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


  1. OH Jeff what a wonderful ending to your story!!! Yo many more of your beautiful photos. So grateful for the Lord's tender mercies! Your work is amazing!! Have a great day, you make many peoples days great with what you share. And as always thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Suzi, for such kind words. I enjoy your enthusiasm and enjoy seeing your FB posts. I hope to cross paths in the field again soon!

  2. Jeff, I am so thrilled for you that your insurance covered your losses! Love the owls and the happy way you sound.

    1. I'm sure you know what it's like, Mia, when something gets in the way of our experiences with nature. Thanks for visiting and especially for your kind offer when I had no lens. Keep up the good work--your images are delightful!

  3. Jeff I'm so sorry to hear of your misfortune.
    I hope it's not sore to say, but it doesn't seem to be slowing you down too badly. This post was fantastic, both as an exemplary lesson in good birding practices and as a photo cache of some of N. America's for ferocious birds when they're still at their most vulnerable stage.

    The Great Horneds in Phoenix have fledged as well, in fact several weeks ago : )

    1. Thanks, Laurence. I did virtual birding through your recent blogs while I was out of commission. Great work! Two weeks without photographic experiences and connections to nature were difficult, but I have to admit that I got a lot more yard and house work done in the past two weeks than I did in the past....better not confess that one :)