Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

On Instagram and Twitter: @unionbaywatch

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The First Sign of Spring

Not every bird comes to Union Bay, so sometimes Union Bay Watch goes to the birds.
These young Great Horned Owls were photographed earlier this week in the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge. GHOs are the most widespread owl across North and South America. Although only about half the weight of a Bald Eagle the grip of their talons at 300 psi is said to be nearly equal to the Bald Eagle's grip. At night the GHO is very close to the top of the food chain.

There are very few birds that raise their young in the middle of winter. Feel free to offer theories for why this happens in the comments section below, it could make for a very interesting discussion.
Even at just a few weeks old these birds are very alert. In this photo they focus and track a helicopter as it flies over. Notice the "horns", actually tufts of feathers, are erect on the bird to the left, this might be a reaction of alarm. Note: These horns are not their ears either. Their ears are asymmetrically located on the each side of their heads (See Update below) to allow them to "triangulate" with sound as well as sight. 
It can actually feel a bit alarming when their focus shifts to you...

...even when you know they cannot fly.

It is also interesting to note the difference in the size of the pupils. 
The bird on the left is focusing on something in shade among the trees while the bird on the right attempts to focus on the backlit helicopter. Obviously the wider pupils are drawing in more light. It would be very interesting to see the size of the pupils when these birds are hunting at night. 

Here is one more example.
The bird in front could be called, The Young Hunter, clearly the instinct is strong in this one.

These birds are so naturally fit to hunt that their tongues appear to be grooved to they can be used in combination with their beaks. They will become silent hunters in the night. Sometimes taking creatures that weigh more than they do. In these situations they may have to leave the body where it lands and then return to feed.

In spite of their hunting instincts right now these birds can look very young, soft, fuzzy and cute.
But they are growing wings that may end up spanning as much as five feet.
(Just like everyone else in the Northwest they have a "moss-on-the-roof" problem.)

In any case for the moment they can look very sweet.

In the next couple of weeks if you happen to find yourself south of Tacoma and passing by the NWR you should make the time to stop and check on these beautiful creatures. Soon they will be wandering out on to near by limbs and then spreading their wings.

Smile this is truly the first sign of spring!

Larry Hubbell

Note: I have heard of GHOs being seen in the south end of the Arboretum, although I have never seen one there. Feel free to let us know if you are lucky and happen to see one anywhere near Union Bay.

Updates:                                                                                                                  2-17-13

1) In the comments below Karen reports the owlets have left the nest and therefore are now fledglings.

2) I just saw a very well done video of the owlets. If you would like to take a look click on the link below:

Dan, Very nice work! Larry

Update:                                                                                                                  2-18-13

Peter Reshetniak, President of the Raptor Education Foundation ( http://www.usaref.org) sent in these comments.

"...Thanks Larry- is there a citation?  Wiki is a mile wide and inches deep on many things.  However, even this you can find  as per  hearing asymmetry in owls, and Bubo v. as well as Asio o. do not have asymmetry, i.e. both the Great-horned and screech have symmetrical ear placement (Payne, Roger S.. Acoustic Location of Prey by Barn Owls (Tyto alba). J Exp Biol. 1971; 54, 535-573 ) The owls with asymmetry appear to be the deeply nocturnal species, such as the barn owl..."

The answer to Peter's question is there is a reference however without access to the book I cannot be sure that the author was not misread or misquoted. The reference was, "Owls of the World by Konig, Weick & Becking. Yale University Press (2009), ISBN 0300142277".

"... I doubt that the PSI quote has any experimental data to support it (this is science by consensus ).  There is data on the dragging power of certain eagle species, plus the impact force is a simple mathematical calculation, but actual psi would require a very complicated machine to record the “crushing force.” and so far, I have found no such experimental evidence for any raptor.—whatever that is worth..."

The wiki reference for the 300 psi is,

"...As far as timing on egg laying, hatching, and fledging (all my intimate data is Colorado based) we will see 3 month variations in all of those categories with Bubo.  There is very little  “normal” in some things, as a wide variety of  unknowns, and knowns can change and alter some of those times/schedules.  I would imagine your part of the world is not much different.  The birds haven’t read about what they are supposed to do, or when they are supposed to do it.  Again,  if it is in Wiki, and if you cannot get a verifiable citation, and check the citation, it may be quite spurious.  I spend time in the Seattle area, and appreciate what you are working at, so watch Wiki as a source, it is quite broad, but its depth can hurt your head when you dive in..."

Thank you to Peter for the information and concern with the truth. In the future I will follow the links at greater length and look harder for the science behind the claim. Thank you especially for your knowledge about the timing of egg laying. It will be very interesting to follow up next year and see how much the timing changes. So much to learn and so little time. :-)



  1. Wow, Larry, fabulous images. The Great-horned Owl is one of my absolute favorites. We had a juvenile in our yard several years ago and I watched it learn to hunt. All kinds of fun.

    1. That sounds extremely entertaining. Did you happen to get any photos?

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you for the photographic guidance as well as the kind words. Sometimes it seems this blogging adventure is leading me more than I am guiding it. I keep wondering what will happen next, besides spring. :-)

  3. Awesome photos and descriptions. Thanks for sharing!

    1. You are welcome! By the way I have been thinking about the question of why GHOs lay their eggs so early. Logically, there must be some advantage to the survival of the young. One thought is maybe young hunters learn faster and have better luck when hunting young, innocent prey. By being born early they are at just the right stage when the duckling and goslings hit the water. If this is true then the question arises as to why peregrine falcons, bald eagles and osprey wait until later in the year. It is all a curious mystery to me.

  4. Drat, went to the Refuge this morning and the chicks have fledge! Just missed them, although one parent was still standing guard so no doubt they were perched cryptically nearby.

    1. I am sorry you missed them! However, Thank you! for the update so other folks know the situation. If they just left the nest that would make them about 7 weeks old. Which means they were hatched around New Years more or less. That is earlier than I would have expected. Thanks again for the update.

  5. I watched them for quite a while when they were still in this location and I agree that the one on the left--facing the screen--is the dominant bird. While they can look cute I think with their hooded faces look very primal. There is no doubting their intensity. As described in a Tweeter's post today--Sunday--it sounds like they have ended up in the tree that was last years--and previous years--nest site. One theory about early breeding is that they breed when the nights are long which maximizes their hunting time. You see the same thing in reverse with the shore birds that use the arctic 24 hour summer feeding days for breeding. The lack of foliage and tall grass would probably make hunting small critters easier and as you mention ducks and shorebirds are plentiful.

    1. Thank you for the update and the mating theory. You describe them very well with the words primal and intense. I feel like there is some relationship between their looks and the average human representation of evil. I think the fact that they will become killing machines that hunt in the dark, feeds into the feeling as well. I am just glad they don't grow to have an eight foot wingspan. ~v~

  6. Wonderful that you managed to see and photograph them before they fledged! I was at Nisqually a short while after, and saw one of the owlets sleeping in thicket, not far from a parent. I wasn't even expecting to see the young ones because I knew they'd left the nest, but it was lovely to catch a glimpse. Everyone was very respectful, quiet and keeping their distance on that particular day. I was happy to see this behavior, considering how crazy and disturbing it was at times with the Snowy Owls last year. Cheers!

    1. There are so many wonderful creatures to find and photograph. I am still amazed at how the owlets can look all cute and cuddly and then a moment later they look like they are thinking about having you for lunch. I hope we can continue to protect and restore nature in the world around us.