Last week was my first and only chance (so far) to see a Great Horned Owl in the Arboretum. Kelly Brenner spotted the owl just east of the Winter Garden and mentioned it via Twitter. When I heard the news, I was near the UW Baseball Stadium pointing out Kate, the young female osprey from the Union Bay nest, to a group of out-of-state visitors. I said a quick goodbye and ran!
For five years the only owls I have ever seen in the Arboretum are Barred Owls. Occasionally, I've heard that someone has spotted a Great Horned Owl. I do not doubt that they have seen an owl, but I often wonder about the species. A quick glimpse of an owl high in the shadows of a tall tree can be a challenge to identify.
In Kelly's case, I had no doubt about what she saw. Kelly studies nature and walks through the Arboretum daily. As a matter of fact, she is publishing a nature post for each and every day of the year. You can read them all on her blog the Metropolitan Field Guide,
It is unlikely that we will see these two species sitting side-by-side in nature. So using photos to compare them seems like a logical approach. Obvious differences include the yellow versus dark irises, the existence of 'horns', and the horizontal bars rather than vertical stripes. Their relative weight difference is less obvious. Barred Owls weigh only half as much as Great Horned Owls - even though their wingspans are almost identical.
My heart was racing, but my progress felt slow. In addition to covering a mile on foot, I needed to stop by the house and trade the spotting scope for a camera. I feared the owl would be gone. After crossing the Montlake Bridge, I slowed to a walk, and caught my breath. I texted Kelly and asked, 'Is it still there?' She replied, 'Yes, it has gone to sleep.' I thought, 'Excellent!' and started running again.
A Cooper's Hawk flew up out of the smaller trees just as I arrived. Almost immediately, it began calling out.
The large owl had little to fear from the smaller bird, however it did wake up when it heard the hawk.
The Cooper's Hawk seemed to hop, skip and jump its way up the tree, carefully circling closer while still constantly crying out. The hawk was obviously anxious and irritated by the owl's presence.
The owl was observant but did not seem highly nervous. The behavior made me think the owl was fairly mature. All About Birds says they can live for almost three decades.
The nervous little hawk did not linger in any particular spot.
When the hawk got closer, the owl finally turned and leaped in its direction, once or twice. This photo is the first time I have ever had the opportunity to notice any of the detail in the coloring of a Great Horned Owl's feathers. A couple of the tail feathers look a bit worn which makes me think that the owl was not hatched-out this year.
As we watched, Kelly mentioned how hard it was to hold our heads back and stare up into the tree tops. She also wondered whether the owl was just visiting or if it had been around all along. The Great Horned Owl's perch was easily twice as high as the spots where I often see Barred Owls. It would have been very easy to miss. So, either option seems plausible.
In our birding class this week, Dennis Paulson mentioned how long tails help birds twist and turn their way between the branches in a forested environment. The owl seemed very much at home among all the branches of the Maple tree.
Great Horned Owls are said to usually nest in trees, but they can make do in a variety of different habitats. As a result, they live almost everywhere in North America, Central America and in a large portion of South America.
Finally, the hawk gave up and flew off to the south. The penetrating stare of the owl helped me to understand the hawk's decision.
When the owl went to sleep again, I decided to go home for lunch.
When I came back in the afternoon, the owl was still sleeping. I left again and returned about an hour before dark.
The owl remained on the exact same perch all day.
Finally, at 10 minutes after sundown the owl took to the air and silently glided east towards the golf course. I have looked for it everyday since, but I have not seen any sign of it. I am extremely curious to find out if it truly resides in the area.
I have read that they eat smaller mammals and birds, but they are also capable of eating Osprey, Barred Owls and even Great Blue Herons. If the Great Horned Owl remains in the area it might change the balance of power in the Arboretum.
If you would like, you can help me watch for the owl. We can also listen for it, too. One of the best times to hear them is just after dark.
Here are two links that will allow you to hear how their hooting differs. Click on each link, then scroll down and click on the first triangle.
Have a Great Day around Union Bay!
Here is what young Great Horned Owls look like in the nest. This photo is from Nisqually Wildlife Refuge circa 2013. It would certainly be wonderful to watch creatures like these grow up around Union Bay. You can see more of their photos by Clicking Here.