It was on Tuesday March 23 or Wednesday the 24th that information came to me about some recently fledged Great Horned owl babies, or owlets as I prefer to call them. It has been a while since I've had the opportunity to see and photograph young owls of any species. I haven't known about a local GHO nest since 2014. Jennifer and Janet and I decided to go see if we could find them on Friday, March 26 (2021). We had a map showing where the original "finder" had seen them but that didn't necessarily mean we would be so fortunate as to find them. For one thing I was expecting that three newly fledged birds would be scattered rather than near to each other, but it turned out they were in fact pretty close together when we found them.
We did not find the young birds right away. We looked around for a while but didn't find the nest. Nor did we see any adults or owlets for maybe 15 minutes after we got there. The one thing that gave me hope was that we found the stands of trees were not densely packed together. There were some areas which had more open space so it was possible to wander around the outside of the patches of trees and look into them with binoculars. What do you look for, you might wonder?
I don't have much experience at finding newly fledged owls. In fact, I've only had three such opportunities and the first one was entirely unsuccessful. In that first situation, the nest was a long walk from where I had to park and I didn't want to be walking back to my car in complete darkness, so looking for the owlets around sunset wasn't an option. I looked a few times during daylight and didn't find them, and that was the end of it. That was back in the 90s.
In 2012, things were different. On March 29 or 30, I was birding at Delta Ponds shortly before sunset, from the east bank bike path, and I saw an unnatural looking lump sticking up from a horizontal branch across the large pond. I knew it wasn't part of the branch, and it was large enough it had to be something interesting. Right away with my binoculars I could see it was a baby Great Horned Owl. That was pretty exciting! I had seen baby Great Horned Owls at Malheur Refuge a few times in past decades. I think there were some at Headquarters every May or June that I've ever been there, and once or twice there had been some in a hollowed out tree trunk at Benson Pond, so I knew what they look like. This bird at Delta Ponds was definitely a Great Horned Owl baby.
It was not yet sunset, at Delta Ponds in 2012, but that young bird was already getting restless and hungry. It didn't know it was supposed to remain motionless until after dark; so there it was, stretching its wings and at one point it even flew a short distance from one tree to another. While flying its body was tilted head-up and tail-down like an airplane about to go into a stall. It could fly that way, but it didn't know how to land. Twice it passed right over the branch it was trying to land on and ended up gliding to the next tree beyond, and finally getting a grip on a branch with its talons. It was fun to watch those awkward landings.
On this trip, in 2021, it took a while before we found any of the owlets. You have to scan the trees and concentrate on everything you are seeing. It is too easy to ignore a bump or blob as just another twisted branch or group of leaves. This time, when I finally spotted one of them, it was not much more than a dark gray almost amorphous blob. It was the upright position - something sticking up from a nearly horizontal branch - that caught my attention.
That "vertical lump" quality was what I had first noticed in 2012 with the Delta Ponds owlet. Right away, after finding the owlets, I took a few shots with my camera at full 24X zoom. The camera "saw" more than I could see with binoculars, but still it was pretty far away, perhaps 200-250 feet, and it was less than an hour from sunset, so the light level in the wooded patch was low. The result was that not much detail could be seen, but it was enough to add to my excitement. Janet and Jen got pretty excited too, when they saw the image on the LCD screen of the camera, even viewing it from a distance.
Jen and Janet came over to where I was and they found the other two young birds pretty fast because it turned out they were all within 50 feet or so of each other. This next two photos are wider-angle views, one without any visual aids to help you find the birds, and the next one with circles around the birds.
In this next photo I've put circles around the 3 young owls.
With the camera zoomed in just enough to include all three young owls, they really don't look like much. In fact they are still very hard to see. They are in the two corners on the left side and the 3rd one is at the upper right corner.
At this point I decided to try to find a location that would give us a view of the owlets with less branches in the way and hopefully a closer viewpoint. I wasn't sure I would be able to find one, and it took me about 15 minutes. We were still near 200 feet away but we had a clearer view. Only about 1 out of 5 photos came out with enough sharpness/detail. In normal lighting I shoot at 1/800 second. At this time of evening in a wooded patch, I was shooting at 1/450 sec which meant it was hard to hold the camera steady enough to get a sharp image.
I think it was Jennifer who first found one of the adult owls. We think it was the male because it was no larger than the young fledgelings, whereas the female should be about 7inches larger than the male. We suspect that the female owl was off catching food while the male watched over the young'ns
The following photo is my favorite of the adult owl from that evening. The lighting was momentarily brighter and the owl's yellow eyes picked up more light. Great Horned Owls in western Oregon are usually considerably darker than those seen in eastern Oregon. That is true for Merlins and a few other raptors as well. Don't ask me why. If YOU know why, then you can tell ME.
The next owlet photo is one in which the bird's eye catches light from the setting sun.
At times, one or more of the birds, including the parent bird, looked up or turned around and faced the other direction. We wondered if they were hearing the other parent bird signalling to them with news of a food delivery. What was he looking at up there? We didn't hear anything at the time. Once in a while one of the owlets would make a harsh "HISSSSS" meaning he was hungry and where is Mommy with dinner?
The parent owl also looked in other directions from time to time. I suspect Mommy had come in from behind them and had let them know she was back there with food because in a while all the birds flew in that direction.
The parent owl seemed to be giving us a rather stern look when I took this photo. We had been talking a bit loud, or at least SOMEONE was.
We were far enough away though so that he wasn't giving us any warning hoots. If we heard any click-clacking of the bill, we knew we should duck to the ground fast. These birds will make a vicious attack if they feel you are crowding them. We were about 200 - 250 feet away
Here's one more of the male owl. This is a profile view with sunlight glistening in his eye.
And here you can see how close Daddy is to one of his charges.
As the Sun was setting, the young owls were obviously waking up and getting increasingly restless. This one might be saying "Hey Dad, look! I have a wing!"
There are rudimentary "ear tufts" which are sometimes visible at this age.
If you look carefully at the large branches that the little owlets are standing on, you can tell that there are two different owlets being shown in photos below compared to photos above. The birds themselves look the same, but notice the branches on which they are standing are different in some photos. THOSE ARE DIFFERENT BIRDS!!
One of the eyes in this one was catching the sun's rays.
Getting more active and curious as daylight ends. This one is bending down and moving his head around to get a better 3D perspective on whatever he is looking at.
Neither we nor the owlets were entirely comfortable with our having to pass this close to them, maybe 80-100 feet away, but there wasn't much choice since there is only one trail across a slough on the way out. This one flew as we passed by. The photo on the left is a jpg image pretty much as rendered by the camera.
A brightened rendering of the same photo
This is about how dark the birds looked to us by this late in the evening. The photo on the left is a jpg image as rendered by the camera, untreated, except for being cropped to a narrow width to fit this side-by-side display.
Here, I have brightened this image to show some detail. I was really surprised that the dark image on the camera actually had this much detail.
This was our last view of the three fledgelings as we were leaving the area. The owlets had all flown to this location, which was actually closer to the trail we had to take to leave. We had to slowly pass them by, trying not to scare them or annoy the parents which we knew were there watching us closely but were out of sight.
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