This Story is about my chronicling and photographing of the Great Horned Owlets from the incubation to fledging of this great bird. In the spring of this year I was at a location that has a pond and a wooded area behind the Citrus County Sheriff’s office in Lecanto. Florida. It’s an area of big oak trees and open meadow areas around the trees. The grass is usually mowed once a month which keeps the grass low and provides an ideal location for rodents, snakes and other prey the owls would go for. Checking on the Owls I found one to be on a nest or it seemed to be but I was not sure. I saw her sitting there on a large branch with just her tufts sticking up. I assume that she was sitting on a nest. I went back in a few days and sure enough she was in the same spot. So I knew that she was on some eggs. I wanted a few photos of her on the nest and took some through the window of the truck using my puffin pad for support. I wanted to be a little higher so I thought I would get in the back of my truck to raise the level of view to the nest. However when I got out of the truck she spooked off the nest and flew into a nearby tree. I hurriedly got into the back of the truck with my tripod camera and lens. I figured if I stood still and not move and hide behind my camera she would come right back to the nest. I had the camera set to 1000 ISO in order to get the correct shutter speed need to capture flight. I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye as the mother was heading back to the nest. She landed on a knob above the nest, looked at the nest and dropped down toward the nest along the green ivy growing up the tree making the photo background attractive. I remained frozen as she flew down toward the nest; I held down the shutter and was able to capture her flying into the nest. I was able to determine positively she is on a nest incubating eggs. She has been sitting for approximately 3 weeks now. I think really soon I should see some more activity with the parents feeding the babies.
Success, after 4 weeks of incubation, the eggs have hatched and we now have two little small gray globs barely in view as they are staying close to the warmth of the mother feathers. The female Great Horned Owl leaves the nest now in search of food, once the food is found it is brought back to nest for the owlets to eat. At this time the mother owl and the babies cuddle together for warm and protection. The location the Great horned Owl selected for their nest is just above eye level on a huge branch with green ivy surrounding the nest, making it very picturesque.
I try to make it back to the nest site at least once a week to check on and record the activity of the owlets. In just one week the gray blobs are now getting some brown and the details of their feathers are starting to appear. They are left alone more now and the parents are always in search of food, they are moving around much more now still within the nest site when other birds that get to close.
It has been 6 weeks now since the owlets hatched. They are very tall now, brown coloring, feathers forming and they are moving all over the nesting area, up higher on the branch, feeding much more, playing and looking out for each other, their little ear tuff are growing making them look more like the Great Horned Owl . The female is bringing in food mostly at night and leaving it for the owlets to eat, items such rodents, mice, and snakes. However, the day around 11:30 in the morning, I was in my blind completely concealed waiting for the one of the adult to come in. The adults have become timid and skittish and never come to the nest if anyone is present, so to be concealed is important to see the adults bring in food. Suddenly without any sound the female dropped in on the nest and dropped off a snake which one of the owlets immediately went for and started to eat, however it was much longer than he anticipated and had some trouble getting it down. After several minutes of grasping and gagging it the snake was successful eaten.
The parents are staying away from the nesting site now and perched in some nearby tree, always on alert for predators and to get food as the need arises. Sometime hunting takes them a ways from the nest site and at times it is a long time before she finds food and returns with it. You can tell when the female Great Horned Owl has returned to the nesting area with food, it seems she has this cooing noise she makes when she is back with food, you can here hear her at various location as she is working her way back to the nest. I heard the cooing sound several times before I figured out what it ways. It is similar to a dove’s cooing but a little different. I determined that it was the female owl because I heard the sound behind me, off to the side then over head over the nest them she came in so I knew it was her. So now when I am out there in my blind I listen intently for the cooing sound. Once I hear it I can be assured that she has food and will be dropping it off at the nest site.
The Owlets are looking out for each other as they are getting bigger. They are moving around the tree going further and further from the nest each day, they are spending their day eating, playing and sleeping until mother brings in more food. Most of the activity is at night when owl are most active, however if you are in a blind you can have success seeing the adults during the daytime when they are interacting with their young.
It has been approximately 8 weeks now and the owlets are moving all over the trees some call branching. The owlets are able to fly from branch to branch or to another nearby tree staying fairly close together so when mom comes in with food they can get right to her. They move around the tree tops now than ever as it is becoming very difficult to find them. The easiest way to find them is to sit in a blind and let the adults lead you to them. I feel it is imperative that you conceal yourself in a blind in order to get the adults to react with the owlets. I was tucked away in the blind and suddenly one of the adults dropped to the ground then flew into a nearby tree. I was watching him intently looking for him to get some food and bring it to the owlets. A Carolina Wren landed right in front of the blind so I lost track of the owl. Then I heard two sets of hooting so I knew that the male and female were together. The Hooting kept changing position so I figured they would lead me to the owlets. The last hooting was right above me as I peeked out the blind and looked way up I was able to see the owlets as mom was providing food. I realized right there that the owlets had become mobile and are able to fly high enough to hide in the moss making it almost impossible to find them.
It has been a blessing for me to be able to Chronicle this Great Horned Owl family from the nesting to the fledging, watching the owlets play, sleep and feed; to the feeding by the parents. It is time to close this chapter to start it up again next year as the owlets have grown into young Great Horned Owls.
I shot these photos with a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon EF500mmf/4L IS USM lens, and then with my new Canon EOS 7D MKII with a Tamron 150-600mm lens. I used several different ISO setting depending on the light. You need much higher shutter speeds in low light in order to get clear crisp photos. The newer camera has the capability to take fairly good photos in low light. ISO’s up to 3200 and above to get shutter speeds you need to get crisp photo and even then in low light it is still tough. The New Cameras are quite capable of producing great photo at the higher ISO. If there is any noise the post processing can reduce it.
In summary the Chronicling of the Great Horned Owls was very rewarding. I was able to photograph a family of Great Horned Owls from the nesting, feeding and the fledging of two Great Horned Owlets in its own environment.
By Robert Strickland
Robert Strickland Photography