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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

A Great Horned Owl Family

May 22nd, 2012 · 3 Comments

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Great Horned Owls are some of the biggest and most powerful owls in North America. But for the past four weeks I have enjoyed watching some of the smallest and weakest of them.

In a dozen visits between April 24 and May 21 I watched two Great Horned Owlets grow up. Hatched in early April in a cavity of a cottonwood tree just eight miles from my home in Boulder, Colorado, one of the owlets left the nest on May 12, and the other followed a week later.

Owls are my favorite birds. I love their strength and beauty, but their large eyes that unblinkingly study us are what holds my attention. The eyes of Great Horned Owls are almost as large as our own, and their vision is even better. But unlike us, they don’t turn their eyes. Instead, they turn their heads, and in fact can turn them 270°.

On my first visit, when the owlets were probably two or three weeks old, they were most still balls of fluff. They often cried for food.

Feed Us, Mama!

Feed Us, Mama!

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I didn’t see the owlets again until three days later. By that time they had already changed and had become even fluffier.

Mama had fed them a lot. Visible at the bottom right is the leftover foot of an unlucky rabbit.

Fluffy Owlets and an Unlucky Rabbit's Foot

Fluffy Owlets and an Unlucky Rabbit's Foot

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When I went back two days later I was finally able to photograph the mama owl. She was never far from the nest, but usually hidden in the deep foliage of the cottonwood trees. Because of the angle of the light on the nest, which was the primary object of my interest, I visited the owls in the late afternoon, usually from 5 to about 7:30. But only rarely during that time did the owls appear in even some light. This was one time.

In this shot you can see why some people call them Tiger Owls. You can also see their so-called horns, which are actually tufts of feathers.

This owl’s clutch of two owlets is typical. So too is the fact that they hatched and fledged about a week apart. This hatching strategy is a way for parent owls to raise as many owlets as a variable prey population permits.

Mama Great Horned Owl in Late Afternoon Light

Mama Great Horned Owl in Late Afternoon Light

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As the owlets grew, the nest got crowded. The smaller owl was at a disadvantage. But this was great for me as a photographer.

My favorite photo instructor, Russ Burden, teaches us to try to shoot an odd number of birds or animals, so that our eyes won’t constantly move back and forth. But here I had a pair of owlets to work with, so clearly the best shots were of them close together. They obliged.

The Squeeze is On!

The Squeeze is On!

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They Didn't Get Much Closer Than This

They Didn't Get Much Closer Than This

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When the larger owl started to try out its wings, the little guy had even less space.

Testing the Wings

Testing the Wings

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In this minute-long video of the two Great Horned Owlets that I made for Vimeo, the smaller owl is even more hidden. The larger one is panting and looks out at the world with wonder.

Finally, the big guy left the nest. The smaller owlet looks a lot happier here. I was happy too, because I finally got a photograph of one of them in full sun.

The Smaller Owlet Seems Happy to be Alone in the Nest

The Smaller Owlet Seems Happy to be Alone in the Nest

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Once the owlets fledged, they were much harder to see in the dense foliage. But they didn’t go far from the nest, because they can’t fly for at least a week after fledging. They drop down to the ground when they are ready and then claw their way with their powerful talons up a nearby tree for safety.

The Day After the Larger Owlet Fledged It Also Appears to Be Happy

The Day After the Larger Owlet Fledged It Also Appears to Be Happy

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Two days later papa owl rested on a stump right in front of me and was actually so low that he was lower than my eye level. Adult males like him are smaller than adult females, and that’s usually the only way to tell them apart. But this one is also somewhat darker than its mate.

Papa Owl Looks Tough

Papa Owl Looks Tough

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On May 19 the smaller owlet was ready to fledge.

I'm Ready!

I'm Ready!

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In fact, it left its nest that night. The next afternoon I found it in a tree about 20 feet from the only home it had ever known.

The First Day out of the Nest for the Second Fledging

The First Day out of the Nest for the Second Fledging

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I found the second fledging when mama owl flew toward it. But I only found the Great Horned Owl because the crows got there first.

The crows were making quite a racket and flying all around the owl in what we call “mobbing” behavior. When I watched what they were watching, I found mama. When the crows disturbed her too much, she flew closer to her second fledging.

Mama Was Mobbed

Mama Was Mobbed

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Soon, the two owlets will begin to fly. Then, they will move off to find a mate and establish their own territory. But the mama and papa owls will stay close to where I found them and probably raise two more owlets next year in the same nest.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Gretchen // May 23, 2012 at 6:43 am

    David, Great series of pix!

  • 2 Jeff Grove // May 24, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Nicely done, David.

  • 3 David // Jun 1, 2012 at 6:46 am

    Wonderful photos…you are very talented!

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