Great Horned Owl Family of 2021

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I live surrounded by forest. Forest in any direction you look. To me, this is a blessing. It is something I’ve never taken for granted and I surely helped shaped my interests at a young age. To people that visit the area having spent limited time around forested area, it can a nightmare. To them, the thoughts of mosquitos, ticks and other various nuisances drown out the positives. I personally find it difficult to imagine a life not surrounded by this forest and natural landscape. A shift to the concrete jungle would be a dramatic one and likely a negative one for me.


In 2020-2021, there were two fascinating events that came to me for a change instead of needing to seek them out. One event was visiting screech owls after building and putting up two boxes in November. The first visit was on Christmas morning (a very welcome surprise) and subsequent visits continued until April. The second event was a mating pair of Great Horned Owls choosing to nest in an old Red-Tailed Hawk nest in the forest behind my house. I had the privilege of documenting their growth over several months. The pictures, videos and blog are what I managed to document.

Fall 2020

I first noticed the old hawk nest on a hike through the forest in late 2019. Red-Tailed Hawks had used it as a nest site in the spring of 2019 and I managed to get some pictures of them (see picture on right). It looked to be in good shape heading into 2020-2021 and I had suspicions that it may be used again in the future (it withstood the barrage of windstorms throughout the year which has torn several apart in the past). Over the next several months, I made a point to watch it for use. My hope was that Great Horned Owls would take over the nest in early winter (they mate before other birds of prey), or at least Red-Tailed Hawks would take it over in spring.

Red Tailed Hawk Chick

Unfortunately, on December 2nd, when going for a hike into the back to check the condition of the nest and collect the memory cards from my game cameras, I had a very awkward landing while climbing over a recently downed tree. I ended up fractured my ankle and tearing two ligaments. I didn’t make it to the nest and had to walk back out (it was a miserable walk), so I didn’t have an update on the nest for the next two months. I had my first hints that the GHO pair was claiming the territory and using the nest when I could hear mating calls late at night, but it wasn’t consistent and the location of them hooting varied across the property. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this and I couldn’t investigate yet.

My choice was made for me whether I liked it or not: I had to wait.

February

In mid-February, I decided to go check the nest and my suspicions were confirmed: the mother GHO was sitting on the nest. She spooked easily, as they usually do around humans. Something as simple as stepping on a branch and the cracking sound it makes was enough to have her look in my direction. The closer you got, the more likely she’ll take off the nest and relocate until you leave, and because of this, I didn’t go back to visit for another month. I didn’t want to jeopardize the health of both the mother and especially the eggs. I didn’t return the rest of the month and I found it a bit rough walking through the forest two months into my recovery, so additional time was going to be good for both me and the owls.

Pictured: Both parents sheltering the eggs or newly hatched owlets in a snow storm

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March

In Mid-March, there was a great stretch of weather. Relatively warm and no precipitation forecasted for a few days. This marked a good time to go and visit the owl nest again. Upon arrival, I saw two babies on the nest. They were tiny, little white balls of fluff looking down at me from above. The mother was nearby, but not on the nest as I arrived. The nest was about 30 feet high, so I had to set up further back to get a sight line that wasn’t staring directly up at the nest. This caused an issue: with a distanced sight line, the thick forest density, in combination with how small the little owls were, meant it was difficult to get quality pictures of the little chicks. I managed to get at least one, which you’ll see below. Following the same logic I did back in February, I wanted the chicks to grow undisturbed. The weather cooled off again and the snowy weather returned, so I stayed away from the nest once again.

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April and May

This was the beginning of an incredibly exciting phase of observing their growth. The owl chicks began to grow very quickly and you could now see significant differences in both their physical appearance and their behavior. They developed different personalities that were on display on every visit. One was very adventurous and very curious of any noise or animal passing by (myself included). The other owlet had a shy disposition and looked at the adventurous and very high energy sibling as if it was crazy.


As the owlets grew, the parents did not stay in the nest with them much anymore. In early April and previous months, the parents (or at least one parent) would always be beside or in the nest with the owlets. This quickly changed as they grew. They would perch on a nearby branch and observe for any threats during the day. The primary reason for this change was, well, they couldn’t all fit in the nest at the same time. At this stage, they were still completely reliant on their parents to bring them food and protect them. There must have been food in the nest at all times because there would be times where they owlets would start eating (likely a rabbit) after waking from their mid-day naps.

At this point in time, they couldn’t fly, nor could they do much beyond walk around the nest and practice little hops. They were very observant of their surroundings and would stare at anything walking by, flying by, or anything that made sounds. They were very curious. Turkey vultures were their primary objects of observance. The vultures would use the thermals to keep flight over the forest, scanning for meals to scavenge. The owlets loved watching them hover overhead. The rare airplane flying by was a guaranteed way to pique their interest (video to right).

Owlets Staring At Plane

Additionally, they took a keen interest in me. I had my blind set up a few hundred feet away from them and I tried to keep as quiet and still as possible to avoid disturbing them, but the zipper to enter the blind ALWAYS caught their attention. The flap to drop to make room for my camera? It may as well screamed to them. If I adjusted my camera, you guessed it: all eyes focused on the blind. This stage of their growth was largely observation and inspection as well as grooming/playing with their nest. I have a few videos at the end of the blog showing this behavior. I was very entertained for the next month observing them take in their surroundings from their little nest site.

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May and June

The owlets began to grow very quickly at this point. More and more of their down feathers began to come off with every visit, which was every other day or so. Their facial features, size, curiosity, and individual traits continued to develop as well. The shyer owlet was much larger than the outgoing one but was not anywhere near as athletic or as adventurous as the smaller one. The parents maintained their distance out of the nest, but always within visible range. The parents began to visit near sunset with regularity now, which was something which was not consistent before.


The parents regular visit was for a few reasons: they would choose this time to bring them their food (usually a rabbit) and they would eat as a family before sundown. I have a video below that shows this occurring. I observed it a few times over the month. The other reason? It was the beginning of the owlets’ “branching phase”.


If you don’t know what branching is, branching is when the young owls begin practice flights and work on their balance on branches surrounding the nest. It marks the beginning of their attempts to fledge the nest. The parents often observed and encouraged them to jump to surrounding branches and take flights. In one instance I observed, the mother took the rabbit (their dinner) out of the nest and tried to get the owlets to fly to them. It didn’t work in this instance before sundown, but I’m sure it did in the overnight hours. I've enclosed an example video below.

Branching Great Horned Owlets

The more adventurous owlet took to it immediately (I named it Branchy) . Beginning with short hops onto surrounding branches, it quickly turned into scaling up branches and jumping down onto the nest. On some occasions, it would climb and jump down repeatedly for over an hour. It looked like it was enjoying the process. The shy owlet (I named Flappy due to its willingness to sit and flap in the nest) did not take to it quickly. It would observe the sibling and even yell at it, but other than flap its wings on the nest, it refused to participate for a while. It did eventually take part, but well after the sibling. The adventurous sibling was already scaling multiple nearby trees before the shy one was out on neighboring branches.


What I found fascinating at this phase is how the parents would address the differences in the owlet progression. They had to try to restrain the more adventurous one because it seemed as if they were afraid it would overshoot its abilities and get into trouble, while at the same time, actively encouraging the shy one to build its skills for the future. It was incredible watching this family of four and the dynamics at play.

Below is a video of 30+ minutes of the parents eating with the owlets, trying to coax them out of the nest and approving of their learning to fly. 

Great Horned Owlets and Parents

Within two weeks of these moments, my blind was no longer of use because the owlets had left the nest. I remember showing up in the late afternoon in late May and seeing an empty nest. Knowing they can fly in short trips, I knew they were around, but the issue was finding them. The first few days were easy because they were within about 100 feet of the nest and around nest height. This was my best chance for picture opportunities and I took advantage. Every day from here, they’d end up in a new spot and it became more and more difficult to find them. It was a game of hide-and-seek every day from here. As their flight and camouflage skills increased, it was harder and harder to find them, but they didn’t mind you getting within about 20 feet of them.


In early June, with increased forest leaf density and their ability to fly away at a moment’s notice, I couldn’t find them regularly anymore. As I (finally) write this in mid July, I haven’t seen them in a few weeks now. I know they’re around because they don’t leave their parents for months after leaving the nest, but they’ll be extremely difficult to find now. I hold out hope that my infrequent visits back in the forest nowadays will allow me to encounter them on occasion, but I know this is likely the end of my experience with them. At the very least, this spring brought an opportunity to observe the growth of two incredible owls and gave me an experience I won’t soon forget.


Below, you will find a collection of pictures and videos showcasing both their growth and their changing behavior. Enjoy!

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GHO Parents Take Food From Nest

Great Horned Owlets Circling Their Heads

More Great Horned Owl Practice Flights

Great Horned Owlets Grooming Each Other

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