The Neighborhood Great Horned Owls

By Dan Weisz

We’ve had Great Horned Owls somewhere in the neighborhood for several years.  Their nest location has been a mystery to me and I’m certain they had changed nest locations annually.  This winter, their hooting became more noticeable during the nights.  A friend mentioned that the owls were often roosting in one of his palm trees and he had seen them checking out an old Cooper’s Hawk nest in his neighbor’s Aleppo Pine Tree.  In February I spent a few evenings out in the street at sunset and was rewarded with some great views of owl behaviors after sunset.

These Great Horned Owls were certainly in breeding behavior form.  At sunset the female would move from the nest to the top of the tree.  There were some soliciting calls back and forth and the male would fly over from the palm tree to meet the female at the top of the Aleppo Pine. Then he would fly off to hunt and she remained at the top of the tree, awaiting his return with prey for her.

That was in February. The old Cooper’s Hawk nest was buried very deeply in the pine tree, completely hidden from view.  The male owl was often visible in his palm tree but, other than occasional hoots, the female and any eggs/owlets remained hidden and a mystery.  I would take walks past the nest tree a few times per week but never saw anything.  And then, one day in April at another neighbor’s yard, I saw this:

One young Great Horned Owlet had fledged, leaving the nest to roost low in a mesquite tree.  I could still see Dad often in his palm tree, but Mom remained hidden during the day in her pine tree.  I assumed she was with other young owls who remained on the nest.  Searching area trees more closely, a day later I found two other owlets in a nearby palm tree.

At this point, both adult Great Horned Owls would often spend the day together in the same palm that the Dad had spent months in.

They would sleep, but occasionally opened their eyes to look around, often looking towards the two trees the young were roosting in.  Dad, in the photo above, was next to Mom who is in the photo below. Mom was not only larger than the male owl, but you can see the “brood patch”, a part running vertically down her front.  Female birds lose their breast feathers during breeding season.  That allows for direct skin-to-egg or skin-to-hatchlings contact to maintain warmth of the eggs and young birds.

You can compare the young bird’s feathers and plumage (below) to the adult bird above. It is very different while this young bird is beginning to develop features of an adult.  This owlet is still in the fuzzy, “stuffed animal” cutsey phase. (not exactly a scientific term)

One week later on April 23, I received a text from my friend whose yard had the resident Owl’s palm tree. He arrived home around 8:30 that evening and glanced at the full moon rising.  He was stunned to see the female owl on the Aleppo Pine tree top with the moon directly behind her.  He texted me and the next night I was out on the street well after sunset waiting for the moon to rise.  It was the night after the full moon and the owl was positioned in her spot.  Just like clockwork, at around 9:00, magic happened.

Scrambling to find the best camera settings, I had about 45 minutes to track the moon as it rose behind the owl. She would turn left and right, looking for and awaiting food deliveries from the male.  Every few minutes I would have to take a step or two to the side to keep the moon’s image behind the owl.

I decided to return the next night, which was two nights after the full moon. The moon rose one hour later each night so it wasn’t until around 10:00 that it would be in the right spot. Would the owls’ behaviors remain the same much later at night or would the owls be finished hunting their first meal by that time?  The only way to find out was to be on the street at 10 to be ready just in case.

Success!!  Two nights after the full moon you can see that the moon is no longer round.  A bit of the upper right side of the moon is softer but the feeling was still magical.

With the moon rising an hour later each night and the moon diminishing in size, I knew the opportunity for me to witness this again would be unlikely.  It is nice to imagine what happens every night with these owls.  I turned my attention and energy to looking for the Great Horned Owls and their owlets at sunset over the next few days. Those photos are coming up next!

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