Great Horned Owl in the nest?

A local birder graciously shared the location of a Great Horned Owl nest and I didn’t waste any time to get out and scout the location. On the way back from a meeting, I slipped on my mud thugger boots and hiked out to the spot of the nest. I was very optimistic that the owls would return to the site based on the location of the nest. The nest is located in a tree hollow overlooking a decent sized river which provides both privacy and abundant food - two major concerns for owls. I had butterflies in my stomach as I hiked out to the site on an UNUSUALLY seasonal a.k.a. HOT February afternoon. I constantly scanned the directions that were provided to me to make sure that I was heading the right way and that I hadn’t missed the tree. My notes mentioned that the tree was very easy to find and I wasn’t disappointed. As I scanned the tree I didn’t see any clear evidence of any owls. I took out my video camera and shot a few frames of video to review when I got back and I also took some digital photos. I was pretty disappointed in what clearly looked like an unused nest. Generally Great Horned Owls (GHOs) start nesting early in the winter at the end of December/beginning of January in New Jersey. Based on that timing I would have expected more activity around the nest. I left the site pretty despondent that I had struck out on this owl for 2009.

This morning I looked at the photos that the referring birder had taken last year of the nesting site and what struck me was how deep the hole in the tree really is. The photo shows one of the owlets sitting in the entrance and two owlets sitting out on the branches. Based on the photo the hole is deep enough to easily hide a brooding adult GHO. Another thing that struck me was that the picture was taken in mid-April. Based on the GHO nesting timeline, that would mean that the owls would have started nesting at the beginning of February. Egg incubation takes around 30-37 days and chicks venture out onto the branches at around 6 weeks.

Armed with this info I looked at all the images I captured and I honestly think that there may be something in the nest. Look at the bottom of the hole – do you see anything or is it just my owl paranoia kicking in? Regardless I’ll be back to the site over the winter to see what I can find. My disappointment has totally been replaced with extreme optimism!

Click to view larger images


BirdBoy said...

WOW, That would be awesome to have a great Horned nest. For some reason I have seen only 1 great horned in my life. I have seen more Saw-whet!! Well last spring i found a barred owl nest in a cavity just like that one. Hopefully this spring we will both have owl nests!

Patrick Belardo said...

TOugh call... is that cropped as much as possible?

mon@rch said...

Great find!

Bird Girl said...

Those darn owls are so camo'd - it is really difficult to see them! It does appear that something is there and I hope it is the owl. How tall is that tree? I'd like to see the entire tree next time you take pictures.
Night before last, I walked up the mountain behind my house about 20 min. before dark. I made a GHO call with my mouth (no ipod) and in seconds two started calling back and forth. I was afraid to go too far because it was getting dark..but I am dying to look for the nest. Owl pellets and white wash? Anything else to look for? Years ago before I had the same owl paranoia you have - I did happen upon a nest with a couple of owlets at the top of a very TALL tree.
I bet you are excited - can't wait to find out more!

Camera Trap Codger said...

Super find. There ought to be some wings and legs and pellets nearby, no? Keep us posted.

Owlman said...

BirdBoy, a Barred owl would be awesome! I haven't seen a ton of GHO's either and finding a nesting site would be fantastic for me. I remain optimistic and hopefully we'll both get lucky.

Patrick, yeah that's cropped real tight. Unfortunately greater magnification doesn't give you a better view because you'd need to have a higher angle to look into the hole. I zoomed VERY tight with my video camera and you get the same looks. A scope may give a clearer view, but as you know I don't currently own one of those ;-) I guess it's a case of wait and see although it sure looks like there are some ear tufts sticking up if you ask me.

Mon@rch, hopefully this is a find not just a false alarm. You share my optimism, so I'll take it!

Bird Girl, the tree is pretty massive and I would estimate that the hole is located at around 30-35 feet up. I shouldn't paid closer attention to that but I didn't. The nests are easier to find when the owlets starting making a noise. If you go out at sunset you should have a pretty good chance of finding them by sound. During the day looking for pellets and white wash is a good approach. I'm VERY excited and hoping for the VERY best.

Codger, I couldn't get to the other side of the river to scout the nesting site. It wouldn't be very easy to get there through all the brush and I didn't want to disturb the owls. The view of the owls is across a pretty decent size river, so you can make out much detail. Based on pictures from previous years the tree itself doesn't have much evidence of owls although I'm sure the ground much be littered with white wash, prey items etc. I will definitely look into that as the nesting season progresses.

Thanks for popping in everyone. I’ll definitely keep you posted on the developments at this site.

mon@rch said...

Our Great Horned Owls commonly nest in locations like this along the Allegheny River . . . . it seems very possible to me! But false alarms happen to all of us but that's how we learn!

RuthieJ said...

Hmmm, I couldn't see anything Owlman, but all the more reason for going back periodically to check on it. Keep us posted!

Owlman said...

Mon@rch, this is a great spot and I honestly can't imagine that the owls wouldn't use it this year especially given that they raised 3 owlets there last year.

RuthieJ, I looked at some more pics from last year and the spot I circled is actually just a bark pattern ;-) Having said that I'm still pretty confident that the owls will use the site this year. I plan on checking back at the end of Feb to see if there is any action.