enjoyed vicariously seeing sights not often seen by others.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Coming Soon: New Generation of Cooper's Hawks

I remember saying to myself, "I've gotta find one of those!" when I first learned that there was a hawk that shared my last name. It took months and the help of an experienced birder to see my first Cooper's Hawk. We found it eating a Starling in a large Cottonwood tree on a cold December morning. I walked up to the tree and took a picture with my weak little point and shoot camera. The hawk was so fixed on eating it didn't mind that I was standing right below it. The camera equipment I have today would have produced some prized images, but the little point and shoot I had that day captured just enough of an image to remind me of the experience. I believe that experience may have been a tipping point for my desire to photograph birds and other wildlife.

Once I saw that first Cooper's Hawk it was as if a Cooper's Hawk radar was installed because I began to notice them and their smaller relative, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, regularly from that time onward. I wanted to expand my experience with these hawks so I "hatched" a plan to look for possible Cooper's Hawk nest sites during the winter months while old nests were exposed in naked trees. I made note of several possible nest locations and then I began to check on those sites as spring rolled around.

One potential site that I checked on last week had three different nests that seemed fitting for a Cooper's Hawk. All three nests were in a small stand of trees just a few miles from my home. Just moments after eyeing the three nests and finding them empty I started scouring the limbs of the trees from mid-level downward. I felt like I hit the jackpot when I locked in on a female Cooper's about 20 feet above the ground. She seemed rather comfortable with my presence below her so I wondered if she was feeling at home, so to speak. That gave me hope that she was near her nesting site.

Female Cooper's Hawk Near Nest Site in Utah County, UT
Two days later (April 21st) I went back and found what I think was the same female perching upright in one of the three nests I had previously checked. Her upright position gave me the impression that she probably didn't have eggs in the nest. I suspected she was preparing to lay eggs at that point in time.

Female Cooper's Hawk Claiming a Nest in Utah County, UT
Female Cooper's Hawk Claiming a Nest in Utah County, UT
Two more days passed and I went back (April 23rd) to check on the nest again. A storm front with extremely strong winds had blown for several hours during the evening before. Lots of branches and debris were on the ground below and around the small stand of trees. It appeared that the nest was empty from my initial vantage point. A chunk of the twigs on the lower half of the nest appeared to have been displaced by the strong winds from the night before. I walked a complete circle around the perimeter of the tree and then noticed mama hawk's tail protruding from the west side of the nest. Her hunkered-down posture in the nest led me to believe she was officially on eggs.

Tail of Female Cooper's Hawk Incubating Eggs in Utah County, UT
Cooper's Hawk nests are actually built by the male of the pair. They will use nests from previous years and I suspect that they sometimes rotate among multiple nests from year to year. The male provides the food for the female and then the chicks for nearly three months from the time mama starts incubating eggs until the young birds leave the nest. He will capture mid- to small-sized birds and kill them by repeatedly squeezing them with his talons as he holds them away from his body. He generally will pin them to the ground, away from his head and chest, until they die. Other birds of prey often kill their prey with biting, but that is not the way of the Cooper's Hawk.  These hawks have one brood per year with 2-6 eggs. The periods for incubating and rearing the young take about 35 days each for a total of nearly 70 days from laying eggs to fledging.

I've been watching another Cooper's Hawk nest site that is a little more secluded and on private property owned by a friend. The images below include the female of that pair as well as a view of the nest before it became obscured by leaves. Nests are usually about 30 or more feet above ground in wooded areas.

Female Cooper's Hawk Near Nest Site in Utah County, UT
Female Cooper's Hawk Near Nest Site in Utah County, UT
Cooper's Hawk Nest in Utah County, UT
I am protective of the nest sites and roosts for certain species, especially owls and some falcons and hawks. I've had a few situations where I have shared these locations only to soon learn that the birds were disturbed to the point that they abandoned the site. If the nest is in a relatively safe location I'll share so others have the opportunity to witness unique glimpses into the lives of the birds. Otherwise, I'll keep them safe by not spreading the word. I hope to follow up on this post with multiple posts as these nest sites progress.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Wood Duck: In the Woods on Wood, Of Course

A male Wood Duck is not the first one to come to my mind when I think of colorful birds perched in trees. In fact, I don't think I've ever associated the act of "perching" with any duck. I've always considered "standing" to be an appropriate action for a duck when not flying, swimming, or simply resting. That all changed this morning as I was driving through a heavily wooded area at the west end of the Provo airport dike road. I thought I had finished birding for the morning and was about to head home when I had the fortune of spotting a colorful male Wood Duck standing...excuse me..."perched" on a branch above the road. It's the first time I've seen a Wood Duck along that road, but it really is suitable habitat for them since they prefer water sheltered by trees. That particular area is where the Provo River completes its nearly-70 mile journey from high in the Uintah Mountains when it flows into Utah Lake. The area is surrounded by mature cottonwood trees.

Male Wood Duck in Provo, UT
Male Wood Duck in Provo, UT
Male Wood Duck in Provo, UT
A female Wood Duck made its presence known when she flew from one branch to another and caught my attention. She explored and nibbled at a spot on a tree where a thick branch appeared to have been cut from the tree and was now partially engulfed by the growth of the main trunk. I'm not sure if she found something to eat or was simply curious.

Female Wood Duck in Provo, UT
Female Wood Duck in Provo, UT
Unlike other ducks, Wood Ducks prefer to nest in trees.  They will also nest in man-made boxes when placed in an appropriate location near water.

This morning's pair of ducks briefly perched on a shared branch. These two lovely Wood Ducks will probably be making tiny Wood Ducks before we know it. I'm hoping that is the case anyway.

Breeding Pair of Wood Duck in Provo, UT
I was granted once last glance over the shoulder by the male from about 30 feet above before he and his lady friend left me standing alone in the woods surrounded by the drumming of a Downy Woodpecker and the song of a male Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Male Wood Duck Provo, UT
Here's a couple of images captured in better lighting from previous encounters with these uniquely patterned ducks.

Male Wood Duck in Breeding Plumage
Male Wood Duck in Breeding Plumage

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sunshine's Got Me Humming for Hummers!

I love this time of year. Spring is beautiful. After months of winter and overcast skies the sunny blue sky decorated with fluffy white clouds is priceless. Pink, white, yellow, and blue flowers are decorating trees, shrubs, lawns, fields, and meadows. The excitement for spring prompted me to pull out my hummingbird feeders, fill, and hang them this afternoon. I am humming for hummingbirds.

This is the view through my home office window now that I've hung my front porch feeder. I love our Utah mountains and canyons. I would love for the pink ornamental peach blossoms to hang around longer than the next strong spring wind.

The first hummingbirds to show up in my yard here in Utah County are usually Black-chinned, but I sometimes hear the trilling of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds before I see my first hummingbird of the spring.

Male Black-chinned Hummingbird at Feeder in Pleasant Grove, UT
Female (possibly young male) Black-chinned Hummingbird at Yard Feeder in Pleasant Grove, UT
Male Broad-tailed Hummingbird in American Fork Canyon Utah County, UT
Female Broad-tailed Hummingbird in American Fork Canyon Utah County, UT
The Black-chinned are seen throughout the summer and early fall, but the Broad-tailed tend to make their way up to higher elevations after a brief spring visit. I see them in my yard again a little later in the summer after they finish breeding and are making their way south again.

Fall Migration for hummingbirds actually starts during the month of August here in northern Utah. That's when I get the chance to see Rufous Hummingbirds. They tend to move north along the west coast in the spring migration and down the Rocky Mountain Range during fall migration. They are the feistiest hummingbirds when they make a temporary claim on my feeders during their fall migration southward. They will chase off all other hummingbirds that try to get some sweet water at the feeders.

Male Rufous Hummingbird Duchesne (Doo-shane) County, UT
Immature Male Rufous Hummingbird in Duchesne County, UT
Female Rufous Hummingbird in Pleasant Grove, UT
If you get too used to seeing the typical hummingbirds in northern Utah you may actually be sleeping at the hummingbird wheel when an uncommon species pays a visit. Last season I had several Calliope Hummingbirds visit my feeder. They are typically seen in our mountains. The males are obvious with they long, streaky-looking gorget feathers.

Calliope Hummingbird in Duchesne County, UT
Male Calliope Hummingbird in Duchesne County, UT
The female Calliopes might be passed off for a more common hummingbird without careful attention to their short tails. Their wing tips reach just beyond the tail tip. They look slightly hunchbacked when perched and they have a thin white line of feathers from the top base of the bill to the eye. They also have a buffy color on the belly and sides.

Another easily overlooked variation of a common Utah Hummingbird is the green-backed Rufous. Probably 95% of Rufous Hummingbirds have a rufous back (see the image of the male about six images above). I had a green-backed Rufous claim my backyard feeder last fall for a week or so. These look much like an Allen's Hummingbird (common along the California coast), but the tail feathers just on each side of the central feathers is often the distinguishing factor between the two.

Male Rufous Hummingbird (green-backed variation) in Pleasant Grove, UT
Male Rufous Hummingbird (green-backed variation) in Pleasant Grove, UT
The image below shows the notch in the two feathers on either side of the central tail feathers that is typical for Rufous Hummingbird. Allen's Hummingbirds do not show this notch and otherwise look very similar to a green-backed Rufous Hummingbird.

I am so ready for some hummingbirds to visit my yard! Hang a feeder and watch for some visitors.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Early Bird Gets The Nest: Great Horned Owls

Preface to this post: This is my first post with new camera equipment. My best gear, along with my wallet, and laptop were stolen two weeks ago today. In an instant I was a photographer and blogger without a single lens. It was quite the setback that left me with a real pit in my stomach. I did all I could to report and track my equipment and I prayed for a change of heart for the person who took my things as well as a change in my own heart to allow me to appreciate what I have rather than fret over what I lost. I was still a husband, a father, grandfather, and friend. I still had beautiful relationships and they matter most. Last week I discovered that I was fortunate to have a homeowners insurance policy that covered all my losses minus the deductible. I'm excited to be up and running again. I thank my friends and fellow photographers who provided some consolation and offers to use their equipment when they learned of my loss. God bless each of you to recognize His tender mercies in good times and bad.

Now the post: 
Great Horned Owls don't build their own nests, but they are early breeders so they have many established nests from which to choose. They begin courting and mating as early as January and February so they are able to take advantage of the nests built by hawks, ravens, and herons. They may also take advantage of squirrel nests, structures, and large cavities suitable to their needs. I can only imagine that hawks and other birds are a bit put out when they return in spring to find someone squatting on their property.

I made mental notes of all the large nests I observed in barren deciduous trees during the recent winter months. I was looking for possible Cooper's Hawk and Great Horned Owl nests. These nests are easily observed when the deciduous trees are barren of leaves. I make note of possible Cooper's Hawk nests so I can check on them after leaves are on the trees and the Cooper's Hawks are breeding. When I look at possible Great Horned Owl nests I pay particular attention to whether or not the large ear tufts of the Great Horned Owls are sticking up from the top of the nest.

I was delighted Sunday morning when I double checked what I thought would be a likely Hawk nest in a very tall Sycamore tree and discovered a female Great Horned Owl perched right next to it. I immediately focused on the nest and saw the round fuzzy heads of her chicks. They appeared to be about five or six weeks old--maybe a week or two away from "branching" out of the nest and onto nearby branches where they will continue to be fed and weaned by the parents for a couple of weeks. I could not believe I had missed discovering this active nest earlier since it was just minutes from my home.

Female Great Horned Owl and Chick at Nest Site in American Fork, UT
Below is my initial view as I drove toward the tree and noticed the adult owl perched to the right of the nest. The blob at the top left is an active Black-billed Magpie nest. Like most Magpie nests it has a dome on the top. The owl nest is about 40 feet above the road that passes below. My wife often asks with amazement, "How the heck did you see that?" I guess when you start paying attention and seeking certain things you will find them. Most people aren't looking into trees ahead while they are driving either. A close look will show the back light shining through the fine downy feathers on the heads of the chicks in the nest.

Sycamore Tree Containing Magpie Nest (upper left) and Great Horned Owl Nest (upper right) American Fork, UT
Female Owl to Right of Nest, Three Chicks in Nest
I have not seen the male yet, but I suspect he is roosting in a nearby evergreen during the daylight hours. I noticed that "mama" has more color than I've seen on most Great Horned Owls here in Utah. This seems to match the coloring of Pacific Great Horned Owls.

Female Great Horned Owl American Fork, UT
Female Great Horned Owl American Fork, UT
When I first stopped to observe the chicks it appeared there were only two. I saw two from the east view and two from the west view. However, as I looked up and walked from one side to the other I noticed there were actually three chicks.

Great Horned Owl Chicks in Nest in American Fork, UT
These three growing chicks were quite curious about what I as doing as I passed below them. I love their focused yellow eyes looking down from nearly forty feet above.

Great Horned Owl Chicks in Nest in American Fork, UT
A sure sign of an owl roost or, in this case, a nest is lots of waste. Chicks aim away from the nest when they defecate. The large gray item in the bottom, right-hand corner is a Eurasian Collared-Dove wing. I don't know if one of the parent owls took it from an evening roost or if one of the local Cooper's Hawks made a meal of it. I've nicknamed this very short strip of road "Death Row" because there seems to be at least one or two massacred doves along the road each time I pass through.

The Evidence of a Great Horned Owl Nest in the Tree Above
I saw this Cooper's Hawk in the same area last week right after it took out a Collared-Dove and began to eat it while perched on a branch in a shady group of trees. The look on her face seems to say, "I'm eating here. Do you mind?"

Female Cooper's Hawk With Dove in American Fork, UT
I'll leave the harsh reality of life for the birds of prey and finish with a few more settling images of the Great Horned Owls temporarily inhabiting the Sycamore Tree. The round seed pods of this tree almost seem like decorations.

Great Horned Owl on Nest in Sycamore Tree in American Fork, UT
Great Horned Owl Chick on Nest (Sycamore Tree) in American Fork, UT
Great Horned Owl Chick in Nest (Sycamore Tree) in American Fork, UT
Great Horned Owl Adult and Chick at Nest in Sycamore Tree in American Fork, UT