Great Horned Owlets at Second Marsh, Oshawa, Ontario
Great Horned Owlets at Second Marsh, Oshawa, Ontario
For a change of scenery at the end of a week of birdwatching in parks around Toronto, Bob and I decided to pay a visit to Second Marsh in Oshawa. Our goal was to seek some of the migrating waterfowl that were moving through this area of southern Ontario. It came as a surprise to come upon a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) and two Great Horned Owlets in the same neck of the woods.
It just so happened that, as we embarked on the trail first thing that morning, we met another fellow headed in the same direction as we were towards the wetlands adjacent to Lake Ontario. He kindly pointed out to us the location of an owls’ nest. Now, this is not your standard nest for any pair of Great Horned Owls. It is true that they normally commandeer the nest of some other large bird species and embellish it with feathers, but in this case, it is a plastic laundry hamper that forms the basis of the structure.
A couple of years earlier, we were privy to the fact that an owls’ nest had fallen out of a tree in a different section of the wet woods, and the conservation authority had placed a similar basket in the tree at that time and returned the owlets to it. We are not sure what the story is with this current nesting pair, but the secure hamper has been reconstructed by the owls into a suitable aerie.
When first we passed by this way, we were on a mission to find the shorebirds so wasted no time looking for owls. Later in the afternoon, a young couple attending the birding event at Second Marsh told us that they had seen one of the owlets moments before. Bob and I returned to the vicinity of the nest, but it took us three passes through that area of the woods before we could relocate it. In actual fact, it was when Bob spotted one of the juvenile owls perched on a horizontal branch that things started to come together. Can you find the owlet in this photo?
Working the timeline backwards, I figured that this Great Horned Owl chick must have hatched early in April. Young owls do not usually venture out from the nest until they are at least 6 weeks old, and we were seeing this one during the third week of May. I had to chuckle when I learned that a roaming baby such as this is referred to as a brancher.
Upon closer inspection, Bob and I came to realize that one of the adult owls was roosting on the same branch of the tree a short distance from the chick. The other adult was nowhere to be seen, but it could have been lurking nearby. Great Horned Owls are coloured for camouflage with upper parts and the dorsal side of the wings displaying a mottled brown, and as you can see, the natural-coloured plumage makes this owl almost invisible.
When viewed from a different angle, we were able to appreciate this adult owl’s lighter coloured underparts that are detailed with brown horizontal bars, as well as the remarkable feather tufts that lend this species the alternate name Cat Owl because the “plumicorns” resemble cats’ ears. It is normal for Great Horned Owls to roost in large trees throughout the day, and males are often found using the same perch year after year, one that is not far from the nest.
Bob and I have had occasion to observe another family of Great Horned Owls at Thickson’s Woods in Whitby, and at the time, the owlets were significantly younger than this one. Having been recently hatched, the pair in the Whitby nest were fluffy balls of whitish grey down, whereas this owl chick already is showing some cinnamon-coloured plumage as it grows out through the down.
Bob and I delighted in the “tall thin” posture of the owls as they attempted to avoid detection, and we had to laugh at ourselves when next we realized that a second owlet was staring right back at us yet we had been oblivious of its presence.
As the days march forward, the amount of down on the owlets gradually diminishes, but it is not until late summer that mature-looking plumage will cover most of a juvenile’s body. Even then, the newly-grown feathers will have a warmer, redder tone than those of the parents.
Bob and I were lucky to catch the owlets while they were still content to and maybe only able to venture out onto the branches. In another week, if they hadn’t done so already, these two chicks will start to fly. Even from the tender age of two weeks, nestling owls begin to learn behaviour, and by the time they are 8 weeks old, they will know how to defend themselves, grasp prey and climb.
It was gratifying to observe a pair of Great Horned Owl nestlings that were a few weeks older than those previously photographed in Whitby. As the summer moves forward and autumn draws nigh, this family of owls will continue to stay together, but with the approach of winter, the young will go their separate ways and establish their own territories.
It is hard to imagine these little fluffballs dispersing over a 250-kilometre (155-mi) area in order to establish their own home turf, but once done, they will only have to dominate a home range that is about 2.5 square kilometres (1.5 sq. mi). Because Great Horned Owls are highly adaptable birds, finding a suitable habitat is not that difficult. They will take up residence in any suitably tall tree even if it happens to border an urban area. This makes Great Horned Owls one of the most widely distributed owls in the Americas.
It is easy, when looking at the mature Great Horned Owl, to see that the owlets will soon grow to become heavily built, barrel-shaped adults as well. Even having their own territories established within the first year, it is not until the owlets reach the age of two that they will seek their own mates. When that happens, we are likely to hear the low muffled hoots of these beautiful Great Horned Owls as they commence courtship displays. Now that would be an incredible experience.
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